Way Beyond Retro: Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts—who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet. Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem “Jabberwocky.” 

Throughout her fantastic journeys, Alice retains her reason, humor, and sense of justice. She has become one of the great characters of imaginative literature, as immortal as Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Gale of Kansas.

Through the Looking-Glass is the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, based on the scraps of stories told to the Liddell girls, but not included in the first book. Carroll started it in 1867, the year he finished Alice in Wonderland, but it would take him until 1870 to finish it.

Through the Looking-Glass is as strange a tale as Alice in Wonderland, though the story is more linear and clearly based on a chess game, which gives it context and something of a plot to follow. As with the previous book, the story takes the shape of a dream. This time Alice doesn’t drift off next to a burbling river, but next to a cosy fire snuggling with one of her kittens. She needs to travel from the Looking-Glass house (check name in book) to the other side of the river, so she can become a queen. As such, book has a clear goal and as in a chess game every episode has an “opponent” for Alice to “defeat”.

Besides the scraps of stories left after Alice in Wonderland, Carroll also incorporated some of his other, often poetic, works in the book. Carroll’s more well-known poems are in here, such as ‘The Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ They form separate stories told to Alice during her travels through the Mirror world. Where ‘The Jabberwocky’ is presented both as a mirror poem and a completely mystifying text composed of mainly made up words, which even Alice has to admit she doesn’t understand, the poem does convey a story. The precise meaning of the story might be a little obscure, but it is reminiscent of the sort of epic poetry such as Beowulf, where the hero of the story defeats the monster and is received as a hero upon his return. But where Beowulf is history transformed into legend to illustrate the characteristics of a worthy leader of men, ‘The Jabberwocky’ seems to lack such depth, Carroll added no moral to the story. In comparison, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ seems to have a clearer ‘moral’, where it ot for the fact that Carroll mostly didn’t seem to believe in adding such morals to stories. Where ‘The Jabberwocky’ is strange and alienating in its vocabulary, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is far more familiar in tone. Both characters are pretty much bad eggs, luring away the little oysters just to eat them, though one could pose the question why the elder oyster, who seems to be aware of their intent, doesn’t warn the younger ones. Which raises the question whether he isn’t just as culpable as the titular characters. Eventhough, at first glance, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ seems the less complicated of the two, if you consider the poems carefully, there are underlying themes to both of them.

The characters are again fabulous and inventive. I particularly loved the insects (probably the only time in history these words will leave my keyboard): The rocking-horse fly, the Snap-Dragonfly, the Bread-and-Butterfly. and the way he’s incorporated the mirrored nature of the Looking Glass World is genius. Though at the same time, I’m having a hard time imagining how some of it would work, such as, for example, the needing to cut the cake backwards in the Lion and the Unicorn scene. It makes sense in the context of the story, but how it would actually work is beyond me. Another brilliant mirroring is the White Queen’s memory. Instead of remembering what has just happened, she remembers what is to happen in the future. So she’s constantly referring to things that have not yet happened, which confuses poor Alice to no end. Funnily enough, this concept was easier to wrap my head around than the backwards cutting of the cake!

I honestly liked Through the Looking-Glass far better than I liked Alice in Wonderland, mostly due to the fact that there was something actually resembling a plot to it. As with Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass is a work that any one with an interest in the development of English literature, and children’s literature in particular, should read.