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Down the rabbit hole: David Day decodes Lewis Carroll’s kidlit classic

Nov_Feat4_AlicesAdventures_2Like the subject of his latest book, author David Day isn’t entirely what he seems.

To skim through Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded – which purports to uncover the “real” story that lies just beneath the famously unruly and endlessly quotable text of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 kidlit classic – one might assume Day to be an agoraphobic scholar who feels most at home in the basement of a university library. In person, however, the 68-year-old, Toronto-based author is more akin to a long-lost brother of actor Bill Murray: amiable, witty, and relaxed, as willing to dispense literary gossip as he is to expound on Rosicrucianism and the significance of the Cheshire Cat’s smile.

In the first 20 or so pages of Day’s dense tome, published earlier this fall by Doubleday Canada, readers are given quick looks at Carroll’s Anglican brand of mysticism, mid-19th-century Oxford politics, British secret societies, Fibonacci numbers, and the mythological concept of the “psychopomp,” a figure who guides souls to the underworld. This is the kind of book that could keep list-makers for an alternate-universe Buzzfeed site busy forever.

Day grew up outside of Victoria, and later spent a decade studying at both the University of Victoria and the University British Columbia, bouncing between a dozen different faculties, avidly consuming courses on psychology, theatre, creative writing, and more. He often sat in on lectures without enrolling, just because he was interested in the subject.

Nov_Feat4_AlicesAdventures_1After spending about a year in Toronto working in the college division of McClelland & Stewart, Day moved to London in 1978 and quickly signed a contract to write A Tolkien Bestiary, a guidebook to the creatures inhabiting the Lord of the Rings author’s world of Middle Earth. Inspired by both a bibliography course Day took at UBC and Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, Day’s guide was an enormous hit and is still in print. Over the next three decades, Day published numerous works of history, mythology, fiction, and poetry, as well as more volumes on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary worlds. He also became known as a writer concerned with endangered species, which brought him into contact with the members of the comedy troupe Monty Python, whom he met at an anti-whaling rally. Large parts of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded were written at the home of Python Terry Jones, to whom the book is dedicated.

Decoded began life as a simple freelance job. Shortly after completing The Hobbit Companion in 1997, Day was asked by U.K. publisher Colin Webb to write something to mark the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s death the following year. Day initially saw the task as a literary holiday – especially after all the long marches he’d made through Middle Earth. “I thought, It’s a small book – how difficult could this be?” he recalls now, laughing. “Boy was I wrong.”

As he dropped into Carroll’s topsy-turvy world, it quickly dawned on him that what generations of readers and scholars had taken as proto-psychedelic hijinks and random wordplay was actually what he calls a “memory palace” in which the author had embedded all of western thought, math, and science. “It’s like a computer game, only the clues are in the language,” Day says. “The more I read, the deeper it got. It was driving me absolutely insane.”

Nov_Feat4_AlicesAdventures_3Day believes that Carroll set about embedding a complete classical education in the pages of a children’s fable specifically for the benefit of preteen Alice Liddell – the daughter of one of Carroll’s Oxford colleagues and the acknowledged model for the character of Alice – after Carroll had been barred from interacting with the girl following a mysterious indiscretion. Every scene of the story, and especially every name, is freighted with scholarly allusions and puns that bridge multiple disciplines. “I could teach the history of philosophy up to 1850 using Alice,” Day says. “And the same with mathematics.”

Decoded offers the complete text of Alice’s Adventures of Wonderland printed in the centre of each page. Flowing around it is Day’s commentary – sometimes crowding out Carroll’s story entirely – which demonstrates, for example, that the Cheshire Cat’s grin is based on a geometric curve called a catenary.

Scholars have, in the past, touched on some of the findings Day presents in his new work, but none have posited such an overarching connection among all the story’s elements. Day says this is because most researchers have looked at the book from a 20th- or 21st-century perspective. He, on the other hand, set about reading everything in Carroll’s private library, plus all of the author’s letters and diaries; he has, in essence, gotten inside the author’s mind. Instead of imposing an interpretation, he simply followed every twist of Carroll’s imagination and unpacked every pun. “Nobody’s come up with these things because nobody’s insane enough to do this,” Day says. “Everybody knows something about Alice, but they don’t know what they know.”

What should have taken a year or two ended up taking nearly two decades – the book’s original press, which decided the finished product didn’t meet its publishing mandate, was shocked to discover Day was still working on it. Day wrote other books in the meantime, but couldn’t let go of Alice – which is even more remarkable given that he is not a big fan of Carroll the man, whose real name was Charles Dodgson. “I don’t particularly like him,” Day says. “I certainly don’t share his interest in little girls.”

Now that Decoded is finally finished, Day plans to take a break from the world of Alice. He is considering writing a similar treatment on Carroll’s other Alice book, Through the Looking-Glass, in the future, but admits the thought is “terrifying.” If Day’s book proves anything, however, it’s that Carroll’s work, and its indefatigable young protagonist, is itself a rabbit hole of mystery waiting to be discovered.


November 9th, 2015

2:13 pm

Category: Writing Life

Issue Date: November 2015

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