The Annotated Alice

The Annotated Alice

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (1999) is a prodigious compilation by Martin Gardner including both of Lewis Carroll’s main works (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), John Tenniel’s illustrations (both published and unpublished originals), and a wealth of insightful annotations explaining references, inside jokes, amusements, and a miscellany of other information. I find it a very useful work.

The explanation of Victorian references is very helpful as many words and phrases go totally over the modern American reader, myself humbly included. There are also references to other subjects, such as rowing, where the terms “feather” and “catch a crab” (in the sheep chapter of Through the Looking Glass) have their own meanings—without knowing these meanings, or without even knowing that they are referring to something, a reader is baffled yet amused by the nonsense. With these understandings, however, we see that it is quite a sophisticated passage causing some a great deal of amusement when Alice takes the phrase “catch a crab” literally.

Carroll’s works are also full of inside references, which Gardner explains. For example, during the Mad Tea Party the Hatter sings “Twinkle twinkle, little bat, / how I wonder what you’re at,” which seems at first to be merely a humorous variation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Gardner then points out that one of Carroll’s colleagues, a math teacher, was commonly called the Bat and often taught lessons that went above the heads of the students, hence up above the stars…

An amusement that also appears in the Mad Tea Party scene is the riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Gardner discusses the history of this question after it appears, how Lewis Carroll intended it to have no answer, and how many others have tried to answer it since.

The Definitive Edition even contains an omitted scene, “The Wasp in a Wig,” which takes place at the end of the White Knight chapter in Through the Looking Glass. This scene wasn’t found until 1974, over a hundred years after the original publication.

I ordered The Annotated Alice on May 21, 2010. Martin Gardner died on May 22, 2010 at the age of 95.

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