Alice in a world of grown-ups

About a half century ago, when I was 10 or 12 years old, I owned a book of science experiments entitled “Science Puzzlers,” or some such. The book’s author was the noted science writer and puzzle-master Martin Gardner. I had the audacity to send a letter, complete with diagrams, to Mr. Gardner in care of the publisher. In my letter, I summarized a favorite experiment of my own, which involved lighted matches, an old-fashioned milk bottle and a hard-boiled egg.

Lyt Wood | Rappahannock News
Lyt Wood

Within a couple of weeks, I received a handwritten letter of appreciation from Mr. Gardner, who promised to consider my experiment for inclusion in his next book. I don’t know if my experiment was ever published, but I do recall that I was greatly encouraged by Mr. Gardner’s response. Who bothers to give such attention and respect to unknown, individual students nowadays? Who even bothers to send handwritten letters?

One of the educational policies invented by present-day so-called grown-ups deletes cursive writing from the curriculum entirely! And we need not even mention the current trend toward online courses, largely precluding any real human interaction.

Absurdities such as these remind me of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.” Nowadays, in another century and another place, Lewis Carroll’s classic works make little sense to young readers. It is also easy for us grown-ups, especially American grown-ups, to miss much of the sophistication that is veiled in outrageous nonsense.

Scholars tend to read many things into Carroll’s “Alice” books: satire, politics, psychoanalysis, mathematical musings and all kinds of symbolism. Amid all the hilarity and strident wordplay are deeper, hidden wordplay and grim death-jokes. (Humpty Dumpty’s advice to seven-and-a-half-year-old Alice: “Better to leave off at seven.” No wonder Alice hastily changes the subject!)

There is even, in part, an actual game of chess that can be deciphered from Alice’s jumping brooks in the presence of knights, kings and queens, eventually becoming a queen herself. Not a very intelligent chess game, to be sure, but it is a chess game and it does follow the rules . . . except when the grown-up characters see fit to ignore them.

My own take on the story is that if it is a satire, then the object of the satire is . . . grown-ups. With only one exception, the characters whom Alice encounters are all dismissive and self-absorbed in the extreme. They continually interrupt, argue, spew out empty threats and impose meaningless rules. They view everything with a critical eye.

We all hear frequent complaints among adult teachers and parents about children not paying attention to anything other than their electronic gadgets. They — the children — are said to be “not there,” or “somewhere else.” Well, grown-ups (so-called) invented those gadgets and put them into the hands of young ’uns. And it is grown-ups who set the example of using them.

Grown-ups even invent certain words and forbid children to use them! How reasonable is that?

Yes, the “Alice” characters are grown-ups through the eyes of a child. Alice’s world is a world of Hatters, Hares and Cats gone mad. A sleeping Dormouse pretends to be attentive. Mirror-image Twins battle each other over minutiae. An unhappy Mock Turtle desperately wants to be a Real Turtle. A know-it-all Egg freely dispenses advice but, to his peril, ignores the advice of others.

The ultimate death-joke is the Queen of Hearts with her indiscriminate shouts of “Off with his head! Off with her head!” (One Carrollian scholar — cited below — has observed that “We all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death.”)

It is only the bumbling White Knight, actually Carroll’s parody of himself, who tries to be attentive and understanding. Collectively, everyone else is “only a pack of cards,” as wise young Alice proclaims at the end of her adventures down the rabbit-hole.

Yes, life is challenging, bewildering, violent and nonsensical. Alas, Alice must grow up. She does so (literally) more than once as the story progresses. But she manages to make her way in the world without losing her youthful wisdom.

Again, the Alice stories were written in a time and place far removed from our own. There is much that is easily missed. I have, though, found a great resource; in fact it is the most fun book I have read in a very long time. It is “The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition.”

The book’s author is Martin Gardner.

Sperryville arborist Lyt Wood, who’s also led the popular annual Rappahannock Nature Camp since 1986, plays the March Hare in performances of RAAC Community Theatre’s Christmas play, “Alice in Wonderland,” next month. (See the Rapp column on page 1 for more about that.)

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