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Reviewed by:
  • Alice in the Oral-Literary Continuum
  • Jan Susina (bio)
Alice in the Oral-Literary Continuum. By Bjorn Sundmark. Lund Studies in English 97. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 1999.

This is an interesting, but essentially misguided study of Lewis Carroll's Alice books that attempts to reveal the folktale and storytelling elements of Carroll's literary fairy tales by placing them on what Sundmark terms an oral-literary continuum. For those familiar with Carroll scholarship, this study provides surprisingly little new information. By the Alice books, Sundmark means the four versions of Alice that Carroll produced: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872), Alice's Adventures under Ground—the manuscript Carroll wrote and illustrated specifically for Alice Liddell, presented to her in 1864, and subsequently published in facsimile edition in 1886—and The Nursery "Alice" (1890). Taken as a unit, these four versions of Alice show a fascinating development of the tale that evolved from an oral tale told by Carroll to Alice and her sisters on the famous boating expedition of 4 July 1862 to the handwritten and self-illustrated manuscript to the heavily revised public text illustrated by John Tenniel to its more melancholy and frightening sequel and, finally, to the much simplified version intended for young children that moves toward the picture book format and includes colorized and enlarged illustrations. Since storytelling comes in many forms, Sundmark intends to interpret the Alice books in light of traditional storytelling practices and analyze the many oral features found in these texts.

Sundmark properly situates the Alice books as fairy tales, although he overstates the suggestion that the folkloristic aspect of the Alice books has been overlooked. Much scholarship already has been done on Carroll's use of nursery rhymes and characters based on nursery rhymes. Sundmark is more concerned with the folktale influence on the Alice books; however much of what Sundmark does in this study has already been outlined in Nina Demurova's article "Toward a Definition of Alice's Genre: The Folktale and Fairy-Tale Connections" which was published in Lewis Carroll: A Celebration (1982), or is a continuation of points that Demurova has already made.

While I am impressed with the effort that went into developing a rather detailed morphological sequence of Wonderland based on Vladimir Propp's The Morphology of Folk Tale, I do not find it very useful when it comes to a better understanding of Carroll's text. Carroll consistently refers to Wonderland as a fairy tale in his letters and diary as well as in the introductory poems to the text. He even has Alice, within the body of Wonderland, explicate her situation, "When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!" Consequently, I do not think this academic exercise provides us anything we did not already know. Nevertheless, some critics have missed this fairly obvious point, as Sundmark observes. The same is true of many critics who insist that Carroll does not want Alice to grow [End Page 113] up and desires to keep her a child forever, which does not make much sense in light of the final paragraph of Wonderland in which Carroll projects Alice as a married woman surrounded by her own children. Sundmark seems to miss the point that both Wonderland and Looking-Glass are preparing Alice for the role of Victorian motherhood. Given that Alice literally has a baby thrown at her in Wonderland and goes from pawn to queen in Looking-Glass, these do not seem to be terribly obscure lessons.

Instead, Sundmark does a great deal of work that results in fairly obvious conclusions such as, "[t]he episodic structure of Wonderland is manifest" (46), or "that both Wonderland and Looking-Glass are model fairy tales" (200). Sundmark's use of Aarne Antti and Stith Thompson's Types of the Folktale reveals Wonderland to most closely resemble AT 480, "The Kind and Unkind Girls," as an example of a reward and punishment tale, with Grimms' "Mother Holle" being the best known example. The problem is that there...


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pp. 113-116
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