have inspired me recently. Curiouser and curiouser, as our dear beloved Alice would say. I re-read Alice in Wonderland recently, in a gulp.
Why? For some reason childhood stories move me specially now. Maybe because in sorting through boxes in storage I came upon baby books and elementary school report cards.
This is the season when roses fray and fade, yet still appear wondrous.
Likewise, the stories of childhood, long forgotten, sometimes reappear, floating in our adult consciousness. When you think about a child in a fantasy world, the first image that comes into your mind is probably Alice. Dipping in, I was surprised to find how rock-solid were the characters and scenes in my mind.
Lewis Carroll’s 1865 masterwork originated in a story he told to a friend’s daughter, the captivating Alice, and her sisters.
The story-book Alice copes with her bizarre environment after the rabbit hole by eating and drinking foods and beverages to grown bigger and smaller. (I used to amuse myself with drawing dessert after dessert with crayon.) Alice is in awe of all she sees. When I was a child, I discovered upon reading my early teachers’ commentary, I was also awed by the world.
My beloved second-grade teacher Marcine Weiner had high hopes for me. She wrote:
Jeanie is a happy charming youngster with a vivid imagination. She has a wonderful talent for organization, both in her oral presentations and in her other work. With her ease in speaking, coupled with her excellent reading ability I eventually expect to hear about some truly imaginative creative writing. She is interested in everything and participates fully in all phases of our daily program…
When I was a kid, probably around Alice’s age, I already had intentions about my future. In addition to coloring, I filled composition notebooks with my signature in my new childish cursive, thinking that that’s what grown-up writers did. (The parents thought I was wasting paper, as I recall.)
Flowers figure prominently in Alice, of course. She enters a beautiful garden and tries and tries to get back to it over the course of the book.
John Tenniel drew the original pictures for Alice in Wonderland. He was a graphic humorist and political cartoonist, and one feature of his illustrations is that Alice maintains an expressionless face in most of the scenes. She is stoic. When I was a child hearing of Alice for the first time and fancying myself a bit of a writer, I was anything but sober. Alice’s snake neck fascinated me.
I loved the world. I also loved fairy tales. The Blue Fairy Book was my touchstone.
I only had the first two of the color-coded books, the Blue and the Red.
Andrew Lang’s anthology of stories grew tattered through use. I went back to Beauty and the Beast recently. Originally the work of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, who wrote it after hearing a servant tell the story, it it was re-worked by Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756 for an “educational manual” and became famous throughout the world in different forms.
Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim called Beauty and the Beast an “animal groom” story, intended to reassure virginal brides about sex. I never saw it that way!
I loved the part about Beauty asking her father to bring her back a rose, something so simple, from Beast’s magnificent castle, which contained jewels and art and gold beyond compare. I don’t think it would have mattered to wise young Beauty if the rose was an October rose, a little tattered.
We all know the Disney version, in which the Beast starts as the incarnation of the rich bad-boy, whose awkward yet diefast love for Beauty transforms him into a brave and generous hero. Belle reforms him and loves him.
In the Disney version, Beast gives Beauty a mirror. “Take it with you so you’ll always have a way to look back … and remember me,” he says. So poignantly.
The confident and spunky heroine finally discovers the amazing prince within the beastly exterior, and has only three words: “It is you.”
When I was growing up, this and the other fairy tales made a big impression on me. Now, entering those years when I am more Red Queen than Alice, their texture and themes strike me as completely fresh and yet completely famliar.
I’m sure I was pretty fresh back then, too.