Thursday, 15 January 2015

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.

Lewis Carroll, Self Portrait
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll was published in 1871 and follows Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), though it does not pick up where it left off.

No, it begins in the drawing room of Alice's family home. She is playing with her kittens and discussing chess with them when she decides to invite them into a game of "Let's pretend". With her imagination in full swing she begins to tell her kittens, Kitty and Snowdrop (Dinah's kittens) about the "Looking-glass House":
'Now, if you'll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there's the room you can see through the glass—that's just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair—all but the bit behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see THAT bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never CAN tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too—but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I've held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room.
And, a moment later, the glass melts away "like a bright silvery mist" and Alice is through the looking-glass.

The first verses of the Jabberwocky.
This little novel contains some of my favourite poems and characters in children's literature. In the first episode we meet the White Queen, the King, and other chess pieces, and there too is the first mention of the wonderful Jabberwocky poem (which I had to learn in high school, incidentally):
sevot yhtils eht dna ,gillirb sawT'
:ebaw eht ni elbmig dna eryg diD
,sevogorob eht erew ysmim llA
.ebargtuo shtar emom eht dnA
Backwards, of course, because she is through the looking-glass, though when she reads it in the mirror it's still, she notes, "rather hard to understand". 

The rose in Disney's 1951 version.
And so, as in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland she wanders on, meeting some of the greatest characters ever penned. She goes into the summer garden (at home, on the other side of the looking-glass, it's winter), meets the flowers, and she learns about the Red Queen (not to be mistaken with the Queen of Hearts from the first Alice book). When Alice comes to meet her, the Red Queen reveals that the entire countryside is laid out in squares as in a chessboard. 

Disney, 1951.
Onward still, she comes across Tweedledum and Tweedledee, recites 'The Walrus and the Carpenter', and then is told by the brothers she only exists within the sleeping King's dream. The White Queen makes another appearance, and then Humpty Dumpty, who explains the meaning of the brilliant 'Jaberwocky':
"BRILLIG" means four o'clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin BROILING things for dinner.'
'That'll do very well,' said Alice: 'and "SLITHY"?'
'Well, "SLITHY" means "lithe and slimy." "Lithe" is the same as "active." You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.'
'I see it now,' Alice remarked thoughtfully: 'and what are "TOVES"?'
'Well, "TOVES" are something like badgers—they're something like lizards—and they're something like corkscrews.'
'They must be very curious looking creatures.'
'They are that,' said Humpty Dumpty: 'also they make their nests under sun-dials—also they live on cheese.'
'And what's the "GYRE" and to "GIMBLE"?'
'To "GYRE" is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To "GIMBLE" is to make holes like a gimlet.'
'And "THE WABE" is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?' said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.
'Of course it is. It's called "WABE," you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it—'
'And a long way beyond it on each side,' Alice added.
'Exactly so. Well, then, "MIMSY" is "flimsy and miserable" (there's another portmanteau for you). And a "BOROGOVE" is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round—something like a live mop.'
'And then "MOME RATHS"?' said Alice. 'I'm afraid I'm giving you a great deal of trouble.'
'Well, a "RATH" is a sort of green pig: but "MOME" I'm not certain about. I think it's short for "from home"—meaning that they'd lost their way, you know.'
'And what does "OUTGRABE" mean?'
'Well, "OUTGRABING" is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle: however, you'll hear it done, maybe—down in the wood yonder—and when you've once heard it you'll be QUITE content. Who's been repeating all that hard stuff to you?'
(The Humpty Dumpty scene, I think, is my favourite)

The chessboard, found in the front piece of Through the Looking-Glass.
And still she journeys on, meeting knights, the unicorn, a goat, a fawn, and a beetle, Hatta and Haigha (who are the Hatter and the March Hare from the first Alice), and on the whole suffering a great of nonsense until she grabs the Red Queen, thus capturing her as in a game of chess, wakes the Red King and discovers, as she finds herself back home, that Tweedledum and Tweedledee were quite possibly right: she may have been a part of the Red King's dream, though perhaps it was simply her own.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are enchanting short novels about perception and reality, logic and nonsense, and the difficulties (and loneliness) of growing up. These are beautiful stories, poignant, entertaining, and at times uplifting, though devilishly complex! It's a great thing to revisit one's childhood stories and see again all one's favourite characters that once occupied one's imagination.

Finally, some illustrations by John Tenniel, who also illustrated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There are around fifty, which may be found here, but I've whittled it down a little to my favourites -


  1. I'm laughing now. It sounds delightful! I know Jabberwocky by heart but had forgotten the explanation.

    I remember not liking this book as well as the first, but I should give it a re-read.

    1. I didn't like it so much the first time around, but I like it much more now. Part of the reasons I like children's literature is because they feel so familiar and homely, but I missed this one growing up... Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity I objected to! :)

  2. I'm reading a great book about Victorian illustrators. Tenniel was the illustrator (the one that originally worked with Lewis) and was a very interesting person. Of course Rackham is one of my favorite illustrators period and even though I don't possess an Alice book with his illustrations I do have plenty of other books (A Christmas Carol, Fairy Tales, Aesop's Fables) that use his illustrations. Your blog is a treat to read. Take care!
    PS I still have the Jabberwocky poem memorized from when I used it in school. I always thought it was a great poem to teach parts of speech (i.e. which nonsense word is an adjective? adverb? why? etc..)

    1. I love John Tenniel's illustrations too, I just couldn't resist Rackham for the first Alice post :) I've got two books with his illustrations - Midsummer Night's Dream, and 'Fairy Tales', which I must read one of these days!

  3. Like Cleo I've never liked this one as much as Alice in Wonderland, though, as you say it may be familiarity. Incidentally, the Tenniel illustrations are the ones I'm familiar with. I'm not sure if they're in my edition of the Alice books (I'd have to go look), but I've certainly seen them before.

    1. I think it's a lot to do with familiarity - I felt a bit lost when Alice was talking to her kittens in the first chapter, but once the old favourites, Tweedledee and the like, popped up I got quite excited! :)


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