Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

Ever since I was very young, I have adored Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I have read it innumerable times and have large passages of it by heart. And yet somehow, never before now have I bothered to pick up the sequel. Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1872, seven years after Wonderland, and turns on the same essential premise: charming little Alice accidentally finds herself in a magical nonsense-world populated by bizarre and fantastical characters, and she has adventures there. Reading this book now, against the backdrop of my familiarity with Alice’s previous adventure, I am struck both by the similarity and by the differences. Once again we follow Alice on a surreal, anarchic circus ride through a string of wild, illogical fantasies; once again we are thrilled by Carroll’s gloriously nonsensical wordplay and his marvellous comic imagination. But Looking-Glass is darker, more thoughtful, and less exuberant, and its tone is modulated with moments of melancholy. This book is less funny than the other, but its range is wider, and it takes us to places that the first left well alone.

From the outset it is clear that Carroll has put a lot more thought into this novel than he did into the first. In Wonderland, Alice is falling down the rabbit hole before we have read a single page. In Looking-Glass, we meet her playing with her cats in her family home, and talking to them about the world that she imagines might lie on the other side of the mirror. “Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through.” And then, of course, it does, and she does – but not before we already have questions about whether this is real, or imagination, or a dream. Raising the basic metaphysical questions about what is happening is the first signal that this is a more sophisticated fantasy.

A second of those signals comes when we realise that Carroll has created so much of the world beyond the glass by refashioning nursery rhymes, playing with characters and stories that the children who read his books might already have known. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, Humpty Dumpty, and so forth, all spring from Victorian children’s rhymes – though they are gratifyingly disfigured by the distinctly un-child-friendly personalities that Carroll lends them. Through the Looking-Glass does contain some of the classic Alice episodes (films of the first book have typically borrowed liberally from the second), such as the language-bending conversation with Humpty Dumpty or the immortal poem “Jabberwocky”. But it creates them by blending original invention with demented parodies of Victorian pop culture, and that is a striking innovation.

Looking-Glass differs distinctly from Wonderland in being built around an overt narrative framework – the massive game of chess, played across squares of field and forest divided by little brooks, in which Alice is a pawn. Carroll even supplies a (quite nonsensical) game plan at the start of the book, detailing which pieces move where on the board at which points in the story. Alice herself, moreover, has a purpose: to reach the far side of the board and become a queen. Gone is the free-associative carelessness of the first book, in which Alice simply wandered from encounter to encounter at Carroll’s convenience. Yet what is intriguing is that the clear and stable structure of Through the Looking-Glass is used to contain a much less clear and stable world. In Looking-Glass World, Alice does not simply move from place to place; rather, the places themselves dissolve and re-form around her. She can be in a shop one moment, and in a boat on a river the next; she can suddenly find characters appearing or disappearing next to her, or suddenly notice herself to be amid totally different surroundings. The world through which Alice moves is profoundly undependable.

This is but one way in which Looking-Glass World is a darker and more frightening place than Wonderland. When people compare modern pseudo-fairytales like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to the work of Lewis Carroll, I suspect it is usually this book more than the first that they have in mind. The child adrift in a creepy and unpredictable dreamland peopled by needlessly hostile authoritarian figures is a motif that has recurred throughout twentieth-century fiction, most frequently serving the puberty metaphor that is itself so much more pronounced in Looking-Glass than in Wonderland. Not once in this book does Alice find anyone who can offer her help or friendship; the only characters who are truly nice to her, like the White Knight and White Queen, are so very like children themselves that Alice must take care of them. That, of course, is the point – Alice is growing up and learning to accept responsibility – but it nonetheless starts to make the reader long for a friendly word.

This hints at another of the key differences between the two books – and, indeed, at what may be the secret to understanding the contrast between them. To consider another of its symptoms first: one of the reasons why Wonderland tends to be preferred over Looking-Glass is that its characters are both more varied and more vivid. It is hard to imagine the Queen of Hearts showing up in Looking-Glass World: she would blow everybody else off the chessboard with the sheer force of her personality. Different people in Wonderland had different motives and reacted to Alice in different ways. In the second book, however, most of them are variations on a single theme: unreasonable figures of authority who treat Alice with unhelpfulness and condescension. The prime example is the infuriating Humpty Dumpty (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”), but everybody else is also a more or less similar concoction of insolence and intolerance. It’s as though the Caterpillar from the first book were extrapolated to produce a whole world full of people (though none of them quite live up to his original spectacular rudeness).

This diminished scope is indicative of an altered purpose for Carroll. In Through the Looking-Glass he is less interested in his nonsensical creations as independent people, because he is, in fact, much more interested in Alice herself. In Wonderland, Carroll used Alice to introduce his other characters. A delightful girl she was, but her chief function was to be the anchor, the one reasonable human being who kept the fantasy grounded and gave the reader a foothold in the world of nonsense. Through her eyes, we saw Wonderland. Yet in Through the Looking-Glass, the author’s attention is turned less on his fantasy world, and more on his little heroine herself. Alice is on the very earliest verge of beginning to become an adult, and must face a threatening world – and, eventually, learn to assert herself against it. That she be brought to a point where she can do this is her author’s central concern.

So while it remains a book for children, Through the Looking-Glass functions as a fable with deeper currents than many children will sense. There is a scene in this book when Alice steps into a wood where nothing has any name, and forgets that she is Alice, and meets a faun that has forgotten it is a faun. The faun takes her back to where they will both remember their names, but as soon as it does so, it remembers that she is a human child and, therefore, a threat – and so it runs away. There is a fragility and a melancholy in this exchange which would have been impossible in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I also have not written of the four superb poems, masterclasses of the nonsense verse genre, that are spread through the book; “Jabberwocky” is justly famous, but the others are every bit as fine. I miss the riotous comedy of Wonderland, and I find Through the Looking-Glass less endearing. But it offers so many other treasures that it more than compensates for its chillier tone. It is a magnificent and entirely worthy sequel.

2 responses to “Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

  1. Back in 1985, there was a 2 part TV movie of wonderland and thought the looking glass, I remember watching them as a little kid (about 4 or 5) and being utterly creeped out for some time after.
    It’d be worth hunting down to watch.

  2. make the *through the looking glass.

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