It remains one of literature’s best – and most commonly referenced – allegories, a story involving a little girl lost, mirror as metaphysical doorways, and a skewed view of the world as a reflection in a pane of glass/ the mind’s eye of a child. While many mistake it for the original book by Charles Lutwidge Doggson (otherwise known as Lewis Carroll), it is actually a sequel of sorts. Oddly enough, it never really references its heroine’s first adventures in Wonderland, but because of various film adaptations that have merged the two tomes together, many confuse it with the initial book. Indeed, Alice Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) is where Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the oft referenced story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, and that amazing bit of epic nonsense poetry, Jabberwocky, first became famous.
Indeed, Alice’s fanciful world of social symbolism, political satire and one man’s private dreams have been deciphered, deconstructed and deliberated over since they were first published (Wonderland in 1865, Looking Glass later, in 1872). There have also been multiple releases and re-releases of the titles, including an annotated version from 1999 that many consider definitive. In it, each and every allusion, metaphor, simile and references is explained and illustrated with historical and scholarly support. It’s an approach that definitely brings out the many hidden meanings in Carroll’s complicated wordplay, as well as showing the significance in the amazing original illustrations by John Tenniel. The images themselves with their queer Victorian caricature nature often reveal some truly intriguing secrets.
So why do we need yet another edition of the famous fantasy? Is there really a call for a new illustrated edition of Alice’s trip into a surreal nonsense realm. Apparently, the fans of British pop artist Peter Blake seem to think so. Back in the ‘70s, on the 100th Anniversary of Looking Glass’ first edition, a publisher came up with a novel idea. He would get the famous watercolorist, perhaps best known for conceiving the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album, to do a series of sketches for Carroll’s creation, and combine them in a new presentation of the tale. Sadly, the book never came to pass, but Blake’s work was celebrated in a series of limited edition screenprints.
Now, in 2006, Blake’s images are finally being paired with the original Looking Glass text in what many are heralding as a new “approach” at a classic piece of children’s literature. But frankly, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. Over the course of 83 large type pages, we get the same old Carroll creativity, occasionally accented by one of eight original Blake paintings. The subjects range from Alice in the garden conversing with flowers to the Mad Hatter sitting, sadly, a ball and chain attached to his foot. There is a menacing image of an irate Tweedledum, and an equally odd portrait of nursery rhyme favorite Humpty Dumpty (a character Carroll commandeered from Old English folklore).
Granted, if one appreciates art, they cannot deny Blake’s gifts. His image of Alice as a Queen is disquieting in both its complexity and its detail. But there are a couple of images here that just don’t make sense. A pose of our heroine reaching out to the Red Queen (they are apparently running) is nothing more than a little girl standing awkwardly. Similarly, Alice holding the White King is just a large hand with a small figurine in its grasp. There is nothing amazing or outstanding about the visual representation of the book, and when compared alongside the work done by Tenniel from over 100 years ago, the illustrations seem rather pointless.
Of course, the book doesn’t believe so, and after giving us an introductory piece explaining every element of Blake’s original involvement with the book, we are then provided with an extensive epilogue containing an interview with the artist, a series of his rough sketches, and the photographs he used as ‘models’ for his designs. And oddly enough, the more we know, the less impressive Blake’s work becomes. As part of the post-peace generation malaise that swept around the world, the bland, generic nature of the pictures shows little of the humor or horror that Carroll was striving for. Instead, they are just nice images given a glossy makeover thanks to this new book.
Of course, Carroll himself stays some manner of cracked genius. Alice Through the Looking Glass remains a masterpiece of imagination and aggravation, a book that reads like a riddle and plays like a puzzle. Fans frequently find themselves flummoxed by the constant contradictions in tone, narrative and approach. For example, when Alice comes across the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit again – memorable entities from the Wonderland story - they do not recognize her. In addition, elements of Wonderland are purposefully ignored here (Alice’s relationship to the royalty, he absent sense of awe and wonder, etc.). Jabberwocky endures as a marvel of gobsmacking gobbledygook, and the sublime word combinations create poetry within prose within verse. As a result, Looking Glass, as well as the rest of Carroll’s collective works remain mandatory reading for anyone in love with the English language and its many intriguing variables.
But this doesn’t mean that the Blake version is the edition to own. Unless you are an aficionado of the artist’s work, or a kind of Alice completists, needing each and every version of the tale published or proffered, this is a well intentioned by rather futile presentation. Blake adds very little to the illustration ideal of Lewis Carroll’s vision, and the quaint approach to his watercoloring will seem lost on a generation raised on gregarious graphic design and CGI creativity. Perhaps if this new look at one little girl’s adventures beyond the boundaries of her study had been rendered in real life 3D illustrations, or some kind of expressionist interpretation of the narrative, we’d have a novel, necessary work. Instead, the Peter Blake edition of Alice Through the Looking Glass remains an unnecessary take on a fictional treasure.