Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Carroll

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.

Quote of the Day

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Through the Looking-Glass

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never never forget!”
“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

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November 14, 2016 at 7:30 am

Alice in Disneyland

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Alice in Wonderland model sheet

A few weeks ago, I noted that watching the Disney movies available for streaming on Netflix is like seeing an alternate canon with high points like Snow White and Pinocchio stripped away, leaving marginal—but still appealing—films like Robin Hood and The Aristocats. Alice in Wonderland, which my daughter and I watched about ten times this week, lies somewhere in the middle. It lacks the rich texture of the earlier masterpieces, but it’s obviously the result of a lot of work and imagination, and much of it is wonderful. In many respects, it’s as close as the Disney studio ever got to the more anarchic style of the Warner Bros. cartoons, and when it really gets cooking, you can’t tear your eyes away. Still, it almost goes without saying that it fails to capture, or even to understand, the appeal of the original novels. Part of this is due to the indifference of the animators to anything but the gag of the moment, a tendency that Walt Disney once fought to keep in check, but which ran wild as soon as his attention was distracted by other projects. I love the work of the Nine Old Men as much as anyone, but it’s also necessary to acknowledge how incurious they could often appear about everything but animation itself, and how they seemed less interested in capturing the tone of authors like Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, or Kenneth Grahame than in shoehorning those characters into the tricks they knew. And it was rarely more evident than it is here.

What really fascinates me now about Alice in Wonderland is how it represents a translation from one mode of storytelling—and even of how to think about narrative itself—into another. The wit of Carroll’s novels isn’t visual, but verbal and logical: as I noted yesterday, the first book emerges from the oral fairy tale tradition, as enriched by the author’s gifts for paradox, parody, and wordplay. The Disney studio of this era, by contrast, wasn’t used to thinking in words, but in pictures. Movies were planned out as a series of thumbnail sketches on a storyboard, which naturally emphasized sight gags and physical comedy over dialogue. For the most part, Carroll’s words are preserved, and they often benefit from fantastic voice performances, but most of the scenes treat them as little more than background noise. My favorite example here is the Mad Tea Party. When I watch it again now, it strikes me as a dazzling anthology of visual puns, some of them brilliant, built around the props on the table: you can almost see the animators at the drawing board pitching out the gags, which follow one another so quickly that it makes your head spin. The result doesn’t have much to do with Lewis Carroll, and none of the surviving verbal jokes really land or register, but it works, at least up to a point, as a visual equivalent of the density of the book’s prose.

Cheshire Cat model sheet

But it doesn’t really build to anything, and like the movie itself, it just sort of ends. As Ward Kimball once said to Leonard Maltin: “It suffered from too many cooks—directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product.” Walt Disney himself seems to have grasped this, and I’d like to think that it contributed to his decision, a few years later, to subordinate all of Sleeping Beauty to the style of the artist Eyvind Earle. (That movie suffers from the same indifference to large chunks of the plot that we see elsewhere in Disney—neither Aurora nor Prince Philip even speak for the second half of the film, since the animators are clearly much more interested in Malificent and the three good fairies—but we’re so caught up in the look and music that we don’t really care.) Ultimately, the real solution lay in a more fundamental shift in the production process, in which the film was written up first as a screenplay rather than as a series of storyboards. This model, which is followed today by nearly all animated features, was a relatively late development. And to the extent that we’ve seen an expansion of the possibilities of plot, emotion, and tone in the ongoing animation renaissance, it’s thanks to an approach that places more emphasis on figuring out the overall story before drilling down to the level of the gag.

That said, there’s a vitality and ingenuity to Alice in Wonderland that I miss in more recent works. Movies like Frozen and the Pixar films are undeniably spectacular, but it’s hard to recall any moments of purely visual or graphic wit of the kind that fill the earlier Disney films so abundantly. (The exception, interestingly, is The Peanuts Movie, which seems to have benefited by regarding the classic Schulz strips as a sort of storyboard in themselves, as well as from the challenges of translating the flat style of the originals into three dimensions.) An animated film built around a screenplay and made with infinite technological resources starts to look more or less like every other movie, at least in terms of its staging and how all the pieces fit together, while a film that starts with a storyboard often has narrative limitations, but makes up for it with a kind of local energy that doesn’t have a parallel in any other medium. The very greatest animated films, like My Neighbor Totoro, somehow manage to have it both ways, and the example of Miyazaki suggests that real secret is to have the movie conceived by a single visionary who also knows how to draw. Given the enormous technical complexity of contemporary animation, that’s increasingly rare these days, and it’s true that some of the best recent Pixar movies, like Toy Story 3, represent the work of directors who don’t draw at all. But I’d love to see a return to the old style, at least occasionally—even if it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2015 at 9:04 am

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.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Lewis Carroll on how to write a letter

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Lewis Carroll

Put the date in full. It is another aggravating thing, when you wish, years afterwards, to arrange a series of letters, to find them dated “Feb. 17,” “Aug. 2,” without any year to guide you as to which comes first. And never, never, dear Madam (N.B. this remark is addressed to ladies only: no man would ever do such a thing), put “Wednesday,” simply, as the date!

That way madness lies.”

Here is a golden Rule to begin with. Write legibly. The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule! A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.

Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

Lewis Carroll, “Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing”

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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