Writhing and fainting in coils

Had he known the extent of 'wake' his best work would leave behind, Lewis Carroll would surely have been overwhelmed.
Perhaps the reason for the fascination his chef-d'oeuvre 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' endlessly evokes is more profound than one might imagine.

He was a man of his epoch used to its rigours and discipline. A deeply religious man and a fine mathematician who, as Master and Tutor at Christ Church College, Oxford, taught within the boundaries of logic and no doubt thought within the boundaries of his religion and social observances.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll (derived from Lutwidge, his mother's maiden name, the German for Lewis, and the Latin for Charles- Carolus) was however to meet young Alice Liddell who inspired him into improvising 'Alice's Adventures Underground', which was to become 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.

If Carroll fell in love with little Alice, perhaps it was more with what she represented for him as a writer and adept photographer, than with her real self. This epitome of an unspoilt, (or spoilt) innocent young girl was for him an ideal, and the essence of his inspiration. If the sequel, 'Through the Looking Glass' was less spontaneous and inspired, it was more an adieu to little Alice who was to become 'Queen' and finally leave her immortalised youth behind.

Carroll was a devout and disciplined man who stuttered. A skilled logician living in the oppressive, hypocritically 'moral', 'tightly corseted' Victorian age- from which he contributed to liberate his young readers, as well as himself, by giving freedom and immortality to Alice. She was to be seen and heard.
He gave her the freedom of a dream world of nonsense where everything and anything within the limits of innocent youth are possible or impossible, yet to Alice, quite acceptable but always questionable. A dream world where time stands still.

Only a logician would know how to create such a land of credible nonsense, for even nonsense must be harnessed by logic to be credible. The Caterpillar, for example, is so evocative because of its logical (illogical) description. He is blue, exactly three inches high, smoking a long hookah and sitting on a perfectly round mushroom.

Alice's dream must also allow her to break free from the rigours of Victoriana. She must be able to wave aside basic arithmetic and make parodies of the austere, stuffy, moral poems of her time. 'How doth the little bee...' (first line of Isaac Watts' poem moralising against idleness) becomes 'How doth the little crocodile...', and his moralistic 'Tis the voice of the sluggard...' becomes- 'Tis the voice of the Lobster...'. Similarly 'You are old Father William...' is the amusing parody of Robert Southey's 'Consolations of a pious old man'. The 'Turtle Soup' song is the parody of 'Evening Star' which was a popular song of that time.

It is revealing that Carroll's poem parodies have easily outlived the virtuous originals.

Alice was thus able to question and ridicule the rigid values of the epoch, and in her Wonderland she was free to explore and adapt, even in size, to the ever changing surroundings of her adventures.

She was both the participant and the unimpressed observer, ever curious, ever confident and sometimes selfish as young children often are. Carroll's ideal, young girl eternalised in a dream where time stands as still as it does at the Mad Tea-Party.

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' has been illustrated well over two hundred times in English versions alone. It has been translated many times consecutively in foreign languages. In French it has been translated at least seventeen times. There is also a strong following for Alice in many countries including Japan, where, according to an eminent collector of Carolliana, 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' is considered to be one of the world's greatest masterpieces for children. In Japan it has been translated over forty times and illustrated at least twenty six times.

It's understandable why this work continues to attract not only artists but also translators and writers. The attraction and challenge for an artist are obvious and varied but there are points in common with those of a translator. Carroll's Wonderland is full of visual problems, often puzzles for an illustrator to solve. A three-legged, round, glass table, for example, seen from any angle is visually a geometrical problem. And the dispute between the gardeners must be closely followed in order to accurately convey the action taking place. Even Tenniel took liberties here.

For a translator the problems to solve are not only literary, they are also mathematical in certain ways, especially concerning the poems and play of words. Finding the equivalents, puns and parodies that a particular nation's culture can appreciate and identify with, and at the same time retaining the evocative style, the meanings, the rhyming, the feeling, with that particular atmosphere that Lewis Carroll wanted most to convey, is by no means easy.

The one translation that Lewis Carroll was keen to help with, was the first French translation, the results of which still make it in many experts' opinion, the best.
Although Henri Bué, son of one of Carroll's teacher colleagues of French at Oxford University, finished his translation incredibly quickly, Carroll took over two more years himself to make sure everything was as perfect as he wished it to be. This may explain why the Bué translation is still as fresh and undated as Carroll's own text. Certain French translators since then sometimes seem to get a little over zealous so that their results tend to be more laboured and sometimes pedantic.

It is certainly poignant to observe the gradual changes in one's growing daughter, and Alice, the immortalised child, is a wonderful thought and a wonderful gift.

Lewis Carroll lived with his sister during the final years of his life. The house, 'The Chestnuts', can still be seen in Guilford, South London. There is also a tiny museum dedicated to him quite near the house.
One can walk up the hill along the long lane to St. Michael's Cemetery where Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll is buried. His modest grave is next to an old yew tree near the little chapel in the centre. There's nothing particularly significant written upon it, and perhaps it's still untended and in need of repair. Yet like Shakespeare, even Lewis Carroll needs no monument. As Milton wrote of Shakespeare- 'What needs't thou such weak witness to thy name?' For there's no doubt that Lewis Carroll built for himself and for 'Alice' too, the most wonderful, eternal monument that no stone could ever compete with, including any of his own white ones.

 (First written for Mischmasch, the Lewis Carroll Society, Japan). Text and illustration © Mirino (PW) Dcember, 2009

No comments: