The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, 1961.

Milo is a boy who never really knows what he wants or what to do with himself.  He is always bored because he doesn’t really know the purpose or point of doing anything.  Nothing he learns in school interests him because he can’t see what he could ever do with the knowledge.  He never bothers to read the books he has, play with his toys, or learn to use his tools because he just doesn’t have the imagination to appreciate them or what he could do with them.

One day, when Milo gets home from school, he finds an unexpected package.  It’s not his birthday or Christmas, but the package is definitely intended for him because it has his name on it: “For Milo, who has plenty of time.”  There is a list of items contained in the package: 1 tollbooth (which must be assembled, according to the directions), 3 precautionary signs (“to be used in a precautionary fashion”), some coins for the tollbooth, a map (with no familiar places on it), and a driver’s rule book (which must be obeyed).  Interestingly, it promises that if Milo is not satisfied with his tollbooth experience, his time will be refunded.  Since Milo doesn’t think he has anything else to do anyway, he decides that he might as well unwrap the tollbooth and set it up. 

Although Milo thinks that the map is purely fictional and that the tollbooth is just a playset, he decides that he might as well select a destination on it for his trip through the tollbooth.  He closes his eyes, puts a finger on the map, and selects a place called “Dictionopolis.” He gets in the toy car, puts a coin in the tollbooth, and goes through it.

To his surprise, Milo suddenly finds himself driving down a real highway, no longer in his own apartment.  He sees a sign pointing the way to a place called Expectations, and he stops to ask a man about it.  At first, he thinks he’s talking to a weather man, but the man corrects him, saying that he’s really the “Whether man.”  Part of his job is to hurry people along, even if they have no expectations.  Nothing the Whether Man says to Milo makes sense to him, so he decides that he’d better just get going.

As Milo drives down the highway, he gets bored and starts daydreaming.  As his mind wanders, the scenery gets duller and grayer, the car slows down, and eventually, the car stops and won’t move further.  Milo looks around and wonders where he is.  It turns out that he’s in the Doldrums, the home of the Lethargarians.  They tell him that thinking isn’t allowed there.  Milo says that’s a dumb rule because everybody thinks.  The Lethargarians say that they never think and Milo must not have thought either because, if he had, he wouldn’t be there.  People usually get to the Doldrums because they’re not thinking, and once they’re there, nobody is allowed to think.  They refer Milo to the rule book that came with the tollbooth.  Milo looks in the rule book and sees that is a rule.  There are also limits on laughing and smiling in the Doldrums.  Milo asks the Lethargarians what they do if they can’t think or laugh.  They say that they can do anything as long as they’re also doing nothing.  Mainly, they do things like daydreaming, napping, loafing, loitering, and wasting time.  They say it gives them a full schedule and allows them to get nothing done, which they consider an important accomplishment.  Milo asks them if that’s what everybody here does, and they say that the one person who doesn’t is the Watch Dog, who tries to make sure that nobody wastes time.

At that point, the Watch Dog shows up.  The Watch Dog looks like a dog, but his body is an alarm clock.  The Watch Dog asks Milo what he’s doing, and is alarmed when Milo says that he’s “killing time.”  It’s bad enough when people waste time, but killing it is horrible!  (The book is full of these kinds of puns. It’s just getting started.)  Milo explains how he got stuck in the Doldrums while he was on his way to Dictionopolis and asks the Watch Dog for help.  The Watch Dog explains that if he got there by not thinking, he can also get out by thinking and asks to come along because he likes car rides.  Milo agrees, and the two of them get in the car.  Milo thinks as hard as he can (which the book notes isn’t easy for Milo because he’s not used to thinking and doesn’t do it too often).  Gradually, as Milo thinks of various things, the car begins to move.  The faster Milo thinks, the faster the car goes.  Milo learns that it’s possible to accomplish a lot with just a little thought.

The Watch Dog’s name is Tock because his older brother is named Tick. However, their names are a mistake because his older brother only makes a tock sound, and Tock only makes a tick sound.  It’s a source of pain and disappointment.  Tock tells Milo about the origin of time and why Watch Dogs find it important to make sure that people use time well.  He says that time is the most valuable possession because it always keeps moving.

When they arrive at Dictionopolis, the gatekeeper won’t let them in immediately because Milo doesn’t have a reason for being there.  Nobody gets let in without a reason.  Fortunately, the gatekeeper always keeps a few spare reasons lying around, and he decides to let Milo have one.  The one he selects is “WHY NOT?”, which the gatekeeper considers a good, all-purpose reason for doing anything.  (I don’t know. I’ve heard that one followed up by an angry “I’ll tell you why not!” before.)

As readers have probably guessed, Dictionopolis is all about words. When Milo enters the city, he finds himself in the marketplace, which is called the “Word Market.”  The ruler of Dictionopolis is Azaz the Unabridged, and when Milo is welcomed to the city by the members of the king’s cabinet, they do so in multiple ways, using synonyms.  Milo asks them why they don’t just pick one word and stick with it, but they’re not interested in that.  They say that it’s not their business to make sense and that one word is as good as another, so why not use them all?  (That isn’t true, but the story tells you why not later.)  They go on to tell Milo that letters grow on trees here, and people come from all over to buy all the words they need in the Word Market in town.  Part of the cabinet’s duty is to make sure that all of the words being sold are real words and have real meanings because people would have no use for nonsense words that don’t mean anything and that nobody will understand.  The cabinet doesn’t seem to care about whether or not the words are being used in a way that makes sense as long as they’re real words. (If you’re familiar with business speak or buzzwords, you’ve probably noticed that much of it works on a similar principle.)  Putting the words into a context that makes sense isn’t their job.  (Later, you meet the person who had that job.)  However, the cabinet does advise Milo to be careful when choosing his words and to say only what he means to say.  They excuse themselves to get ready for the banquet and say that they’ll see Milo there later, although Milo doesn’t know what banquet they’re talking about.

Milo and Tock explore the Word Market.  Milo is fascinated by the variety of words available.  He doesn’t know what they all mean, but he thinks that if he can buy some, he can learn how to use them.  He chooses three words he doesn’t know: quagmire, flabbergast, and upholstery. (I’m surprised he didn’t know the last one because, surely, he has upholstered furniture in his apartment.)  Unfortunately, Milo quickly realizes that he has only one coin with him, and he’ll need that coin to get back through the tollbooth.  Eventually, he finds a stall selling individual letters for people who like to make their own words.  The stall owner gives them some free samples to taste. They taste good to Milo, and the stall owner tells them that sets of letters come with instructions.  Milo doesn’t think he’s very good at making words, but the Spelling Bee, a giant bee, begins showing him how to spell words.  However, the Humbug, a grumpy bug, tries to tell Milo not to bother learning.  The Spelling Bee tells Milo not to listen to the Humbug because he just tells tall stories and doesn’t actually know anything, not even how to spell his own name.

The Spelling Bee and the Humbug start fighting and knock over all the word stalls around them. There is a big mess, all the words get scrambled, and it takes some time before everyone sorts everything out.  By that time, the Spelling Bee is gone, and when the policeman comes, the Humbug blames everything on Milo and Tock.  At first, it seems like Milo will get off lightly because the policeman (who is also the judge) gives him the shortest “sentence” he can think of (“I am”).  Unfortunately, he’s also the jailer and takes Milo and Tock to prison for 6 million years.

In the prison, Milo and Tock meet the Which.  At first, Milo thinks that she’s a “witch”, but she says many people make that mistake.  The Which is King Azaz’s great-aunt, and her job used to be to make sure that people correctly chose which words to use and didn’t use more words than necessary. (A problem that Milo noticed in the market.)  The Which explains that she was thrown into prison because she got too carried away with her job and became too miserly with words. Word economy is good (and something I struggle with), but rather than promoting brevity, the Which started promoting silence instead,. It got so bad that people eventually stopped buying words and the market was failing, so the king had to put a stop to it.  The Which says that she understands now where she went wrong, and Milo asks her if there’s anything that he can do to help her.  The Which says that the only thing that would help her would be the return of Rhyme and Reason.  When Milo asks who they are, she tells him the story of the founding of the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Years ago, the King of Wisdom had two sons, and he was proud of both, but one of them had an obsession with words, and the other had an obsession with numbers.  The king didn’t realize how bad their conflict was growing, and it got worse over time. One day, the king found a pair of abandoned infant twins.  The twins were both girls, and the king had always wanted daughters as well as sons, so he adopted them and named them Rhyme and Reason.  Everyone loved Rhyme and Reason, and they had a talent for resolving problems and disputes. When the king died, he left his kingdom to both of his sons and left instructions for them both to look after Rhyme and Reason. The word-obsessed son, Azaz, established a capital city of his own, Dictionopolis, and the number-obsessed son, the Mathemagician, established the city of Digitopolis.  Rhyme and Reason remained in the city of Wisdom and acted as advisers to the brothers, mediating their disputes.  This system worked until the brothers got into their worst fight over whether words or numbers are most important.  They took this dispute to Rhyme and Reason, who said that both are of equal importance. This satisfied most people, but both brothers were angry because they had wanted the girls to make a definite choice between them. In their last joint act, they banished Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air. Since then, there has been continued fighting between the two brothers and their respective cities, the city of Wisdom has been neglected, and there’s been no Rhyme or Reason to any of it. (Ha, ha.)

Milo says that maybe they could rescue Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. The Which says that would be difficult because there’s only one stairway to the castle, and it’s guarded by demons. Milo remembers that there is also the matter of them being stuck in prison for 6 million years. The Which says that being in prison isn’t really a problem. Although the policeman/judge/jailer likes putting people in prison, he doesn’t care much about keeping them there, so Milo and Tock can leave when they like, and he probably won’t notice. (Sounds like he’s not very good at the “jailer” part of his job.)  The Which points out a button on the wall, Milo presses it, and a door opens.

When they step outside, the king’s cabinet members come to take him to the banquet that they mentioned earlier. They have Milo and Tock step into their wagon and tell them to be quiet because “it goes without saying.” (Ha, ha.) They take Milo and Tock to a palace shaped like a book, where they meet King Azaz and join the banquet.

The banquet is a pun-filled meal where everyone has to literally eat their words and have half-baked ideas for dessert.  (Half-baked ideas look good, but you shouldn’t have too many because you can get sick of them. Tock says so.)  Nothing makes sense, and even the king realizes it, which gives Milo the opportunity to suggest bringing back Rhyme and Reason.  The king isn’t sure that’s possible, and the Humbug, of course, volunteers Milo and Tock for the job.  The joke turns out to be on him because the king volunteers the Humbug to assist Milo.  Reaching Rhyme and Reason will be a perilous journey, and possibly the most difficult part will be getting the Mathemagician to agree to let them do it.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). There is also a movie version of this book (mostly animated but part live action) with songs. You can see a trailer for it on YouTube.

My Reaction

The Phantom Tollbooth is a fantasy story, but like many fantasy stories, it’s also a morality story.  It’s a little like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which aims to correct children’s bad habits.  Milo’s boredom problems are due to his lack of thought for the things he could do and imagination to figure out how to make use of what he has.  His adventures after he goes through the Phantom Tollbooth help him to see things differently and to learn to use his mind creatively.

However, I wouldn’t say that the story is too preachy.  A couple of parts started to feel a little like a lecture, but it’s set in a fantasy land that feels a little like Alice in Wonderland.  There’s a healthy dose of nonsense that keeps things interesting and fun.  The book is peppered with puns and peopled by a fascinating variety of characters.  There’s the boy who can see through everyone and everything, who teaches Milo to look at things from an adult perspective and helps him to realize the benefit of keeping his feet on the ground (both of those are also puns). There’s the man who is the world’s shortest giant, the world’s tallest midget, the world’s thinnest fat man, and the world’s fattest thin man all at the same time.  Basically, he’s just an ordinary guy who’s noticed that people think of him in different ways when they compare him with themselves.

I was first introduced to this story when I was in elementary school, as many people were.  Our teacher read it to us and showed us the cartoon version.  Parts of songs from that version still get stuck in my head, almost 30 years later.  (“Don’t Say There’s Nothing To Do the Doldrums …”) The part of the story that stuck with me the longest was the Dodecahedron, a shape with twelve sides. If you’ve seen the twelve-sided dice used for Dungeons and Dragons and similar role-playing games, those are dodecahedrons. In the book, the Dodecahedron is talking character as well as a shape, but I remember it because our teacher gave us paper cut-outs to make our own dodecahedrons. I made two of them, and I might still have one somewhere.

The Case of the Dragon in Distress

The Case of the Dragon in Distress by E. W. Hildick, 1991.

The McGurk organization start getting interested in the Middle Ages when they acquire a round table, which reminds them of King Arthur’s Round Table, and they begin studying the Middle Ages in school. Shortly after that, Brains buys a set of walkie-talkies at a fire sale. At first, they don’t work, but Brains tinkers with them until he can get them to send and receive. The strange thing is that they only seem to work well at night.

One night, the organization decides to test them, and somehow, they are transported into the Middle Ages. A strange voice speaks to them through their “little black boxes” and sends them on a quest that takes them to the castle of Princess Melisande the Bad. The castle is supposedly guarded by a dragon, but it is really a couple of servants in a dragon costume. Like many others in the castle, they are prisoners of Princess Melisande, who appears young and sweet, but is actually evil. She uses the dragon story to lure brave men to the castle so that she can imprison them and drink their blood. She has leeches put on them, and then she eats the leeches. That is how she maintains her youth, even though she is ancient. Among her prisoners are the king’s son, Prince Geoffrey, and the young chief of the McGurk clan from Ireland, who may be a distant ancestor of Jack P. McGurk.

When the members of the McGurk Organization arrive at the castle, everyone is amazed by their strange appearance, modern clothes, and the little black boxes that talk. Even Princess Melisande is in awe of them, but the McGurk in her prison is weakening, and she may be planning to replace him with the McGurk from modern times.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoiler:

The two servants who were pretending to be the dragon, Gareth and his sister Gwyneth, are also time travelers, but they are from the 17th century. They were brought to the Middle Ages after drinking a potion that was supposed to cure them of a fever. In their own era, they live close to the castle where they are now imprisoned, and they know that there is a secret passage that leads out of the castle from the dungeon. The kids develop a plan to sneak out of the castle under the dragon costume, but they are caught and thrown in the dungeon. They try the secret passage, not knowing if the path goes all the way through. It does, and they make it to the king’s camp. When they tell the king that Princess Melisande has his son, the king plans to storm the castle and free the prisoners. McGurk says that their mission is accomplished, and the voice from their little black boxes says that it’s time for them to go home. Everyone wakes up in their own beds, as if nothing had happened. They believe that the walkie-talkies are responsible for what happened, but they aren’t quite sure if they actually went back in time or merely dreamed that they did. There is some evidence that they really went back in time, but it isn’t answered definitely.

I liked this book as a kid, although it’s a little bizarre because most of the books in this series are just mysteries involving a group of neighborhood friends that take place contemporary to when the books were written. There is usually nothing magical or supernatural about the books in this series, and it’s kind of a weird departure from the usual format. There is another book after this one that continues their time traveling adventures.

Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, 1871.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is over 150 years old, and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, is now 150 years old, as of 2021. These books have been reprinted in many different languages and editions. The edition that I’m using for this review is actually a combined edition of the two from 1960 with added notes by Martin Gardner. (Although I used a cover image from a different edition above.) I like editions with added notes because there is quite a lot to explain about both Lewis Carroll and his stories.

I explained a lot of Lewis Carroll’s background and some of the controversies surrounding his life in my review of Alice in Wonderland. One important point about the Alice stories is that they are full of puzzles, riddles, word games, in-jokes, and parodies of poems that were popular in the author’s time. Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician and scholar at Oxford, and he liked to play with logic puzzles and word games. Sometimes he would hide people’s names within poems or parts of the story by rearranging the letters of their names or using them as the beginning of lines in a poem, as an acrostic. There is an acrostic poem which is dedicated to Alice Liddell, the real girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland. This poem is printed as part of some editions of Through the Looking Glass, including the one that I’m using. The acrostic poem also references Row, Row, Row Your Boat, which is apparently older although its origins aren’t completely certain. If you read down the beginning letters of the poem, you find out that Alice’s middle name was Pleasance.

The chess game in Through the Looking Glass is meant to be part of an actual chess game with real moves that can be mapped out on a board. The game and the moves in the story are explained in the preface of my copy of the book. Alice begins as a white pawn in the game, but when she reaches the other side of the board, she becomes a queen, which is part of the rules of chess – pawns that successfully reach the opponent’s side may be exchanged for other pieces. The colors of the chess pieces in Alice’s game are red and white instead of black and white because red and white are old traditional colors. Although black and white are common today, many different color combinations have been used, and the red and white combination dates back to the Middle Ages.

The story begins on the day before Guy Fawkes’ Night. (Alice has been watching the bonfire preparations out the window.) Alice is trying to wind some yarn, and her pet cat Dinah’s little black kitten keeps playing with it. Alice chastises the kitten, and then begins talking to the kitten about the way it was watching her play chess earlier in the day. Alice likes to play games of pretend, and she starts to pretend that the kitten is the red queen from the chess game. The kitten doesn’t cooperate in posing like the chess queen, so Alice holds it up to a looking-glass.

As they look in the mirror, Alice gets the idea of a “Looking-glass House” – a house on the other side of the mirror that can be reached by stepping through it. Alice starts to imagine what it would be like to enter the world on the other side of the mirror. She gets up on the mantle over the fireplace and steps through the mirror into the looking-glass house to see what is there.

Things in the looking-glass house are very strange. The clock and the pictures seem to be alive, and so are the chess pieces. Alice helps the pieces back onto their table after they’ve been knocked off, but they don’t seem to understand what has happened and are alarmed. Alice then picks up a book on the table near the chess board and reads the poem Jabberwocky, which is about the defeat of a horrible monster. The poem is written in backwards writing, and Alice has to hold it up to a mirror to read it. The poem is a nonsense poem that contains many made-up words, which are explained later on in the story.

Alice decides to see what is outside the house. She discovers that the flowers can talk to her, but they are rude and insulting. Then, Alice encounters the Red Queen, who has grown taller than she was in the house. (The flowers say that it’s because of all the fresh air outside.) The Red Queen is both commanding and contradictory, but she gives Alice directions to other “squares”, addressing her as a chess pawn.

Pawns get to move two squares on their first turn, so Alice gets to go by train. In the train carriage, Alice meets many strange characters, including a gentleman dressed in white, a Goat, a Beetle, and a Gnat, who keeps whispering in her ear and suggesting that she make jokes based on puns. Through the Gnat, Alice meets other strange insects, like the snap-dragon-fly, the rocking-horse-fly, and the bread-and-butterfly. The Gnat tells Alice that the creatures in the woods don’t have names, and when Alice goes through the woods, she temporarily forgets her name, getting it back again on the other side.

Soon after, Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Lewis Carroll didn’t invent these characters. They are nursery rhyme characters.) They ask Alice if she likes poetry, and they tell her the tale of The Walrus and the Carpenter. (This is one of the most-quoted poems in the Alice stories – many people remember the part where they “talk of many things” – “Shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings.”) At the end, Alice can’t decide which of the two characters she likes the best because both are sneaky and eat the oysters that trusted them, so she decides that she doesn’t like either of them. (Yeah, I can think of others stories where I’ve felt the same way.) Alice hears a strange sound, and they tell her that it’s the Red King snoring and that the Red King is actually dreaming about her right now. Tweedledum and Tweedledee insist that Alice isn’t a real person, only part of the Red King’s dream, and that she’d disappear if he were to wake up, which upsets Alice. Alice starts to cry, which she thinks is proof that she’s real, but they claim that those aren’t real tears. Finally, Alice decides that they’re just talking nonsense and that there’s no point in crying over it. Tweedledum and Tweedledee want to have a battle (as in their poem), but a large crow interrupts them and frightens them away by producing a great wind.

Alice catches hold of a shawl that was being blown away by the wind and returns it to its owner, the White Queen. The White Queen speaks very strangely, and she says that it’s an effect of living backwards. Because she lives backwards, her memory works both ways, and she can remember things that haven’t happened yet. The White Queen screams with pain before she pricks her finger, so she doesn’t have to do it again after her finger is hurt. Alice cries when she talks about how lonely she is in the woods, and the White Queen distracts her by telling her to consider things because no one can think of two things at once (which is true). The White Queen talks about considering and believing impossible things (sometimes she believes “six impossible things before breakfast” – one of the most famous lines that is often quoted from this story).

As Alice asks the White Queen if her finger is better, she suddenly and inexplicably finds herself in a shop and talking to a sheep, who asks her what she wants to buy. Alice tries to look around, and the Sheep asks her if she’s a child or a teetotum (a kind of spinning top used in old games, sometimes by itself and sometimes as a replacement for dice or a spinner – dreidels are a kind of teetotum) because of the way she’s turning around. The Sheep is knitting and keeps picking up more needles to knit with. For awhile, the shop disappears, and Alice finds herself in a boat with the Sheep, but then the shop returns, and the Sheep asks her again what she wants to buy.

Alice decides to buy an egg, and the egg that she buys turns into Humpty Dumpty when she approaches it. Humpty Dumpty is a bit rude and insults Alice’s name because he doesn’t think it means anything. Alice mistakes Humpty Dumpty’s cravat for a belt because he’s egg-shaped and doesn’t have a true neck for wearing a tie. Humpty Dumpty reveals that the cravat was an un-birthday (a concept that Lewis Carroll invented) present from the White King and Queen. All through the conversation, Humpty Dumpty uses words in unusual yet strangely nit-picky ways, making words mean only what he wants them to mean in the moment. Because he’s so particular about the meanings of words, Alice asks Humpty Dumpty about all the strange words in the Jabberwocky poem, and he explains what the made-up words mean. Humpty Dumpty recites another poem for Alice that doesn’t seem to have a true ending and then abruptly dismisses her.

As Alice leaves, she meets the king with all of his horses and men (from the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme) and is introduced to one of his messengers. Alice is amused by the name and description of the messenger and starts playing a game of “I Love My Love” out loud with the messenger’s name. (The two messengers are called Haigha and Hatta and are shown looking like the March Hare and Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland in the illustrations.) The messenger informs the king that the lion and the unicorn are fighting for the crown again (another nursery rhyme reference). The king says that it’s all a joke because the crown is his and neither one of them is going to get it no matter which of them wins the fight.

The unicorn is amazed to meet Alice because he never knew that children were real before. As at the end of the rhyme, they are given plum cake, and they hand the dish to Alice for her to cut the cake. However, Alice finds that she can’t cut it, so they ask her to hand the cake around first and then cut it afterward, which surprisingly works.

After the others are drummed out of town, also as part of the rhyme, the Red Knight attempts to capture Alice, but the White Knight shows up to save her. The White Knight tells Alice all about his inventions, none of which make any sense, and sings her a song which apparently has several names and is set to the tune of a song Alice recognizes as “I give thee all, I can no more” (which is another name and the first line of the song which is really titled My Heart and Lute, which is part of the on-going joke about the song’s real name).

Then, Alice reaches the final square of the board and becomes a queen, finding a crown suddenly on her head. The Red Queen and the White Queen appear suddenly, and the Red Queen tells her that she must pass an examination before she can truly become a queen. The queens ask her a series of questions that are supposed to be math questions but are actually a combination of riddles and nonsense. Their general knowledge questions are a combination of nonsense and puns. Eventually, the Red Queen and White Queen both fall asleep to a parody of “Rock-a-bye Baby.”

Alice finds herself in front of a door labelled “Queen Alice,” but the old frog who comes to the door doesn’t seem to want to let her in. Alice enters anyway and sits next to the Red Queen and White Queen. They introduce her to the food being served at the feast, but they don’t actually allow her to have any because it isn’t polite to cut and serve something you’ve been introduced to, and the plum cake verbally protests when Alice tries to serve it anyway.

The White Queen tells Alice a riddle in poem form about fish. The riddle is never answered, but everyone drinks to Alice’s health. The Red Queen tells Alice that she should make a speech, and as she gets up, many strange things begin happening in the room. Alice thinks that the Red Queen is responsible and grabs hold of her, threatening to “shake her into a kitten.” Alice suddenly wakes up, holding her little black kitten.

Like in Alice in Wonderland, everything that Alice experienced was a dream. However, the end of the book poses the question of whether the dream was Alice’s or the Red King’s. The question is never answered; it’s just something to make the readers think. That’s actually what I like most about the Alice stories, that they are partly meant to make the reader think. The stories are somewhat disjointed and constantly changing, kind of like dreams do, but I appreciate all the references and parodies in the stories.

The book is now public domain and is easily available online through Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865.

The beginning of the story is famous. Alice is sitting with her sister (unnamed in the book, but probably based on Lorina because Lorina was older than Alice) by the river, and she is bored by the book that her sister is reading because there are no pictures or conversations. As Alice is sitting there drowsily, she suddenly spots a white rabbit who seems like he’s running late for something. Curious to see where he is going, Alice follows him and falls down a rabbit hole which is like a deep well.

It takes her a long time to fall (causing Alice to wonder if she’ll pop out on the other side of the world eventually), and when she reaches the bottom, she finds herself in a dark hallway with a small door that is too small for her to go through. She manages to shrink herself by drinking from a mysterious bottle that says “Drink Me,” but she forgets the key to the door on the table above her, so she has to make herself bigger by eating cake from a box labeled “Eat Me.” When Alice is big, she cries so much, worrying that she is no longer herself but someone else she would rather not be because so many strange things are happening, that she makes a sea of tears, and when she is small again, she has to swim.

She meets a mouse, who swims to shore with her, where they meet a bunch of other animals (including the Dodo), who all seem somehow familiar to Alice (probably because they’re all parodies of people Dodgson and the Liddells knew – A Lory (type of parrot) argues with Alice and tells her that it’s older than she is and “must know better” than she does – possibly another reference to Alice’s older sister Lorina).

Alice and all of the animals are wet, so they try to dry themselves. The Mouse begins telling a very dry history of England (ha, ha), but that’s not good enough. The Dodo suggests that they have a Caucus-race (Alice’s childish misunderstanding of certain words and concepts leads to some of the jokes and puns in the story) to dry themselves out, and they all start running in a circle. After awhile, they all stop, and since there is no obvious winner, the Dodo decides that everyone has won and that everyone should receive a prize. Alice gives all the animals pieces of candy from her pocket. Alice’s prize is her own thimble, which is the only other thing she has in her pocket.

The Mouse starts to tell a story about why it hates dogs and cats, but it gives up when Alice doesn’t pay attention and becomes confused. Then, Alice makes the mistake of mentioning her pet cat and how it likes to chase mice and birds, and all of the other animals become offended and leave. However, the White Rabbit appears and, apparently mistaking Alice for his maid, asks her to bring him his gloves and fan. Alice goes into his house to look for them. Finding another bottle like the first one, she drinks it and becomes so big that she gets stuck in the house. The White Rabbit and his friend, Bill the Lizard, become alarmed at her large arm sticking out of the window and talk about burning the house down. They throw pebbles at Alice which turn into cakes, and Alice eats them to become smaller.

Alice makes her escape from the house, distracting a puppy much larger than she is by throwing a stick, and meets a caterpillar, who is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah. The Caterpillar asks her to explain herself, but Alice says that she can’t because she isn’t really herself. Alice tells him that she keeps changes sizes and can’t remember things that she thinks she should remember. The Caterpillar asks her to recite the poem about Father William, and Alice recites Carroll’s parody version instead of the original poem. The Caterpillar agrees that Alice said the poem wrong. He asks Alice what size she would like to be and gets offended when Alice says that being only three inches tall is awful because that is the Caterpillar’s height. However, he does tell Alice that one side of the mushroom will make her taller and the other will make her shorter, not explaining which is which. Alice experiments with bits of mushroom until she finally becomes her normal size again. She keeps the mushroom pieces so that she can change size again, if she needs to. (Has anyone ever made a video game version of Alice in Wonderland where the player, as Alice, has to become bigger or smaller to get through different levels? If no one has, I think someone should.)

Alice soon makes herself small again so that she can go into a little house. Alice speaks to the footman of the house, who has just accepted an invitation for the Duchess to join the Queen for croquet. The footman rambles on about how there’s no use in Alice knocking because they’re both on the same side of the door and everyone inside is making too much noise to hear her. Not getting any straight answers about whether or not she’s allowed to go inside, Alice decides that the footman is an idiot and just lets herself in. The Duchess is sitting inside with a baby while her cook makes pepper soup. The Duchess’s cat, the Cheshire Cat, grins at Alice in a strange way. (The Cheshire cat comes from an expression that was popular in the 19th century – “grinning like a Cheshire cat” – although the origins of the phrase are uncertain. The Cheshire Cat wasn’t actually in the original version of the story.) Alice becomes alarmed when the cook begins throwing things at the Duchess and the baby, but the Duchess tells her to mind her own business. The Duchess is rough with the baby and throws it. Alice catches it and takes it away, worrying that the Duchess might kill it, but the baby turns into a pig, and Alice has to let it go. Alice thinks that it would have been a very ugly child and is better off as pig, which reminds her of other children she knows. (Ouch.)

Alice spots the Cheshire Cat and tries to ask it for directions. It directs her to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, telling her that they’re both mad. (These also come from old expressions, “mad as a hatter” and “mad as a March hare.”) Alice says that she doesn’t want to “go among mad people”, but the Cheshire Cat says that can’t be helped because everyone is mad here, including Alice, because she wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t. He says that he will see her later when she plays croquet with the Queen. Before the Cat vanishes completely, he asks her what happened to the baby, and when Alice says that it turned into a pig, the Cat says, “I thought it would.”

Alice ends up at the tea party that the March Hare and the Mad Hatter are having with the Dormouse. (This tea party also was not part of Carroll’s original version of the story.) Although they tell her there is no room at the table for her, Alice notes that it’s a big table with a lot of chairs, so she sits down, uninvited. The conversation is confused, and the Mad Hatter tells Alice a riddle without knowing the answer to it himself. Alice says that he’s wasting time, and the Mad Hatter says that Time won’t do anything he wants now because he was accused of “murdering the time” when he sang “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!” before the Queen of Hearts (he messed up with the timing of the song), and now it’s always six o’clock and always tea time (that’s when people, including the Liddells, used to have tea time when the story was written). This gives them no time to clean up between tea times, so they just keep moving around the table. Alice tries to ask them what they do when they get back to their original positions at the table, but the March Hare changes the subject. The Dormouse begins telling the story of the three sisters who lived at the bottom of the Treacle Well and were learning to draw things that begin with the letter ‘M’. (As the March Hare says, “Why not?”) Alice tries to ask questions, and starts to say, “I don’t think-” The Mad Hatter says, “Then you shouldn’t talk.” Alice gets offended and decides to leave.

She finds a door that takes her back to the hallway where she was in the beginning, and she is able to open the door that she couldn’t before, which leads her into a beautiful garden. There, she finds some playing cards painting the roses. It turns out that they accidentally planted white roses, and the Queen wants red ones, so they’re just painting the roses so she won’t find out. The King and Queen of Hearts enter the garden, and the Queen begins demanding to know who Alice is and who the cards are. Alice gives a flippant remark, and the Queen screams, “Off with her head!” (Which, I think, is about the third time in the story that someone has said that. The Duchess was the first.) The King points out that Alice is only a child. The Queen invites Alice to play croquet. The White Rabbit explains that the Duchess isn’t coming because she’s supposed to be executed for boxing the Queen’s ears.

In this game of croquet, the mallets are flamingos (ostriches in the original version) and the balls are hedgehogs. The card soldiers have to bend themselves to be the arches. Alice can’t control her flamingo or hedgehog, nobody waits for their turn, and the Queen keeps ordering people’s heads to be taken off. Alice is very worried, and when the Cheshire Cat appears, Alice tells him that nobody is playing fairly. She notices that the Queen is listening, so she comments that the Queen is likely to win, which pleases her. The King says that he doesn’t like the Cat and wants him removed. The Queen orders its execution, but the Cheshire Cat makes its body disappear. The executioner doesn’t know what to do because he’s used to removing heads from bodies and can’t deal with a bodiless head. Alice suggests asking the Duchess because it’s her cat.

The Duchess seems glad to see Alice, and as Alice’s mind wanders, the two of them have a discussion about what the moral of the situation is. (Victorian children’s books often had a moral to the story. All of the Duchess’s and Alice’s suggested morals are proverbs that don’t fit the situation at all or are parodies on popular sayings. “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves” is a parody of “Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.”) The croquet game continues until everybody has been arrested except for the King, Queen, and Alice.

The Queen asks Alice if she’s met the Mock Turtle yet (which is supposedly what mock turtle soup is made from). Alice hears the King pardon everyone who was arrested. The Queen orders the Gryphon to take Alice to the Mock Turtle, and the Gryphon tells her that nobody ever really gets executed when the Queen orders an execution – it’s all just the Queen’s fancy.

When the Gryphon introduces Alice to the Mock Turtle, the Mock Turtle explains that he used to be a real turtle. He talks about his youth and the lessons he had when he was young. (The “extras” that he and Alice describe – French, music, and washing – are a parody of British boarding schools at the time and a play of the word “extra.” These things were not provided as free “extras”, and of course, washing isn’t a lesson – they would cost extra at boarding school and the additional costs would be added on to the fees.) The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle describe the Lobster-Quadrille dance to Alice, demonstrating it (while singing a song that is a parody of The Spider and the Fly). They ask Alice about her adventures, and she tells them everything that’s happened to her so far. When she mentions not being able to recite poems correctly, they have her try another, and she recites “‘Tis the voice of the Lobster” instead of “The Sluggard” by Isaac Watts. The Mock Turtle sings “Turtle Soup”, which is a parody of the song “Star of the Evening” by James M. Sayles.

Then, they hear that a trial is beginning. It turns out that it’s a trial for the Knave of Hearts who stole the Queen’s tarts. During the trial, which is basically nonsense, Alice feels herself growing larger. She is called to give evidence, but because she is becoming too tall, she is told to leave the court. The King says that it’s Rule Forty-Two and is the oldest rule in the book, but Alice points out that the oldest rule should be Rule One. The White Rabbit presents a letter, supposedly written by the defendant, which is a nonsense poem. (This one is a shortened version of another nonsense poem by Carroll which loosely parodied the song “Alice Gray” and isn’t recognizably close to the original here.) The King and Queen try to figure out what the poem means, but Alice doesn’t think it means anything. The Queen wants to give the sentence first and the verdict afterward, and Alice says that’s nonsense and she doesn’t care what they think because they’re just a pack of cards. The cards come flying at her, and Alice wakes up.

Apparently, the entire adventure was a dream, and Alice feel asleep on the river bank with her sister. Alice tells her sister about the dream, and her sister is enchanted. Alice’s sister imagines Alice in years to come, telling other children the same story.

Alice in Wonderland has been made into movies many times, including the 1951 version by Disney (which didn’t contain the Duchess or the pig baby and had some elements from Through the Looking Glass, like the talking flowers and Tweedledum and Tweedledee). The story is considered public domain now and is easily available in multiple forms online, including versions on Project Gutenberg, Lit2Go, and Internet Archive.

Historical Background

The story of Alice in Wonderland is over 150 years old, as of this writing, and it has been reprinted in many different languages and editions. The edition that I’m using for this review is actually a combined edition with the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, from 1960 with added notes by Martin Gardner. I like editions with added notes because there is quite a lot to explain about both Lewis Carroll and his stories. This is going to be a very long review, and there are a number of things I want to explain before I even start summarizing the story.

Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, was actually a mathematician at Oxford in England. His modern reputation is somewhat dubious because one of his hobbies was photography, and among the pictures he took were pictures of children, including many in various states of undress, some nude or partially nude and some in nightgowns. Charles Dodgson never married and never had any children of his own, and his sexuality (or relative lack thereof, as some have also speculated) is debatable. He was known for being friendly with the children of many of his friends and colleagues, and he enjoyed spending time with them, talking to them, telling them stories, and teaching them things … and taking pictures of them. The parents of the children knew about the photographs, including the nude ones, and gave permission for them to be taken, even keeping copies themselves.

Scholars debate about Dodgson’s photographs and the intention behind them. Not all of the pictures feature children who are undressed; some are just wearing ordinary clothes and others are dressed in fanciful costumes, like characters from stories. However, the nude or partially nude pictures are troubling because the children in those pictures were not babies, like the ones in modern Anne Geddes photographs. By modern standards, there would be no innocent reason for taking pictures of unclothed children like that. However, some scholars point out that photography was a relatively new hobby at that time, and people were taking pictures of things and other people in ways that people wouldn’t now because they were so eager to try out this new technology. People were realizing that they could use photography to immortalize loved ones in ways that they never could before. (Look up 19th century post-mortem photography only if you’re not easily startled or disgusted.)

There is some evidence that Victorian people were not scandalized by the idea of nude photographs of children, perhaps considering them a preservation of a state of innocence that would gradually disappear as the children grew up, almost like how some people today still photograph nude babies. Dodgson wasn’t the only one taking pictures of nude children at the time, and he apparently did so with the full knowledge and approval of the children’s parents, giving them photographs to keep. On the other hand, without knowing Dodgson’s real intentions, it’s difficult to say whether or not these pictures were really as innocent as they were once supposed, and some people consider that Dodgson may have taken advantage of the innocence of both the children and parents involved for his own purposes. After his death, some of his relatives removed some of the pages in his diaries, censoring them before they could be made public, so it’s difficult to say what they removed and why. This censorship could have had something to do with his photography hobby and how he felt about it, or it could be unrelated, maybe covering up his romantic feelings for someone else or maybe personal or professional quarrels that might have proved embarrassing to people still alive at the time he died. Without the missing diary pages, there isn’t really much to go on, and the speculation is really just speculation.

Not what Alice Liddell really looked like.

One of the favorite child friends of Dodgson’s was Alice Liddell, one of the daughters of the ecclesiastical dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Dodgson often visited the Liddell family and took Alice and her sisters on outings. On one of their outings together, when he and a friend took the Liddell girls on a boating trip on the Thames, Alice begged Dodgson to tell a story, and he began making up the story that became Alice in Wonderland, making Alice herself the heroine. Dodgson was still friends with the Liddell family at that point, although he later had a falling out with the family for reasons that are still unknown. The reasons for the falling out were apparently part of the pages removed from his diary, and some people have speculated that Dodgson may have behaved improperly toward one or more of the girls, although that’s not the only possibility; Dodgson may have had a different type of romantic indiscretion at that time, possibly involving the children’s governess or Alice’s older sister Lorina, and he may have also quarreled with the dean over college politics. Dodgson was a contemporary of another famous author of children’s fantasy books, George MacDonald. (I’ll be talking about him more when I get to The Light Princess and The Princess and the Goblin.) The two of them were friends, and MacDonald was the one who urged Dodgson to publish Alice in Wonderland after his own children read it and liked it. (MacDonald’s children were also among the ones photographed by Dodgson.)

This Timeline documentary has more details about the history of Lewis Carroll and the Liddells and the controversies about Carroll’s photography. Overall, I think that probably the most accurate answer in the documentary to the question of what was really going on in Oxford in the mid-1800s is “Who knows?” Some people gave much more definite-sounding responses to the question, but there are equally vehement opinions that take completely opposite views of the situation, and with the obvious gaps in the available information, I don’t think that level of certainty is warranted. The documentary covers various viewpoints and ends with a photograph that is potentially damaging to Lewis Carroll’s reputation, one that would have been scandalous even in the Victorian era if it was really taken by Carroll (it wasn’t proven definitely, but the experts’ conclusions were that seems likely or at least credible, and its time period and quality are in keeping with Carroll’s work) because the subject of the photograph (possibly Lorina Liddell) would have been too old for the photograph to be considered “innocent” even back then. The girl in that photograph would have been above the minimum age of consent for her time but still below the age of consent for ours, making that photograph suspicious by everyone’s standards.

My Reaction

This is not sexy, Martin Grotjahn.

My theory about the issue? I kind of doubt that Carroll was a pedophile. Kind of. Partly, my reasoning is based on listening to and reading the different arguments on each side, and it seems to me that those who express doubt about the accusation have more concrete evidence to support their points (they reference other photographers who took pictures similar to Carroll’s, they discuss the age of consent in the Victorian era, they note inconsistencies in the reported ages of Carroll’s female friends, they provide details about different sources of information, etc.) than the people who insist that he “obviously” and “without doubt” was sexually attracted to little girls, who seem to be largely reactionary and make I statements like “I can’t believe” that there was anything innocent going on and “it makes me angry.” (Some of the people interviewed the Timeline Documentary speak like that.)

Between the two choices, I’d be more inclined to go with reasoned arguments and cited sources more than gut reactions. My reviews here on this site are full of my personal feelings and gut reactions on a number of topics because that is the nature of opinion-based reviews, but I’ve had training in evaluating historical sources and writing research papers. Feelings change over time, and you can’t cite gut reactions as evidence in a thesis paper. The first essay that postulated that Alice in Wonderland may contain sexual symbolism, written by A.M.E. Goldschmidt in the 1930s, may have actually been written as a parody of contemporary psycho-analysis, and some of the “obvious” sexual symbols cited in later essays and analysis make no sense to me. In 1947, a psychoanalyst named Martin Grotjahn said that the scene where Alice’s neck suddenly grows longer is a symbol “almost too obvious for words.” No, it’s really not. I had to sit and think for awhile about why a person with a giraffe-like neck would be considered sexy, and then, it occurred to me that he’s probably really thinking of a piece of male anatomy instead of a girl’s neck, which doesn’t make any sense for the context of the story. Even now, I’m still not completely sure if that’s what he’s really getting at, and if I have to ponder it that much, it’s not that “obvious.” It’s about as bad as all the “that’s what she said” jokes I’ve heard. Quite a lot of unrelated things can be made to sound raunchy if you add “that’s what she said” after them, and the more times you hear that, the more annoying and less funny that kind of joke becomes. When a scholar does something like that in literary criticism, I’ve noticed that people are reluctant to question it because they assume that the scholar knows something they don’t, but I really don’t understand that comment and I don’t mind saying that I don’t think it makes much sense.

Also, I can’t help but notice in the descriptions of Carroll’s interactions with the Liddell girls that he visited them in different locations and took them on outings in different locations and that they were in the company of different people during these visits. The Timeline documentary mentions that the children’s governess would have been with them, even if the parents weren’t, and on the day that he took them on the boat trip where he began composing Alice in Wonderland, they were accompanied by his friend, Robinson Duckworth. I’m not a specialist in Carroll’s life, but it isn’t clear to me, from their descriptions, whether or not he was ever completely alone with the girls or with any child in particular, with no other witnesses. He may have been, but it seems to me from others’ descriptions that they were often chaperoned by different people. If some form of abuse or suspicious behavior were going on, it would be more difficult to evade or fool multiple witnesses. In 1932, when Alice was 80 years old, she went to New York to receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University for her participation in the creation of a piece of iconic children’s literature and to take part in a centennial celebration of Dodgson’s birthday. I would think that if she had bad memories of Dodgson, she would have been less likely to take such a long journey at her advanced age in order to attend this celebration. On the other hand, that’s still just a guess of mine, and the suspicions about Dodgson, now raised, really can’t be proven either way. It still remains a possibility, and that’s why I only “kind of” think that Dodgson’s intentions might have been innocent.

In the end, I don’t have a firm theory so much as a conclusion: if you need to have definite answers, without debate, qualification, or reservation, in order to acquire knowledge, history probably isn’t your field. My first degree was in history, and I’ve noticed so many times that people discount historians and historical knowledge because the field doesn’t make firm, definite statements on many debatable aspects of history like this, and times when historians and private individuals have tried, they have often been proven wrong in some respect. However, that’s exactly the point: serious, professional historians don’t make definite statements unless and until they have definite proof because they know that there’s always a chance that they could be proven wrong at a later date when new information surfaces. It’s happened before, so true professionals are usually cautious. It’s not that they don’t know anything, it’s just that they’re aware of the limits of their knowledge, and they are careful in how they present what they really know in order to prevent people from drawing the wrong conclusions too quickly. It would be irresponsible to tell people that something is definitely true when the circumstances aren’t definite, so instead, they tell people about the information they know they have and the things are “possible,” “likely,” or “probable,” which irritates people who expect definite answers from experts. We know some things, and we also are aware of what we don’t know and what pieces we’re missing, which is also very important.

It doesn’t matter so much in modern times that we can’t completely prove Dodgson/Carroll’s intentions regarding his photography one way or the other as that we understand that the controversy exists. Without the diary pages, which would have been proof of his thoughts and intentions (and which were probably destroyed long ago), the most we could say is that the photographs suggest a possibility. Because, as scholars have pointed out, Dodgson wasn’t the only person who took photographs of children like that without apparently causing scandal, I wouldn’t say that it’s “definite” that his behavior or intentions were inappropriate. The final photograph in the documentary above is bad, but because they never proved definitely that he made it, I’d hesitate to call it “probable,” even though it seemed to me that the documentary makers were fishing for that so they could have a compelling revelation for their documentary. I don’t know for certain whether Charles Dodgson was or was not a pedophile, but I do know that it’s possible that he may have been one or at least had feelings or urges in that direction. There are enough indications that it remains possible, even though it’s unprovable. If you’re okay accepting as fact that an idea is “possible,” but probably not “probable” and certainly not “certain” … you could do well studying history, and just getting through my explanation (if you managed all that) means that you’re more than ready to tackle the logic puzzles of Alice in Wonderland. They’re kind of like that when you turn them around in your head.

Parodies, In-Jokes, and Literary References

There are a couple of things that are easier to prove about Alice in Wonderland than whether or not Lewis Carroll may have been attracted to the real Alice, and these more easily provable aspects of the story are what make it particularly interesting for me. First, parts of the Alice stories are actually parodies of popular stories and rhymes from the 19th century. Dodgson/Carroll particularly liked to poke fun at didactic stories and rhymes that were used to teach children useful lessons and morals. He liked to twist those more serious stories and rhymes into things that were basically nonsense. Modern readers are more likely to focus on the nonsense and less likely to notice the parodies in the Alice stories because they are not familiar with the original rhymes and stories being parodied, as the original readers of these books would have been. The original readers would have known immediately what he was making fun of. For example, “How Doth the Little Crocodile” is a parody on “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts, which is about the importance of using time well. “You are Old, Father William” or “Ballad of Father William” is a parody on “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” by Robert Southey, which gives advice to the young about how to behave so that they may enjoy a happier old age. These types of poems would have been given to Victorian children as something to read and memorize during their lessons, and so they would have noticed that Carroll was poking fun at them. That’s why I like editions of the Alice books that come with extra notes, pointing out the parodies and original references, so I can be in on the joke. On the other hand, modern readers will have no trouble recognizing the source of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat” as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “The Star” by Jane Taylor (first published in 1806, although modern readers think of it as the song instead of the poem, and not all of them know all the verses). It’s pretty common throughout history for bored students to make jokes about the things that they’re required to learn in their lessons, and many of these poems are old enough for Carroll himself to have learned them when he was a student. It’s possible that he may have started playing with parodies of his school lessons or popular songs long before he started writing Alice in Wonderland, although that’s just my personal guess, based on my own school years. I did things like that, and some of my friends did, too. (People older than me also remember On Top of Spaghetti and Joy to the World, the School Burned Down – not Carroll parodies and much cruder than his work, but examples of the way kids can twist things that are commonly known for the amusement of their friends.)

The second important point about the Alice stories is that they are full of puzzles, riddles, and word games. Remember that Lewis Carroll /Charles Dodgson was really a mathematician and scholar, and he liked to play with logic puzzles and word games. There are a lot of puns in Alice in Wonderland, some of which reference places in and around Oxford, like the Treacle Well where three sisters supposedly live – Lacie (anagram of Alice), Elsie (her older sister was Lorina Charlotte – L.C. Liddell), and Tillie (her younger sister Edith’s nickname). Alice in Wonderland is full of inside jokes, riddles, and puns like this. There are many in-jokes for people who are familiar with places in Oxford, and there are many in-jokes that Dodgson and the girls had with each other. Some of the strange characters in Wonderland are apparently parodies of people that Dodgson and the Liddells actually knew. Dodgson himself explained that he is the Dodo in the story. Dodgson spoke with a stutter, and when he would introduce himself to people, his name would often come out, “Do-Do-Dodgson.” “Dodo” Dodgson was an in-joke that the Liddells would have recognized.

Part of the trouble with analyzing Alice in Wonderland is that it’s possible to take it too far. Some of the parodies are obvious to people who are familiar with 19th century literature and poetry, and the references to places in Oxford are noticeable to people who are familiar with Oxford, but there are so many in-jokes in the story that might not be possible for modern readers to understand them all because we might not know all the in-jokes that Dodgson and the Liddells had with each other. So many strange and surreal things happen in the story that it’s possible to read too much into all of it. Some of it may have simply been meant to be silly references to other stories that Dodgson told the children before Alice’s story, long-standing in-jokes, or random silliness, and may not have any deeper meaning than that. When I read other reviews and analysis of the stories, I sometimes get the feeling like the critics are trying too hard, reaching and reading too much into everything. There’s a lot to enjoy about the story just as it is, without over-analyzing it to death, looking for hidden psychology that might not actually be there because a major part of it was based on parody and in-jokes in the beginning. If you want to spend some time appreciating the logic puzzles and word play and comparing the parody poems to their originals, that’s fine, but it’s also fine to just enjoy the book for the imaginative nonsense. It’s a long, strange trip, and I think it’s perfectly okay to just sit back and enjoy.

Note About the Illustrations and Original Version

Something else I’d like to mention before starting on the story itself is that the Alice who is depicted in the classic illustrations is not actually the original Alice Liddell. The illustrated Alice is a blond girl, but Alice Liddell was a brunette with shorter hair. Lewis Carroll apparently suggested that the illustrator use a picture of Mary Hilton Badcock as the model for the book illustrations, and Mary Hilton Badcock did look similar to the finished illustrations, although it’s also possible that the illustrator used a different child with a similar appearance as his model.

Also, the story as Carroll originally wrote it was called Alice’s Adventures Underground. Carroll did his own illustrations in the original version, showing Alice more like the real Alice, and there were a number of differences in the story. For example, in the original version, the White Rabbit drops a nosegay of flowers, which Alice smells, and that causes her to shrink, something that didn’t happen in the later version. If you want to read the original, it’s available through Project Gutenberg.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann, retold by Anthea Bell, 1816, 1987.

The reason for the two dates of this book is that the original Nutcracker story was written by a German writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, in 1816, as the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Some places, including the back of this book note different publishing dates for the original story because it was published more than once during the 1810s, as part of different story collections. This article gives more details about the original version of the story and different publications. Since then, it has been retold many times and in many different forms, including the famous ballet based on the story. In ballets and plays, the name of the heroine is often Clara, but in this picture book, as in the original story, the heroine’s name is Marie.

In the beginning of the book, which is set in the 19th century, Marie and her brother Fritz, are opening their Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. (The book explains that opening presents on Christmas Eve is a German tradition. A friend in Germany also explained that to me once because, in Germany, presents are supposedly brought by the Christ Child, not by Santa Claus. Since then, I’ve read that explanation may vary, depending on whether the household is Catholic or Protestant.) The children receive many wonderful presents, including a toy castle from their godfather, Mr. Drosselmeier. Marie’s favorite present is a nutcracker that looks like an odd little man. When Fritz is too rough with the nutcracker and breaks it, Marie takes care of it.

Marie stays up late, and when she finally puts the nutcracker away at midnight, she is astonished to see an army of mice coming out of the floorboards. The leader of the mouse army is the Mouse King, who has seven heads. The Nutcracker leads an army of toys against the mouse army. The mouse army appears to be winning, so, to save the Nutcracker, Marie takes off her shoe and throws it at the mice. Then, her arm hurts, and she apparently faints.

When Marie wakes up, she is in her own bed, and her mother tells her that she apparently put her arm through the glass door of the toy cabinet, cutting herself badly. When Marie tries to tell her mother about the battle between the toys and the mice, her mother and the doctor think that she’s ill and confine her to her bed for a few days. Mr. Drosselmeier repairs the Nutcracker and returns it to Marie, telling her the reason why nutcrackers look so strange and ugly, calling it The Tale of the Hard Nut.

Year ago, there was a royal banquet given by the King and Queen who were the parents of Princess Pirlipat. A mouse who claimed to be the queen of Mousolia demanded some food from the banquet as the Queen was preparing it. The King was angry that the mouse took some of the food and wanted revenge. The King asked his Court Watchmaker, who was also named Drosselmeier, to build some mousetraps to catch the mouse queen’s seven sons. When the sons were caught, the mouse queen vowed that she’d take her revenge on Princess Pirlipat. Princess Pirlipat was a pretty baby, but the mouse queen turned her ugly. The King took out his anger on the Court Watchmaker, ordering him to find a way to change Princess Pirlipat back to normal and threatening to behead him if he failed. After consulting the Court Astronomer, the Court Watchmaker learned that the key to breaking the spell on the princess was a special nut, which had to be cracked by being bitten by a man who filled certain special requirements, which all happened to be met by the son of the Watchmaker’s dollmaker cousin. The King had promised that the person who could break the spell could marry his daughter, but the mouse queen interrupted the last part of the ritual, causing the young cousin to turn ugly himself. When pretty Princess Pirlipat saw her rescuer turn ugly, she didn’t want to marry him anymore. The Court Astronomer said that the only way to break the spell on the young man was for him to defeat the new Mouse King – the mouse queen’s youngest son – and for him to find a woman who would love him regardless of his appearance.

Marie knows that the story is true because she has seen the Mouse King herself. She loves the Nutcracker and wants to help him. The Nutcracker returns to visit Marie during the night and makes repeated demands of her for her candy and toys. Marie knows that, no matter what she gives him, the Mouse King will keep returning to demand something else. The Nutcracker tells her that he needs a sword to fight the Mouse King. They borrow one from a toy soldier, and the Nutcracker successfully defeats the Mouse King, giving Marie his seven golden crowns.

As a reward for helping him, the Nutcracker takes Marie to the land where he is from, leading her there through a magic staircase in an old wardrobe. The Nutcracker’s land is beautiful, filled with candy and sweets and gold and silver fruit. (The Christmas Wood that they pass through reminds me of the woods in the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) The Prince Nutcracker’s home is Marzipan Castle in Candy City, where his beautiful princess sisters live. They welcome Marie and the Nutcracker home.

Then, suddenly, Marie wakes up, as if it were all a dream. However, Marie knows that it wasn’t a dream because she still has the Mouse King’s crowns. Marie tells the Nutcracker that she loves him. There is a sudden bang, and Marie faints. When she wakes up, she is told that Mr. Drosselmeier’s nephew has come to visit them. The nephew is the Nutcracker, restored to human form and now a handsome young man, thanks to Marie’s love. Marie later marries the nephew, and the two of them rule magical Kingdom of Sweets.

There is a section in the back of the book that explains a little more about E.T.A. Hoffmann and the original version of the Nutcracker story.

This book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive.

Book of Enchantments

Book of Enchantments by Patricia C. Wrede, 1996.

This is a collection of short fantasy stories, some of them based on other writings and series by the same author.  Many of them are also humorous. There is a section in the back of the book that explains the stories behind the stories and how they relate to her other works.

The stories included in this book:

Rikiki and the Wizard – A greedy wizard, unsatisfied with his success in life, attempts to summon a god to make him even more wealthy and famous so that he will never be forgotten. In exchange, he offers his daughter in marriage to the god who will help him.  Most of the gods recognize the wizard’s greedy and selfish purposes and refuse to cooperate, but Rikiki, the blue chipmunk god, is rather absent-minded and shows up to answer the summons. However, Rikiki, although having the powers of a god, is mostly obsessed with finding nuts, and how he interprets the wizard’s wishes (in exchange for the nuts the daughter feeds him, not for marrying the daughter) technically fulfill the requests but not in the way that the wizard had hoped.

The Princess, the Cat, and the Unicorn – This story takes place in The Enchanted Forest from one of the author’s series.  Things don’t go as expected for fairy tales in the fairy tale kingdom of Oslett, and it often bothers the king’s councilors.  Even though the princesses of the kingdom have a stepmother, she is a very kind and motherly person instead of the wicked stepmother usually found in folktales, and the princesses love her.  The princesses even get along well with each other instead of having the usual rivalries and jealousies between the oldest princesses and their pretty younger sister.  The middle princess, Elyssa, gets tired of being nagged about what the councilors think she should do and says that she’d like to go out and seek her fortune.  It’s not usually a thing for the middle princess to do, but well in keeping with what goes on in their kingdom.  She is accompanied on her journey by a talking cat who directs her to The Enchanted Forest, where the stuff of fairy tales happens.  There, the princess must escape the clutches of a vain unicorn, who is looking for a princess to adore it, and help the cat, who is not quite what he seems.

Roses by Moonlight – A modern retelling of The Prodigal Son story in a modern setting and with sisters instead of brothers and a fantasy twist.  Adrian is jealous of the party that her family is giving for her sister Samantha, the prodigal daughter returned.  As she sulks outside, her mother talks to her about her sister and the choices people make in life and enigmatically says that, while she is satisfied with her own choices and life, it occurs to her now that there may have been other choices that she had never considered before.  Instead of asking Adrian to come back inside and try to enjoy Samantha’s party, she asks her to stay outside for a while and see if someone shows up, mysteriously adding that if she is offered a choice, she should be careful and not choose too quickly.  Adrian does indeed meet a strange woman who offers her the choice of her destiny.  In a magical rose garden, Adrian may pick a rose which will represent the course that her life will take.  She is allowed to smell each one first and see what they have to offer.  Given the choice of any possible future, what will she choose?

The Sixty-Two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd – Also in A Wizard’s Dozen.

Earthwitch – A king whose kingdom is besieged appeals to the Earthwitch for help. He learns that the current Earthwitch is his former lover, and while the magic of the earth can help solve his problem, it will cost him to use it.

The Sword-Seller – A strange merchant gives a swordsman a free sword at a fair and recommends a woman to him who needs to hire a swordsman to accompany her on a journey to see her aunt, apparently fleeing problems with her other relatives. Her other relatives seem to behave oddly about the journey, and the swordsman isn’t sure why. He agrees to take the job and discovers the real reason why the merchant was willing to give him the sword.

The Lorelei – On a class trip, a girl has to save her classmate from the call of the Lorelei.

Stronger Than Time – This story is about what would have happened if the prince had been killed before rescuing Sleeping Beauty.

Cruel Sisters – A retelling of an old folk tale about jealous sisters, one of which evidently killed the other.  The story is told from the point of view of their other sister.

Utensile Strength – The last story in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. When an enchanter makes a mistake while trying to make a magical weapon and accidentally casts the spell on a frying pan, the king and queen of the Enchanted Forest hold an unusual tournament of warriors to find the person who is destined to wield this very strange but powerful weapon.  The story is followed by the winning recipe from the cooking portion of the tournament, Quick After-Battle Triple Chocolate Cake.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Magician’s Ward

Magician’s Ward by Patricia C. Wrede, 1998.

This is the sequel to Mairelon the Magician.  When the book begins, it has been about a year since Kim and Mairelon’s previous adventures.  Kim has been living with Mairelon as his apprentice, and he has been teaching her both reading and magic.  (In the previous book, Kim was living on the streets of early 19th century London.  She did not know how to read, and at the end of the previous book, she learned that she had the ability to become a wizard, prompting Mairelon to take her on for training.)  Although Kim enjoys spending time with Mairelon and appreciates what he’s teaching her, other aspects of life with Mairelon’s wealthy family are less appealing.  Kim gets bored reading by herself while Mairelon continues his work with the Royal College of Wizards, and Mairelon’s aunt, Mrs. Lowe, is trying to turn Kim into a proper young lady.  The pressures of the social niceties and obligations wear on Kim, and even more worryingly, Mrs. Lowe has been considering Kim’s marriage prospects.

In order to be socially-acceptable, Mrs. Lowe thinks that Kim should be considering a socially-acceptable marriage for her future.  For most of her life, marriage was about the last thing on Kim’s mind.  She spent most of her youth pretending to be a boy in order to be safer on the streets.  Since she became Mairelon’s apprentice, the challenges of reading and magic have occupied most of her time.  When Mrs. Lowe brings up the subject of marriage, the idea seems ridiculous to Kim.  With her poor background, she can’t imagine what kind of “respectable” man would want to marry her, and she can’t imagine anyone among the upper-class people of London she would want to marry.  However, she sees Mrs. Lowe’s point that she won’t be able to stay Mairelon’s apprentice and ward forever.  At some point, she will need to decide what to do once her training with Mairelon is complete.  It’s a little worrying to her that Mairelon (known to most people by his real name, Richard Merrill) hasn’t discussed the future with her and doesn’t seem to be making any plans.

Then, one night, Kim overhears someone breaking into the library in their house.  At first, Kim can’t imagine what someone would want in the library.  She interrupts the thief, and he manages to escape.  After colliding with her in the hallway, the thief leaves behind one of his buttons and a small piece of wood that seems to be magic.  When Mairelon examines the wood, he says that it appears that someone stored a spell inside it temporarily, to be used by someone else.  Also, whoever put the spell together didn’t do a very good job and probably didn’t really know what they were doing.

As for what the thief was looking for in the library, Mairelon discovers that he was particularly looking through a collection of books that his father purchased years ago from a French wizard who had come to England after fleeing the French Revolution.  In particular, the thief seems to be trying to obtain the memory book that belonged to the wizard’s wife.  A memory book is exactly what it sounds like – a book that that keeper would carry around with him or her and use to record certain things that he or she would particular want to remember, a little like a journal but often containing bits of important instructions, like notes about favorite recipes or cold remedies (not necessarily the entire recipe, just general reminder notes) or, in the case of a wizard, notes about important spells.

As they investigate further, they learn that the wizard and his wife were part of a larger society of wizards in France before the Revolution and that someone has been trying acquire all of their old books and notes to learn the secret of one of their spells, specifically a spell for sharing magical power.  The person who wants this knowledge has a nefarious purpose for it, and when Mairelon tries to interfere with his plans, he uses the knowledge he has acquired to block Mairelon’s own magic!  This spell and its power-hungry master has already harmed other magicians, and now, Mairelon is in danger, too.

Meanwhile, Mairelon and his family have decided that, in order for Kim to truly be accepted in society, she must have a coming out party.  The mystery and intrigue of the story mix with Kim’s new lesson in dancing, fashion, and social etiquette and the unexpected attention that she receives from young men as she begins truly mingling with the upper classes of society.  Part of the mystery actually does involve the tensions between social classes, social mobility, and the extent to which birth and natural ability influence both.  As Kim discovers that she is more acceptable in society and desirable to at least some of the upper-class young men, she also finds herself becoming jealous of the attention that Mairelon receives from young women in search of a good husband.

Like the first Mairelon book, this one is a nice mixture of mystery, fantasy, history, and comedy of manners.  Both of the Mairelon books are a fun mixture of intrigue and humor, and this one also has a nice romantic element as Kim realizes that the only man she could ever see herself marrying is Mairelon.  He’s eccentric and sometimes aggravating, but she loves him, and he has loved her all along, from the time when she was just a thief in the marketplace to her beginnings as a wizard and her transformation into a young lady. The book ends with Kim and Mairelon engaged to be married, and I’m sorry to say that there are no more books in the series after that. I really wish that there were because I think that there’s a lot more room for character development.

The villain’s plot in this book hinges on the earlier established principle that wizards are born, not made.  Only certain people have the ability to use magic.  For some people, like Kim, the ability to use magic can lift them to higher positions in life, and it can be a source of real power.  For a person who is unable to use magic, there aren’t as many options.  The villain in this book thinks that he’s found a way around the problem, but as Mairelon guessed from the first, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

Even though this book has been a favorite of mine for years, I noticed something this time that hadn’t really occurred to me before.  Mairelon’s aunt and mother in the book look at fashion and social obligations in a similar manner to people in high society and the business and legal professions (categories that overlap) in modern society, whereas Mairelon, who is considered pretty eccentric for a man of his family’s social standing, and other wizards seem to look at fashion and social obligations more like modern day academics, engineers, computer programmers, and other tech experts (at least, the ones I know because those are the kind of circles I tend to move in).  Within each of these categories, some of these characters are more knowledgeable about fashion or more socially adroit or intuitive, but I noticed that there are two basic schools of thought going on here.  For the high society types, fashion is essential and social activities are their main focus in life because that is how they build their connections, make the best possible marriage matches, gain support from others, and generally move up the social scale, always aiming to do a little better that they did before or set the stage for their children to move up.  For the wizards and academic types, fashion and social obligations are of secondary importance because what makes the biggest difference in their lives is knowledge and skill.  They even say that wizards are always considered socially acceptable because of their abilities and professional standing.  Because of that, they’re socially allowed some eccentricities in personal habits and dress, and many of them take those liberties as much as possible because most of them are kind of socially introverted and prefer either the privacy of their own studies or the company of others who share their professions and interests. 

At first, Mairelon doesn’t do much about Kim’s social education because it is not a subject that’s important to him and he knows that she can go pretty far in the field of magic by putting most of her efforts into building her magical skills.  However, what Mairelon’s mother and aunt try to impress upon both Mairelon and Kim is that they both need some social skills in order to function in wider society.  This is kind of like how tech experts may have some great ideas for creating new software or a new form of online business, but in order to get their ideas off the ground, they have to have some business knowledge or connections.  Wizards may be allowed to be a little less social or more eccentric than other people, and it’s generally understood and expected, but they do much better if they learn to balance their preferences with society’s expectations.  Because the people who normally occupy high society love the latest fashions and attending prestigious social events, they can’t understand why other people don’t. As the story says, they would leap to the assumption that a wizard, who is always acceptable in society, would naturally want to participate in society, and if the wizard didn’t, it must be that they are either not really a wizard or at least not a good one.  In other words, they would assume that something was wrong with the person or their skills, not recognizing that their choices are simply a matter of personal taste.  In order for Kim and Mairelon to truly rise in their professions, they also have to learn to manage their social obligations.

In the book, Renee is an example of a character who has learned this type of social, professional, and personal balance.  She is a wizard, and as a single female, is regarded as something of an eccentric, but she understands that social skills are important.  She is a longtime friend of Mairelon’s, and she lectures him somewhat on his social obligations and acts as something of a big sister/fashion mentor to Kim, along with Mairelon’s female relatives.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Seven-Day Magic

SevenDayMagic

Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager, 1962.

John and Susan are brother and sister, living in a perfectly ordinary town in Connecticut. They are tall, good-looking, and good in school and at sports, so they are generally popular and are often chosen for positions like class president. However, their home life is unusual because they are orphans who live with their grandmother, who sometimes requires them to look after her as much as she looks after them. Their grandmother isn’t very strong, but she is spirited and is sometimes tempted to do things that she probably shouldn’t do at her age, like climbing trees. Because John and Susan feel like they have to look after their grandmother, it’s sometimes difficult for them to get out and do some of the things that other children their age are doing, like going to parties. They’re glad when Barnaby and his sisters move to a house nearby because they make life more exciting.

SevenDayMagicChildren

Barnaby and his sisters, Abigail (called Abbie) and Fredericka, become friends with John and Susan. Their father is a singer in advertisements, and their mother is a realtor. Because their parents work a lot to make ends meet, the children are often left to their own devices.  Barnaby is opinionated, stubborn, and sometimes hot-tempered, which causes him to get into fights at school, but John likes him because he’s imaginative and full of interesting ideas.

Barnaby wants to be a writer. He’s secretly writing a story of his own, and he encourages the others to read more. Before meeting Barnaby, John hardly read anything at all, and Susan was mostly into the Sue Barton books, about a young woman who becomes a nurse (a real series that was popular in the mid-20th century, realistic fiction). Barnaby introduces them to a whole new world of fantasy stories, full of adventure. One day, while visiting the library together, the children talk about the kinds of stories that they like and wish that they could find a really good book full of magic and kids that are like themselves. Their wish comes true in a peculiar way.

On impulse, Susan checks out a rather worn-looking book with a red cover, not really knowing what it’s about but thinking that it just looked kind of interesting. The librarian seems a little uneasy when she takes it and warns her that she can only keep that particular book for seven days, which is surprising because that’s the limit usually imposed on new books, not old ones.

On the way home, the children show each other what they got and read parts of their books aloud to each other. When Susan opens the red book, they are all startled to find out that the book is about them. It starts out just like the real life book and tells about their lives and backgrounds and has their conversation about books they like, word-for-word. The children can tell that this is a magic book, but even while the idea is thrilling, it makes them uneasy. There is nothing written beyond their conversation about books, and the book won’t let them turn pages to see what might come next or how their story will end.

As much as the children like the idea of being the stars of their own magical book, it’s worrying. They don’t know what they’re in store for, and they even worry briefly that maybe their entire lives are fictional, that they might just exist in someone’s imagination, although they don’t really believe that because they can remember their lives before the story began. Barnaby points out that the book specifically mentions that he and his sisters recently moved to the area, but he remembers having lived elsewhere before that.

The children carefully consider everything they had originally wished for in a book: that children, just like themselves, would be walking home from somewhere and a magical adventure would start before they even realized that it was happening and that they would have to figure out the rules of the magic in order to use it for their own purposes. Since the first part of their wish has literally (very literally) come true, they decide that they’re going to have to figure out what the rules of this magic are before they decide what to do next. Since looking ahead in the book seems to be against the rules, they decide that they will have to be very careful about anything they wish for next because their wishes seem to be what writes the story, and they need to discuss it first and come to an agreement about it.

SevenDayMagicDragon

Unfortunately, little Fredericka (the youngest of the children) is too impatient for discussion and immediately wishes for an adventure with wizards, witches, and magic, and she wants it to start right away so that they’ll know that the magic is really working. A minute later, a dragon suddenly appears and scoops up Fredericka, flying away with her!

The others try to figure out where the dragon came from, and it turns out that a stage magician who lives nearby was practicing his act at the time that Fredericka made her wish. When she wished for a magical adventure, the rabbit that the magician was supposed to pull out of his hat turned out to be a dragon. The magician, The Great Oswaldo, is mystified, but he’s destined to play the part of Fredericka’s requested wizard. The children ask him to help them, and he says he’ll try, although he’s not sure how.

As Oswaldo tries various tricks in his magic supplies, they don’t work in the way they usually do. Finally, he is able to make his landlady’s house fly after the dragon, much to the landlady’s horror (she’s cast in the role of the witch in Fredericka’s story). In the magical land where the dragon lives, the peasants inform them that the dragon is always carrying off girls and young women to eat them, and they have to think of something fast before Fredericka becomes his next meal!

This is where the children discover that the contents of the magical book change depending on who reads it. When the magician reads it, it’s full of magic spells. When the landlady, Mrs. Funkhouser, takes it from him, it has household hints. For the dragon, it’s all about dragons. Surprisingly, it’s Mrs. Funkhouser’s household hints that save the day, although it’s Oswaldo who gets most of the credit because one of his pet cats eats the dragon after Mrs. Funkhouser shrinks it.

Oswaldo and Mrs. Funkhouser decide to stay in the magic land (which the children think might actually be Oz, in its early days), where they are hailed as heroes, sending the children home by themselves with the help of Mrs. Funkhouser’s vanishing cream. As expected, this adventure is now written in the magic book when the children have another look at it (although Fredericka argues that the illustrations don’t really do her justice).

SevenDayMagicCoin

Susan, as the borrower of the book, says that she wants their next adventure to be calmer, the kind of everyday magic that just creeps up on you. This is the part of the story where it crosses over with the events in Half Magic (another book in the same series as this one). In these children’s world, Half Magic is a fictional book that they’ve read and liked. Susan’s requested adventure picks up where Half Magic left off, explaining what happened after the other four children (Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha) left their magic coin to be discovered by a new owner. Susan and her friends delight in explaining to the young girl who found the coin what it does. The girl says that she had thought that the coin might be magic, but was confused because she didn’t get her wish to go into the future and meet some other children. Because the coin only grants wishes by halves (interpreting that pretty liberally), Susan and her friends (who live in the future), came to meet her instead.

Once again (as is common in this series), it leaves the matter of what is fiction and what is reality open to question. Was it the girl’s wish that brought the other children to her, or their wish that took them into her story? Or Both? Was that fantasy story secretly real, or are Susan and her friends more fictional than they like to think? The author likes posing questions like this, but of course, you never completely know the answers, and in some ways, it hardly matters because the adventure doesn’t require anyone’s understanding for them to take place, which is something that, ironically, it has in common with real life – things frequently happen regardless of whether or not you understand the reasons why. Sometimes, figuring out how things work and to deal with them is about all you can do, never getting the complete “why” behind everything.  That’s pretty much how all the stories in this series go.

After the children explain to the girl what the coin is and how it’s supposed to work, she makes a more careful, doubled wish to go to the future with the other children. Unfortunately, when they get there, she panics when she realizes that she forgot to bring her one-year-old baby brother with her and makes a hurried half-wish for him to be there, too.   Because she didn’t wish right, what she gets is her brother at the age he would be in the other children’s time (about age 37) but still mentally the baby he was back in 1924 (the girl’s time). The “baby” is amazed when he realizes that suddenly he can walk and talk much better than he could before and that he’s suddenly much bigger and stronger than he used to be. He gets hold of the coin and refuses to give it back, telling his little “big” sister that he can do what he wants now, not what she tells him to do. Noting that he can even pick her up and carry her around now, he does that, with the others chasing after him to get the charm and bring him under control. (A somewhat similar incident, where a baby grows up too fast and is dangerously immature, happens in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It – another instance of Edward Eager playing off her books.)

It’s chaos for awhile because a 37-year-old man who acts like a 1-year-old can’t help but attract attention, especially when he gets it into his head that he wants to drive a train. Eventually, they get the “baby” back under control and to his proper age, allowing his sister to take him back to their own time and plan her future adventures with the coin.

Then, Susan and John’s grandmother gets hold of the book, and it takes her and her grandchildren back in time, to when the grandmother was a young woman working as a prairie schoolteacher. Susan makes a wish for the other children to join them, and they help their grandmother and her students to survive a sudden blizzard. They come to appreciate their grandmother’s youthful personality and formidable spirit even more from the experience. They even get to meet their grandfather, who died before they were born, seeing him rescue their grandmother and her students when he was a young man.

SevenDayMagicPlaywright

Then, Abbie decides that she wants to try to help her father’s singing career. He typically has to work long hours and never makes very much money, just being part of the chorus on advertisements. She thinks things will be so much better if they can help him to be discovered as a great talent. The others are kind of doubtful about her plan because the book seems to send them on rather “bookish” adventures, related to other stories they’ve read or people’s memories, like in their grandmother’s case because her early life actually did somewhat resemble things from the Little House on the Prairie series (a series which the grandmother enjoys reading for that reason). The other children just don’t know what would happen if Abbie tries to use the book for something more modern and everyday, like their father’s career. She tries it anyway, with some unpredictable results.

During a recording at a television studio (which the children are present to witness), the magic makes their father sing wonderfully but he also does his singing part out of sync with the other singers. He’s sure that he is singing his part at the right time, but for some reason, the other members of the chorus are silent when he sings. The director gets mad at him for singing out of sync and messing up the performance, and the singer who was supposed to be the star gets mad about being upstaged, but the reviewers end up loving the performance. So, while at first it looks like the father is going to be fired, he ends up with more singing parts because of the episode. The only problem is that all the singing parts are silly jingles, like the typical advertising jingles he gets. While he’d welcome more money, he always dreamed of being able to get better parts. However, the magic isn’t quite done, yet. When Abbie meets a playwright who is looking for a new talent to sing in his play, it turns out that he has seen Abbie’s father on tv and likes his voice.

SevenDayMagicWings

Abbie’s wish is so great and does so much for their family that the kids start thinking that it might be the end of the magic. The seven days are really up, and the book has to go back to the library the next day. However, John and Barnaby haven’t had their chance to wish yet, and each of them wants to have a turn before the book goes back. Barnaby even suggests that perhaps they can keep the book an extra day, turning it in late. Surely a little late fee isn’t too much to ask for an extra day of magic, is it? Abbie is afraid, though, that keeping the book overdue would be breaking the rules and that the magic might go all wrong. She’s right.

Even with the idea of keeping the book for extra time, John and Barnaby argue over which of them will get to go first. The book’s magic, angry about not being returned to the library, turns sour on them, causing them to fight. John angrily tells Barnaby that just because he’s usually the group’s idea man doesn’t mean that he’s the only one who’s allowed to have ideas. (Which, in a way, is something that Barnaby needs to hear because that’s part of the reason why he often gets into fights – he always thinks he knows best.) John and Barnaby fight over the book, and the book gets torn. John ends up with a few pages, and Barnaby gets most of the book, which he uses to make a wish that he refuses to tell to the others. Barnaby disappears, and the others realize that the pages that Barnaby is holding are the last few pages from the end of the book, still blank. Without them, the book can’t end, and Barnaby could end up stuck in the book forever! Can the others find him and get him (and the book) back before it’s too late?

Before the end of the book, John does prove that, although he might not be as quick to come up with ideas as Barnaby is, he does get good ones. After he and the others find Barnaby, John uses his wish to get them back home and to return the book to the library in a most unusual way.  (Actually two unusual ways because he couldn’t quite make up his mind about which was best.  Both of them are homages to incidents in E. Nesbit’s books.)

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Time Garden

TimeGarden

The Time Garden by Edward Eager, 1958.

About a year after the events in the previous book in the series, Roger and Ann are excited when their father writes a play and announces that it will be performed in England. Unfortunately, their parents aren’t planning to take the children to England with them because the trip there will be just business, focusing on getting the play together. If the play is a success, they plan to send for the children so they can do some sightseeing in England, but until then, the children will need to stay somewhere else during summer vacation. Their mother, Martha, calls her sister Katharine to see if the children can come visit their cousins, but it turns out the Katharine is also looking for a place where Eliza and Jack can spend the summer. By coincidence, Katharine and her husband are also planning a business trip to Europe.

TimeGardenMrsWhiton

The adults talk it over and end up arranging for all four children to stay with Katharine’s husband’s great aunt, Mrs. Whiton, who lives in a house by the sea, not far from Boston. The children don’t find this prospect very exciting. Then the adults tell them that Mrs. Whiton writes children’s books, Eliza is sure that she’ll be trying to analyze them for inspiration for her stories, but Mrs. Whiton turns out to be better than they thought. She is unsentimental, something that Eliza appreciates, and her house is very nice. There is a pretty garden there, and a staircase that leads right down to the beach.

One day, when Mrs. Whiton sends them out to play in the garden, they find an old sundial that has a motto written on it: “Anything Can Happen When You’ve All the Time in the World!” The children have had experience with magic before, so they begin to suspect that this garden isn’t quite what it appears . . . and they’re right. A strange, toad-like creature call the Natterjack introduces himself to the children and tells them that the thyme garden, where there are many varieties of thyme growing, is also a time garden. He explains that he and his family have helped this garden grow since his grandfather’s grandfather was brought there from England along with a shipment of primroses and that they’ve put all of their magic into the garden and its plants. If the children would like to visit another time, all they have to do is to pluck a sprig of thyme and smell it.

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Jack, who has decided that he’s too old for magic and is now only interested in girls, refuses to try it at first, denying the existence of magic, even in spite of the talking toad. The other children try it and find themselves at the same house during the time of the American Revolution. Everyone who sees them seems to think that they are the Whiton children of that time, and they end up participating in a ride very much like Paul Revere’s, riding through the countryside to alert people that the British are coming. At first, their ride is thrilling and successful, but if you know the other books in this series, you can guess that things are going to go wrong at some point.

When the kids reach a tavern, they try to tell the drunken men inside that the British will be at Lexington soon, and they say that they don’t care. As far as they’re concerned, if the British are going to Lexington, let the guys in Lexington deal with it. The children are offended that they don’t want to help and try to appeal to their patriotism and fellowship with other Americans. It turns out that they don’t have much patriotism (the United States isn’t a separate country yet, so there is that) or feelings of fellowship because their plan for if the British are defeated is basically “every man for himself.” (I understand this scene so much more now as an adult than I did when I read this as a kid. I think I’ve met their descendants.) The children are angered at this mercenary attitude, and Ann accuses them of being pro-British. One of them insists that they’re not because, “We ain’t pro-anything.” (Yep, this is familiar. Some people just want to be contrary until there’s something in it for them to gain.)

It gets worse when the anti-British talk causes the Natterjack, in a surge of British patriotism, to cry, “Rule, Britannia!” The drunks in the tavern then decide that the kids were trying to deceive them about the British coming because they’re actually on the side of the British, trying to distract them from the British army’s real plans. When they discover that the voice actually came from a talking toad, they declare that it’s witchcraft and decide to throw the children into the pond to see if they will float (an old test in witchcraft trials).

In a bizarre twist, they are saved by a band of attacking American Indians. (Native Americans ex Machina?) There’s no real reason for a tribe of American Indians to be attacking at this particular moment, and the kids in the story seem to realize that.  This incident, like many others in this series, is partly based on other books in classic children’s literature, especially the works of E. Nesbit, the author’s favorite children’s author.  A similar incident occurs to the children in E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, although under different circumstances.  The author of this story frequently pokes fun at tropes of classic children’s literature in his books and makes pop culture references from the 1950s, so the more old books you’re familiar with, the more you see the jokes, although I admit that, even knowing the background, this scene still bothers me. In the grand tradition of cheesy 1950s westerns, there’s a vague description of the carnage of the attack with the requisite scalping and tomahawking (yes, they use it as verb). Ann is upset about the attack and covers her eyes, although Roger says that he doesn’t think that this attack could really have occurred in real life because they would have heard about it if it were a real, historical event. Ann worries that they somehow caused it by messing with history. When the tribe is done tomahawking their attackers, the children are worried that they’ll be next, but the Natterjack tells the children that they can escape by smelling the thyme again.

Before we move on, I should point out here that, in different books in this series, it’s never entirely clear how much of the children’s adventures occur in the real world or in some kind of magical, alternate reality or maybe in their own minds, and this is actually intentional. The idea of sniffing a magical herb and being transported through time sounds kind of trippy. The whole “savage painted Indians” (their words, not mine) trope was a staple of old western shows, the kind that kids growing in the 1950s might have watched because that genre was popular, particularly in the late 1950s, when the book was published, so the children’s experiences may be partly patterned after what a 1950s kid might have imagined after watching those shows. (Sort of like the Arabian fantasies that their mothers had in previous books in the series, probably inspired by The Sheik.) So, this incident in the book is partly a take-off on similar ones in other children’s books, but it might also be the author’s commentary on the types of shows that were popular and children’s expectations.  Perhaps some of the implication is that the children’s expectations, based on things they’ve read or seen on tv are what caused this weird, otherwise inexplicable attack in the first place. (It’s like on tv, kiddos, and now you can see it in full color!  You expected it, so you got it.  Still think this stuff is fun?) Part of the problem with this scene for me is that it’s difficult to tell exactly how the author means it. I can guess a little, given the author’s taste for making literary references and parodying tropes of children’s stories, but even as a parody, it’s uncomfortable by modern standards and still makes very little sense why it’s even happening at all. This scene is just plain needless and cringe-worthy in my opinion, but you sometimes run into things like that with older children’s books.  It’s some consolation that this is the worst scene in the entire book, so it’s good to get it out of the way early.

Before we return to the main plot again, I’d also like to say that the children themselves don’t seem to understand exactly how the magic works (like other children in this series) or whether what happened to them was completely real or not.  They debate about it periodically and wonder about the children that they replaced on this adventure (and on later ones as well). They never quite know if those children went somewhere else while they took their place or if both sets of children were just living out the same adventure at the same time, just seeing it in slightly different ways.  These time travel questions are fun to ponder, but are never really explained, just theorized.

When the children get back to their own time from the Revolutionary War period, the Natterjack apologizes for getting them into trouble and asks them to put the plant sprig back in the ground, where it grows again (no “wasting thyme”, ha, ha). He also further explains that the name of the particular variety of thyme they pick in the garden is important because it has some bearing on where in time they will go. The thyme they had chosen was “wild thyme”, and they had to admit that their time was pretty wild. Ann borrows a gardening catalog from Mrs. Whiton’s old gardener and begins studying the different varieties of thyme. When they ask the Natterjack about the massacre at the tavern, he tells them that the mistakes they make or bad consequences of their interference will be erased by the good deeds they do, so their timely warnings about the British coming will have an effect, but that massacre has been erased from history. (Too bad it’s still in the book.  There’s still no real reason for it to be there, dang western trope.) Good deeds performed during their adventures will earn them more adventures, so they have to remember to do some good in every time they visit.

So, while Jack spends most of his time getting to know the local teenage girls and doing normal teenage things and trying to ignore his sister and cousins when they talk about magic, the others get to spend their summer having magical time adventures. The next variety of thyme they pick is “splendid thyme.” Once again, they are taken back in the history of the house, where they are again mistaken for past Whiton children. The time period is around the Civil War, and the house is being used as a station on the Underground Railroad. The children help some escaping slaves to flee to Canada. (Their sentiments are strongly anti-slavery, which is a relief after that massacre scene. The escaping slaves aren’t portrayed too badly, although mostly, they’re in hiding during the adventure and are oddly unquestioning of how the kids managed to use magic to get them to Canada so fast, just embarrassingly grateful for it.)

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After that, Eliza wants to know if they’re restricted to historical adventures only or if they can visit times that are fictional as well, referencing their adventures with Ivanhoe in the previous book. It turns out that the time garden is very accommodating, and they are able to go back in fictional time to visit the characters in Little Women (which, fortunately, took place not far from where they are staying), especially since Louisa May Alcott based the characters on herself and her sisters, giving the book a sense of semi-reality. Jack, who has been denying the magic all along, comes with them on this adventure, and spends all of his time fawning over the teenage Meg and Jo. The children help to reform an ungrateful family that has been taking advantage of the girls’ generosity (and, as Jo says, reforming “is punishment enough”).

Sharing in this adventure with the other children is enough to get Jack to admit that they’re having adventures, although he still refuses to look at it as being magic, preferring more scientific terms. At one point, he describes a theory of time as looking down on the world from an airplane. From high above, you can see many different places at once, but it would take a person on the ground a long time to get from one place to another. Similarly, Jack thinks that everything in history is happening all at once, but it just takes people a long time to get from one event to another because of their vantage point.

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Then, the children get the idea to go visit their mothers in England. However, when they use Common Thyme with their wish, they end up seeing their mothers in the past, not the present. This is the point in the story where it crosses over with their mothers’ magical adventures as children in Magic By the Lake.

Eliza then gets the idea of using thyme seeds to travel through time instead of using a full-grown plant. She and Jack end up traveling to England. However, they end up in the wrong period of history, and because the magical rules are broken, everyone sees them as the modern children they really are and not as people from the appropriate time period. When Eliza manages to offend Queen Elizabeth I and ends up in the Tower of London, they need the help of Ann, Roger, and the Natterjack to straighten things out!

I think my favorite part of the story is really the thyme/time garden itself. Not only is it a fun pun, but I thought that it was clever how the titles of particular varieties of thyme relate to the times and places where the children end up. Different varieties of thyme plants really do have some incredible names in real life. At the end of the book, after the children go to England to join their parents because the play was successful, the Natterjack waits in the garden for the next set of children who will go on adventures, and after looking up other varieties of thyme that the book never mentioned, the possibilities for new adventures are tantalizing: Leprechaun Thyme (for adventures with leprechauns), Elfin Thyme (either for adventures with elves or maybe becoming smaller?), and Woolly Thyme (Want to go see a woolly mammoth? On the other hand, maybe it just goes to a sheep farm. This magic stuff never works like you think it will).

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Half Magic

HalfMagicHalf Magic by Edward Eager, 1954, 1982.

Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha are siblings living in the 1920s. Their father is dead, and their mother works for a newspaper. While their mother is at work, Miss Bick takes care of the house and the children, although she isn’t really good with children. The children are often free to amuse themselves on their own during the summer, and they like to pick out books from the library for entertainment. They particularly enjoy the fantasy books by E. Nesbit (a real author, and they reference her real books during the story), and they wish that exciting, magical things like the ones that happen in her stories would happen to them.

They get their wish (and a great many others) when Jane finds a strange coin on the sidewalk that they mistake for a nickel at first. By accident, they discover that this coin grants wishes, but it has a peculiar habit of only granting half of what a person wishes for (and the coin seems to interpret the idea of “half” pretty liberally, depending on the type of wish, so results can be pretty unpredictable).

Jane is so bored after she finds the coin that she wishes that there would be a fire for some excitement. Suddenly, the children hear a fire engine and discover that a child’s playhouse had caught fire. It could have been coincidence, except that their mother borrows some change from Jane, getting the magical coin by accident. While she is visiting the children’s aunt and uncle and finds their conversation boring, she wishes that she were at home, but finds herself unexpectedly by the side of the road halfway home. She is confused but thinks that she must just be very tired or something and forgot that she was walking home. She ends up accepting a ride from a very nice man who happened to be passing her on the road and thought that she looked lost and confused.

HalfMagicChildrenThese early experiences and a series of odd wishes Mark makes when he doesn’t realize that he has the coin demonstrate to the children not only that the coin is magical but that they have to be extremely careful what they wish for when they have it. They have to word their requests very carefully, asking for twice as much of anything they want in order to counteract the half magic of the coin. Even so, they can’t help but make mistakes and get themselves into trouble.

When Katharine uses her turn with the coin to take them back to the days of King Arthur, she ends up causing trouble and disrupting history by defeating Lancelot in a tournament. Fortunately, Merlin realizes what the children have done and forces them to explain themselves and show him the magic coin. After inspecting it, Merlin gives the children a stern lecture about interfering with the natural course of history. He uses the coin’s magic to undo what the children have done and further uses it to restrict the children’s wishes to affecting only their own time period. He warns them to be more careful about what they wish for, keeping their wishes smaller and more personal, adding that the coin’s magic will eventually be exhausted, so they should save their wishes for what is important.

HalfMagicTheaterThere is one more disastrous experience when the children go to the movies (a silent film because this is 1920s), and Martha accidentally wishes that she wasn’t there while touching Jane’s purse, which holds the coin. Martha, of course, ends up being only halfway “not there,” almost like a living ghost, which terrifies onlookers. Straightening out that mess brings them into contact with Mr. Smith, the nice man who gave their mother a ride home. He owns a bookstore, and he enjoys fantasy stories as much as the children do. He becomes the only adult who knows that the children have been using magic, and he’s fascinated by it, enjoying witnessing their adventures.

When the children’s mother comes to pick them up, Mr. Smith is pleased to meet her again and invites the family to join him for dinner. Mr. Smith is obviously fond of the children’s mother, and most of the children like him, too. However, Jane is uneasy. It’s partly that she worries that Mr. Smith will interfere with their use of the magic coin and partly that she worries about his new relationship with their mother. Of the four children, only Jane, as the oldest, really remembers their father, and she can’t stand the thought that Mr. Smith might become their stepfather and take his place.

HalfMagicSmithWhen Jane argues with the other children about Mr. Smith and rashly wishes that she belonged to another family, the other children call upon Mr. Smith to help them rescue Jane from her foolish wish, her unsuitable new family, and from herself.

In the end, Mr. Smith does marry the children’s mother, and even Jane is happy with the arrangement, having come to appreciate Mr. Smith much better.  Once their mother and Mr. Smith each have what they wished for most — each other and a happy family with the children — they forget about the magic coin.  Although none of the children realize it, the coin also grants Jane one final half-wish in which her father comes to her in a dream-like form, letting her know that he approves of her mother’s remarriage and the children’s new stepfather because he wants them all to be happy.  This gives Jane the reassurance she needs to fully accept Mr. Smith.  The children, deciding that the coin has given them all the wishes it’s going to, leave it in a convenient place for a new owner to find.

You don’t find out what happens with the coin’s new owner apart from when the children see a young girl pick it up and realize that it’s magic when she makes her first wish. However, there is a cross-over scene in another book in the series, Seven-Day Magic, which explains a little more about what happens next.  Books in this series frequently reference and sometimes parody other children’s books that were popular at the time they written, and individual books in the series even sometimes reference each other, even when the main characters have changed.

Speaking of literary references and parodies in this series, sometimes it’s a little difficult to tell for certain which scenes are really meant as parodies and which aren’t.  Knowing a bit about vintage children’s fiction helps, but there may be some scenes in the stories which can make modern readers a little uneasy.  One scene in the book that bothered me was near the beginning, when Mark wishes to be on a desert island.  This was before the children fully realize that the coin only grants half of a wish, so the children just end up in a desert, but not on an island.  The part that bothers me is that they are briefly kidnapped by a kind of wandering Arab man who seems to be planning to ransom or sell them.  This scene is like an old stereotype out of the sort of silent movies that the children would have been watching, and because of that, it was a little painful to read.  The man’s name is Achmed (still in keeping with the stereotype), and they keep referring to him as “Achmed the Arab,” in case you need reminding that that’s what he is.  They get out of their predicament with him by wishing for something that would make him really happy so that he’ll forget about them.  By then, they realize that they need to double their request in order to make the coin work properly, so their wish works.  The coin ends up giving Achmed a beautiful wife and “six plump Arab children” (in case you forgot that Achmed’s children would be Arab as well) and generally improves what Achmed owns, so Achmed becomes a happy family man and gives up his earlier, shady ways.  It’s eye-rollingly stereotypical and cliche, so I think it’s worth telling potential readers that this scene is there.

The cliches and stereotypes (not to mention the constant, unnecessary repetition of the word “Arab” just to remind you that that’s what everyone is, in case you were confused) in that scene were annoying, but unfortunately, things like that crop up pretty regularly in children’s literature from the 1950s and earlier when there are scenes that take place just about anywhere outside of the United States, Canada, or Europe.  That being said, there are a couple of things that make this scene easier to bear.  One is that Mark, realizing that the magic coin can get them out of this situation and that they have the power to put Achmed at their mercy, decides not to do it because it occurs to him that Achmed is probably a desperate man because he is poor.  Mark decides that Achmed would be a better person if he had whatever would make him feel the most fulfilled in life, so he wishes for that for him.  It’s nice that Mark sees him as being a person whose well-being needs to be considered, not just an enemy to be defeated.  Also, it occurs to me that it’s not completely certain that the desert they’re in is a real-life one, even in the children’s fictional world.  I think the assumption is that it is, like we’re supposed to assume that the world of Camelot that they visit is a real part of history, but it may not be.  In fact, the children in different books in this series in general sometimes get philosophical about their magical adventures, wondering about how their magical adventures fit into the real world around them or if they really do, and they never fully get all the answers.   Perhaps the coin took the children to their idea of what a desert or what Camelot would be like, not to those real places.  In 1921, there was a famous silent movie called The Sheik in which Rudolph Valentino played an Arab sheik named Ahmed (Achmed’s name could be a joke on that).  It’s not a movie for children, but it was very popular in the 1920s, and it inspired other movies with Arabian themes, at least a couple of songs, and probably a number of the stereotypes about Arabs of the time.  So, if the kids in the story were imagining an Arabian desert, it would probably be something resembling what they’d seen in movies like that.  This little adventure may have only taken place in the imaginary world, even from the children’s perspective, and the author may be poking fun at the notions children get from popular culture.  Even in the end, the children admit that there are many things they don’t understand about the coin and how it works, like where the other half of Martha went when she was only half there.   In a world where magic works, pretty much anything is possible.  Then again, since the entire book is fictional, it may be best not to worry too much about it.  Still, I just plain didn’t like this scene.  The rest of the book wasn’t so bad.

Overall, it’s a fun story.  Part of the fun for book lovers is in spotting the various literary references in the story because the children talk about the books they like and read and compare their adventures to ones they’ve read about.  The concept of the half-wishes also makes you think.  It’s worth pointing out that, although the children enjoy the general adventure of the coin, most of the children’s wishes, no matter how carefully they word them, don’t turn out the way that they expected, even when they get exactly what they asked for.  Mr. Smith marrying their mother is actually the best wish that comes true in the whole book.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).