The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll

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Author: Richard Lederer
Date: Aug. 2010
From: Word Ways(Vol. 43, Issue 3)
Publisher: Jeremiah Farrell
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,621 words

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The smashing success of the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp film Alice in Wonderland is vivid evidence of our fascination with Lewis Carroll's work for almost a century and a half.

All in a golden afternoon Full leisurely we glide; For both our oars, with little skill, By little arms are plied, While little hands make vain pretence Our wanderings to guide. * * * Thus grew the tale of Wonderland: Thus slowly, one by one, Its quaint events were hammered out-- And now the tale is done, And home we steer, a merry crew, Beneath the setting sun.

On the fourth of July, 1862, a young Oxford don dressed in white flannels and straw boater took the day off to go a-rowing and go on a picnic with a Rev. Robinson Duckworth and three small girls. The don was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was then, and for more than twenty-five years would remain, mathematical lecturer of Christ Church, and the girls were the daughters of Henry George Liddell, dean of the college.

On that "golden afternoon" ten-year-old Alice Liddell, the middle of the three sisters, begged, "Tell us a story, please," and Dodgson began to spin a dreamtale about another little girl named Alice who followed a white rabbit down a hole and into another world. "Oh, Mr. Dodgson, I wish you would write out Alice's adventures for me," Alice Liddell said before the boating party disbanded. Dodgson granted her wish and in 1865 published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Public response was so enthusiastic that the author was inspired to follow one masterpiece with another: Through the Looking-Glass appeared in 1871.

The stories of Alice's tumble down a rabbit hole and her adventures on the other side of the mirror are the classics most widely read and adored by both children and adults alike. Carroll has become one of our most quoted authors, and the archetypal characters in his work have become imprinted on world folklore. Alexander Woollcott wrote, "Not Tiny Tim, nor Falstaff, nor Rip Van Winkle, nor any other character wrought in the English tongue seems now a more permanent part of that tongue's heritage than do the high-handed Humpty Dumpty, the wistful Mad Hatter, the somewhat arbitrary Queen of Hearts, the evasive Cheshire Cat, and the gently pathetic White Knight." Why, we may ask, does the work of this girl-doting bachelor exert such a powerful hold on our collective imagination?

Although...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A234307201