More than half a century after I first read “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” I cannot look at a plate of oysters, let alone eat them, without some of its lines running through my head:
“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed –
Now, if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
And it is only by overcoming my guilt as I recollect Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of the sweet, innocent, and unsuspecting little oysters as they gather round to attend to what the Walrus and the Carpenter have to say as they sit upon the rocks by the seashore, that I am able to proceed to the feast.
This feast, of course, puts me in precisely the same moral position as the Walrus. The Carpenter has replied to the Walrus’s remark that they have played the oysters a rather dirty trick by complaining that the butter is spread too thick:
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
I deeply sympathise.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
This is not the first time that such perfidy occurs in the Alice books. Remember the little crocodile:
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws.
Children everywhere (for the Alice books have been translated into every written language, despite the formidable difficulties involved in conveying the wordplay that forms so large a part of their humor) must have been introduced to the world of adult hypocrisy by these poems, and learned to see adults more as funny than as tragic or terrible. If Horace Walpole was right, that the world is a comedy to him who thinks, but a tragedy to him who feels, the Alice books must have tipped the balance in many young minds in favor of a disposition to thought rather than to feeling. Since feeling comes naturally but thought does not, Lewis Carroll may be counted as one of the world’s great educators.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Alice books at any age of a person’s life is their inexhaustibility. I devoted hours of my childhood to copying Tenniel’s illustrations (indissolubly linked with everyone’s memory of the books), while also committing to memory many of the verses, and cannot quite make up my mind whether I wasted my time or not; I was particularly proud of my copies of the Duchess and the Frog Footman, which were as good, I thought, as the originals.
Now I feel about the Alice books almost as Betteredge, the house steward in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, felt about Robinson Crusoe: that they contain within them the solution to or explanation of every human predicament. For example, Through the Looking-Glass contains by far the best explanation of political correctness that I have ever seen, more than a century before it even existed. Some, of course, will deny even now that it exists because it is so difficult to define precisely, but this is mere nominalist pedantry in the service of denial.
It is Humpty Dumpty who gets to the heart of the matter, in one of the most famous dialogues in English, perhaps in world, literature. Having proved that un-birthday presents are superior to birthday presents because they can be given on 364 days of the year instead of only one, Humpty Dumpty says:
“There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”