Alice in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollIn a previous article we shared some of our favourite playing cards that depict novels. But how about novels that depict playing cards? Already for centuries playing cards have embedded themselves into our lives and culture, and crawled their way into language, paintings, and music. But what about literature? It’s not hard to think of examples of books where playing cards are part of the wider background of a novel. Perhaps we find them in the hands of characters who are having a social game of bridge, or in the hands of gamblers trying their luck at Blackjack at a casino or playing Poker in the back room of a saloon. But are there other examples besides Jostein Gaarder’s The Solitaire Mystery (see our previous article) where playing cards become central characters, and key figures in the story? The example that will spring to mind for most people is Lewis Carroll’s classic work, Alice in Wonderland.
The BookThis story is one that almost everyone has come across in their life. But if you’re like most people, then you’ve only been exposed to Alice via Disney films, or perhaps through an abridged version for young children. You really owe it to yourself to read the original book by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865. Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, who excelled in playing with words, and delighted in logic and fantasy. In Alice in Wonderland we see all these skills and interests on display, and come together in a wonderful and charming story. If you don’t have a copy of the book, you can easily find it online, because the copyright has long lapsed. I suggest you head here, where you’ll find a downloadable PDF of a virtual edition created by Peter Zelchenko in 1998 for BookVirtual. This project is a true typographically accurate replica of the original Macmillan edition and this free digital edition was produced by VolumeOne.
The StoryFor those unfamiliar with the story, what can you expect? Alice in Wonderland is a story of childlike innocence and curiosity, as we journey into a world of the surreal, the fantastic, and the whimsical. Together with the seven-year-old Alice, we follow a talking white rabbit, and fall into a rabbit-hole, by which we enter an imaginary and wacky world where nothing is at it seems.
The Playing Cards: Croquet with Queen of HeartsBut it is in the next chapter, entitled “The Queen’s Croquet Ground”, that we meet our playing cards for the first time. After leaving the tea party, Alice enters a garden, where she sees a procession of living playing card characters, which all have human heads, arms, and legs. Chief among them are the King and the Queen. The suits of these playing card characters all correspond to different roles in the royal court, with the Spades serving as gardeners, Clubs as soldiers, Diamonds as courtiers, and Hearts as members of the royal family.
The Playing Cards: The Trial of the Knave of HeartsThe final two chapters of the book put the spotlight once again on our playing card friends, as Alice witnesses a trial overseen by the King of Hearts as judge, to settle a case where the Knave of Hearts has been accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. At this point Lewis quotes the old and well-known English nursery rhyme “The Queen of Hearts”, which cleverly forms the basis of his plot: “The Queen of Hearts / She made some tarts, / All on a summer’s day; The Knave of Hearts / He stole those tarts, / And took them clean away. The King of Hearts / Called for the tarts, / And beat the knave full sore; The Knave of Hearts / Brought back the tarts, / And vowed he’d steal no more.”
The MessageIs Alice in Wonderland all nonsense? I don’t think so, because there’s much more to this story than first meets the eye. Behind the outer layer of apparent `nonsense’ Carroll conveys a great deal of sense. There’s a wonderful version of the book entitled The Annotated Alice, that was produced by famous mathematician and logician Martin Gardner. In this annotated version, Gardner explores a lot of the imagery and ideas of the Alice in Wonderland story, and explains some of the references and influences behind the characters and more. As a mathematician, he especially points out many of the clever logical and mathematical concepts found in the story. There’s also a lot of political commentary and parody of the popular culture of the day which he identifies and explains. For example the farcical trial at the end is generally understood to be a lampooning of the British legal system. What Lewis Carroll really wants us to do is return to reality along with Alice with a renewed appreciation for everything that is normal and accepted. But because this whimsical tale and its fantasy world is so nonsensical and enjoyable, you’ll want to return there many a time, and enjoy its sheer madcap humour. Alice in Wonderland is full to the brim with wild humour, farcical fantasy, witty wisecracks, and even slapstick comedy. You’ll be amazed by the cat-less grin of the Cheshire-Cat, amused by the absurd logic of the mad Hatter, and in hysterics over the antics of Queen of Hearts. I especially enjoyed the abundance of delightful puns, paradoxes, and parodies. While much of the deeper significance will escape young children, they will certainly enjoy it as a fantastic story, and rediscover it with even greater pleasure as adults. A classic is a book that appeals to people of all times and ages, and that’s certainly the case with Alice in Wonderland; this is truly a classic for the child in all of us! Special mention should also be made of the illustrations accompanying the first published versions of the book. The original pictures were wood engraved by John Tenniel, and his artwork has become forever connected with the story of Alice, and has influenced a great deal of subsequent imaginings of it.
The Tribute DeckSo the book is about playing cards, but are there playing cards about the book? Of course! With the glut of custom decks on today’s market, surely it is inevitable that the circle would become complete, and someone would make a deck of playing cards based on this novels about playing cards. And sure enough, there are several such decks that are marvellous tributes to Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit deck features a simple black and colour scheme with line art that was inspired by the classic John Tenniel woodcut illustrations from the original Alice in Wonderland books. The Wonderland Tarot deck has more playful and colourful artwork by Morgana Abbey, but is also a homage to the style of John Tenniel. But perhaps my favourite Alice in Wonderland themed deck is the Alice in Wonderland deck created by graphic designer and illustrator Sasha Dounaevski, who has been a fan of the Lewis Carroll stories since her childhood.
Final ThoughtsIn many ways playing cards have become a microcosm of life. Art mirrors life, and when playing cards find a place in our art, then they are giving us reason to reflect on ourselves and on our lives. But art can also be enjoyed for its own sake, and those of us who are playing card enthusiasts will appreciate the clever way that playing cards have found a place in novels like the ones discussed above, and will enjoy reading these stories and appreciate the clever ways they incorporate playing cards. Not only have playing cards become an integral part of our lives, but as a form of art themselves, they also reflect something about life. With today’s myriad of custom decks, we are now in a position where playing cards have become works of art, and reveal something about what we like, and they are indications of what is important to us. And in cases of decks about Alice in Wonderland, they have even become tributes to works of art that themselves honour playing cards. So why not head down a rabbit hole, and join me in enjoying some of these great books which honour our 52 paper friends!
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