Category Archives: fantasy

Interesting Facts about Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll (1832-98) is celebrated around the world as one of the great purveyors of ‘literary nonsense’: his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) have entertained countless readers since they were published nearly 150 years ago. For many, the name ‘Lewis Carroll’ is synonymous with children’s literature.


But ‘Lewis Carroll’ was really a man named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford. As such, he led something of a double life: to the readers of his Alice books he was Lewis Carroll, while to the world of mathematics and to his colleagues at the University of Oxford he was (Reverend) Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who formed his pen name by reversing his first two names (‘Charles Lutwidge’ became ‘Lewis Carroll’).

There is a famous anecdote about Carroll and Queen Victoria. Victoria enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so much that she requested a first edition of Carroll’s next book. Carroll duly sent her a copy of the next book he published – a mathematical work with the exciting title An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Unfortunately, like most good anecdotes, this one isn’t true: Carroll himself refuted it. However, such a story does highlight the oddness of Carroll’s double life. Carroll, despite the radical nature of his nonsense fiction, was a conservative mathematician who resented and dismissed many of the new ideas emerging in mathematics during the nineteenth century.

Was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland intended as a scathing satire on these radical new ideas in nineteenth-century mathematics? Melanie Bayley thinks so, and published an article in the New Scientist in 2009 in which she set out her thesis. You can read Bayley’s article here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published just two years after Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863), another fantasy novel for children written by a reverend. The similarities between the two are  interesting: both feature a child leaving behind the real world for a fantasy world where normal logic and systems are inverted; Kingsley’s novel features a lobster (inspiration for the Lobster Quadrille in Carroll’s book?) and the phrases ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat’ and ‘as mad as a March hare’. We at Interesting Literature find these crossovers suggestive, at least. One key difference is that, whereas Kingsley’s novel was intended to provide a moral message for readers (drawing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Kingsley proposed a moral ‘evolution of the soul’), Carroll detested moralising in his work for children.


Alice Liddell is well known to have been the inspiration behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but what is less well known is that she wasn’t the girl who inspired the Alice in the follow-up book, Through the Looking-Glass: the ‘Alice’ in that book’s subtitle, And What Alice Found There, refers to Carroll’s five year-old cousin, Alice Theodora Raikes. The reason for this was that, by the time he wrote the sequel to the first Alice book, Carroll was no longer on speaking terms with the Liddell family. Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871, but it was postdated to 1872, meaning that both years are technically ‘correct’ for the book’s publication.

One persistent stain on Carroll’s literary reputation is the tricky subject of child photography and the precise nature of his ‘relationship’ with these young girls, such as Alice Liddell. It is true that he photographed many young girls, and some of these are nude photographs. But Karoline Leach has argued, in her 1999 book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, that there is a ‘Carroll myth’ which has become more powerful than the facts. Leach and others have argued that accusations of paedophilia against Carroll are unfair and inaccurate. Other scholars, such as Hugues Lebailly, have argued that the nude photography should be viewed in the context of Victorians’ idealisation of the child as a figure of innocence. Modern sensibilities are likely to find the matter a rather thorny one, however. It remains a contentious issue.

Carroll was a shy man who suffered from a stammer throughout his life and from being deaf in one ear (the result of a fever he suffered from in childhood). Carroll identified himself with the Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, leading some to suggest (though it remains only a suggestion) that this was because of Carroll’s own difficulty in pronouncing his last name (‘Do-Do’, from Dodgson).

Carroll returned to children’s literature in The Hunting of the Snark (1876), a long narrative nonsense poem, and Sylvie and Bruno (1889-93), an 800-page novel which, it is generally felt, was something of a failure. It certainly was in terms of its sales: it sold just 13,000 copies, which, given Carroll’s literary reputation and success by the 1890s, was a relative flop. Here at Interesting Literature, we are in a minority in seeing value in this later work of Carroll’s. It’s a compelling mixture of science, poetry, parody, plays, psychical research, romance, and silliness, albeit with the occasional dull spell. It is also frequently funny, too. It is available in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.

What is also less celebrated is Carroll’s talent as an inventor: he not only invented the words ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ (both in the poem ‘Jabberwocky’) and the term ‘portmanteau word’ (for words such as ‘brunch’ and ‘motel’, which blend the sounds and meanings of two existing words), but also an early version of the word game Scrabble, a new system for parliamentary representation, and a device he called the nyctograph, which enabled the user to note down ideas at night in the dark without getting out of bed. The Oxford English Dictionary seems uncertain as to whether the sense of ‘mimsy’ in common use (‘feeble, weak, lightweight’) is derived from Carroll’s earlier use of the word in ‘Jabberwocky’; the two subtly different senses of the word are given two separate entries in the OED.

If you enjoyed these Lewis Carroll facts, check out our analysis of his classic poem ‘Jabberwocky’ and our facts about the poem here. You might also enjoy our fascinating facts about Dr Seuss and our compendium of Edward Lear facts.

If you enjoyed this literary trivia about Lewis Carroll, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

You can get the complete illustrated Alice collection in this fantastic volume: The Complete Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.


Happy World Book Day! Some Interesting Facts

In honour of World Book Day, which is being celebrated today in the UK, we thought we’d delve into the interesting stories and trivia hiding behind some of the most popular and successful books ever written. So, here goes…

World Book Day

The biggest-selling book written in English is Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’s 1859 novel about the French Revolution (the ‘two cities’ of the title are London and Paris) is in many ways his most untypical book: of the fifteen novels he wrote (including the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood), it is arguably the least comic (with Hard Times not far ahead of it for laughs). Since no small part of Dickens’s perennial popularity is surely his genius for comedy, along with his portrayals of Victorian London, it seems odd that this novel – which is largely set in Paris – should be his most popular. But it is, in terms of sales: an estimated 200 million copies have been sold over the last 150-odd years, making it the bestselling book in the English language.

The second and third bestselling books in English are both by J. R. R. Tolkien. Yes, The Lord and the Rings and The Hobbit are, respectively, the second and third biggest-selling books written originally in the English language, making Tolkien’s combined sales from these two books (if you follow Tolkien’s lead and see The Lord of the Rings as a single novel, rather than a trilogy) an estimated 250 million. Not bad, considering that The Hobbit started life one day when Tolkien was bored marking university exam papers at Oxford…

There are numerous bestselling novels which are longer than War and Peace. Although War and Peace is famous principally for being such a long novel, there are many classics which surpass it for their sheer word count. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past are among the most famous novels which out-War and Peace War and Peace. But Tolstoy produced the definitive ‘long novel’. His original title for the novel was All’s Well That Ends Well (same as the Shakespeare play). Woody Allen once said: ‘I just speed-read War and Peace. It’s about some Russians.’

Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold around 30 million copies. This classic children’s book was originally called ‘A Week with Willi Worm’, with the main protagonist being a bookworm.

The Harry Potter book series is the biggest selling series of novels ever published. J. K. Rowling’s seven novels about the boy wizard have sold around 450 million copies collectively, and have helped to popularise the word ‘muggle’ … although the word ‘muggle’ dates back, with various meanings, to the thirteenth century. (It originally meant ‘a tail resembling that of a fish’.)

The first official World Book Day was celebrated on 23 April 1995. This is partly because Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare both died on this date, 23 April 1616 (although, in point of fact, Cervantes had died the day before). William Wordsworth would also die on 23 April, 1850 – St. George’s Day. Indeed, a truly international World Book Day is still celebrated on 23 April every year.

We hope you enjoyed our special World Book Day facts! Have a enjoyable and literary day, and go lose yourself in a good book this day of all days…

Nine Interesting Facts about Washington Irving

Washington Irving. Who was that man? Find out just a handful of reasons why we should all have his name on our lips.

1. Washington Irving was named after the first official President of the United States of America. Born in 1783 in New York (the city that would loom large in his work), the American writer was named after the great American, George Washington. Of course, Washington only became President in 1789, but when Irving was born he was already known as an important founding father of the newly independent United States.

2. His first book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the Knickerbocker Glory. Irving’s first book was a humorous history of New York – yes, once again New York looms large in Irving’s life – and was a huge success. But one of the great linguistic legacies of the work was that it gave us the name ‘Knickerbocker’, which, following Irving’s book, came to be used as a name for an inhabitant of New York (or a ‘native New Yorker’, to quote from the song). The Knickerbocker Glory – a multi-coloured ice-cream sundae served in a tall glass – first appears in print in 1936 in a Graham Greene novel. The reasons for Irving’s Knickerbocker being associated with this colourful dessert probably have something to do with our third, related, interesting fact …

3. Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the word ‘knickers’. ‘Knickers’ has never been out of use since. Diedrich Knickerbocker was the fictional ‘author’ of Irving’s humorous ‘history’, and Knickerbocker came to be used for any New Yorker. However, within half a century the word was being used to describe ‘loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee, and worn by boys, sportsmen, and others who require a freer use of their limbs. The term has been loosely extended to the whole costume worn with these’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Why the shift in meaning? One theory, which the OED offers, is that such garments resembled the knee-breeches worn by Knickerbocker in British artist George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Irving’s History of New York. At any rate, ‘knickers’ had appeared by the 1880s, with the word shifting genders from men to women, and it has remained so ever since.


4. Irving was the first person to refer to New York as ‘Gotham City’. Yes, New York again. Irving first gave his hometown that sobriquet in 1807 in his satirical periodical Salmagundi. Irving borrowed the name from the Nottinghamshire village in England, which was reputedly inhabited by fools. (This legend itself derived from medieval times, and the tale of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’: the story goes that in the thirteenth century, King John wanted to build a hunting lodge near the village, but decided against it because the people of the village appeared to be very simple. Whenever the king’s men arrived they found villagers doing incredibly stupid things: attempting to drown eels, or rolling cheeses down a hill in the hope that they’d find their way to the Nottingham fair. The plan worked and John moved his lodge elsewhere.) Interestingly, the Nottinghamshire village is pronounced ‘Goat-em’, whereas the nickname for New York is always ‘Goth-em’. Of course, since Irving first Christened New York ‘Gotham’, the Batman comic strip and films have cemented the phrase ‘Gotham City’ firmly in the American – and, indeed, the world’s – psyche.

5. Irving wrote the fairy story of Rip Van Winkle. The story of the man who goes to sleep in the Catskill mountains and wakes up years later to find his wife dead and his son grown up was written by Irving while he was staying in England, in 1819. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for twenty years, not a hundred: some think he sleeps for a century because the tale is confused with Sleeping Beauty.

6. He also wrote ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. This was written a year after ‘Rip’, in 1820, and was, of course, made into the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Irving is best-known for these two fairy tales.

7. He gave us the phrase ‘the almighty dollar’. Not much to add on this one, except to say that he coined this phrase in 1837 in his story ‘The Creole Village’.

8. Irving was responsible for the ‘flat earth’ myth. Once more, we’re in the realm of foolish medieval folk. According to Jeffrey Russell in his 1991 book Inventing the Flat Earth, it was Irving’s 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus which cemented the myth that medieval people thought the world was flat, whereas Columbus believed it was round. Indeed, the main bone of contention in the 1490s – at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World – was more the size, rather than the shape of the world. But sometimes a myth can be more powerful than fact, and many still believe that Columbus’s contemporaries all thought the world was flat and it might be possible to sail over the edge of it. Why did Irving invent the story then? Possibly to make Columbus look even more of a man ahead of his time than he was, as the great man who helped to found the New World, Irving’s own homeland.

9. Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas. Charles Dickens often gets the credit for inventing the modern Christmas, with goodwill to everyone, the resurrection of old and formerly outdated customs, and the big Christmas feast. It’s certainly true that before the early nineteenth century, the older Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages had waned, but it was not Dickens who first began to popularise them again. Dickens himself was greatly influenced by Irving. Indeed, the anonymously published 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (also known as ”Twas the night before Christmas’) also gets the credit for inventing the mythlore of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and reindeer, but Irving was ahead of this poem, too: in 1812 he added passages to his revised Knickerbocker’s History of New York which helped to foster this renewed interest in the idea of Santa Claus. Like Dickens, he wrote five Christmas stories, and, like Dickens also, he championed traditional festive customs which had fallen out of favour (and which he had experienced while staying in England shortly before this). So next time you’re sipping your eggnog round a festive fire, raise your glass in a toast to Irving, the man who helped to invent Christmas as we know it.

If you enjoyed this feast of facts, check out our interesting facts about Margaret AtwoodFor more fascinating literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.