Because my father was a diplomat, my childhood was largely spent travelling from place to place. The bedrooms in which I slept, the words spoken outside the door, the landscapes around me constantly changed. Only my small library remained the same, and I remember the intense relief I felt when, tucked once again in an unfamiliar bed, I opened my books and there on the expected page was the same old story and the same old illustration. When Mole, in The Wind in the Willows, returns to his little house from the big outside world, and lets his eyes wander round the old room, and sees how plain and simple it all is, and understands how much it means to him, I remember feeling something like pangs of envy, knowing that he had somewhere to come back to—a “place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
In the distant childhood of my generation, wrapped in the soft folds of supernatural fancy, our playmates were Pippi Longstocking and Pinocchio, Sandokan the Pirate and Mandrake the Magician; those of today’s children are presumably Harry Potter and his companions, and Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. Rooted in their own histories, these characters cannot be caged between the covers of their books, however brief or vast that space might be. Because my father was a diplomat, my childhood was largely spent travelling from place to place. The bedrooms in which I slept, the words spoken outside the door, the landscapes around me constantly changed. Only my small library remained the same, and I remember the intense relief I felt when, tucked once again in an unfamiliar bed, I opened my books and there on the expected page was the same old story and the same old illustration. When Mole, in The Wind in the Willows, returns to his little house from the big outside world, and lets his eyes wander round the old room, and sees how plain and simple it all is, and understands how much it means to him, I remember feeling something like pangs of envy, knowing that he had somewhere to come back to—a “place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
And all of these fabulous monsters are so unconditionally faithful that they are untroubled by our weaknesses and failures. Now that my bones barely allow me to reach the lowest shelves, Sandokan calls me once more to arms, and Mandrake compels me to seek vengeance against fools, while Pippi, with great patience, tells me again and again not to give a hoot about conventions and to follow my own nose, and Pinocchio keeps on asking me why, in spite of what the Blue Fairy has told him, it isn’t enough to be honest and good in order to be happy. And I, as in the days far away and long ago, cannot find the right answer.
The world of Alice is our world. Wonderland is the mad place in which we find ourselves daily, with its quotidian ration of the heavenly, the hellish, and the purgatorial. Alice (like us) is armed with only one weapon: language. It is with words that we make our way through the Cheshire Cat’s forest and the Queen of Hearts’s croquet ground. It is with words that Alice discovers the difference between what things are and what they appear to be. It is her questioning that brings out the madness of Wonderland, hidden, as in our world, under a thin coat of conventional respectability. We may try to find logic in madness, as the Duchess does by finding a moral to everything, however absurd, but the truth is, as the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, that we have no choice in the matter: whichever path we follow, we will find ourselves among mad people, and we must use language to keep a grip on what we deem to be our sanity.
Words reveal to Alice (and to us) that the only indisputable fact of this bewildering world is that under an apparent rationality we are all mad. Like Alice, we risk drowning ourselves and everyone else in our own tears. We like to think, as the Dodo does, that no matter in what direction or how incompetently we run, we should all be winners. And our system of justice, long before Kafka described it, is like the one set up to judge the Knave of Hearts, incomprehensible and unfair. Few of us, however, have Alice’s courage to stand up (literally) for our convictions and refuse to hold our tongue. Because of this supreme act of civil disobedience, Alice is allowed to wake from her dream. We, of course, are not.
We recognise in Alice’s journey the themes ever present in our lives: pursuit and loss of dreams, the attendant tears and suffering, the race for survival, being forced into servitude, the nightmare of confused self-identity, the effects of dysfunctional families, the required submission to nonsensical arbitration, the abuse of authority, perverted teaching, the impotent knowledge of unpunished crimes and unfair punishments, and the long struggle of reason against unreason. All this, and the pervading sense of madness, are, in fact, a summary of the Alice books themselves.
“To define true madness,” we are told in Hamlet, “what is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” Alice would have agreed: madness is the exclusion of everything that is not mad and therefore everyone in Wonderland falls under the Cheshire Cat’s dictum. But Alice is not Hamlet. Her dreams are not bad dreams; she never mopes, she never sees herself as the hand of ghostly justice, she never insists on proof of what is crystal clear, she believes in immediate action. Words, for Alice, are not simply words but living creatures, and thinking does not make things good or bad. She certainly does not want her solid flesh to melt, anymore than she wants it to shoot up or shrink down (even though, in order to pass through the small garden door, she wishes she could “shut up like a telescope”). Alice would never have succumbed to a poisoned blade or drunk, like Hamlet’s mother, from a poisoned cup: picking up the bottle that says “drink me” she first looks to see whether it is marked poison or not, “for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them.” Alice is much more reasonable than the Prince of Denmark.
Like Hamlet, however, Alice must have wondered, crammed inside the White Rabbit’s house, if she too might not be bounded in a nutshell, but as to being king (or queen) of infinite space, Alice does not merely fret about it: she strives for the title and, in Through the Looking-Glass, she works hard to earn the promised dream-crown. Alice, brought up on strict Victorian precepts rather than lax Elizabethan ones, believes in discipline and tradition, and has no time for grumbling and procrastination. Throughout her adventures Alice, like a well-brought-up child, confronts unreason with simple logic. Convention is set against fantasy. Alice knows instinctively that logic is our way of making sense of nonsense and uncovering its secret rules, and she applies it ruthlessly, whether confronting the Duchess or the Mad Hatter. And when arguments prove useless, she insists on at least making the unjust absurdity of the situation plain. When the Queen of Hearts demands that the court should give the “sentence first—verdict afterwards,” Alice quite rightly answers, “Stuff and nonsense!” That is the only answer that most of the absurdities in our world deserve.
Little Red Riding Hood
There are characters whose name reveals their skin colour (Snow White), their ability (Spiderman), their size (Thumbelina). Others, their dress. A short blood-coloured cape defines the adventurous girl dreamt up by Charles Perrault towards the end of the 17th century. She has a whiff of the guileless temptress, this creature who is at the same time polite and daring, and who exudes something so subtly attractive that Charles Dickens once confessed that she had been his first love.
“I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood,” he admitted, “I should have known perfect bliss.”
Her story is well known: the errand on which her mother sends her (to deliver a cake and a pot of butter to her sick grandmother), the meeting with the treacherous beast (pivotal to the story), the distractions she finds on her way (picking up acorns and pursuing butterflies), the tragic fate of the grandmother, her questioning of the impersonator and the cross-dressing wolf’s answers that end up revealing the true identity of the fiend.
Little Red Riding Hood’s credo is civil disobedience. Her mother’s autocratic orders must be followed, but she will follow them in her own sweet time. Not for her the shortest path between A and Z, not for her straight and narrow. Because of her digressions, the woods come into being, and also the wolf, the woodcutter, the grandmother’s romantic adventure. Without Little Red Riding Hood’s digressive spirit there would be no story.
Zeno argued that movement was impossible because in order to proceed from any given place to the next, we have to reach a point halfway between the two, and to reach that we have to reach another halfway between the first and the intermediate one, and so on throughout eternity. Little Red Riding Hood proves Zeno wrong. Movement is possible exactly because of all these intermediate points: points in the landscape in which the berries are ripe, the acorns plentiful, the flowers ready to be picked. Even the presence of the wolf is only one more intermediate point on the way to her grandmother’s house (which she will eventually reach) because this disobedient girl chooses the points at which she will stop of her own free will. Little Red Riding Hood is emblematic of individual freedom, which is perhaps why the hood of France’s revolutionary Marianne is the same colour as hers.
Little Red Riding Hood’s story changes according to who is telling it. In Perrault’s tale, she is devoured by the wolf. Later versions bring in a heroic woodcutter, who appears at the last moment to save the child from the wolf ’s maw and, by means of a sort of caesarean operation, rescue the grandmother as well. Perrault does not describe the scene where Little Red Riding Hood gets into bed with the fake grandmother, but thanks to the moral that concludes the tale it becomes clear what type of wolf Perrault had in mind. “Not all wolves are the same,” he writes. “There are those who cunningly, without trumpeting their intentions, neither hot-blooded nor spiteful, very discreetly, complacent and well behaved, follow young ladies to their homes and even to their beds. But, beware! Who ignores that these sweet-sounding wolves are, of all the wolves, the most dangerous?”
The strategy of the wolf is employed more often than we know. The notorious abbot of Choisy, Perrault’s contemporary, behaved in this ungentlemanly manner. Even as a boy (he tells us in his memoirs) he liked dressing up in women’s clothing. In Bourges, where he had gone to spend a short cross-dressing holiday, he met a certain Madame Gaillot, whose youngest daughter was a very pretty child. One evening, Madame Gaillot suggested that her daughter sleep in the same bed as her guest. The abbot, in his frilly nightgown and ribboned cap, readily agreed. After a time, the girl shouted out: “Ah me! What pleasure!” “Are you not asleep, my daughter?” the mother called out upon hearing her moan. “It’s just that I was cold getting into bed,” the clever girl replied. “But now that I’m warm I feel very, very content.”
Almost a century after the abbot’s escapade, the Marquis de Sade understood that Little Red Riding Hood’s story could bear a different reading. “There is no infamy that the wolf does not invent in order to capture his prey,” he warned from his cell in the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. If this is true—if almost whatever Little Red Riding Hood does, she is likely to end up in the wolf’s bed—she still has two possible strategies for escape. The first is to resign herself to her condition of victimhood, the second to become mistress of her own fate.
Both these strategies have produced descendants. Daughters of the former are Dumas’s Camille, Galdós’s Marianela, Dickens’s Little Dorrit; of the latter are Shaw’s Mrs Warren, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Vargas Llosa’s Bad Girl. Little Red Riding Hood, however, is both types at once. Seduced seducer, worldly innocent, she keeps on roaming the woods, free and unafraid of disingenuous wolves.
Long John Silver
None of Treasure Island’s characters is as memorable as Long John Silver, the one-legged mariner, whose parrot repeats the ominous words “Pieces of eight!” When Silver is recruited as the ship’s cook by the artless Trelawney, both the squire and the doctor call Silver “an honest man”; the author has given his character a first name that stood for steadfastness and purity. The adjective honest will echo through the book as a sardonic warning to the reader.
Silver is shady, undefined, clever, intimately ambiguous. In order to bring him to life, Stevenson thought of his friend William Ernest Henley. Henley was a man of letters who had suffered in his childhood from tubercular arthritis, an illness that caused him to have one of his lower legs amputated. During one of his stays in the hospital, Henley met Stevenson, and the two men became great friends, collaborating in a few deservedly forgotten plays. If as a writer he was not distinguished, as an editor he was intelligent and risk-taking, and he was one of the first to publish the works of Kipling, Henry James, and HG Wells. Stevenson, writing to Henley in 1883, confessed to his friend that “it was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver... the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” And yet, there was perhaps more to the portrait of the buccaneer and sea cook. Henley’s ambiguous personality, his intellectual strength, his diminished physical appearance, his extravagant manners, and his boundless ambition found their dark mirror in the character of the pirate.
Two scenes define Long John Silver: the first the murder of Tom the sailor, the second the deal that Silver proposes to the boy Jim. When the mutiny is announced, faithful Tom addresses Silver with these wishful words: “Silver, you’re old, and you’re honest, or has the name for it; and you’ve money too, which lots of poor sailors hasn’t; and you’re brave, or I’m mistook. And will you tell me you’ll let yourself be led away with that kind of a mess of swabs? Not you!” Later, realising his mistake and becoming aware that Silver is himself one of the mutineers, Tom tries to escape, but he is struck by a branch thrown at him by Silver with the help of his crutch. (This scene was perhaps inspired by a story Stevenson might have heard about Oscar Wilde and Stevenson’s friend Henley. The two men were hotly arguing about something after leaving a theatre in London. When they parted, Wilde turned to make one final remark, and Henley hurled his crutch at Wilde’s head.) After Silver throws the branch at Tom, Tom falls, and Silver knifes him to death. Atrociously, Stevenson make us see that nothing in the world will change after this crime has been committed, one of the many of which Silver is guilty in his violent long life. Jim, witness of the horror, can barely believe that the sun keeps on calmly shining after a human life has been taken in this particularly vicious way.
In the second scene, Jim is no longer a witness but the protagonist. The deal that Silver proposes to him is that they protect one another: the buccaneer will defend Jim against the mutineers, and the boy will defend Silver later, in front of the judge, to save him from the gallows. And Silver says to Jim, “Ah, you that’s young—you and me might have done a power of good together!” The temptation of a pirate’s life is made explicit. Over Silver’s words falls the shadow of what might have been, and the boy discovers the tenuous border between a civilised behaviour that obeys society’s laws and the life of an adventurer that follows the call of blood.
In the final moments, Jim remains faithful to the old buccaneer, keeps his side of the bargain, and will not abandon Silver even though Dr Livesey insists he do so. Without the reader ever discovering precisely how, Silver has turned the muddled boy into an “honest” young man.
As Captain Smollett says to Squire Trelawney when he shrouds the body of one his faithful followers with a British flag, “It mayn’t be good divinity, but it’s a fact.”
The adventure ends with Silver, “sitting back almost out of the firelight, but eating heartily, prompt to spring forward when anything was wanted, even joining quietly in our laughter—the same bland, polite, obsequious seaman of the voyage out.” When, on the last page, Jim tells the reader what happened afterwards to each of the main characters, he says that he has had no news from Silver himself, but that he imagines the buccaneer has met his old black mistress, and perhaps still lives in peace with her and his parrot. “It is to be hoped so, I suppose,” says Jim, “for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.” The reader feels an uneasy affection for the infamous pirate who was a traitor, a thief, a murderer, and also a good and honest man.
This is an edited extract from Alberto Manguel’s "Fabulous Monsters: Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends" (Yale)