Obituary: “Lewis Carroll”
Arthur Machen
Literature (January 22, 1898)

All lovers of English literature will join with us in our regret at tho death of “Lewis Carroll,” whose “Alice in Wonderland,” written to amuse a child—one of the daughters of Dean Liddell—has amused the whole world for thirty years. Every one knows, of course, that “Lewis Carroll” was also the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, M.A., senior student of Christ Church College, Oxford, and author of many books on mathematical subjects; and the Society for Psychical Research might find useful employment in deciding which personality was the real one, whether “Dodgson” was not, philosophically, the pseudonym, and Carroll the real name. For “Alice in Wonderland” was, in a measure, an epoch-making book. Ever since its publication author after author has tried to continue Alice’s adventures, to work out that vein of humour which “Lewis Carroll” discovered per accidcus, as Mr. Dodgson, the mathematician and logician, would have said. We know what happens when a fashion in literature is once established, and it must be confessed that we began to weary a little of this stream of Alices. In the “Adventures” the Cheshire cat disappeared, but the grin remained, but in the imitations the grin has unfortunately vanished also, and little was visible except the verbal contortion, the disjecta membra of “Lewis Carroll’s” wit.

Still, the artist must not suffer for the sins of the copyist, and “Alice” remains and will long remain classic, the masterpiece of a curious genre in literature. Its author reigns “over the realms of nonsense absolute,” and though he established a school he has left no successor. And yet, though we are all delighted with “Alice,” it would be perhaps a little difficult to analyze the sources of our pleasure. For on the surface both the “Wonderland” and the “Looking Glass” appear to be non sense, simpliciter, and critics of the Johnsonian school, who regard literature as the expression of the intelligence, could hardly admit that nonsense, in itself, can amuse any body. There

are, of course, the verbal contortions we have alluded to – the fishes who indulged in “reeling , and writhing, and fainting in coils”—but it will be acknowledged that fun of this description is not, in any sense of the word, inimitable. And the Mock Turtle who wept because he was not a real turtle, he, too, is a purely verbal creature, not, surely, a humorous reality, an ensetium of wit. Where, then, as Dr. Johnson remarked on a memorable occasion, is the merriment? The inquiry would be a singular one, and certainly nobody would have been more delighted than Mr. Dodgson if a chain commencing with “Alice” had been shown to extend, not merely into logic and mathematics, but into the farther wonderland of metaphysics and psychology. And yet it seems probable that we relish “Lewis Carroll’s” nonsense because in it we see mirrored certain dark and mysterious portions of our nature. In the 18th century philosophy had come to the conclusion that man was a purely rational animal, and from this standpoint Johnson judged “Lycidas” to be rubbish, or something very near it. But it seems probable that man is not only born rational but also irrational, that deep in the heart there is a dungeon, where two sided triangles abound, where Achilles chases the tortoise in vain , eternally, where parallel straight lines are continually meeting. It is the world of contradictions, of the impossible realized, the world of which we dream at nights, and, above all, it is the world which is the home of children, far more true and real to them than all the assemblage of rational sublunary things. “Lewis Carroll” had perhaps learnt from his friend Mr. Dodgson, the mathematical tutor, that such a sphere existed, and he journeyed into that dim and mysterious land, and has succeeded in tolling us the story of his “Voyage and Travaile.” This, surely, is the secret of “Alice,” this is the secret of its charm for children, whose thoughts are ineffable, and those of us who read the tale in later years feel, unconsciously, that we, too, have passed through the Looking Glass, and have been in the realm of contradiction. Maundeville described the incredible wonders of the material world: “Lewis Carroll” shows us the marvels of the microcosm, that little world of the soul, in which there be many simulacres and monstrous creatures.

It was extraordinary that, after the first success of “Alice in Wonderland,” the author was able to write the equally successful “Through the Looking Glass.” Sequels are proverbial failures, but “Lewis Carroll” was paradoxical in this as in almost all else. It is quite in character that he should have desired to prove the earth to be flat , that he should have been for ever groping amongst the “trick” passages and trap-doors of scholastic logic. The “Hunting of the Snark” is to be reckoned also in the list of his achievements, but one need not trouble about his later “Sylvie and Bruno,” “A Tangled Tale,” or “Phantasmagoria.” His little brochures on University affairs are hardly known by the outside world, though they amused his Oxford contemporaries. Who could forget such touches as (we quote from memory) “I will not say I laughed in my sleeve, though the M. A. gown is particularly well suited for such a purpose; or—the end of a Waltonian dialogue located in “Tom Quad” — “ ‘See, Master, there is a fish’— ‘Then let us hook it’ —(they hook it ).”

Perhaps the chiefest contradiction of all is this—that, while he dwelt internally amongst the wildest idola of the mind, he lived all his outer life in his rooms at Christ Church, a don of the old-fashioned sort, courteous and alert, but a little stiff in manner, except to children, who found him as delightful a companion in life as he was in literature.

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6 thoughts on “Arthur Machen on Lewis Carroll

  1. Thank you for this! I’m not sure if I’d forgotten – or never knew – Carroll had written “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” – to which I suppose Machen is alluding in speaking of “a dungeon […] where Achilles chases the tortoise in vain”: however I find that it has it’s own Wikipedia article (apparently in 13 languages!). Time to (try t0) (re-?)read it! “His little brochures on University affairs are hardly known by the outside world, though they amused his Oxford contemporaries.” How did Machen know them? How might we, who have not joined the Internet Archive “Books to Borrow” set-up, where Edward Wakling’s 1993 edition, The Oxford Pamphlets, Leaflets, and Circulars of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, may be found?


    1. It is interesting to note Machen’s enjoyment of Dodgson’s Oxford pamphlets since he was not of that world and showed little or no care for it. Previously unaware of their existence, this piece made me curious about these pamphlets. Unfortunately, the book you cited is being sold second hand for a premium.


      1. Maybe it’s worth looking into the “Books to Borrow” terms of service or whatever, or try some kind of InterLibrary Loan. I should have a look at the WorldCat to see what might be available in a library here in the Netherlands – but one would think the originals might be scanned somewhere online, since Carroll is long out of copyright – maybe they are, and WorldCat will show it!


      1. Wow! The things I don’t properly know about Lewis Carroll – though I have a copy of his Symbolic Logic (which I have never yet read!) – and did enjoyably catch up with his curious Sylvie and Bruno books (which were unknown to me, until I ran into references to them in a book on T.S.Eliot!).


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