A mad tea-party
I have always loved the Alice books by Lewis Carroll.
I was given them (with the original woodcut illustrations by John Tenniel) for my birthday when I was - I don’t know … eight? Nine years old? I do remember where I read them - I was sleeping on a camp bed at the time (my Nan was visiting for a few days, and sharing my room). I still have those very same copies, next to me as I write - now dog-eared and lightly foxed around the edges (a description that applies equally to the books and their owner).
Carroll’s Wonderland is a world inhabited by creatures who put logic before sense, creating a complicated kind of nonsense that becomes, as Alice herself noted, ‘curiouser and curiouser’ - to such an extent that what at first appears nonsensical actually begins to make complete sense!
One of my favourite parts of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Mad Tea Party in Chapter VII. The nonsense is rife, thanks to the March Hare and Hatter, whose dialogue deals almost entirely with the baffling inversion and twisting of logic and puns. The insanity of the party eventually becomes too much for Alice, who gets ‘up in great disgust’ and walks off.
In The Annotated Alice, Carroll’s nonsense is described as ‘a sanity-insanity inversion’:
The ordinary world is turned upside down and backwards; it becomes a world in which things go everyway except the way they are supposed to.
- Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice
Taking phrases literally, instead of as they are commonly understood, is characteristic of all the inhabitants of Wonderland, and form the basis for much of Carroll’s humour. (For this very reason, many readers find his work irritating, rather than humorous).
Here’s a great example of the Hatter and the March Hare successfully inverting what Alice is trying to say when the Hatter asks the riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“… I believe I can guess that,” [said Alice].
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least - at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
“It is the same thing with you,” said the Hatter…
This inversion works particularly well, since on reflection, it is Alice who is talking nonsense, while the insane intellectuals are making complete sense.
Another example of a logic trap that occurs later during the tea party:
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
In my award-winning book, The Big Book Adventure by Emily Ford (Silver Dolphin 2018), Foxy and Piggy are excitedly telling each other about the books they have read, and the worlds those stories have taken them to - including Wonderland, suggested by the author’s opening text:
Well, first I found a little door,
Right there on a tree.
I stepped inside and made some friends
And joined them all for tea.
When I read this, I could only think about those exquisite Tenniel illustrations of the Mad Tea Party, which are now so iconic. I thought to myself, if only I could just pop Piggy straight into those illustrations…
I investigated the copyright, and sure enough, the engravings are in the public domain (since Tenniel died more than seventy years ago) - meaning I could use them! Since these illustrations are so recognisable, this opening spread became the linchpin for the premise of the whole book - that we are entering these different worlds via the stories that Piggy and Foxy have read.
Here’s the very first idea I mocked up in my sketchbook, with Piggy seated at the tea table -
For the final spread - taken from my original childhood copies of the Alice books - I decided that showing Piggy entering through the door in the tree (the same door that led Alice back to the long hall with the glass table) would be most effective. For this, I adapted the tree from the background of an illustration of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Through the Looking Glass.
Keen eyed readers will note that, in order to fit the dimensions of The Big Book Adventure, I had to adapt and continue Tenniel’s original illustration:
by adding a tree to the far right;
by extending the background trees upwards to the top page edge;
by removing the suggestion of a building behind the March Hare.
Finally, I hand coloured the black and white illustration in watercolour, based on Tenniel’s own updated work for The Nursery “Alice” (Macmillan 1889).
I really enjoyed adapting and using someone else’s work in this way. I’m not sure how, but one day I’d like to have the chance to do something similar again.
The Big Book Adventure -
… we absolutely, positively LOVED it. … [A]n adorable pig and fox … visit some of the classic stories we all know and love like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and more. My daughter so enjoyed trying to figure out which stories they were visiting as we read through. As a family of book lovers, this one really appealed to us. It had a great flow that we just could not get enough of...
- reviewed on A Modern Day Fairy Tale blog
The Big Book Adventure by Emily Ford, illustrated by Tim Warnes (Silver Dolphin Books 2018)
‘Truly delightful’ - books4yourkids.com
Winner: 2019 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Silver Award (Children's Picture Books)
Winner: 2018 Foreword INDIE Gold Award (Picture Books, Early Reader)