Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
Ina interrupted his train of thought with her order to tell them a
immediately, Dodgson's mind was elsewhere and the insistent sound of
voice was enough to put him off his stroke.
He was in no mood to tell a fairy tale just then. He was lost in a vision of all existence as a dream which included many different states of being, each one of them as meaningful as the next. At that moment, to tell still another story about some magic beast that sits up and talks appeared as unrewarding a prospect as to engage in an earnest discussion of adult affairs with Duckworth.
But then Alice and Edith came chiming in as well. Both younger girls wanted to hear a fairy tale, too.
Dodgson may have had good reasons for hesitation. And yet, if he resisted Lorina's request because telling a story seemed limiting, because his mind was already occupied, and because Ina's manner was too overbearing by half, what Alice added next was enough to cut through his reluctance. She hoped the story would have nonsense in it.
That spoke to Dodgson. He'd never combined nonsense with a fairy tale, and he wasn't sure that it could be done. Magic and nonsense seemed to point in opposite directions.
In a story, real magic was possible -- at least once upon a time in fairyland. This was a basic premise whenever he told a tale of wonder and enchantment to the girls. And for the duration of the story they'd accept that it was true, listening wide-eyed and hanging on every word.
But when he talked nonsense, he expected them to understand that he was only joking and the things he was suggesting weren't really possible. So he might play one of his music boxes backward and then declare that since it was now the day before yesterday he'd better stop before they turned into babies or even disappeared altogether. And the girls would giggle because it almost seemed like something that could really happen and yet it was so absurd.
However, when he described an encounter with a marvelous scaly dragon lurking in the deep dark wood, he didn't want them to burst into laughter. He wanted them to believe and to inch closer. If he were to declare that dragons and all they do were nonsense, the spell of the story would be broken.
And if it was a joke for him to suggest that time changes direction when a music box plays in reverse, he couldn't turn around and say in the next breath that it might actually happen through magic. It would no longer be nonsense then, but something else.
As Dodgson had always perceived things, you could either have nonsense or you could have magic. But you couldn't have both at once.
However, Alice didn't appear to recognize that she might be asking for anything that wasn't possible. Her request for a fairy tale with nonsense in it was stated so simply and sincerely that it seemed a truth uttered in innocence.
The words she spoke struck Dodgson like an oracle -- wise, and yet also baffling. But the puzzle they presented him was so uncannily well-suited to his present state of mind that he immediately resolved to do what she was asking.
He wasn't daunted by the impossibility of combining nonsense and magic. As much as anything else, it was the very incompatibility of these two things he loved which attracted him.
Life for him at that moment was an inclusive dream where everything the mind can conceive had its own right to be. Since magic and nonsense each had a place in this dream, to single one of them out as true at the expense of the other had to be a mistake.
Dodgson's problem was how to tell a tale in which they existed simultaneously. He had to find a way for them both to be in the story at the same time.
And then a radical
solution to this dilemma occurred
to him which reversed his previous conceptions of nonsense and magic
It took these two things he'd always thought of as distinct and
and made them into one, like a three-dimensional image leaping into
when separate pictures are brought together in a stereoscope.
if magic and nonsense didn't merely
exist at once in the story? What if they should be the very same
observed from two different partial points of view?
An inexplicable event that was utter nonsense to one character might be magic for another. What this mystery was thought to be would depend upon the assumptions and perceptions of the observer.
Wonderful occurrences were a normal fact of life for the inhabitants of fairyland. Magical transformations were always taking place there.
However, to anyone who took contemporary English customs for reality, the very same marvelous happenings would appear doubtful and absurd. If somebody like that were to pay a visit to fairyland everything they experienced might seem like so much nonsense to them.
Things fell into place for Dodgson then, and he saw how to tell a story.
It could be the fairy tale that Ina was demanding, with talking animals in it, and giants, and magic as well.
It could also be full of the nonsense that Alice wanted.
Above all, however, it would have to be a dream.
As they rounded the next bend in the river, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson began to talk. He started his story with two girls much like Ina and Alice on a hot summer day that was much like today.
What he said went something like this:
"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, and where is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations? So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid,) whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain was worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.
"There was nothing very remarkable in that, nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the rabbit say to itself 'dear, dear! I shall be too late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the rabbit actually took a watch out of its waist-coat pocket, looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waist-coat pocket or a watch to take out of it, and, full of curiosity, she hurried across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In a moment, down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again."
The Alice of the story, who is described as bored and drowsy, has slipped into sleep almost imperceptibly right in the middle of wondering whether she should get up and pick some daisies. And immediately things begin to depart from the ordinary waking state.
As Dodgson would say directly in a letter to playwright Tom Taylor in 1864, at a time when his tale had grown into a book-length manuscript of still-uncertain title: "The whole thing is a dream, but that I don't want revealed until the end."
Dodgson was familiar with more than one story which claimed to have some kind of connection to dream.
The play by Shakespeare that he loved best was A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the affairs of men and fairies magically intersect one night in a wood near ancient Athens. The humans all interpret their experience as something they've dreamed -- and in a mischievous concluding speech the fairy Puck invites anyone in the audience who has found the play disturbing to do the same.
But dream in story didn't usually present a challenge to the sufficiency of the ordinary waking state. More commonly, these "dreams" were just a literary convention or a conceit -- either a nominal means of travel to reach some more perfect society or else a convenient excuse for an author to turn away from what he'd just imagined and deny its reality.
During Dodgson's own lifetime, however, a number of writers had published stories that were more adventurous in their use of dreams, evoking or imitating dream states as a way of being fantastic. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol had appeared when he was a boy, with the miser Ebenezer Scrooge brought to a change of heart by a series of ghostly confrontations on Christmas Eve which Scrooge experiences as actual encounters but an adult reader is intended to interpret as a night of dreams. Dodgson had read the nightmare-like tales of Edgar Allan Poe such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Masque of the Red Death." And he was the owner of a copy of his friend George MacDonald's "faerie romance" for adults, Phantastes, in which a man rises one morning to find his bedroom turning into Fairy-land and undergoes a number of irrational but meaningful experiences there before waking again in the familiar world on a hilltop near his home after three weeks have passed.
However, what Dodgson aimed to do was more ambitious than any of these. In his story, dream wouldn't just be a secondary matter -- an implied rationale, the model for extreme effects, or a road by which to reach Fairy-land. Instead, it would be all of these at once and more.
Dream would be what the story was about. From beginning to end, it would have an elusive shifting dreamlike quality.
The transformations start with the rabbit that comes running by. Whatever this dream-creature may seem to be at any given moment, at the next its nature is different. Our idea of what it is changes from one word to another until all that makes a single thing out of it is the continuing impression it gives of rabbitness.
At first glance, we might be inclined to take it for a common rabbit of the sort that hops around the field and lives in a hole in the ground.
But while it does have the appearance of an ordinary animal, there's also something about it that's out of place here. It isn't wild. This is a domestic rabbit with white fur and pink eyes. Whatever is it doing running about loose by the river?
Before we can make
anything of this, however, the
creature alters and becomes something different. Now it's no longer a
rabbit of any sort. Like an animal in a fairy tale, it has the power to
the way it uses this ability is
very odd. It doesn't address Alice and her sister directly. Instead, it
halts nearby and talks out loud to itself, as apparently oblivious of
presence as an actor is of an audience. As though the possibility were
just occurring to it, it begins to fret about being late.
Where could this marvelous white rabbit be going and what might have delayed it? And why should it stop here to dither this way?
But even though Dodgson would again and again describe the Alice of this story as curious, none of this is enough to cause her to wonder. In the state she's in, it seems a perfectly normal thing for a talking white rabbit that behaves as if she isn't there to come running close by her and pause within easy earshot to speak its thoughts aloud.
Then this rabbit changes again in a way that Alice can't overlook. Now it's not only standing on its hind legs just as though it had been doing so all along, it's hauling a watch out of its vest pocket and checking the time like some Victorian man of business with an urgent appointment to keep.
This nonsense is finally enough to arouse Alice's curiosity. A talking animal might not seem anything out of the ordinary to her, but a rabbit that wears a waistcoat and consults a pocket watch is clearly beyond the bounds of reason.
Now that its message that time is pressing has been delivered and then acted out again with the aid of an unlikely but appropriate prop and Alice's attention has been captured at last, the mysterious rabbit hurries off -- on two legs or on four, however you prefer to imagine it -- with Alice up and chasing after it through the wildflowers like an American Indian boy pursuing an animal ally in a power dream. She catches sight of it entering a large rabbit hole under the hedgerow bordering the field, and she follows after.
How could that be? People aren't usually able to fit into rabbit holes, even large ones.
But his story was a dream, even if Dodgson wasn't yet ready to say as much directly. So when he described the hole as large, he didn't just mean that it was large as rabbit holes are commonly reckoned. Instead "large" became an indeterminate dream word that meant as large as large needed to be in order to be large enough. Not only does Alice fit easily within a hole that's as large as that, she's even able to continue chasing after the white rabbit.
Perhaps because this rabbit of many parts popped into it first, the hole has been firmly identified for us as a rabbit hole. But if it really is a rabbit hole, it's every bit as peculiar as the rabbit.
At the outset, it goes straight ahead like a tunnel, which isn't at all the sort of thing that rabbit holes usually do. And then suddenly there's nothing beneath Alice's feet and she finds herself falling down what seems to be a well.
Ordinarily when we fall, experience says that very shortly we're going to bang into something and the fall will come to an end. But on this occasion things aren't like that. This fall goes on and on. Alice has so much time on her hands while she's falling that she's able to look all around her.
Now maybe -- Dodgson suggested to his listeners -- she was falling slowly. (Which might well be the case, they would have to agree, if she were very composed as she fell and managed to descend with gravity.)
Or it might be that this well was deep . . . where "deep" was another dream word that didn't just mean deep as wells go, but really deep. As deep as deep can be imagined to be.
Or perhaps both these possibilities were true at once: Her fall is slow. And the well is also deep.
But now that Dodgson had thrown Alice into this state of complete uncertainty -- falling and falling down a rabbit hole that was no common rabbit hole, which had somehow contrived to alter into a well that wasn't any usual kind of well -- he had no idea what would take place next.
His total lack of foreknowledge of what was going to happen in this story would still seem remarkable to him after the passage of a quarter of a century. As he would recall things then:
"That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea of what was to happen afterwards."
Since at the outset Dodgson had nothing more specific in mind than setting Alice to falling, at first when she glances about her nothing is all that she's able to see. The white rabbit she has followed ought to be falling, too, just ahead of her in the well. However, when she attempts to look beneath her, it's so dark down there that she can't make out a thing.
But then as Alice continues to fall, what previously was lost to her in darkness becomes visible. She is able to see the sides of the well as she goes falling past them.
What does she notice there?
She sees walls that are filled with bookshelves and cupboards, and every now and again pictures and maps hanging from pegs, as though the well -- without ever ceasing to be a well -- had also become the rooms of an Oxford don not unlike Dodgson especially gifted with an ability to live at right angles to everyone else.
This image of somebody dwelling under conditions that ordinarily would be impossible three different ways could have been intended to be fairy tale magic.
Or it may have been meant
as nonsense, a humorous
juxtaposition of things that don't ordinarily belong together, like
Dodgson's comic vision of panic-stricken old women outracing the cows
their hurry to seek refuge up chimneys and fat geese doing their best
squeeze themselves into pencil cases.
perhaps Dodgson was overwhelmed
for just a moment by a recognition of the uncertainty he'd embraced in
launching himself into the arms of the unknown this way, setting
and the heroine of his story to falling and falling in a space whose
wasn't fixed . . . and then grew accustomed to the strangeness of this
place by acknowledging how appropriate a residence it could make for
like himself who was capable of living with his books in the middle of
the air without ever noticing how unfounded he was.
Given a story like this where everything has its measure of mystery and meanings are never simple or final, it's impossible to be certain about the nature of this peculiar manifestation. The only thing we can be sure of is that as Dodgson rowed along making up a new kind of fairy tale that was also full of nonsense, but above all was a dream -- with Alice gazing all around her while she is falling but unable to see anything definite -- the first specific image to come into his mind was rooms resembling his own at Christ Church, but arranged vertically. And as fast as he thought of this, he made it a part of the story -- so that when Alice looks at the sides of the well, not only is she able to make things out there now, but it is cupboards and bookshelves, maps and pictures she sees.
For those listening to Dodgson tell this story that July afternoon on the river -- the three Liddell sisters riding in the front and back of the boat and his friend Duckworth rowing stroke in the middle -- the things he was saying seemed amusing, baffling and intriguing all at once. What do you suppose might be kept in a cupboard in mid-air inside a dream rabbit hole that has contrived to alter into a well?
The youngest of the sisters, Edith, was the most curious, always eager to have an explanation of everything she didn't understand. Again and again her need to be told how or what or why things were would cause her to come breaking in on the story with another urgent question.
But Dodgson welcomed the girls' desire to know more, especially on this particular day. Attempting to find answers for the questions they asked helped him bring the story into being.
So when he said that Alice saw cupboards and shelves there in the well, and the girls just had to know what sort of thing they held, he was able to use their curiosity to provoke Alice's.
In his story, then, another shelf conveniently happens along. (How vertically the unseen occupant of these strange quarters does manage to live! And how responsive this dream is!)
Immediately it becomes possible for the girls' question to be answered. As she goes falling by, Alice reaches out, takes something from the shelf, and examines it.
Since this is a dream, however, the object proves to be one more mystery. It's a jar with the label "Orange Marmalade" -- except it's empty.
Why should a jar that has a label on the outside but nothing on the inside be kept here on this shelf? And why does the description of what the jar doesn't contain read "Orange Marmalade"? Might it just as readily have said "Mango Chutney" or "Library Paste"?
But even though Alice may have been curious enough to pick up the jar in the first place, no questions like these occur to her. Instead she's disappointed that there's nothing within so she can't eat marmalade while she's falling.
And now she has an empty jar on her hands that she doesn't wish to drop for fear that it will hit somebody standing below and kill them. As though anyone who was foolish enough to lounge around at the foot of this particular well wasn't just begging to be struck on the head by the constant shower of empty marmalade jars and other litter that comes raining down from the residence above.
Obligingly enough, however, another cupboard happens along just then, so that Alice is able to rid herself of the jar, setting it down inside as she goes falling past.
Perhaps because she's too young to have studied physical science yet, Alice is not aware that she is already traveling as fast as any object she might drop . . . unless, of course, in this dream she isn't. Nor does it occur to her that she might land on anybody herself, to their harm or hers.
She's just proud of how brave she's being, and thinks how much more ready she'll now be to take a tumble at home after experiencing such a great fall as this: " 'Why I wouldn't say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house.' "
(Which -- the storyteller was quick to add -- most likely would be so.)
This was a humorous way of confirming our usual presumption that a fall from a Victorian rooftop would likely be fatal. At the same time, however, it suggests yet again that what is presently happening to Alice isn't ordinary.
And either because she truly is brave or because something within her is aware that this is all a dream, Alice isn't frightened but remains completely calm as she falls down and down and down.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Photograph by Lewis Carroll
Border courtesy of Eos Development