Monday 1 March 2010

Revisionist Alice

There's a film of Alice In Wonderland out and the papers are filled with articles about "the eternal magic of Alice" and that sort of tripe. The odd thing about Alice is an utterly technical feature of the prose. It may help to explain this in principle with a clear and invented example:

The fat man went out into the garden. He then took off all his clothes, but only after he had gone back inside and upstairs to his bedroom.

Reading the above you would have pictured, I assume, a fat man walking out into the garden. You then pictured him taking his clothes off in the garden. You then discovered that you had pictured the wrong thing. You had to go back and delete your mental image and form a new one.

This is usually considered to be Bad Writing.

Now, opening my Alice at random:

THE next moment soldiers came running through the wood, at first in twos and threes, then ten or twenty together, and at last in such crowds that they seemed to fill the whole forest. Alice got behind a tree, for fear of being run over, and watched them go by.

She thought that in all her life she had never seen soldiers so uncertain on their feet: they were always tripping over something or other, and whenever one went down, several more always fell over him, so that the ground was soon covered with little heaps of men.

There is a crowd of running soldiers but it is only after they have filled the whole forest and we have formed a clear a picture of them in our imagination that we discover that they are all falling down and the picture must be repainted. The same thing in the next paragraph: (so click on "Read more" below):

Then came the horses. Having four feet, these managed rather better than the foot-soldiers; but even theystumbled now and then; and it seemed to be a regular rule that, whenever a horse stumbled, the rider fell off instantly. The confusion got worse every moment, and Alice was very glad to get out of the wood into an open place, where she found the white King seated on the ground, busily writing in his memorandum-book.

Alice is (and I concede this point is sublte) "very glad" whilst still in the wood, and then we find that she no longer is. We had no reason to think this as she had not been trying to escape. A couple of lines later:

All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. `I see somebody now!' she exclaimed at last. `But he's coming very slowly -- and what curious attitudes he goes into!'

(For the Messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)

When Alice says she sees somebody on the road, one might reasonably picture somebody coming along the road. It is unlikely, though, that that original mental image would have been skipping and wriggling with eyes like fans.

I have no idea why Lewis Carroll wrote like this. Nor do I have any idea why such a style should appeal so strongly to children. I remember that visualising a book was much more important to me then than it is now. However, I am sure that it was deliberate. It is so unnatural to tell, retract, restate, and muddle (on the small scale) the chronology of your writing that I am sure that Dodgson did it with intent. Moreover, a hundred and fifty years of publishing and unnumbered adaptations prove that the method works.

As a point of incidental pedantry, it is not the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, but the March Hare's tea party at the March Hare's house. The Mad Hatter just happens to be there.

An important strategy meeting at the Inky Fool offices
P.S. I've noticed that as I have an omnibus edition I accidentally opened it during Through The Looking Glass. My point remains, and it also ought to prove that I really was working at random.

P.P.S. Before anybody points it out I am thoroughly aware of the real titles of the books. Though I lie in the labyrinthine sewers of prolixity, brevity is my aim.

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