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Thursday, September 9, 2010


On a lovely summer afternoon, July 4, 1862, a 30-year-old mathematician, Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, with his friend, Rev. Duckworth, took three little girls boating on the river Thames.  They were sisters, and their names were Alice, Lorina, and Edith Liddell.  As they rowed along, Dodgson told the girls stories, and when they returned to Oxford, Alice asked him to write them down.  It took him the rest of the summer and much of the winter, but by February 1863 he had finished, and had given his story the title "Alice's Adventures Under Ground."

It followed the pattern that has become familiar to many generations, a feature of thousands of childhoods:  Intrigued by the sight of a white rabbit in a waistcoat -- a rabbit, what's more, that took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket, Alice follows it over the fields, and falls down an almost endless hole -- so far, in fact, that she wonders whether she will end up in the Antipodes (upside-down, of course) and have to ask, very politely, "Please, Ma'am, is this New Zealand or Australia?"  However, she lands in a hall with many doors, none of which she can open, though there is a glass table with a tiny key.

You remember the rest: Alice finds a little door with a lock that fits the key, shrinks when she drinks from a bottle labelled "Drink me," and expands when she eats from a cake labelled "Eat me," and after almost coming to grief (along with a number of small animals) in a huge pool of her own tears, she makes it into a beautiful garden, where she finds (in no particular order) a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah, gardeners painting white roses red, a Mock Turtle, a Gryphon, a the Queen of Hearts playing croquet with live ostriches for mallets, and curled-up hedgehogs for balls.  No Mad Hatter or March Hare, you will notice -- they came later, in a revised and lengthened version called Alice in Wonderland, which Dodgson wrote in response to general demand after showing the original manuscript to his friends.  Then he self-published it, with the famous illustrations by John Tenniel, in 1865.  And, as everyone knows, he published it under the pseudonym "Lewis Carroll," which became so famous that in encyclopedias, you have to look him up under that name.

Our book group devoted a month's study to Alice in Wonderland -- though I am not sure why.  The meeting was interesting, as queries about pedophilia and mind-altering substances were posed.  The first has been thoroughly debunked, and the second never contemplated.  The reputation of this fanciful Oxford mathematician is unsullied and blameless, so we can safely admire his great contribution to the very new literature of books written especially for children.

The meeting also inspired me to watch the Tim Burton-produced movie.  A huge disappointment for this Tim Burton fan.  The brilliantly Chaplinesque Johnny Depp was as great as ever, but even he couldn't shine -- the overdone special effects and the extremely poor scriptwriting condemned him from the start.  Any similarities to the classic children's story appeared to be accidental.  The writer even seemed to confuse Charles Dodgson with Charles Kingsley, the author of that Victorian tear-jerker, Water Babies, also written for children

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