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The Golden Afternoon

cardsThis summer marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, three years after a trip up the Isis from Oxford prompted Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to pen this immortal story. A panoply of commemorative events can be found online at Alice150. For those who wish to recall that "golden afternoon" closer to home, we offer two books to mark the occasion.

Enlivened by close to 200 illustrations, Frankie Morris's splendid biography Artist of Wonderland is an engaging survey of the work of John Tenniel, the artist who illustrated the Alice books. And the just-published The Pamphlets of Lewis Carroll: Games, Puzzles, and Related Pieces, an overview of Carroll’s second career as a creator of games and puzzles, will appeal to lovers of puzzles, wordplay, and the wit and wonder of its celebrated author. We spoke to the latter volume’s editor, Christopher Morgan, about this fascinating aspect of Carroll’s life and how his games complement and shed light on his beloved fictions.

Q: Carroll's fiction was wildly original. Do his games and puzzles display a similar originality, or is he closer to his peers in this field? And what in these games and puzzles strikes you as distinctly Victorian?

A: Many of Carroll’s best games and puzzles have an eccentric, original flavor. His Alice books are full of whimsy and wordplay, and his word games feature puns, anagrams, and similar challenges. He wrote a series of short poems containing some simple wordplay challenges, called “Puzzles From Wonderland.” They first appeared in Aunt Judy's Magazine in 1870, and they’re featured in the new book. Here’s one short example:

Dreaming of apples on a wall,
And dreaming often, dear,
I dreamed that if I counted all,
How many would appear?

Can you tell how many apples there were? If you know that wordplay is involved (specifically, punning), you’ll probably see that the answer is ten, because “often” can be split into “of ten.”

Carroll’s most popular word game, Doublets, is still played today, although now we call it Word Ladders. It features Carroll’s lighthearted whimsy. The object of the game is to take two words of the same length, for example, DOG and CAT. Change one letter in DOG to make a new word, then keep creating a series of new three-letter words, changing one letter each time, until you get to CAT. The fewer steps you take, the higher your score. One answer is:


That was fairly easy. Only three steps were needed here, and you can’t do better than that, so that’s a maximum score. But the game becomes challenging fairly quickly. For example, Carroll asked readers of his Doublets magazine column to “Dip PEN in INK.” The best answer took seven steps:


Maybe you can do better! Ever witty, Carroll also asked readers to “Evolve MAN from APE.” Here’s one solution:


It’s fun to make up your own Doublets by taking random pairs of words, but Carroll preferred it if the words were related in some way. Here are a few more good challenges:

Change OAT to RYE
Change FISH to BIRD
Change CAIN to ABEL
Change COMB into HAIR
Change ARMY into NAVY
Change STAND into STILL

Another good example of Carroll’s offbeat approach to games is his Circular Billiards game. You might think that playing billiards on a round table sounds strange, but it would probably be regarded as normal in Wonderland. Billiards is popular in the UK, but is not as well known in the USA. A rectangular billiard table looks like a pool table, but doesn’t have pockets. When you play the game, instead of trying to hit balls into pockets, you get points by bouncing your ball off the cushions and hitting your opponent’s ball in just the right way. Carroll’s round table design makes the game more challenging, because a balls act differently when bouncing off circular cushions. Unfortunately, the game never became popular, because circular tables were too expensive and difficult to make.

Q: In addition to authoring novels and poems, Carroll famously pursued problems of mathematics and logic. Games and puzzles draw off of math and logic in obvious ways, but they are also designed to entertain or delight others. Can we see the games and puzzles described in this volume as being a sort of common ground between these two themes in his life--the mathematician and the author of entertainments?

A: Yes, absolutely. His games and puzzles bridge the two worlds. Nearly all of his games were designed to be both fun and educational. For example, he created a number guessing puzzle in 1895 that is quite puzzling. You ask a spectator to think of a number, and then carry out a long series of seemingly random calculations. Amazingly, you can then ask for the final result and correctly name the original number your spectator chose. If you correctly analyze the mathematics involved in the process, you’ll see how it’s done. So Carroll was trying to both delight and instruct.

Q: What are some of your favorites among his games and puzzles?

A: I particularly like the Pack of Cards trick. Although we can’t be 100% sure, the trick is very likely Carroll’s handiwork. It involves dealing a deck of cards into a series of piles that seem to thoroughly mix the deck up. Yet, at the end, when you gather the cards into one pile, you can spell the names of each card, dealing one card per letter, and a card of that value will turn up each time. For a second climax, you can turn the deck face up face up and show that it’s in perfect order from top to bottom! Since I’m a magician, I like to perform this trick for children, who particularly enjoy it. I also love the handkerchief mouse trick, also included in the book. It was a popular Victorian magic trick. It was not invented by Carroll, but he loved to perform it. Years after Carroll’s passing, a child friend, Isa Bowman, said that he performed the handkerchief mouse trick “better than anyone I ever saw, and it was a never failing joy.”

Q: Who exactly were these games and puzzles made for? Did any of them have formal publication or distribution? Were any of the games played by the children he befriended (such as Alice Liddell, just to name the most famous)?

A: Carroll did indeed create some of his games specifically for Alice Liddell and her sisters. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Red Queen plays croquet with Alice. Carroll created his own version of croquet, called Castle Croquét, for Alice and her sisters, and printed a pamphlet about it in 1863. This was during the time he was writing Alice’s Adventures Underground, the precursor to the first official Alice book. (He kept changing the rules, because the girls complained that the game was too hard!)

Early in his publishing career, Carroll made his games and puzzles available to interested adult or child friends, printed in relatively small press runs. But his long-term goal was to get the word games before a larger audience via popular magazines. After much planning and negotiation from Carroll, two of his word games, Doublets and Syzygies, became the subjects of two long-running columns he conducted in Vanity Fair and The Lady magazines in 1879-1881 and 1891-1892, respectively. Some of his pamphlets with larger press runs appear regularly in today’s book collector’s market, but the pamphlets with smaller press runs are quite scarce. And, indeed, the magazine word game columns have never been reprinted (except for short extracts), though they contain much fresh wit and humor from Carroll. So we felt a book was needed to rescue Carroll’s charming game and puzzle pamphlets from obscure Victorian archives and make them available once again to the public, with annotations and updates.

The Pamphlets of Lewis Carroll: Games, Puzzles, and Related Pieces, edited by Christopher Morgan, is available now.

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