Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The white rabbit objective

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The White Rabbit by John Tenniel

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 24, 2015.

On July 4, 1862, the Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Thames with the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Here’s Dodgson’s own account of what took place that afternoon:

Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream—the three little maidens and I—and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit—whether it were at times when the narrator was “i’ the vein,” and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, more because she had to say something than that she had something to say—yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.

The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of which the computer scientist Alan Perlis once said: “The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.”

Today, however, I’d like to focus on the stories that weren’t written down. We have Dodgson’s word that he often extemporized tales to Alice and her sisters, but the vast majority were forgotten as soon as they were told. What set this one apart? You could point to any number of possible factors, but I’d like to nominate one element that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves: the White Rabbit. Dodgson himself hints that the rabbit played an important role in the story’s composition: “That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” When we look back at the original story, it’s striking how quickly it gets down to business: the rabbit appears in the second paragraph, and Alice sets after it in the fourth, and by then, we’re off and running. And what the rabbit provides is a narrative thread, in the form of Alice’s curiosity about it, that allows Dodgson—or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll—to introduce a series of disconnected episodes. He doesn’t emphasize the rabbit unduly: in practice, he gently reintroduces it once every other chapter or so, whenever the story needs a little nudge. And the result is as pure an example as I know of the principle that every story should be structured as a series of objectives, and that the best way to sustain the reader’s interest, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, is to have the protagonist want something right away.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This may seem like a rather clinical way to look at Alice, but it’s also a trick that every oral storyteller knows. The other great example here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which emerged from the stories that A.A. Milne told to his son. When you browse through the books, you can’t help but notice how the most memorable chapters are all structured around a single concrete objective: Pooh wants to get some honey, or to find Eeyore’s tail, or to figure out what Tigger likes best. Pooh himself is hardly a model of a driven protagonist, but for a bear of very little brain, he knows what he wants. And when I tell my improvised stories about John the Pig to my own daughter, I’ve learned how useful it can be to follow “Once upon a time there was…” immediately with “And he wanted…” It’s a courtesy both to the listener and the teller: the former gets something to pique her interest, while the latter has a narrative framework on which he can fall back whenever his invention starts to flag. If you know what the protagonist wants, you usually have a rough idea of what comes next. And it often makes the difference between a story worth remembering and one that evaporates before your eyes. (On a similar note, I went through a brief period of experimentation with Story Cubes, which consist of nine prepackaged dice printed with images—a clock, a magic wand, a man with a parachute—designed to encourage the same kind of storytelling: you toss the dice and try to come up with a plot that connects the nine random pictures. And your chances of succeeding are much better if you introduce the words “And he wanted…” as soon as possible.)

This becomes even more clear when we compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel. Readers may prefer one or the other, and I actually think that Through the Looking-Glass is by far the greater book. (Not surprisingly, it has played a significant role in my own life: my first professional publication ever, the novelette “Inversus,” was an extended homage, and my novel The Icon Thief ends with the image, which I lifted directly from Carroll, of a pawn making it to the other end of the board.) But it’s also emphatically a written novel. Instead of the clean, linear chase after the White Rabbit, we have the imaginary chess game, which is wonderful, but could hardly be invented on the spur of the moment. Unlike its predecessor, Looking-Glass takes its time to get going: it opens with a sleepy scene of Alice curled up by the fireplace in midwinter, and she doesn’t enter the looking-glass world for several pages. Even when she’s on the other side, she does little more than look around at first, and her objective, when it finally appears, is fairly abstract—she wants to become a queen. The result bears the same relation to the previous installment as the second half of Don Quixote does to the first: it’s a richer, more mature work, written after its characters had already become famous, but it lacks some of the charm of the original. Each story bears the mark of its origins: one in a boat in a lazy day on the Thames, the other in the study of an Oxford mathematician. And if Carroll had started with Looking-Glass rather than Wonderland, the story might have been forgotten at once. I wouldn’t want to live without either, but we have the White Rabbit to thank for both.

The White Rabbit objective

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The White Rabbit by John Tenniel

On July 4, 1862, the Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Thames with the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Here’s Dodgson’s own account of what took place on that pleasant afternoon:

Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream—the three little maidens and I—and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit—whether it were at times when the narrator was “i’ the vein,” and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, more because she had to say something than that she had something to say—yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.

And we all know what happened next—or at least we have no choice but to remember this week, with the deluge of recent coverage surrounding the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Today, however, I’d like to focus on the stories that weren’t written down. We have Dodgson’s word that he often extemporized tales to Alice and her sisters, but the vast majority were forgotten as soon as they were told. What set this one apart? You could point to any number of possible factors, but I’d like to nominate one element that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves: the White Rabbit. Dodgson himself hints that the rabbit played an important role in the story’s composition: “That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” When we look back at the original story, it’s striking how quickly it gets down to business: the rabbit appears in the second paragraph, and Alice sets after it in the fourth, and by then, we’re off and running. And what the rabbit provides is a narrative thread, in the form of Alice’s curiosity about it, that allows Dodgson—or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll—to introduce a series of disconnected episodes. He doesn’t emphasize the rabbit unduly: in practice, he gently reintroduces it once every other chapter or so, whenever the story needs a little nudge. And the result is as pure an example as I know of the principle that every story should be structured as a series of objectives, and that the best way to sustain the reader’s interest, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, is to have the protagonist want something right away.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This may seem like a rather clinical way to look at Alice, but it’s also a trick that every oral storyteller knows. The other great example here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which emerged from the stories that A.A. Milne told to his son. When you browse through the books, you can’t help but notice how the most memorable chapters are all structured around a single concrete objective: Pooh wants to get some honey, or to find Eeyore’s tail, or to figure out what Tigger likes best. Pooh himself is hardly a model of a driven protagonist, but for a bear of very little brain, he knows what he wants. And when I tell my improvised stories about John the Pig to my own daughter, I’ve learned how useful it can be to follow “Once upon a time there was…” immediately with “And he wanted…” It’s a courtesy both to the listener and the teller: the former gets something to pique her interest, while the latter has a narrative framework on which he can fall back whenever his invention starts to flag. If you know what the protagonist wants, you usually have a rough idea of what comes next. And it often makes the difference between a story worth remembering and one that evaporates before your eyes. (On a similar note, I’ve recently begun experimenting with Story Cubes, which consist of nine prepackaged dice printed with images—a clock, a magic wand, a man with a parachute—designed to encourage the same kind of storytelling: you toss the dice and try to come up with a plot that connects the nine random pictures. And your chances of succeeding are much better if you introduce the words “And he wanted…” as soon as possible.)

This becomes even more clear when we compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel. Readers may prefer one or the other, and I actually think that Through the Looking-Glass is by far the greater book. (Not surprisingly, it has played a significant role in my own life: my first professional publication ever, the novelette “Inversus,” was an extended homage, and my novel The Icon Thief ends with the image, which I lifted directly from Carroll, of a pawn making it to the other end of the board.) But it’s also emphatically a written novel. Instead of the clean, linear chase after the White Rabbit, we have the imaginary chess game, which is wonderful, but could hardly be invented on the spur of the moment. Unlike its predecessor, Looking-Glass takes its time to get going: it opens with a sleepy scene of Alice curled up by the fireplace in midwinter, and she doesn’t enter the looking-glass world for several pages. Even when she’s on the other side, she does little more than look around at first, and her objective, when it finally appears, is fairly abstract—she wants to become a queen. The result bears the same relation to the previous installment as the second half of Don Quixote does to the first: it’s a richer, more mature work, written after its characters had already become famous, but it lacks some of the charm of the original. Each story bears the mark of its origins: one in a boat in a lazy day on the Thames, the other in the study of an Oxford mathematician. And if Carroll had started with Looking-Glass rather than Wonderland, the story might have been forgotten at once. I wouldn’t want to live without either, but we have the White Rabbit to thank for both.

The Ballad of John the Pig

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John the Pig

For the last month or so, one of the first things my daughter has said to me every morning, as well as one of the last things she says before she goes to bed at night, is: “Talk about John the Pig.” She’ll ask about John while eating breakfast, while we’re out in the stroller, when we’re together in the car, or when I’m giving her a bath, and I usually oblige, to the point where I’ve spent maybe a hundred hours over the past several weeks talking to her about John the Pig. Who is he? He’s the anonymous little pig who appears on the rightmost edge of page 13 of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, playing happily in his sandbox at the playground. I’m not sure exactly why I latched onto that particular image, but it was probably just the first one that happened to catch my eye. John’s name was similarly plucked out of thin air.  When I initially brought him up, I had the vague idea that I could make up a few stories about John to amuse my daughter, since we’d already gone through the book from cover to cover. Ever since, John’s story has expanded beyond anything I could have imagined. He’s acquired a family, a huge supporting cast—Molly the Rabbit, Mary the Mouse, Little Elephant, Sam and Sally the Sand Crabs—and a life that takes him through the city, the school, the park, and the beach, in a narrative that rivals any soap opera or oral epic in terms of length and density of incident. In short, he’s quite the little pig.

Many parents, I imagine, have undergone this kind of experience, and occasionally, the stories we make up take on a life of their own. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland famously began as a tale that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told to amuse the Liddell sisters on a day in the country, while Ted Hughes’s stories about the Iron Man—later filmed as The Iron Giant—originated in his stories for his own children. Until now, I’ve never quite understood how a bedtime story can grow and develop into something that deserves to be put down on paper, but now I do. My daughter’s questions and requests about John the Pig are inexhaustible, and it’s often all I can do to keep up with her appetite for more. (Often, they’ll take the form of oddly specific pitches: “I want John the Pig to get lost.” “I want John the Pig to hurt his knee.” “I want John the Pig to knock over his sand castle.”) Originally, the stories took place within the pictures provided by Best Word Book Ever, with John accompanying his parents or his friends to the grocery store or airport or zoo, but by now, the book has long since been put away, and we’re only limited by whatever events or settings the two of us can imagine. Not everything I make up on the spot is worth remembering, and the stories have a way of petering out toward the end. But not always. And sometimes even I’m curious to know where John will end up next.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

And it’s starting to feel like an adventure for me, too. I’m the kind of writer who likes to plan everything in advance, but I don’t know how a John the Pig story will end, and it amuses me to come up with a conclusion that ties back into where the story began, or to figure out a reasonably clever way for John to get out of one of his predicaments. There’s an evolutionary process at work here, too. Most of my ideas are discarded as soon as the story is over, but occasionally, one of them sticks, and we’ve even had a few breakout characters. (Sam and Sally the Sand Crab were introduced to get me out of a particular narrative problem, but like Urkel or the Fonz, they’ve practically become the stars of their own spinoff.) It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to improvising for an audience, although it also helps that my daughter is a forgiving listener. She likes stories in which John goes on improbable adventures, but she’s equally interested in hearing about a day at school or a play date with Molly the Rabbit, and I’m often put in mind of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful observation:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

It can be a little exhausting, of course, and there are times—particularly after I’ve been dragged out of bed at five in the morning—when my invention sputters and I’d rather do anything but spin another interminable story. (Whenever I can’t think of what comes next, I fall back on something tried and true, like a visit to Molly the Rabbit’s house, which has convinced me that the formulas we find in so much oral storytelling are just ways to buy the poet time as he thinks his way through to the next plot point.) But I’ve also learned a lot in the process. Beatrix craves conflict, and she’s much more interested in stories in which John the Pig is sad than when he’s happy. And she’s starting to take an active role in the act of composition herself. Whenever I find my energy flagging, I’ll ask her: “And then what happened?” She’ll usually have a few good ideas of her own, and I get a sense that she doesn’t distinguish between the details I provide and the ones that she comes up with independently. Ultimately, my dream is that she’ll take up the thread herself and start telling me her own stories without any need of prompting. Busytown has plenty of characters and locations, and exploring it with her through it has turned, rather unexpectedly, into one of the great joys of my life as a father. John the Pig loves his sandbox, but the real sandbox is the one in which my daughter and I play every day.

Is storytelling kid’s stuff?

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John Tenniel's illustration of the Red Queen

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. When you’re a full-time dad, you’re constantly in search of places where your child can romp happily for half an hour without continuous supervision, and our library fills that need admirably: it’s full of physical books, toys, activities, and new faces and friends, so I can grab a chair in the corner and take a richly deserved minute or two for myself while Beatrix goes exploring within my line of sight. Sometimes, when it looks like she’ll be staying put for a while, I’ll get up to browse the books on the shelves, both with an eye to my daughter’s reading and to my own. I’ll often pick up a title I remember and find myself lost in it all over again, and it’s a pleasure to discover that old favorites as different as The Way Things Work, The Eleventh Hour, and D’Aulaires’ Norse Myths have lost none of their fascination. There’s a considerable overlap between what kids and adults find interesting, and the best children’s books, like the best movies, can hold anyone’s attention.

I recently found myself thinking about this more intently, after discovering a shelf at the library that I’d somehow overlooked before. It’s a section devoted to classic literature for kids, and all of the usual suspects are here, from Anne of Green Gables to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the latter of which is still the best children’s book ever written, and possibly, as Alan Perlis observed, the best book ever written about anything. But there were also many titles that weren’t originally written for younger readers but have been retroactively absorbed into the young adult canon. There was a generous selection of Dickens, for example, not far from Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the same process has already gone to work on J.R.R. Tolkien. Novels of an earlier era that were written by grownups for other grownups start to look like children’s books: neither The Last of the Mohicans nor Huckleberry Finn nor To Kill a Mockingbird were conceived as works for young readers, but now we’re as likely to see them here as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

David Mitchell

There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, none of which are especially mysterious. Most of these books were four-quadrant novels in the first place: Dickens, like J.K. Rowling, was devoured by everyone at the time who could read. Many feature younger protagonists, so we naturally tend to classify them, rightly or wrongly, as children’s books, which also applies to stories, like the Greek myths, that contain elements of what look today like fantasy. And a lot of them are on school curricula. But there’s also a sense in which the novel, like any art form, advances in such a way to make its most innovative early examples feel a bit naive, or like more primal forms of storytelling that appeal to readers who are still working their way into the medium. Plato says that if the mythical sculptor Daedalus were to appear and start make statues again, we’d all laugh at him, and something similar seems to take place within literature. As the opening paragraph of James Wood’s recent review of the new David Mitchell novel makes clear, critics have a way of regarding storytelling as somewhat suspicious: “The embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” It feels, in short, like kid’s stuff.

But it isn’t, not really, and it’s easy to invert the argument I’ve given above: the books that last long enough to be assimilated into children’s literature are the ones that offer universal narrative pleasures that have allowed them to survive. Don Quixote can be found in the children’s section, at least in its abridged form, but it’s also, as Harold Bloom says, “the most advanced work of prose fiction we have.” A bright kid wants to read Homer or Poe because of the virtues that make them appealing to everyone—and it’s worth noting that most libraries keep two sets of each on hand, one in the children’s section, the other for adults. Every generation produces reams of stories written specifically for children, and nearly all of them have gone out of print, leaving only those books that pursued story without regard for any particular audience. The slow creep of classic literature into the children’s library is only a mirror image of the more rapid incursion, which we’ve seen in recent years, of young adult literature into the hands of grownups, and I don’t think there’s any doubt as to which is the most positive trend. But they’re both reflections of the same principle. Storytelling breaks through all the categories we impose, and the real measure of value comes when we see what children are reading, on their own, a hundred years from now.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2012 at 7:30 am

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