fantasy and imagination


I’m thrilled to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie so popular, using the original books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) as a jumping-off point, mostly as a source of oddball characters.

Someone asked recently why the original books were so popular. There are several good reasons.

First, the main character, Alice, is an ordinary girl who falls down a rabbit hole, or passes through a mirror, into peculiar places filled with odd characters. Alice represents “Everyman” (Everykid?), the sane child amongst crazy adults. It is Alice’s ordinary nature that causes us to identify with her.

As Neil Gaiman said in a 1999 interview with Claire E. White, in The Internet Writing Journal, noting that his protagonist Richard Mayhew in the novel Neverwhere had elements of “Everyman.”

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay all about heroes and Everyman, where he said, “It is very, very important that a hero in a novel not be too odd. How odd events strike odd people is an oddity too much.”

[Lewis] pointed out that in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, Wonderland would not have been anywhere so interesting had Alice not been so dull, so plain. If Alice had been in any way interesting herself, it would have been a much less interesting book.

. . . [So] I wanted a hero who was not a hero. I wanted somebody who was a little bit everybody, someone who was not the kind of person who would make the list if you were putting together a hero roster, but who was going to get by on essentially a good heart and good intentions, which were going to get him into deep trouble, but perhaps get him out again as well.

—Neil Gaiman, interview with Claire E. White, The Internet Writing Journal (www.writerswrite.com), March 1999

As much as that, the Alice books have endured because they celebrate the sheer joy of creativity. As I wrote in A Guide to Fantasy Literature, one of the three cornerstones of fantasy literature developed in the period from Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis was a delight in whimsy. Many of these early fantasists had a pure playfulness with language, filled with nonsense, funny names or situations, and humorous banter filled with odd misunderstandings, stray thoughts, and asides – anything that tickled the fancy.

Significantly, the Alice story was first told orally; Charles Dodgson tested his tale on a batch of real kids, a captive audience in a rowboat excursion on the Thames near Oxford. The same was true for Richard Adams (Watership Down), who launched that remarkable story in a car on family drives, or the stories of Roald Dahl, and others. These stories are notable for their oral, let-me-tell-you-a-story approach. It works. It works because it follows the first principle of good storytelling: delight your audience.

So Alice has endured not because of great themes or structure or significance, but because of the playfulness of the story.

Personally, I know that’s true for me. “Jabberwocky” is one of the few poems I can recite from memory; it’s odd, but fun.

And as a writer, I’ve always enjoyed these words (from Ch. 6) of Through the Looking Glass, as Alice tries to have a conversation with that odd egg, Humpty Dumpty:

“Don’t stand there chattering to yourself like that,” Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, “but tell me your name and your business.”

“My name is Alice, but—”

“It’s a stupid enough name!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “My name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

[And then, this discussion of words and their meanings . . . ]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what _I_ say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

Such silly nonsense. And so delightful.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

In a foreshadowing of Tolkien’s impressive elves (and C.S. Lewis’s terms for humans as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve), G.K. Chesterton described fairies as beings that humans look for  . . . “in acorns and on toadstools and wonder that you never see them.”

Instead, “if you would see a fairy as he truly is, look for his head above all the stars and his feet amid the floors of the sea.”

Here’s the opening scene to a play by G.K. Chesterton, Magic: A Fantastic Comedy (published 1913).

It begins in a “plantation of thin young trees, in a misty and rainy twilight.” A Stranger appears, “a cloaked figure with a pointed hood.” A woman, named Patricia, appears on stage, singing, then sees the stranger:

PATRICIA. Oh! Who are you?

STRANGER. Ah! Who am I? [Commences to mutter to himself, and maps out the ground with his staff.]

I have a hat, but not to wear;
I wear a sword, but not to slay,
And ever in my bag I bear
A pack of cards, but not to play.

PATRICIA. What are you? What are you saying?

STRANGER. It is the language of the fairies, O daughter of Eve.

PATRICIA. But I never thought fairies were like you. Why, you are taller
than I am.

STRANGER. We are of such stature as we will. But the elves grow small,
not large, when they would mix with mortals.

PATRICIA. You mean they are beings greater than we are.

STRANGER. Daughter of men, if you would see a fairy as he truly is, look
for his head above all the stars and his feet amid the floors of the
sea. Old women have taught you that the fairies are too small to be
seen. But I tell you the fairies are too mighty to be seen. For they are
the elder gods before whom the giants were like pigmies. They are the
Elemental Spirits, and any one of them is larger than the world. And you
look for them in acorns and on toadstools and wonder that you never see
them.

PATRICIA. But you come in the shape and size of a man?

STRANGER. Because I would speak with a woman.