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The eyes of a child unlock the logic of Wonderland

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Unless you become like little child Alice, you cannot enter Wonderland

BY C.S. MORRISSEY

C.S. Lewis observed that Alice in Wonderland belongs to a very small class of books like The Hobbit that admit us to a world of their own. Alice aims to boldly go where no girl has gone before, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Photo: Award Publications)C.S. Lewis observed that Alice in Wonderland belongs to a very small class of books like The Hobbit that admit us to a world of their own. Alice aims to boldly go where no girl has gone before, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Photo: Award Publications)

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cries Alice at the beginning of chapter 2 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Lewis Carroll’s famous book is how popular and beloved it remains 150 years after its first publication. What accounts for its remarkable status?

No book is more widely quoted in the Western world except for the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays. More than 174 translations have transported Alice into other languages.

The book is obviously a children’s story full of delightful nonsense. But things get “curiouser and curiouser” the more one explores the book’s hidden depths and dimensions.

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician who also made important contributions to the study of logic.

“There is a solid logic underneath all of his writing that makes sense to us mentally,” said the Canadian author David Day in a recent interview about “The Wonders of Wonderland” on the CBC radio program The Sunday Edition.

Day is the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded which not only includes the full text of Lewis Carroll’s novel but also continuous commentary on it. Day discusses how Carroll’s book makes coded references to real people from the Victorian Age.

But Carroll’s book also operates on many other levels. There are references to profound ideas from math and science and logic underpinning the story at many points. 

Yet these rich layers are all part of an imaginatively accessible world that has an immediate surface appeal.

C.S. Lewis wrote in 1937 that Carroll’s Alice and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit “both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on long before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him.”

Like The Hobbit, the elaborate internal logic of the imaginative world of Alice accounts for its rare and special charm. Such richness and depth repays many re-readings.

Take, for example, the “Pool of Tears” episode from chapter 2, when things get “curiouser and curiouser” for Alice as she grows to be nine feet tall.

It should remind you of the familiar childhood admonition: “Big girls don’t cry.”

The episode playfully contradicts that axiom, in order to prove it. By leading its contradictory to absurdity, it logically demonstrates the lesson.

Carroll turns a little girl into a big girl, who then cries copiously. Further, this little big girl becomes little again, and she reaps the consequences of her big tears.

After unwittingly fanning herself with the white rabbit’s fan, Alice becomes small again. She then almost drowns in the pool of her “big girl” tears.

Carroll writes of Alice: “her foot slipped, and in another moment, splash! She was up to her chin in salt-water. Her first idea was that she has somehow fallen into the sea, ‘and in that case I can go back by railway,’ she said to herself.”

What is an apparently nonsensical conclusion drawn by Alice is, upon further exploration, far from illogical. Moreover, it has the freshness and charm of a childlike way of looking at the world.

“Alice had been to the seaside once in her life,” explains Carroll, “and had come to the general conclusion that, wherever you go to on the English coast, you find a number of bathing-machines in the sea, some children digging in the sand with wooden spades, then a row of lodging-houses, and behind them a railway station.”

Yet Alice’s mistaken conjecture is quickly revised in her own thoughts, showing her to be quite adept at quick reasoning.

“However, she soon made out,” writes Carroll, “that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high.”

Alice’s inductive inference was a logical extrapolation from a single experience to a universal expectation about “wherever you go to on the English coast.”

This bold guess by Alice exhibits both admirable childlike wonder at the world and an impulsive drive to make logical sense of its orderly arrangements.

Grown-ups may become habituated to approaching the world with less boldness, but are they then not prisoners of their unadventurously limited inferences?

Alice, at least, aims to boldly go where no girl has gone before.

Was Alice being illogical and reckless with her “railway” inference? Traditional logic would say no. In one of his logical works, the Greek philosopher Aristotle famously observes that a single instance can be enough from which a scientist may begin to extrapolate a universal rule.

Carroll wrote as someone enamored with the traditional way of doing logic. For him, it was an exciting, exploratory tool for adventurously navigating a world full of wonders.

He knew that looking at the world through the eyes of a child never gets old.

Dr. C.S. Morrissey is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute who teaches the Great Books for the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program. His Web site is: moreC.com.

Morrissey will lecture on the traditional way of doing logic during part of the Thomas Aquinas Study Circle meeting on Saturday, October 24, from 2pm to 4pm, at the Seminary of Christ the King in Mission, B.C. Admission is free and all are welcome.

Last Updated on Saturday, 17 October 2015 07:58  

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