C is for Carroll and Cultural Convergence

Tenniel is largely responsible for
creating such memorable icons.
My mother read to me until I was in junior high school. Eventually, I started finishing the books on my own, and the custom waned; however, before then, we made our way through Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels, E. Nesbit's, The Lord of the Rings, Narnia series . . .

When it came time for Alice in Wonderland, my mother turned the reading aloud duty over to my father. A fan of the books, he read me Alice in Wonderland plus Alice Through the Looking Glass. He could recite several of Carroll's poems and together we performed "You Are Old, Father William" at a church talent show (I took the part of the questioner).

In many ways, Alice in Wonderland occupies the same place in the English landscape that The Wizard of Oz occupies in the American landscape, a cultural phenomenon that has infiltrated television, books, radio, and everyday conversation (and other cultures!). Both texts crop up in my folklore course when I discuss how ideas don't remain locked in categories: high culture with high culture, low culture with low culture, verbal culture and written culture in discrete categories. In reality, ideas move, blend, alter, get taken up in commercials, thread their way through people's lives from deliberate performances to everyday conversation.
Richard III squashed together with
a band, solo number, and vampires
--which was really, you know,
very Shakespeare!

The following are examples from a handout I use in my folklore course. I recently used it in a Composition course to discuss cultural literacy--it isn't that everyone must "get" the same references but that "getting" the same references creates cultural convergence (I was present during the first example).

Meeting where a member of the meeting brought gingerbread men for a snack. What movie are they quoting?

Meeting member 1: Not my buttons
Meeting member 2: Not my gumdrop buttons.
Meeting member 3: They ARE gumdrop buttons.
Meeting member 4: Do you know the Muffin Man?
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The Matrix: What's the movie/book reference?

Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
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 Castle: What's the movie/book reference?
Beckett: [The body is] melting.
Castle: Maybe we should be looking for ruby slippers.
Beckett: Yeah, while you're at it, why don't you look for some flying monkeys? Maybe they left [the body] here.
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In more mystery shows than I can count: What literary hero says the famous underlined statement?

"You will not apply my precept," he said, shaking his head. "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
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 Star Trek: First Contact: What classic is Captain Picard quoting? (This book is often quoted by Star Trek heroes and villains.)

Captain Picard: And he piled upon the whale's white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.
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CSI: What American poet is Grissom quoting?

Grissom: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore . . . Quoth the Raven, only this and nothing more. **********************************
House: What great hero is Wilson referencing?

House: Why do you think the world will end in chaos and destruction if you're not there to save it?
Dr. Wilson: Because when my parents put me in the rocket and sent me here, they said, "James, you will grow to manhood under a yellow sun."
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From Mythbusters: What playwright is the narrator parodying? (It isn’t who you think!)

Narrator: Hell hath no fury like a ninja fan scorned.

2 comments:

Joe said...

Even as a child, I didn't like Alice in Wonderland. I've wondered why and still have no answer.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I've never warmed to the books completely myself and I think there are two reasons:

(1) Although I think Carroll's books are radically better written than The Wizard of Oz, his plots--like Baum's--rest on dream reasoning. In The Wizard of Oz--the book, not the movie--the plot is NOT a dream but it utilizes the same unexpected randomness that one finds in Alice.

In fact, I partly consider Carroll's books better written because they don't pretend to be anything but dreams; hence, the rules of dreams apply. But Baum appears to use a similar type of reasoning ("And then the caravan became a mushroom and we all went to Brazil!") without any underlying rules or justification.

(2) Everybody in Alice is so MEAN.

Actually, "mean" is the wrong word. "Spiteful" might be better. The only truly kind person in Alice's books is the knight. Everyone else criticizes her, laughs at her, speculates about her, shows off to her, demands helps from her, and/or refuses to help her in turn. She's a good deal tougher than Dorothy, being substantially more resilient--and the eccentrics she meets don't bother her all that much. Still, I find the lack of sympathy a little difficult for my sentimental soul to handle. (I want someone to show up and say, "I like you. Let's hang out. Tell me about your day!" Hey, I read romances for a reason.)

But then "nonsense" (the genre) exposition, like nonsense poetry, has to enjoyed for its nonsensical state--which means I have to be in a seriously nonsensical mood to indulge in it :)