Today is the birthday of Charles Dodgson (1832-1898) better known as Lewis Carroll. The extent to which his nonsensical writing was important to me as a child will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my songs, sketches, verse or short humor pieces, but I didn’t really realize the extent until I was introducing the “Alice” books to my young children. I realized that, while The Wizard of Oz had been my favorite book as a child, something I had read innumerable times….Carroll’s works (not just Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass but poems like “Jabberwocky” and “The Hunting of the Snark”, were IN MY BONES. In other words, it wasn’t just the frequent reading, but the fact that they are just in the culture, you bump into it every day, it permeates the atmosphere. Not just the countless film versions, but the references in pop songs (especially psycedelic ones), literature, etc. Not surprisingly, for literature so dream-like, Carroll’s writing has seeped into our subconscious. In fact, most of the very few poems I can recite from memory are Carroll’s — I think that’s probably true of most people.
The other realization I had was that the Alice books are kind of like the epic poem one would make out of the myths drawn from English nursery rhymes. Not just characters like the Queen of Hearts, but the TONE of them, it is like the full, ultimate literary flowering of nursery rhyme culture. Nursery rhymes, in addition to being funny and nonsensical, are generally cruel and perverse, full of beheadings and bludgeonings, and kidnappings. “Jack” of “Jack and Jill” breaks his skull; Humpty Dumpty cracks to pieces; the baby in the treetop falls out of the tree; the three blind mice have their tails cut off, etc, etc, etc. All this, while couched in an outer production (“bedtime”) designed to make us feel safe and sound and loved. In short, ironically, it is just like life. This twisted, tortured, upside down nightmare is REALISM of a kind.
And now, the charming 1903 film version of Alice in Wionderland (the first ever), recently restored by the British Film Institute. It’ll blow your mind, baby!
Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc