The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I am way behind in my reading for the module on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Not that it’s a problem, because I’m only auditing this on-line course and so can take it at my leisure.  So, while the rest of the students are busy reading Dracula, I am re-visiting Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

The Alice books are part of just about everyone’s childhood.  I suspect that many people won’t have even read the originals but they will know the general storyline and the characters either from Disney or from commercial outlets that rely on familiarity with Carroll’s work to sell their wares.  Certainly, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t part of my consciousness even though, settling down to explore Wonderland again this afternoon, I think it might be the case that I haven’t actually read the books themselves in the last fifty years.

Even in my childhood my favourite episode was always the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a partiality which in many ways has proved prophetic.  As an adult I love afternoon tea, along with breakfast it is my favourite meal, so I would have been in seventh heaven if, forced by Time, I had to spend my life feasting on the delights of tea (loose-leaf, of course), scones, jam and cream. Although I might have drawn the line at having to move into the seat left by the clumsy March Hare.  Why can’t they all have clean place settings?

However, even more prescient in respect of the way in which my life developed is the way these characters play with language.  Was this an early sign that my career would centre around the way in which the English language works and the fun that we can have with it when we realise its flexibility and the opportunities for verbal dexterity it can offer to the speaker and writer?

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. I’m glad they begun asking riddles. – I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it? ‘said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ 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 seems 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.

The conversation could have been a forerunner of dozens I would have with students over the years, although the best times were always when I was teaching primary children and they would come across some totally bizarre rule in a text book and challenge me about it.

‘Please, Miss, why can’t I start a sentence with because?’  demanded nine year old Mark, one day.

‘You can, Mark.’

‘No I can’t,’ brandishing a book under my nose. ‘It says I can’t, here.’

True enough.  There it was in black and white.  You must never start a sentence with because.’ 

That was the first time I threw a book at the ceiling and shouted ‘rubbish’.  Mark, having first dived for cover, emerged from under my desk and then spent the rest of the year trying (and succeeding) to provoke the same response again.

Then, of course, there was the never to be forgotten occasion when I was reading aloud from the first published form of the Literacy Hour only to discover that the Government ‘experts’ were trying to tell us that if a verb had ‘ed’ at the end it was past tense, but if it had ‘ing’ it was present tense.  Really, I promise you.

On that occasion it was a ring binder I threw at the ceiling, which promptly flew open and showered twenty odd startled students with fluttering sheets of paper.  Startled they may have been but they never forgot what a participle was, be it past or present.

Re-reading Alice has brought so many memories back.  I don’t know if encountering those wonderful word games so early on in life was formative or not but I enjoyed them as a child and I still enjoy them now.

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21 thoughts on “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

  1. You know, I don’t think I have ever read the books! I am familiar with the characters and stories through other sources, as you describe, but I just never made it to the books themselves. I probably should some day!

    1. If you do, Rebecca, try and get hold of one of the annotated editions, because for an adult the explanations of what was behind Carroll’s thinking are fascinating. For the baby the much more recent version with the Helen Oxenbury illustrations is delightful, although every child should eventually have the original Tenniel drawings.

  2. I read (and re-read) Through the Looking-Glass many years before Alice in Wonderland, so that’s what I think of first with Alice. I still have both on my shelves, though I still tend to re-read Through the Looking-Glass more often.

    1. I’ve just started Through the Looking-Glass, Lisa. I think it feels much more pre-planned than Wonderland, but I still love some of the characters, especially The White King and his “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes”.

  3. My husband has these same conversations with his senior-level English classes just about every day. We haven’t made the connection to Alice references before, but it’s absolutely true – and he’ll certainly enjoy it!

    1. I think all the best classrooms have a touch of ‘Alice’ about them. Walking into Wonderland everyday is one of the things I really miss about full-time teaching.

  4. The Alice books were great favourites of mine when I was a child. I re-read Through the Looking Glass a few years ago but can’t remember when I last read Alice in Wonderland (I don’t have my childhood book now). But I still have my copy of Through the Looking Glass that my Great Aunty gave me when I was about 8 or 9. I loved the word play even as a child.
    When I was at school we were taught that you couldn’t begin a sentence with Because, or And, or But and I still have hang-ups about doing that. Because it’s so ingrained. 🙂

    1. Margaret, I could explain to you just why and when it is possible to use ‘And’ and ‘But’ at the beginning of not just a sentence, but also a paragraph, or even a chapter, but it would bore you silly. However, the use of ‘Because’ is another matter entirely. I do understand why children have been told not to use it at the beginning of a sentence but it is perfectly acceptable as long as the Subordinate clause it prefaces is followed by the Main clause to which it is subordinated, as in

      Because this reply was so boring, Margaret switched her computer off.

      To say that you can never use it in this position is not simply wrong it is silly because in real life we do it all the time.

  5. I never read the books as a kid. I saw the Disney movie and a live-action movie but never read the books. Finally read them a number of years ago and, oh, what fun they are!

    1. If you can get hold of an Annotated Alice, Stefanie, I think you’ll find them even more fun. Carroll was so clever and couldn’t help but work his love of puzzles and the people he knew (and didn’t always like) into his work. The Annotated edition opens up entirely new ways of thinking about the books.

  6. I’ve had that same battle over sentences starting with And …. sometimes I would ask them to tell me how the Book of Genesis begins. That would sometimes shut them up!

  7. I ought to try these books again as an adult. As a child I was terrified by anything surreal and couldn’t get to grips with it. I wanted a stable, understandable world very badly. But I can handle surreal now and probably enjoy it! As for that ‘because’ thing – gah! I had an English teacher who was a complete maniac in that respect, no sentences beginning with because or and. In later life I take great pleasure in breaking all these ‘rules’.

    1. It’s interesting, Litlove, how people in general expect someone who has taught language at University level to be very much on the side of the ‘old school’ of thought and really can’t cope when we’re not. One of my closest friends is an accepted expert world wide and would frequently throw whichever broadcasting company has asked her on to comment about whatever is the burning debate of the day because she never takes the position they expected her to.

  8. I’m behind on my Coursera readings too. In fact, I think I’m now officially auditing, too. 🙂 I really liked Alice in Wonderland, though I was happy to move on to books that had more plot than the Grimm’s tales and Alice. I DID find it very useful to read a foot-noted version of Alice, though, because I understood a lot more this time around…I think my favorite character is the Cheshire Cat, though.

    1. Rebecca, have you read Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books where the Cheshire Cat appears again? Only this time he is the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat – they changed the boundaries! I’m sorry that is an English joke which you may not understand but if you haven’t read Fforde and don’t know Thursday Next get hold of a copy of the first one “The Eyre Affair’ immediately. No one who loves books should be without these.

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