A Day to Go Down a Rabbit Hole

chapter 1

On May 4th of some year long ago, a young girl went down a rabbit hole and entered a wonderland, and began an incredible adventure.

That girl was Alice and she descended into Wonderland on the birthday of Alice Pleasance Hargreaves (née Liddell), who was her inspiration as a character. The Liddells were friends with the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll). Alice and her two sisters heard the first versions of the story on a “golden afternoon” in 1862, in a rowboat with Dodgson.

The story was originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, but was published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in November 1865. It was hit and called “the publishing sensation of Christmas 1865.”

Alice's Adventures Under Ground - Lewis Carroll - British Library Add MS 46700 f45v.jpg
A page from the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under      Ground, 1864. Public Domain, Link

The book has never gone out of print. It has been translated into more than 100 languages, including Latin.

It is one of those “children’s books” that offers other things to adult readers, such as linguistic puzzles, contradictions, and jokes.

Alice is not frightened as she falls down that hole after following a rabbit. In fact, as she makes that long descent, she talks to herself and analyses what is happening and may happen. In Wonderland, she is constantly trying to make sense of nonsensical things and is forced to rethink many of her assumptions and view things differently.

“Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either,
but thought they were nice grand words to say.”

Thinking she may fall through the Earth to Australia or New Zealand, she wonders (as one will do in Wonderland)  “How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!”Today, we still fall down “rabbit holes” – especially online. To aid your own trip down Alice’s rabbit hole, here are a few links.

I am a fan of The Annotated Alice which helps with many of the references that I missed as a child and as an adult.

The Alice in Wonderland Omnibus has Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with the original John Tenniel Illustrations because, as Alice said, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Wikipedia has very good articles about the original book, the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and Lewis Carroll.

If you are fearful of falling down a rabbit hole, you might try Through the Looking Glass (full name Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There) where  Alice climbs through a mirror into a world where everything is reversed. This is the book that includes the poems “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, and introduces the new characters such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Memory Wonderland

Illustration from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

One of Carl Jung‘s favorite quotes on synchronicity was from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. In a conversation between the White Queen and Alice:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.’

‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–‘

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘–but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

“What sort of things do YOU remember best?” Alice ventured to ask.

“Oh, things that happened the week after next,” the Queen replied in a careless tone.

So, the White Queen is being foolish, right? Maybe not.  She seems to be claiming that she has a kind of foresight. That may be close to what neuroscientists in this century started to believe – that memory is not really about the past. Memory works to help guide your future actions.

Eleanor Maguire at University College London, uses the White Queen as an illustration, “You need to project yourself forward to work out the best course of action.”

People with damage to their hippocampus can’t remember their past but also struggle with forward-thinking.

The White Queen may be prescient. Or maybe Lewis Carroll gets credit for prescience.

Does Alice remember Wonderland as a dream or did she forget it?

John Lennon In His Own Writing

Lennon cover

It’s the birthday of John Lennon. I was a fan of The Beatles from the first time I heard “Please Please Me” played at a local record shop. That came out as a single in America in February 1963 but wasn’t a hit. Vee-Jay Records (their label here at the time) re-released it almost a year later because “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was a big hit and they were coming to America.

At first, Paul was my favorite. When I saw that John had published a book, I turned my attention to him. When he turned into a grmpy Beatle, I turned to the meditative, introspective George. Through it all, Ringo seemed the most stable.

John’s death hit me hard. I vividly recall staying up into the morning hours watching the news about his shooting and death. I know that I was exhausted mentally and physically when I went into the faculty lounge in the morning. I knew my friend Bob Shannon was equally crushed. Another teacher made a flippant joke and said “Who cares?” about John’s death and I never forgave him for the remark.

John had the best sense of humor and loved puns and wordplay.  He said in interviews that his childhood favorite books were Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the Just William stories by Richard Crompton. I also love the Alice books. I read Grahame later in life and still have never read any of the Crompton books.

In 1964, I bought John’s little book of line drawings and Carroll-like stories, In His Own Write. It’s not great writing, but it is amusing. The drawings reminded me of James Thurber and Shel Silverstein. The success of the book in sales and the attention critics gave it surprised John, though he should have expected it with Beatlemania in full swing.The cover of the book, featuring a picture of John Lennon
The following year I bought his second book, A Spaniard in the Works. (Both books are sold now in one volume.) It is very much like the first book. The book’s title is a pun on the expression “a spanner in the works.” It means a person or thing that throws of a plan. The American version is to “throw a wrench in the works .” This collection didn’t sell as well. Perhaps, the novelty of a book by a Beatle had worn off.

John read reviews of the books and critics suggested that he must have been influenced by James Joyce, but John said he had not read Joyce. In an interview, he said that he picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake and though he saw the reason they referenced Joyce, he didn’t make it past chapter one. I identified with that. Even as an English major, I  never finished any of Joyce except his short stories.

The connection to Lewis Carroll is more obvious. The counterculture of the 1960s latched onto that absurd, psychedelic aspect of Carroll’s writing. I mean, you have a hookah-smoking character and Alice takes a drug that makes her larger and smaller. Songs like the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” are illustrations of that fairly superficial reading of the Alice stories. I have written elsewhere about John’s connections to poetry and literature and Lewis Carroll in particular. I noticed that the edition of his two books noted above says on the cover “The Writing Beatle.” I wonder what John might have been writing today, besides songs.

There is a scene in the movie Yesterday (directed by Danny Boyle) where the protagonist, who finds himself in a world where The Beatles never existed, meets John. At 78, John lives alone in a little coastal home. He had had a good life but it had nothing to do with music. I don’t know that we would know the name John Lennon if his life had gone another way. Of course, we don’t even know if he would have made it to age 81 this year. But I believe if he was here with us now, he would be writing and making art more than making music.

Still, his “words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” and my own “thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox” as I think about John and all the hours of pleasure and introspection that he and Paul, George, and Ringo brought to me and continue to bring to me.

Advice from the Cheshire Cat

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

If you’ve ever read Lewis Carroll‘s novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or watched a movie version, you know the Cheshire Cat.

The expression “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” existed before Carroll’s book but it is now identified with the character in the novel. That cat appears and disappears leaving only his grin behind. Alice says that she, “has often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat” and Cheshire cat says “You may have noticed, I’m not all there myself.”

The Cheshire cat can be both amusing and perplexingly philosophical. The line that stuck with me from my first reading of the book when I was in high school was “I knew who I was this morning, but I have changed a few times since then.”
I had many days where the me that went off to school was not the me that went to sleep that night.

The Cheshire cat is also poetic at times.

“When the day becomes the night and the sky becomes the sea,
when the clock strikes heavy and there’s no time for tea;
and in our darkest hour, before my final rhyme,
she will come back home to Wonderland and turn back the hands of time.”

“Somehow you strayed and lost your way,
and now there’ll be no time to play,
no time for joy, no time for friends –
not even time to make amends.”

Here are some other quotes from that rather Zen cat up in the tree.

“How do you run from what is inside your head?”

“I’m not crazy. My reality is just different than yours”

“You are too naïve if you believe life is innocent laughter and fun.”

“Every adventure requires a first step.”

“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality”

“When you’ve understood this scripture, throw it away. If you can’t understand this scripture, throw it away. I insist on your freedom.”

And in this election year, perhaps his wisest advice would include:
“I never get involved in politics” and, when asked about playing fair,
“No one does, if they think they can get away with it.”

Cheshire cat
Sir John Tenniel’s Cheshire Cat for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Mad as a March Hare

March hare
The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland
The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

Through the Looking Glass of Time


I just saw Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both star Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, with Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway but the sequel (directed by James Bobin) is crazier than the Mad Hatter.

I am a fan of all the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I also enjoyed the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. Back then, I liked the Cheshire Cat. In the mid-1960s, it was the hookah-smoking Caterpillar that got all the attention. “One pill makes you larger. One pill makes you small,” sang the Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.” We knew that Lewis Carroll had to be tripping on something.

I was ready for a Burton sequel. I was okay when they announced another director because the original casting was intact. It’s been six years since the first film was released.

Here’s the problem. They took Lewis Carroll’s title and the characters, but they chucked the plot. That is always a bad sign.

Actually, I thought I might even be okay with the new plot because they slipped in one of my favorite things – time travel.

In this version, Alice still enters the magical looking glass and goes back to Wonderland. She discovers that the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual. He needs closure about what happened with his lost family. To do that, Alice has to travel through time.

She finds and hijacks a Chronosphere and zips through time to deal with her friends and their enemies at different points of their lives.

Alice Through The Looking Glass flopped at the box office. I doubt that the reason was that there are too many Carroll purists out there.

I watched it and I was entertained. It wasn’t great filmmaking, but the effects were well done. the outrageous performances were, well, outrageous, as i suppose they must be in Wonderland.

The film sent me back to the books. I was delighted that as an Amazon Prime person, I could get all four Alice books free on my Kindle. Most people don’t know there is more to Alice than just the first Wonderland book. The tetralogy includes Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Alice-related fantasy verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice’s Adventures Underground. That last one is the shorter, original Alice in Wonderland manuscript which Carroll wrote for his friends and family. They encouraged the mathematician to expand the book and send it to a publisher.

Martin Gardner wrote in the introduction to his The Annotated Alice  “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”

Lewis Carroll, an imaginative mathematician, believed that nonsense was the hidden art of language.

In the first chapter, Alice is playing with her kittens in the house and she starts to wonder what the world is like on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. Isn’t that a kind of mathematical thought too?

She climbs up on the fireplace mantel and pokes at the big wall mirror behind the fireplace and discovers that she can step through it. On the other side is a reflected version of her own house. She finds a book of poetry with “Jabberwocky” in it. It has reversed printing but she can read it by holding it up to the mirror. She can see that the chess pieces from her house have come to life, though they remain small enough for her to pick up.

The second section of the book actually has a lot of changes in time and spatial directions as plot devices, so maybe that inspired the new film. There are lots of plays on mirror themes – things are opposite, time goes backward.

Alice says that she thinks time is a thief.  She gets no argument from me on that.