Book review: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded” by David Day
The recently published book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland decoded” claims to explain the meaning of the ‘Alice’ story. The author identifies all kinds of hidden references behind the story on many levels, including links to mathematical problems, the classics, and real people that lived in Victorian Oxford.
According to author David Day, it is almost impossible that the ‘Alice’ story does not have a deeper meaning. Lewis Carroll was many things: a reverend, a mathematician fond of the subject of logic, schooled in the classics, very critical towards the way dean Liddell was running Christ Church college, and much more. Also, besides the ‘Alice’ books, he published many critical pamphlets and articles with similar underlying references. Therefore, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland must be more than merely a children’s story.
Day argues that the story is centrally:
- a hidden way to provide Alice with a classical education: Lewis Carroll used the book as a way to teach Alice about the classics (Latin and Greek, mathematics, logic, philosophy, literature, rhetoric, etc).
- based on the descent of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna (or Greek goddess Persephone) into the underworld;
- a ‘who’s who’ of Oxford: Many people (and locations) that Carroll knew, are represented (and often parodied) in the form of a Wonderland character or place.
Mainly the book is supposed to be about the continuous feud between Carroll and Alice’s parents.
During the course of the book, Day provides us with many original theories about what’s behind certain passages and characters in the story. If you are familiar with the background of the Alice story and have read books like Gardner’s ‘Annotated Alice’ or Elwyn-Jones and Gladstone’s ‘Alice Companion’, not all of Day’s theories will be new to you. He repeats several known references that can be found in earlier publications, like how the three sisters in the well relate to Alice and her sisters. However, many are his own and therefore new to the reader.
Some of his theories are more convincing than others. Several seem quite likely, others seem too far-fetched. And although almost all come across as interesting thoughts and finds, unfortunately most simply lack evidence.
For example, Day links the Mouse to amongst others philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus and The Sorcerers Apprentice. Although you can indeed argument there are similarities between them, this also goes for many other historical figures and stories, as long as you make an effort to look for it.
The problem with the ‘Alice’ books is that you can link them to virtually anything. Day does not succeed in convincing me that his findings are more likely sources of inspiration than any other pieces with similarities.
Also, he undermines the credibility of his theories by linking one character or event to many different sources. It is very unlikely that Carroll actually had all of them in mind when writing the story.
Amongst the theories I found interesting, is that the Mad Tea Party is supposed to represent a perpetual rotating calendar, but is also a reference to a bacchanal of three gods.
On the other hand, I think the claim that the word ‘wow’ in the Duchess’ song ‘Speak roughly to your little boy’ is a pun on the word ‘doublet’ (a wordplay game invented by Carroll) and therefore she predicts the ‘BOY’ evolving into a ‘PIG’, definitely goes to far…
With regards to the alleged central themes of the story, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the author does not succeed in making these plausible. To do that, he should have structurally linked most of the references to these main themes.
The classics are indeed often mentioned as being a source. The cited texts seem quite random though, and together they in no way form a structured way of educating a child about the classics. Also, it is very much the question whether a child would be able to understand these references without someone actively explaining them to her.
Furthermore, the claim that the Wonderland story is based on the descent of a goddess into the underworld, is quite an overstatement. One may indeed find resemblances to the beginning and end of the Wonderland story, as in both stories a daydreaming woman sitting next to her sister decends into an underground world. But as Day links the rest of the story to other classical tales, I would certainly not claim that the Wonderland book is ‘based on’ this classical story.
Day does lists many possible real life sources for almost all main ‘Wonderland’ characters. For example, the White Rabbit is supposed to be Alice’s family physician. Therefore the ‘who’s who’ theme is the most substantiated one.
Still, Day’s claim that the book represents the feud between Carroll and Alice’s parents, is also too far-fetched. Although Carroll has indeed mocked the way Christ Church college was being run and how he was being treated by Mr. and Mrs. Liddell in his other non-fiction publications like pamphlets, the actual number of links Day identifies between the ‘Wonderland’ story and these real life disagreements, is too few to substatiate this claim.
I also found a couple of factual errors. For one, he tells us that the original manuscript did not contain the Mock Turtle’s story, nor the Lobster Quadrille or the trial of the Knave of Hearts. This is untrue. Also, Martin Gardner (the author of ‘Annotated Alice’) is erroneously being referred to as ‘Gardiner’ in the bibliography. These errors however do not detract from the validity of his theories.
Lay-out and illustrations
A lot of attention has been paid to the design of the book and I find its lay-out to be quite pleasant. In the middle of the pages you can find the original text of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. In the margins around it, or sometimes on full pages, you can read the commentary from the author in a different text color.
The set up is a little like Martin Gardner’s ‘Annotated Alice’, although Day’s writings are too long to be called mere annotations. They are placed around the concerning passages in the original text. But as he does not use footnotes and structurally describes or quotes the relevant passages in his explanations, and also because these explanations often encompass more than just this piece of the story, I don’t believe including the original story is of added value.
Some theories are more extensive than others. Therefore these are not always placed around the original text, but in between the pages as separate chapters. Even though these theories are printed in yet another color, it sometimes hinders readability, as the other explanations are suddenly interrupted mid-sentence and then continued two or three pages later.
The book is well illustrated. It contains only some of the original illustrations from John Tenniel, which are supplemented by drawings from other illustrators. Also, many images and photographs are included to clarify or support the theories of the author. It reminds me of my illustrated copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
Notably the book contains one of the photographs I took during my trip to Oxford, and I get a mention in the credits. 🙂
Although many of Day’s theories are far-fetched, and although he does not convince me that his theories are more credible than other theories about ‘the meaning’ of the book, I still think his efforts are to be applauded. His book does shine a new light on the ‘Alice’ story and indeed gives us many things to think about.
I agree that, given the personality of Carroll, it is very likely that he put mathematical problems, (critical) personal references and the like into the story. However, I think Day should not have claimed that there are specific central themes in it, or the author had specific intentions with it, as he was not able to support that claim (other than ‘it structurally contains references to classical works and links to real life people’). It would have been better if he had merely linked aspects of the original story to all things Carroll may have been influenced by, and shown how his personality, interests and knowledge (of classics) formed the story.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland decoded” did make for an interesting read and obviously a lot of hard work and research has been put into it. I therefore would recommend the book to all of those interested in reading more about the possible references that are hidden into “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
Where to buy
Interested in buying it? You can order the book via my webshop or directly at Amazon.com.