‘Whoever follows Alice down the rabbit hole and through the Red Queen’s labyrinthine kingdom never does it for the first time’


“Ahem!” said the Mouse, with an important air, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Charles Robinson, 1907

From Threepenny Review:

It may be that Carroll’s tale has deeper roots in the human psyche than its nursery reputation might suggest. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not read like just another children’s story: its geography has the powerful reverberations of other established mythical places, such as Utopia or Arcadia. In the Commedia, the guardian spirit on the summit of Mount Purgatory explains to Dante that the golden age of which poets have sung is an unconscious memory of Paradise Lost, of a vanished state of perfect happiness. Perhaps Wonderland is the unconscious memory of a state of perfect reason, a state which, seen now through the eyes of social and cultural conventions, appears to us as utter madness. Whether archetypal or not, Wonderland seems to have always existed in some form or other in the recesses of our mind: the fact is that whoever follows Alice down the rabbit hole and through the Red Queen’s labyrinthine kingdom never does it for the first time. Only the Liddell sisters and the Reverend Duckworth can be said to have been present at the creation, and even then there must have been a sense of déjà vu: after that first day, Wonderland entered the universal imagination as if it were much like the Garden of Eden, a place which we know exists without ever setting foot in it. Wonderland (though not on any map; “real places never are,” as Melville noted) is the recurrent landscape of our dream life.

Because Wonderland is, of course, our world: not in abstract symbolic terms (in spite of Freudian and Wittgensteinian readings), not as a Spenserian allegory (in spite of the serendipity of names on the storyteller’s journey, from Folly Bridge to Godstow—meaning “God’s Place”), not as a dystopian fable like those of Orwell or Huxley (as certain critics have argued). Wonderland is simply the place in which we find ourselves daily, crazy as it may seem, with its quotidian ration of the heavenly, the hellish, and the purgatorial—a place through which we must wander as we wander through life, following the instructions of the King of Hearts: “Begin at the beginning,” he tells the White Rabbit, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Alice (like us) is armed with only one weapon for the journey: language. It is with words that we make our way through the Cheshire Cat’s forest and the Queen’s croquet ground. It is with words that Alice discovers the difference between what things are and what they appear to be. It is her questioning that brings out the madness of Wonderland, hidden, as in our world, under a thin coat of conventional respectability. We may try to find logic in madness, as the Duchess does by finding a moral to everything, however absurd, but the truth is, as the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, that we don’t have a choice in the matter; whichever path we follow, we will find ourselves among mad people, and we must use language as best we can to keep a grip on what we deem to be our sanity. Words reveal to Alice (and to us) that the only indisputable fact of this bewildering world is that, under an apparent rationalism, we are all mad. Like Alice, we risk drowning ourselves and everyone else in our own tears.

“Return to Wonderland”, Alberto Manguel, Threepenny Review