Monday, September 21, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

One of these days, I should probably rename this weekly feature of the blog, because novel's like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland really do need to be discussed, but they're by no means "pulp fantasy," at least as I usually use the word.

Ah well.

Written by an English mathematician and logician named Charles Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll -- a complex linguistic pun on his own name) and first published in 1865, the novel has proven extremely influential in the development of the literary genre we now call "fantasy." Indeed, for many English-speaking people, the novel, or some adaptation of it, is one the first encounters we have with a fantasy tale, at least a memorable one. And Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is nothing if not memorable.

I can still recall my own first reading of it as a boy, from an old edition my mother had in our basement, which included illustrations by John Tenniel and consequently seared into my brain ever since. That's because the novel wasn't written as what we'd today call a "children's book." That's not to say it's unsuitable for children, but Carroll didn't publish the story solely to appeal to children. Consequently, it's language, imagery, and characters are quite sophisticated and, on many levels, unsettling. That's what sticks with me after all these years: all the things I read in this book that made my young mind uneasy -- not frightened exactly, although some of it was frightening, but shaken and excited.

I think that's part of the book's lasting appeal. It's very hard to read it without thinking strange thoughts and considering odd possibilities. I hesitate to say it's a "mind expanding" novel, as that's a mite more pretentious than I wish, but there's no question that it does expand my sense of what fantasy is and could be. Speaking personally, that's a good thing, since I need little pushes into the phantasmagoric realm from time to time. My own tastes in fantasy tend to be more staid and conservative, so Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a much needed tonic. I doubt I'll ever be much of a surrealist, but novels like this help me see the value in such an approach.

Gary Gygax obviously agreed, since he included trips to Wonderland in his old Greyhawk campaign, a tradition many other gamers have observed over the years as well. It's not hard to see why. Stripped of its specific details, the novel is the story of a person from our world journeying into a fantasy realm where the laws of reality are different. That's a standard trope of many genuine pulp fantasies, such as Burroughs's Barsoom stories, and one that was strongly influential on the development of D&D, despite the lack of citation in Appendix N. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland shows, I think, that fantasy can be intelligent without being stuffy and that there's no reason why we shouldn't let our fantasies differ greatly from our everyday experiences. Those differences can be both wondrous and unsettling at the same time and the retreat from both qualities can make fantasy -- and fantasy gaming -- all the poorer.

18 comments:

  1. I read Alice in Wonderland to my then five year old daughter. She loved it so much that she demanded I read it to her again. Then we read Through the Looking Glass.

    It's curious that fantasy has come to be such a male character dominated genre, when two of the its founding works had both female protagonists and villains... Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

    ReplyDelete
  2. An extraordinarily creepy and influential work, no doubt. James, take a look at the free JAGS rpg sourcebook "Wonderland," a setting that really captures the darker essence of the tale (http://www.jagsrpg.org/?download=Wonderland.pdf). I used the Call of Cthulhu rules to run it, and it was a fantastic campaign. The author portrays Wonderland as a voracious, sentient entity, the faerie land of myth that gobbles people up and takes them far, far away...to play with them. Very good stuff (not unlike this blog!).

    Today's word verification is "insituse," which makes me think of "institute." Very Winderland indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I adore Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I'm working on a series of novels right now (which with some luck has interest from one publisher already). The second will involve the sojourn of a modern young girl named Becky through Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land, guided by the ghosts of two Alices.

    ReplyDelete
  4. American McGee. Gygax. Too cool. Hope the upcoming movie is good.

    Jag looks interesting too, will have to read it. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "One of these days, I should probably rename this weekly feature of the blog, because novel's like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland really do need to be discussed, but they're by no means "pulp fantasy," at least as I usually use the word."

    A suggestion: add them as separate tags "pulp" "fantasy" and a new one "literature". Then apply as needed. AiWL strikes me as "fantasy" "literature" and obviously not needing a "pulp" tag. If literature is too debatable a term, maybe "library" would work. This would still keep Alice out of any "pulp" searches but rightly in "library" to denote it's a narrative and not a gaming resource. You could also add "sci-fi" to any pulp novels more geared in that vein.

    Blogger is great for making edits to tags, and though you have a lot, one evening's worth of sorting and re-tagging should do it. You may even find a few that you missed along the way.

    /doing a lot of taxonomy at work these days!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, James. It is amazing, when I think about it, the impact Carroll's work has had on pop culture, from Jefferson Airplane to The Matrix to D&D.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love Alice. I still have an ancient edition, with the cover coming off, on my shelf. Sadly, I read THE LOOKING GLASS WAR a few years ago.... and it wasn't uite as good.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I know these only through pop media, this would be a great story to read to the kids, as I would become acquainted with it at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  9. i suspect edgar rice burroughs did not make appendix N, because his estate threatened to SUE Gygax for inclusion of Barsoomian beasts in the little brown books . . .

    from the Warlord of Mars

    “If I sometimes seem to take too great pride in my fighting ability, it must be remembered that fighting is my vocation. If your vocation is shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, then you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability.” (Chapter VI, p. 61)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Alice and Wonderland was political satire of its day. The Mad Hatter and the Tea Party was a spoof of the board of directors or some other academic establishment either at Oxford or Cambridge, where Dodgson taught. All lost now to history and only psychodelic trace remains.

    D&D is too linear and wargame oriented to be well suited to Alice in Wonderland type play, but it CAN be done. The spirit of D&D and sword and sorcery genre is more akin to adventures of Sinbad the Sailor and 1001 Nights than to high fantasy of the LOTR, which is not really a fantasy at all, if you look at it. LOTR is a world with sorcery in it, which is disenchanted of mystery, unknown, or magic and is depressingly finite, with Dark Lord a menacing abstraction.

    ReplyDelete
  11. i suspect edgar rice burroughs did not make appendix N, because his estate threatened to SUE Gygax for inclusion of Barsoomian beasts in the little brown books . . .

    Burroughs is included in Appendix N -- the Pellucidar and Barsoom books, specifically.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Alice and Wonderland was political satire of its day. The Mad Hatter and the Tea Party was a spoof of the board of directors or some other academic establishment either at Oxford or Cambridge, where Dodgson taught.

    Well, I think it's fairer to say that the book includes satire of many sorts, including the political. That's not the book's primary purpose so far as I have ever ascertained.

    FWIW, I don't think we know for certain who the Mad Hatter is supposed to spoof. There are several candidates, including a furniture dealer in Oxford.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I have an annotated text, I have to pull it out. The Md Tea Party - the Hatter, the Hare and the Sloth refer to Trinity College, Trinity Committee or something .

    ReplyDelete
  14. I hesitate to say it's a "mind expanding" novel, as that's a mite more pretentious than I wish...

    Hesitate no more, let your pretentiousness run amok! You now have statisticians to back you up:

    www.miller-mccune.com/news/this-is-your-brain-on-kafka-1474

    ReplyDelete
  15. me bad . . .

    must be the dyslexia

    I apologize for the error

    I have a home brew Barsoom game that I wrote / copyrighted in 1990;
    72 pages of goodness . . .

    send me an address IF
    you would like a print copy

    LouisL2 at COX dot COM

    ReplyDelete
  16. Clovis, I'd really love to see a copy of the game you wrote. I tried emailing you from Gmail and Hotmail, but I got the following error message both times: Mailbox unavailable or access denied. Is that email address correct? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  17. shrug I don’t think everything in the “Pulp Fantasy Library” need be “pulp fantasy”. They need merely be books that may be of interest to the pulp fantasy enthusiast.

    Or, like “wargame” or “role-playing game” or the “spin” of elementary particles et cetera ad naseum, you can just accept that names are often imperfect.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I don't know about that Robert. I get what you're saying, but making things more generic doesn't make them less confusing or easier.

    "Alice" is fantasy for sure, but it was written well before the pulp era.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.