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.

Magic Elizabeth

MagicElizabeth

Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer, 1966.

Young Sally’s parents are away on a business trip, so she’s been staying with Mrs. Chipley, but now Mrs. Chipley has a family emergency to tend to. Mrs. Chipley’s daughter is ill, and Mrs. Chipley needs to go and help her with her children. While Mrs. Chipley is gone, there is only one other person for Sally to stay with: her Aunt Sarah, an elderly woman who Sally doesn’t really know. Aunt Sarah moved to California when Sally was just a baby, and the only reason why she has returned is that she has decided to sell her old house.

MagicElizabethArrival

Sally is a rather shy girl. She’s uneasy around Aunt Sarah, who is obviously unaccustomed to spending time with children, and Aunt Sarah’s creepy cat, Shadow. The house is old, chilly, and filled with strange things. However, Sally is enchanted with the bedroom that Aunt Sarah gives her and the portrait of a girl and her doll that hangs on the wall. The girl looks very much like Sally herself, and Aunt Sarah tells her that the girl was also called Sally and lived in that bedroom as a child, many years ago.

MagicElizabethKitchen

Fascinated by this earlier Sally and her beautiful doll, modern Sally decides to try to find the doll. Although her aunt tells her that she shouldn’t go poking around in the attic, Sally can’t help herself. She finds a trunk with Sally’s name on it full of girls’ clothes, just the right size for modern Sally to wear. There is a doll in the trunk also, but it’s not the same doll as the one in the portrait. When Sally reads the diary in the old trunk she learns the reason why. The doll in the picture, Elizabeth, was lost many years ago, when the earlier Sally was still young. As modern Sally plays dress up with the earlier Sally’s old clothes and studies herself in the mirror, she finds herself taken back in time, seeing the house through earlier Sally’s eyes. In the past, it was a busy and happy household with parents, an elderly aunt, earlier Sally, Sally’s little brother, and Sally’s pet cats.

A short time later, Aunt Sarah wakes modern Sally on the floor of the attic, and they assume that it was all a dream, but this look into the past changes Sally’s feelings about the house and her aunt’s cat, who suddenly seems friendlier and reminds her of the mother cat she saw in the past. Aunt Sarah also seems a little less stern as they discuss earlier Sally and her lost doll. Aunt Sarah says that no one ever saw the doll again after it disappeared on Christmas Eve all those years ago.  Earlier Sally had put the doll on top of the Christmas tree, like an angel, and after the family finished singing Christmas carols, the doll was gone.  They could never figure out what happened to her.  Modern Sally thinks that sounds very sad and wants to investigate the mystery of the missing doll, although Aunt Sarah isn’t very enthusiastic. She says that if the doll could be found, it would have been found long ago, and the earlier Sally has long since grown up and no longer needs it. Although, oddly, Aunt Sarah remarks that the earlier Sally had always thought that Elizabeth was “a little bit magic.”

Modern Sally continues to look for the doll anyway and also continues having moments when she sees the past as the earlier Sally did many years ago, especially when she looks into the mirror in the attic. One day, she invites a neighbor girl named Emily over, and while the two of them are looking around the attic, Emily finds Elizabeth’s old doll bonnet. The girls are excited because they now know for certain that Elizabeth is still in the house, waiting to be found. The girls are running out of time to find her. If Aunt Sarah agrees to sell the house, it will be torn down to build apartments. But, Sally falls ill with the flu, and it isn’t until Shadow gives her an important clue that Sally realizes where Elizabeth must be.

This book is currently out of print, but it’s one that I’d dearly love to see in print once more!  It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

Adults reading this story will probably realize before the children do (spoiler) that Aunt Sarah herself was the earlier Sally, the one who lost her favorite doll many years ago. “Sally” is a nickname for Sarah, like “Molly” can be for Mary and “Peggy” can be for Margaret, although any of those names can also be used by itself.  (In the Middle Ages, it was common for popular names to get different variations of nicknames by changing one sound in the original name and then changing one more sound in the first nickname to get another one, and sometimes even moving on to change one more sound to get yet another nickname that was very changed from the first. Those nicknames that look significantly different from their original names are a holdover from that practice, having lasted even into modern times.  John/Jack works on the same principle.  Fun fact!)  When Aunt Sarah grew up, she stopped using her childhood nickname, but the name was passed on to modern Sally.

At first, modern Sally sees her stern aunt as being witch-like, all dressed in black and fussy, but gradually, the memories of the past, her new relationship with young Sally, and the finding of her slightly-magical doll soften her. There are hints of Aunt Sarah’s youth in the attic, although Sally at first dismisses thoughts that some of the lovely things there could have belonged to her cranky old aunt because she has trouble thinking of her aunt as once having been young, pretty, and sweet. However, part of the theme of the story is that everyone was young once. Aunt Sarah is is bent and achy from arthritis, giving her the witch-like appearance and making her short-tempered at times. She also hasn’t been around children much for years, and part of her fussiness comes from forgetting what it was like to be young herself. Modern Sally, with her resemblance to her elderly aunt, and Elizabeth the doll both work their magic on her, reminding her what it was like to be a young girl and helping to revive a more youthful spirit in her.

I was happy that (further spoiler) Aunt Sarah decides not to sell the house after all, not just because she and Sally will get to spend more time together, but because old houses like that are rare these days. I like the idea that the old family heirlooms in the house will now be preserved, like the sleigh out in the old barn and the melodeon, a type of small organ.  I liked the way the book described the melodeon making musical sounds as people walk past it because of the way the floor boards move.  I also loved the description of the gas plant that Sally sees in earlier Sally’s memories.  If you’d like to see what a gas plant looks like when it’s lit, have a look at this video on YouTube.MagicElizabethMelodeon