‘Alice Decoded’ explores the mysteries of 'Wonderland'
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded” is out now from Doubleday Canada by Random House.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” may have been one of the first books in the genre we know as children’s literature. But it’s so much more than a fairy tale for kids.
That’s the lesson in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded,” a thoroughly researched, beautifully illustrated scholarly guide to Lewis Carroll’s iconic work, written by David Day and released this fall to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of “Wonderland.”
Most fans of “Alice in Wonderland” probably know that the story was inspired by a real-life Alice, 7-year-old Alice Liddell. Carroll was a friend of her family’s, and the “Wonderland” story was born when he regaled Alice and her sisters with the tale on a boating trip.
But Alice isn’t the only character with historical significance. According to Day, all of the personalities we meet in her journey down the rabbit hole can be traced to figures in mythology, history or Carroll’s own circle of acquaintances. And the events and themes of the book have their basis in the author’s knowledge of myths, math and religion.
Alice’s trip underground, for example, is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Persephone (also known as Proserpine, or in other traditions, the goddess Inanna, Ishtar or Isis). Persephone, the goddess of spring, is picking flowers in a meadow when she falls down into the underworld and must endure trials before she can return to her sister/mother, Demeter.
Day leaves out the part where Persephone is actually kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. But even still, “Alice in Wonderland” opens in a similar way to the myth. Alice is idly daydreaming in a meadow with her older sister when she follows the White Rabbit and finds herself falling into a strange underground world.
Lewis Carroll’s titular “Alice” was based on the real-life Alice Liddell.
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The myth of Persephone, or Proserpine, the goddess of spring who also travels to the underworld, is a possible source for the frame story of “Wonderland.”
Day points out another important link: Persephone, and the English version of the goddess, Eostre (think of the holiday, Easter), are often portrayed in the company of a rabbit.
Real-life historical figures also serve as the basis for Carroll’s characters, Day suggests. He writes that the White Rabbit can be connected to the Liddell family physician, and the Cheshire Cat represents the author’s mentor, a reverend and professor at Oxford, while also calling to mind a more obvious source in mythology — the Sphinx, known for its riddles.
Remember the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, and his magic mushroom that makes Alice grow smaller or larger? Carroll himself likely never did drugs, but Day points out he was an avid reader of Thomas de Quincey, the Romantic-era writer whose “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” is one of the earliest pieces of addiction writing. And sure enough, Alice’s experiences of changing size and Wonderland’s bizarre sense of time and space mimic De Quincey’s descriptions of the effects of opium.
The “Mad Tea Party” chapter is probably the most memorable sequence in the book, and Day shows us there’s a lot going on in this scene.
On the mythological level, it’s a version of a Bacchanalia, the Roman festival of the god of wine, known for its drunken, wild revelry. The tea party held by the Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse is a tamer affair, without any wine, but it’s still “mad” in its own way.
The hookah-smoking caterpillar, likely inspired by the writer Thomas de Quincey, has been portrayed by many illustrators — this one is by Gertrude Kay in 1923.
The Mad Tea Party, according to Day, is also a parody of the quarrelling philosophers of the Christian Socialist Movement, a prominent political party that Carroll didn’t agree with. Some evidence for the comparison is the lack of wine when Alice asks for some — the members of the movement were teetotalers — and the March Hare, named for the theological writer Julius Charles Hare.
In the midst of this, Day also goes on a fascinating mathematical digression about the numbers written on the Mad Hatter’s hat and Fermat’s Theorem.
The hardcover “Alice Decoded” is physically a gorgeous book. It presents the full text of “Wonderland” accompanied by Day’s explanations, and it’s interspersed with art, historical photographs and nicely designed title pages for each chapter.
It’s no surprise to Lewis Carroll fans and scholars that “Wonderland” is a rich, multi-layered text. But Day’s work engages and enlightens the casual reader in a way few scholarly works can, and the beautiful book makes for an essential keepsake for any “Alice” lover.
Images excerpted from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded” by David Day. Copyright © 2015 David Day. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada by Random House, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.