Alice’s flight to fantasy as a disguised quest

Alice’s flight to fantasy as a disguised quest in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ by Lewis Carroll, on par with the illustration of ‘10 Bulls’ in Zen Buddhism.

A work of fiction, where imagination, liberated from the fetters of day-to-day mundanities and logic, is allowed to fly free and create a world of its own and populate it with creatures and incidents which while divorced from reality, are however held together by an internally coherent and self-consistent ambiance. The word ‘fantasy’ as understood today, encompasses a wide spectrum of sub-genres: in the idiom of modern semantics, ‘Fantasy’ can be anything involving the supernatural, the magical or the occult. By that logic, from Odyssey to the Superman comic can be classified as ‘Fantasy’. One common quality, however, unites these works of fiction. Fantasy invariably involves a quest, a search, and a mission, to find oneself.

The search can have several forms: A concrete, tangible objective, such as the redemption of an abducted wife, and in the process, the destruction of an evil force or a person. Or, it could be an emotional, intangible goal of a warrior who, after ten years of siege, wanders for many years, passing through several adventures before coming home to his wife, children and native land.

The three major themes, the chess, the mirror and the juxtaposition of the opposites work together by ‘opposing’ each other towards the goal of Alice-pawn’s queening. The tale is constructed like a chess game: the pieces become characters. Alice herself a pawn and her adventures are complicated by the move she takes. Alice has to cross six brooks in order to become a queen. As a pawn, she starts from the second square. She moves rapidly to the third square in the train because, the pawn can take two steps in their first move. The chess metaphor also explains, the easy move of the queen, since the queen can move in any direction, any number of times. Whereas, the White Knight struggles to move in a straight line, since it has to move in an L-shape. The journey from being a pawn to a queen is essentially a metaphor for growing up. Beyond that, the book implies that life is just a game, full of arbitrary rules and less meaningful.

The ‘Looking Glass’ is a Victorian term used for mirror. The mirror images are reflections of the real world. They are the opposites, or the backward version of normal things. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll uses different reversals, reflections and oppositions. Alice steps through the mirror in the living room to find a world on the opposite side where everything is backwards: Alice wants to go forward, but every time she moves, she ends up where she started; she tries to go left and ends up right; up is down and fast is slow. Thus themes are interwoven and through these oppositions and confusion Alice finally becomes a Queen.

Throughout her journey she meets various other creatures – all imaginary, rightly fit into the characteristics of fantasy. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Unicorn are ‘real’ characters in the world of fantasy. Alice is a stranger in a strange land. This is one of the characteristics of fantasy. Authors of fantasy, usually bring in the characters from the author’s (reader’s) reality into their created world. Physical travel is sometimes not possible and the characters travels in a dream or in an altered state of consciousness. Alice is in a similar altered state. She leaves the world of reality and moves on to a dreamy world.

Alice’s Through the Looking Glass, as a fantasy, fulfills these norms of an imaginary world, peopled with imaginary situations where the protagonist undertakes, and accomplishes a quest. Just as the Looking Glass serves as a metaphor for Carroll to objectify and develop a conclusion, the Zen story, which dates back to 12th century China, would help us comprehend the subliminal dynamics of the world of the “Looking Glass”. The bull here serves as a metaphor for ‘enlightenment’, ‘search for the self’ or the ‘human’ itself.

The story of ‘The Ten Bulls’ is in prose, verse and illustration. It was first presented by the Chinese Chan (Zen) master Kuoan Shiyuan in the 12th century and it portrays the ten stages of experience by the Bodhisattva. It describes the process of awakening. The first stage depicts the beginning of the path which is in every human life might begin with disappointments and endless distractions. The second stage shows the seeker’s trust in reality by the footprints of the bull.  

Third stage, the object of perseverance is spotted by the seeker indicating the mysticism within the visual conformation. In the next stage, the bull is caught, implying the strong feelings and emotions underlying the human unconscious. The fifth stage represents the true nature of human mind i.e. ‘the mind begins to settle and to work with us, rather than against us’. Next stage gives a glimpse of the struggle between the oppositional states of mind. In the seventh stage, when the bull is transcended, the seeker reaches the stage of enlightenment realizing that the ‘bull’ and the ‘self’ are indeed the same.  Eighth stage shows the deepened enlightenment of the previous stage. Ninth stage shows ‘Things as they are: the river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red’. The last stage brings back the seeker to reality, from the dream-like world, embracing the world.

Alice is seen, at the beginning of the novel, huddled up in her room on a snowy, wintry night. It is the 04th of November, the eve of Guy Fawkes Night. The warmth of the room is her refuge against the freezing world outside, and her soul finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold that blows upon it through the orifices. In her hand are two kittens, Snowdrop and Kitty, white and black, Greed and fear, good and bad. The home therefore to Alice, is a defensive wall against the outside world and not a protective shield against harm. It is a prison that shuts her and not a nest that holds her warmth. The bull that has been lost in her self esteem, her belief in her which, in its turn, has introverted her, where she shuns the ‘cold, freezing, wintry’ world outside and prefers the solitary warmth of her inner thoughts and fantasies. Now, the question is, should she go in search of her lost self? Or, In other words, will she use the spark of her fantasies to ignite her life towards light and life or burn up her life in an empty dream? The moment Alice begins to wonder what is behind the Looking Glass, to question the reality behind the world as she sees it, the die is cast. Her quest is on. The realization that, reality and fantasy, truth and untruth, are one and the same, that is, our own perceptions of the world that bring about a change in ourselves, our lives and in our world, is Alice’s moment of Zen. She has discerned the path, discovered the gateless gate that leads to wisdom. Her choice is made, her Karma is defined, her target is fixed and Alice’s search for her personal Holy Grail has begun. Behind the mirror, Alice discovers the ‘mirror’ image of her world. Anything can be a vehicle- a nonsense verse, a chess piece- to begin one’s journey to one’s inner self.  ‘Jabberwocky’ underlines this important fact: sense and nonsense, reality and fantasy are the ultimate mental concepts. This aspect in her, the realization, propels her onward journey into the world of fantasy.



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