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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded

review by Linda Rogers

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded: The Full Text of Lewis Carroll's Novel with its Many Hidden Meanings Revealed
David Day
Doubleday Canada

When he lifts the weight of his lengthy and complex study of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Victoria-born poet and historian David Day must be remembering the tendonitis he suffered after challenging the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation to arm wrestle.

Alice’s adventures might have been cautionary tales for inquisitive Victorian children, but their gestalt intrigues historians of every ilk, not the least Day, whose childhood obsession with mythology and transubstantiation, the morphing of ideas in and out of reality, has been translated into children’s books, poetry and studies of lateral thinking authors like Tolkein and, for the past two decades, the Oxford scholar Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodson.

Wordplay, sometimes the linguistic manifestation of abstract mathematical hypotheses, is the magnetic force that compels an ideal lector to the deep and various meanings of Carroll’s apparent homily for children of all ages. Day is not immune to its attraction, the alluring shape-changing of word, number and visual image. His eyes have become our portals to worlds inhabited by archetypes and packaged in accessible books, among them A Tolkein Bestiary, The Doomsday Book of Animals, The Quest for King Arthur and now Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded.

This Alice book is brilliantly designed, incorporating contemporary photography, illustration and coloured text to support his exegesis of the pedagogical storyteller. Day allows the mind to relax and rest and laugh in the intervals between serious examination of arguments that have obsessed philosophers from the beginning of recorded time and were reinvigorated during the Enlightenment, when auteurs as diverse as Bishop Berkeley and Mozart continued the holy dialogues, theses and songspeils about the nature of being, which incorporate everything from the transmogrification of Christ, the Spirit religion of indigenous cultures, theosophy and the mysterious secular rituals of Freemasonry, revealed in Mozart’s Magic Flute, precursor to Alice’s wonderful adventures of the mind.

Alice…. Decoded is a big book, but the content is lightened by an interdisciplinary approach that embraces mathematics, aesthetics, philosophy, and theology, all of the flow conjoined in the sparkling real and metaphorical rivers running through Oxford.

Wonderland Oxford was the seat of English disputation of Plato and Aristotle and the relationships between design and designer, reality and unreality, actual and spiritual, and of the Anglican scholar who told stories embedded with ideas to a little girl called Alice, the transubstantiated Virgin, herself a curiosity in a culture where women descended from Adam and Milton still “lived for the God in him.”

Day raises the question, was the story told to three little sisters on a punt ride twisted by rage when he finally put it on paper fairy tale or polemic, as he follows the course of the river from one to the other, arriving at the conclusion that his dedication was a postal address for a poison letter and not the signature of friendship?

Dodson’s differences with Dean Liddel were both personal and philosophical. How does an Anglican mathematician reconcile Plato and Aristotle, little women and Holy Mothers? There may or may not be One Great Designer but the argument for a great design is irrefutable, as every child who takes apart daisies confirms. “He loves me, he loves me not” is cabalistic language, formulae for matter and anti-matter, the simplest and most sophisticated argument for and against the love of God: “Heaven in a wild flower,” a game that revealed the simple truth that Dodson, the humble mathematician, would never wed Alice Liddell, daughter of the aristocratic Dean of Christ Church, albeit rosy pink.

The social design Dodson ardently protects, the numerology of birth, will not allow such disruption of the social order, ordained or otherwise enforced.

His Alice book demonstrates all the ways in which religious passion, the ontological pleasure of irrefutable and mutable truths transcends the pain of ordinary affliction, including inappropriate attraction, well documented in photographs, some of them bordering on pornography. In the mind body split, the mind filled with comforting archetypes and marble formulae soothes and conquers febrile desire.

Aristotle, the master of mimesis, was also a high comedian. Explicating visual and verbal puns, Day unpacks satire, rabbit holes, the revelatory opening up, cracks from which truth emerges, perfectly expressed by the poet Leonard Cohen, himself a descendant of rabbinical scholars, “Forget your perfect offerings / there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”

Nothing, it turns out, is as sacred as God’s intention, and men who would be gods are evidence of imperfection. Decoding Dodson’s characters is their unmasking, and Day reveals the cast, contemporaries with various vanities and power bases, schools of thought or the anti-think that still gives great delight, not because the identity of certain Oxford dons and Victorian philosophers has current relevance for anyone but historians, but because Dodson could be the father of the Absurd, a movement that found its apotheosis in the mid-twentieth century, of surrealism, Oz, the modern mystery plays of Pinter and Albee and the opiated lyrics of The Jefferson Airplane, “Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.”

Dodson, according to Day, although familiar with the wild dreams of his contemporaries Coleridge and the Pre-Raphaelite Lord Leighton, and probably aware that common teething and cold medicines contained opiates “by appointment to Her Majesty, the Queen,” was writing from logic, however surreal, reductio ad absurdum, knowledge that foreshadows computer technology, another fantastical application anticipated in Dodson’s presentation of various numerical bases.

Portmanteau nouns aside, the operative words are verbs and “Decoding” is the key to Day’s successful intention as he penetrates the cracks in mathematical and ecclesiastical formulations, postulate, pun and palindrome, finding the common denominators in common human experiences that start with the descent down the universal rabbit hole, the scary canal of birth and rebirth.

Wonderland is Pangea, the primal continent and incontinent, convulsion and expulsion, the formation and reformation of ideas and physical being, fear being the close companion of joy and sexual pleasure, which Dodson may have felt in the company of little girls and their infectious laughter when he first heard it in the rector’s Paradisiacal enclosure, where God’s Gardeners play cards with prime numbers in a group of three.

In this shaky world, disturbed by opposing schools of disputation that rose out of the Enlightenment, and most recently Darwin’s theory of evolution, we find games that are familiar secular and religious rituals in the Church of England, the largely Presbyterian Masons, descendents of Mozart’s Masons, and spiritualists, the Rosicrucian theosophists. This is as confusing to us as it must have been to the child Alice, dizzy in her gyre, up and down, inside out and outside in, befuddled by cats with enigmatic smiles, another mathematical phenomenon revealed by allusions to sphinxes and the engineering of catenary bridges.

Day has made Alice’s book of hours and minutes whose time arrives at a tea party attended by a hatter high on glue and guests affected by mushrooms and alcohol, other mind altering substances, madly accessible, as we recognize hat to hat, head to head, the tombstones worn by whirling dervishes and bishop’s mitres. It won’t be surprising if his deconstruction of the “poisoned apple,” his work dedicated to a possibly ungrateful child, is equally fascinating to lay readers and scholars.

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

When he is done with the imaginative text, Day describes, in his last chapter, Dodson’s expulsion from his apposite Dean’s Garden of Innocence. As the Industrial Age became a leavening agent for the middle classes, educational reform was inevitable and Alice’s parent, the ecclesiastical aristocrat, went with the flow and argued for liberal change as Dodson, the commoner with a perceived interest in perpetuating medieval university system, shaped his indignation in antithetical arguments congealed in bitterness, stones in the river of change.

Socially executed by The Queen of Hearts, Alice’s mother, the obfuscating pedant was not even invited to her wedding at Westminster Abbey, a huge disappointment. Alice and her family could not have guessed at the time that her unsuitable suitor’s book would later save her from penury after the great war changed her world, rabbit holes called trenches.

I am the Dean and this is Mrs. Liddell
She plays the first, and I the second fiddle.
She is the Broad; I am the High
And we are the University.

And how the mighty fall, all of them, like Humpty Dumpty. Death, the inevitable consequence, ended the adversarial lives of Dodson and Liddell, and the Great War ended the privileges of Alice, beloved by professor and the prince who presumably named his daughter after her. Still, her story endures, as it should, because decoded it reveals a slice of our cultural and historical DNA in a very English commedia dell’ arte, archetypal characters infused with irresistible magic and spells.

Spells are recipes, some with intoxicants, mushrooms and teas, pipes filled with dreams. It is all about chemistry, action and reaction. In the end we are left to digest the sensory information provided by Lewis Carroll; and he has a theory, “All the original genius…by which our forefathers have so advanced human knowledge, must slowly but surely wither away, and give place to a system of Cookery, in which the mind is a sausage, and all we ask is, how much indigestible stuff can be crammed into it?”

The pie hole is another transformative door. We are what we swallow, down the hatch, changed by ingestion, altered in substance.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then,” says Alice.

Linda Rogers, herself descended from Victorian clerics and writers, Hopkins, Dodsons, and Trollopes, whose father thought acceptance at Lady Margaret College, Oxford would turn her into an unmarriageable bluestocking, and so became the mother of descendents of George Darwin (son of Charles) and Maud Dupuys, was naturally curious and curiouser about Day’s explication of the Alice back story, which many of us share in some degree of separation. Poor Evelyn will complete her Empress trilogy.