What can be seen in Lewis Carroll’s “Looking Glass” (DeDisnification, Part 7B)
Among its Victorian allusions, wordplay, mathematical tidbits, and card-game and chess references, the consistent symbolism throughout Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (AiW) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (TLG) is of the Wars of the Roses. Immediately the presence of White and Red parties calls to mind the Yorks and Lancasters, but the scene of the royal gardeners repainting white roses red removes all doubt:¹
‘[…] this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know.’
This gets at my main quarrel with Disney’s version of Alice, and indeed, their version of almost anything: there’s simply too much to fit into a neat 75-minute package. The language, imagery, and nearly everything else that made the original novels so brilliant gets cut down so much it becomes a Best of Alice clip show. This is exacerbated by the fact that Disney condenses both Alice books into a single film—something Carroll himself prohibited when his works were first staged. I’ll just follow the single thread I’ve already pointed out—how Carroll’s works relate to the Wars of the Roses—to illustrate how much Disney is leaving out.
A major source of Carroll’s knowledge of the Wars of the Roses seems to have been William Shakespeare, one specific example being Henry VI, Part 3, in which Margaret of Anjou, who is the Red Queen, AKA the Queen of Hearts, calls for the execution of the Duke of York, saying:²
Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head […]
Off with his head, and set it on York gates […]
Shakespeare is not one to repeat himself, so if he has Margaret saying this twice, it seems to us she must say it all the time, which Carroll naturally has her do. Once this is clear, the other pieces also fall easily into place. The main beheading the Queen is calling for is the Knave’s, so he therefore corresponds to the Duke of York.
The Red King then must be Henry VI, who was known as a bad ruler due to his mental instability and unresponsiveness to the chaos of the wars. When the Queen demands Alice’s head:⁴
The King laid his hand upon her arm, and timidly said ‘Consider, my dear: she is only a child!’
And after the croquet game, wherein the Queen orders still more executions,⁵
As they walked off together, Alice heard the King say in a low voice, to the company generally, ‘You are all pardoned.’
While this seems reasonable to us (and to Alice), it reflects his timid and ineffectual rule, because of which the affairs of his reign were essentially run by Margaret. And, as Tweedles Dee and Dum note, everything—everyone exists because the Red King is asleep and dreaming it:⁶
‘Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’
‘If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, ‘you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!’
‘I shouldn’t!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. ‘Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’
‘Ditto’ said Tweedledum.
‘Ditto, ditto’ cried Tweedledee.
All this reiterates that the wars are occurring because of Henry VI’s failure to attend to the kingship of his nation—he’s sleeping through it.
The Duchess also appears in both Shakespeare and Carroll as well: In Henry VI, Part 2, Margaret gives Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester “a box on the ear”, to which she responds, referring to herself in the third person,⁷
[…] She shall not strike Dame Eleanor unrevenged.
So what occurs in Alice seems to be the promised comeuppance, though it does not go unpunished either:⁸
[…] said Alice: ‘—where’s the Duchess?’
‘Hush! Hush!’ said the Rabbit in a low, hurried tone. […] ‘She’s under sentence of execution.’
‘What for?’ said Alice. […]
‘She boxed the Queen’s ears—’ the Rabbit began.
As the Duchess is depicted taking care of a baby (badly), one would assume it to be her own child, but it is not. Instead, it is Richard III, with the link being it is on him that the dukedom of Eleanor’s husband is settled after his demise. Hence her mistreatment of him, as they are from opposing sides in the wars. And furthermore, the baby turns into a pig:⁹
The baby grunted again, and Alice looked very anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it. There could be no doubt that it had a very turn-up nose, much more like a snout than a real nose; also its eyes were getting extremely small for a baby […]. ‘If you’re going to turn into a pig, my dear,’ said Alice, seriously, ‘I’ll have nothing more to do with you. Mind now!’ […] it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm. This time there could be no mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig […].
And Richard is well known to have adopted the White Boar as his personal device, as well as becoming somewhat inhuman and greedy for power. A similar heraldic reference occurs when the White Queen (Elizabeth Woodville) comes to resemble a sheep—it matches with a version of her husband, Edward IV’s arms.
In TLG, the White and Red Knights fight over Alice, as to whether she is the Red Knight’s prisoner or the White Knight has rescued her:¹⁰
‘I wonder, now, what the Rules of Battle are,’ [Alice] said to herself, as she watched the fight, timidly peeping out from her hiding-place: ‘one Rule seems to be, that if one Knight hits the other, he knocks him off his horse, and if he misses, he tumbles off himself […].’
This is a clear allusion to the many reversals that occurred during the Wars of the Roses. It is a comical, chessboard reflection of the Game of Thrones episode name-cum-tagline, “You Win or You Die”. The show, it has already been pointed out, is the Wars of the Roses with a thin veneer of fantasy fiction, with Starks for Yorks, and Lannisters for Lancasters, etc.
Humpty Dumpty, in the rhyme the character is based on as well as his conversation with Alice, seems to clearly represent Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Such things are not uncommon, as another such rhyme, “The Grand Old Duke of York”, attests:
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
It has as one of its candidates another figure from this same war, the Duke of York, who I’ve already mentioned, and who was defeated at the Battle of Wakefield. There are other candidates, to be sure, and as these verses come initially from an oral tradition, tracking down the original intent can be decidedly tricky. There are various theories on the meaning of the rhyme “Humpty Dumpty”, including that it was originally meant to be a riddle, as the word egg is nowhere contained in it, and might have been its answer before it became so well known.
Whether or not it is historically true, the words of “Humpty Dumpty” seem to correspond to both the words of Shakespeare regarding the Earl, as well as the egg-man’s role in TLG. As to Humpty’s position prior to the battle, in Henry VI, Part 3, a parlay is sounded by Edward’s besieging forces at Coventry and the Earl appears:¹¹
Gloucester: See how the surly Warwick mans the wall!
And not just literally, but also historically, he was a “fence sitter”: as “the Kingmaker” he switched sides between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, and indeed deposed and enthroned rulers in order to increase his own power. History now takes a more ambivalent stance on Warwick; I’m describing the view both Shakespeare and Carroll share here. Ditto for Richard III. Carroll’s description of him seems to match his role:¹²
Humpty Dumpty was sitting with his legs crossed, like a Turk, on the top of a high wall—such a narrow one that Alice quite wondered how he could keep his balance […].
His being an egg can also be seen as reflecting the delicacy of his situation. The discussion between Humpty and Alice is a battle of words, covering semantics and pragmatics in its course, and also continuing to echo the parley (and the ensuing fight) between Warwick and Edward.
When Edward informs Warrick the king he is backing, Henry VI, has been imprisoned, Gloucester chimes in with a playing-card themed taunt was sure to have found favor with Carroll:¹³
Gloucester: Alas, that Warwick had no more forecast,
But, whiles he thought to steal the single ten,
The king was slily finger’d from the deck!
You left poor Henry at the Bishop’s palace,
And, ten to one, you’ll meet him in the Tower.
Humpty asks Alice what her name means, and she wonders whether a name must mean something, whereupon he replies:¹⁴
‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: ‘my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too.
The Kingmaker’s name’s resemblance to his nature is a well-known and oft-used pun, one I first heard in a Beyond the Fringe Shakespearean sendup:¹⁵
Peter: […] Thus fly we now, as oft with Phoebus did
Fair Asterope, unto proud Flanders Court.
Where is the warlike Warwick
Like to the mole that sat on Hector’s brow
Fair set for England, and for war!
The earliest use I could find was in Edmund Spenser’s works, but it’s not easy to research…. Shakespeare certainly used it in Henry VI, Part 1.
Next Alice asks why Humpty Dumpty is alone, which is his situation in the play as well—he is in Coventry awaiting the arrival of Oxford, Somerset, Montague and Clarence, who never arrive. Then she asks him if he wouldn’t be safer on the ground than on the wall, again a reflection of the Shakespearean parlay:¹⁶
King Edward IV: Now, Warwick, wilt thou ope the city gates,
Speak gentle words and humbly bend thy knee,
Call Edward king and at his hands beg mercy?
And he shall pardon thee these outrages.
Back in Alice, Humpty counters:¹⁷
Why, if ever I did fall off—which there’s no chance of—but If I did—’ Here he pursed his lips and looked so solemn and grand that Alice could hardly help laughing. ‘If I did fall,’ he went on, ‘the King has promised me—with his very own mouth—to—to—’
Alice completes the line for him:
‘To send all his horses and all his men,’ […].
Which, as we’ve already seen, is a vain hope. Humpty is disturbed she knows about the king’s promise, and accuses her of spying, to which she replies it is in a book, to which he responds:
‘Ah, well! They may write such things in a book,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a calmer tone. ‘That’s what you call a History of England, that is.
And of course the play is one of Shakespeare’s English Histories. Next, the subject of Alice’s age is raised, which she says is seven years and six months, to which Humpty replies rather threateningly,
‘ […] With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.’
Although the correspondence is inexact (adding 10), I believe this to be a reference to John Clifford, 9th Baron de Clifford’s slaying of the 17-year-old Edmund, Earl of Rutland, son of the Duke of York, at the Battle of Wakefield.
The subject turns to Humpty’s cravat, which Alice mistakes for a belt, and after the awkwardness arising is past, we find out:
‘[…] It’s a present from the White King and Queen. There now!’
We can easily fit the pieces and see that this represents the chain of office of chancellor conferred, along with a heap of other titles, following Edward IV’s ascension to the throne, by him and Elizabeth Woodville, who was recently given her own TV series literally called The White Queen.
And this in turn means Iris, the White Pawn-Princess Alice is standing in for as “too young to play”, is Edward V, with the gender swap seemingly based on a pun on his and his brother’s imprisonment as the Princes in the Tower. We see her first high on a table—imprisoned in the Tower—out of reach of her parents, and knocked over—deposed….¹⁸
All the correspondences provided here might seem like overinterpretations, and there are such, including those positing that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Carroll’s real self, a strait-laced professor of mathematics and clergyman in the sleepy town of Oxford was hopped up on opium, but I know I’m not alone in finding at least some of them, and I feel instead I’m just scratching the surface. With the proper resources, a book could well be written.
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- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3, 1.4.108, 1591.
- Ibid, line 185.
- Carroll, 1865.
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, 1.3.151, 1591.
- Carroll, 1865.
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871.
- Henry VI, Part 3, 5.1.18.
- Carroll, 1871.
- Henry VI, Part 3, 42-46.
- Carroll, 1871.
- Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Jonathan Miller, “So That’s the Way You Like It”, Beyond the Fringe, 1960, emphasis mine.
- Henry VI, Part 3, 5.1.21-24.
- Carroll, 1871.