If you’re wondering what the heck this series even is, check out the brief intro to the first entry, Treasure Island.
To summarize: Remember the Moby Illustrated Classics they used to put in McDonald’s Happy Meals? I do. The ones I read were mostly from the Victorian era, and they made a huge impact. I’m going back to reread the originals, trying to recreate those glorious childhood summers.
In reading the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, I realize that I never actually read them as a kid. I’m sure there are plenty of books I’ve read and forgotten, but having just now plowed right through these two buckets of psychedelic pudding with my big spoon, I’m sure if I’d actually read them, I would remember. All my Alice memories must be Disney-related: from the 1951 animated classic and, actually, the ride at Disneyland (both of which combine elements of Wonderland and Looking Glass). The Disney material is solid, and not too far from the originals, but somehow the books seem way more gonzo.
Alongside all the fantastical bits – walking playing cards & talking chess pieces, disappearing cats, ‘shrooms that make you grow/shrink, mad tea parties and so many more and weirder things that didn’t make the Disney cut – Lewis Carroll filled these stories with math & philosophy references that go way over the heads of both small children and me. The Martin Gardner Annotated Alice is your best bet for understanding all the subtleties. Look for the 150th anniversary edition from 2015, which has not only extra notes, but extra illustrations (by Dali, Steadman, et al) to go alongside the originals from John Tenniel. The pictures are great for kids, and the footnotes are great for adults. I need both.
I think the reader can enter Wonderland at a few different levels. The goofy characters and a lot of the word-play are easily accessible. Who wouldn’t love an Unbirthday? If one pays close enough attention, it might even be possible to follow the chess game of Alice’s movements in Looking Glass. Someone steeped in philosophy or the maths will catch a different wave. For instance, if Alice is only dreaming this adventure, when she finds the Red King sleeping, and is told by Tweedeldee that he is dreaming of Alice, it sets up an “infinite regress”: Alice dreaming the Red King who is dreaming Alice who is dreaming the Red King who is dreaming Alice… ad infinitum. This is a thing to contemplate. I suppose. On still another level, any time-traveling Victorian would run into a thick forest of cultural references, completely lost on most of us: everything from political satire to parodies of popular nursery rhymes. With Gardner’s notes, all of this is explained, and you don’t need to be a philosopher or a time-traveling Victorian to tap into all the possible levels of meaning.
These stories are so multi-faceted, you could go through Wonderland over and over again, at different ages, and get something different every time. That’s why it’s a classic. A book like this might not even be published nowadays. It has “too many” audiences. You can picture the marketing meeting: “When we tested this book, some folks were confused by section A, other folks were confused by section B, and these other folks had trouble with section C. So, we’re cutting everything. We’re just going to sell the book cover, which scored highly in all groups.” (Come to think of it, that could be a scene in these stories.)
If this was considered a children’s story, folks in the Victorian era were sharp cookies. Reading the classics is humbling. But as Gardner says in his introduction (echoing GK Chesteron), we don’t need to crush the fun out of it by making every tiny little thing mean something profound. It’s an absurd story, and it’s meant to be. It’s okay to just get lost in Wonderland, and it can start with something as ridiculous as chasing a handsomely dressed white rabbit down a hole in the ground. This because… that’s just a really curious thing, right?