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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

CHAPTER THREE: A CAUCUS-RACE AND A LONG TALE

They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank — the birds with draggled feathers, the animals with their fur clinging close to them, and all dripping wet, cross1, and uncomfortable.

The first question of course was, how to get dry again: they had a consultation about this, and after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking familiarly with them, as if she had known them all her life. Indeed, she had quite a long argument with the Lory, who at last turned sulky, and would only say "I'm older than you, and must know better."2 And this Alice would not allow, without knowing how old it was, and, as the Lory positively refused to tell its age, there was no more to be said.

At last the Mouse, who seemed to be a person of some authority among them, called out "Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I'll soon make you dry enough!" They all sat down at once in a large ring, with the Mouse in the middle. Alice kept her eyes anxiously fixed on it, for she felt sure she would catch a bad cold3 if she did not get dry very soon.

"Ahem!" said the Mouse with an important air4. "Are you all ready? This is the driest thing5 I know. Silence all round, if you please! William the Conqueror6, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders7, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpation and conquest. Edwin8 and Morcar9, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria —"

"Ugh!" said the Lory, with a shiver.

"I beg your pardon!" said the Mouse, frowning, but very politely. "Did you speak?"

"Not I!" said the Lory, hastily.

"I thought you did," said the Mouse. "I proceed. 'Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northubria, declared for him; and even Stigand10, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable —"

"Found what?" said the Duck.

"Found it," the Mouse replied rather crossly: "of course you know what 'it'11 means."

"I know what 'it' means well enough, when I find a thing," said the Duck: "it's generally a frog, or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?"

The Mouse did not notice this question, but hurriedly went on, "— found it advisable to go with Edgar Atheling12 to meet William and offer him the crown. William's condict at first was moderate. But the insolence of his Normans13 —' How are you getting on now, my dear?" it continued, turning to Alice as it spoke.

"As wet as ever," said Alice in a melancholy tone: "it doesn't seem to dry me at all."

"In that case," said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, "I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies —"

"Speak English!14" said the Eaglet. "I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and what's more, I don't believe you do either!" And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

"What I was going to say," said the Dodo in an offended tone, "was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race."15

"What is a Caucus-race?" said Alice; not that she much wanted to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

"Why," said the Dodo, "the best way to explain it is to do it." (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter-day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, ("the exact shape doesn't matter," it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no "One, two, three, and away!", but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out "The race is over!", and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking "But who has won?"

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it stood for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead16 (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him17), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."18

"But who is to give the prizes?" quite a chorus of voices asked.

"Why, she, of course," said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out, in a confused way, "Prizes! Prizes!"19

Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits20 (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece, all round.

"But she must have a prize herself, you know," said the Mouse.

"Of course," the Dodo replied very gravely. "What else have you got in your pocket?" it went on, turning to Alice.

"Only a thimble," said Alice sadly.

"Hand it over here," said the Dodo.

Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying "We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble"; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.21

Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.

The next thing was to eat the comfits: this caused some noise and confusion, as the large birds complained they could not taste theirs, and the small ones choked and had to be patted on the back.22 However, it was over at last, and they sat down again in a ring, and begged the Mouse to tell them something more.

"You promised to tell me your history, you know," said Alice, "and why it is you hate — C and D," she added in a whisper, half afraid that it would be offended again.

"Mine is a long and a sad tale!" said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

"It is a long tail, certainly," said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail; "but why do you call it sad?" And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking, so that her idea of the tale23 was something like this: —

24

"You are not attending!" said the Mouse to Alice, severely. "What are you thinking
of?"

"I beg your pardon," said Alice very humbly: "you had got to the fifth bend, I think?"

"I had not!" cried the Mouse, sharply and very angrily.

"A knot!" said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. "Oh, do let me help to undo it!"

"I shall do nothing of the sort," said the Mouse, getting up and walking away. "You insult me by talking such nonsense!"

"I didn't mean it!" pleaded poor Alice. "But you're so easily offended, you know!"

The Mouse only growled in reply.

"Please come back, and finish your story!" Alice called after it. And the others all joined in chorus. "Yes, please do!" But the Mouse only shook its head impatiently, and walked a little quicker.

"What a pity it wouldn't stay!" sighed the Lory, as soon as it was quite out of sight. And an old Crab took the opportunity of saying to her daughter "Ah, my dear! Let this be a lesson to you never to lose your temper!" "Hold your tongue, Ma!" said the young Crab, a little snappishly. "You're enough to try the patience of an oyster!"

"I wish I had our Dinah here, I know I do!" said Alice aloud, addressing nobody in particular. "She'd soon fetch it back!"

"And who is Dinah, if I might venture to ask the question?" said the Lory.

Alice replied eagerly, for she was always ready to talk about her pet: "Dinah's our cat. And she's a capital one for catching mice, you ca'n't think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why she'll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!"25

This speech caused a remarkable sensation among the party. Some of the birds hurried off at once: one old Magpie26 began wrapping itself up very carefully, remarking "I really must be getting home: the night-air doesn't suit my throat!" And a Canary called out in a trembling voice, to its children, "Come away, my dears! It's high time you were all in bed!" On various pretexts they all moved off, and Alice was soon left alone.

"I wish I hadn't mentioned Dinah!" she said to herself in a melancholy tone. "Nobody seems to like her, down here, and I'm sure she's the best cat in the world! Oh, my dear Dinah! I wonder if I shall ever see you any more!" And here poor Alice began to cry again, for she felt very lonely and low-spirited. In a little while, however, she again heard a little pattering of footsteps in the distance, and she looked up eagerly, half hoping that the Mouse had changed his27 mind, and was coming back to finish his story.

Annotations

  1. 'Cross' meaning grumpy. This rather mild meaning belies the word's grimmer roots in latin 'crux' and 'crucio' meaning 'cross, gallows' and 'I torment, torture' respectively.
  2. This remarkable argument marks one of the generally acknowledged references to the original boating party Lewis Carroll began telling the story of Alice's adventures on, 'Lory' being short for Lorina, one of Alice's sisters. The argument from age is by no means restricted to use by children, who learn it very quickly from their parents.
  3. Debate still rages as to whether getting cold can cause you to contract a cold virus. However, in 2005 British researchers carried out a small study that suggests that 'getting chilled' doesn't cause you to catch a cold so much as it allows a cold that your body was already fighting off successfully to become symptomatic. Considering the greater prevalence of colds in winter when we have more opportunities to get cold, the study does seem persuasive.
  4. 'To give yourself airs' or 'have an important air' means to hold yourself and speak in a way indicating you consider yourself thoroughly important and in charge. In contemporary canadian english, a person is more likely to say, bluntly, that 'you're acting like a snob.'
  5. There are all sorts of dryness (watch out for the many sorts of muchness later on). Most basically, to be dry is to not be wet; but then there are things like dry wines (not sweet), dry humour (usually based on wordplay and delivered in a normal voice), and a dry run (a rehearsal). The sort of dryness intended here is that associated with stating only the facts, and therefore being an aid to insomniacs, although if you read the Mouse's paragraph more closely than usual (I certainly wouldn't blame you if you hesitated to do such a thing), you'll notice there's more than just 'fact' in what the Mouse is saying.
  6. This character being the well-known Norman duke who was the only and illegitimate son of his father, also named William. After spending a few years fighting all the other norman warlords who thought they shouldn't have to accept him as duke (and really, who could blame them), he decided to dash across the english channel and take over england under the pretext that the throne there was rightfully his and had been promised to him, which he did starting in 1066.

    The norman french were and are descendants of vikings who invaded france and eventually settled in normandy. The eventual norman invasion of england is the ultimate reason why english is so full of french words that it can be surprisingly easy to make sense of simple french texts or ordinary speech after only basic instruction in the language (but beware, this doesn't make it easy to speak french). Norman french is far from the only source of french words in english, but it was the key event that established french's prestige among the wealthy and those hoping to be wealthy in england.

  7. This is a remarkable statement if you go and look at the actual timelines of the norman conquest of england. It didn't hurt duke William at all that the english army had just won a victory so pyrrhich against an attempted norwegian invasion that if they had staved off the norman french as well it would have been a miracle. But this did not end english resistance, which continued for over five years, and was only brought under some form of control by the imposition of feudalism. Considering that in the end norman french ceased to be spoken in england and english made a resurgence, arguably the resistance never ended, it simply became based on other means than overtly fighting.
  8. Edwin and Morcar led an english army in battle with another norwegian army and lost, then supported a different candidate for the english throne rather than submitting to William immediately. They spent several years alternately submitting to William, then leading new revolts.
  9. English, unlike french, is a germanic language, and thanks to various invasions by other germanic language speakers as well as trade has absorbed words and names from those languages as well. For example 'Edwin' derives from Ead-wine 'prosperity friend' in old english, while Morcar is an old swedish name that may mean 'good plain.'
  10. This interesting name may mean 'path wanderer,' and comes from old norse. It appears to have almost slipped out of use today except among role game players à la 'Dungeons and Dragons.'
  11. More fun and confusion with pronouns. Pronouns behave in ways that are analogous to variables in algebraic equations — or more likely, algebraic variables were modelled on the behaviour of pronouns. That is, a pronoun can stand in for any noun in the same way a variable can stand for any number.

    The Duck understandably responds to this by trying to apply the 'find the replaced noun' rule, although a bit too literally. Those afflicted with latin grammar instruction may have learned to look for the question that the statement with the pronoun in it could answer as a means of finding the original noun in cases like this one. Following the idea in the previous footnote, this would be the linguistic equivalent of isolating and finding the value of an algebraic variable for a given system of equations.

    I have just very belatedly realized that I forgot to explain what "it" is actually doing linguistically speaking. In this case the word is serving as a sort of place holder because of the structure of the sentence. "Found" isn't an intransitive verb, it takes an object no matter what, but there is no object here. Instead, the verb is actually being used to describe the state of mind of Stigand, but in a round about way that deflects attention from the fact that he is switching sides and arguably going traitor. We could easily replace "found it advisable" with "decided that." I don't think this is the only case in which a dummy "it" can turn up, though it is difficult to spin out examples as I suspect they are primarily idiomatic. French has many "dummy pronouns" as well, usually buried in idiomatic question structures where they either help keep the phrase pronounceable or reflect fossils of latin sentence structures.

  12. 'Atheling' is another old english name, and probably a fairly popular one at one time. It means 'member of a noble family.'
  13. The most common image of the viking ancestors of the normans are understandably a bit one dimensional, as most of the descriptions of them come from documents written by people suffering their raids. They were part of an unfortunate (and sadly, ongoing) tradition of bands of people who combined extensive trading with raiding, warfare, invasion and colonization.
  14. Following the english etymology theme, if we pretend for a moment that absorbed words don't become naturalized from the language they used to be into english words, the Dodo is indeed not speaking much english. 'Move' and 'remedies' come from norman french (also known as anglo-norman), the language spoken by duke William and his friends. 'Adjourn' and 'immediate' are from old french. 'Adoption' is from latin, while 'energetic' comes from greek.
  15. 'Caucus' is one of the words british english managed to pick up from Indigenous people in north america. It derives from an Algonquian language term used in what is now usually referred to as virginia. The translations for the Algonquian word offered by non-Algonquians are irregular in detail although thematially consistent, including 'counsellor' and 'to meet together' which get us to ideas like meeting to take counsel together.
  16. Since the Dodo has to place one finger on his forehead, of course Tenniel had to illustrate the Dodo with hands. The result is a bit surreal; as you can see to the right, it looks like a bird suit with a person in it, except for the feet. Tenniel couldn't resort to the Disney solution of reshaping the Dodo's wings into hands because the dodo was a flightless bird with wings too short to serve.
  17. I can't find a picture of Shakespeare like this now, although it seems to me I have seen one. It suggests a curious human belief in taking up silly positions as a means of improving concentration – curious, but not necessarily unfounded. On one hand, the definition of a silly position varies over time and with culture; on the other, if you've ever watched a small child concentrating on a difficult task, you'll see that they almost always stick their tongue out a ways while they are concentrating. Most of us get trained out of this eventually, but it is probably an artifact of the way we all learn when we're just starting out in the world: by putting whatever it is in our mouth.
  18. Evidently Carroll was satirizing british elections with a heavy hand here, with the 'candidates' starting and leaving off when they feel like it, and of course having to check with someone else who has won. It isn't at all clear whether the Dodo ran in the race himself, in which case he would correspond rather neatly to a returning officer, who is not allowed to run for office in the election they are working the polls for, although they can vote.
  19. Returning to the topic of the Dodo's hands and Tenniel's illustration, it's a bit of a puzzle why he gave the Dodo a walking stick, except that the dodo is a very ungainly looking bird.
  20. Comfits were a type of candy made by coating dried fruit, nuts, or spices with a sugar candy shell. They are ancestors of today's more familiar glosette's raisins and peanuts, at least in canada – in case these aren't familiar candies elsewhere, the raisins and peanuts are coated with chocolate. More commonly, comfits were small seeds covered in sugar candy, and indeed if you find actual comfits in a store, they will often be of this type, and come in a small tin box with a glazed lid, usually with a flowery picture on it.
  21. Another alarmingly true to life reflection of real life caucus-races. It seems a longterm trend just now for politicians to offer voters short term installments of their own money as an incentive to vote for them.
  22. Considering what comfits were, and that birds can neither suck on a candy nor chew on it, it's no wonder the comfits ultimately caused some trouble.
  23. The saga of Lewis Carrol's efforts to get the Mouse's Tale printed properly is well worth reading in Martin Gardner's annotated Alice in Wonderland. In brief, Carroll had to resort to cutting out bits of paper and pasting them up into the shape he wanted. Today such a task is relatively trivial thanks to computers, although I have not found another web version of Alice in Wonderland so far that recreates it.

    The version of the Mouse's Tale here is not a scan. Part of the fun of reading it is that it is legible in spite of itself, an effect I couldn't mimic by scanning without creating a maniacally large image file. So I actually recreated it in Adobe Photoshop in a serif font rather than the default sans-serif font you see throughout the rest of the site, which made the job much easier, and allowed me to conform to the original linebreaks.

  24. 'Cur' is the victorian english word for what many north americans now would likely call a mutt, a dog of mixed breed. For those of you who are familiar with Indiana Jones, how many of you got the pun implied by the name of his son?
  25. Here is Alice in one of her supremely thoughtless moments, as well as one illustrating a rather alarming cruel streak. After all, Dinah would not have brought back the Mouse gently, and the last time I checked, cats don't take orders like 'bring it back alive.' In fact, according to my friends who cohabitate with outdoor cats, hunting cats may decide to bring back a dead mouse or small bird as a gift, but if they bring back something alive they either mean to play with it or teach a younger cat with it.
  26. Magpies aren't known for having pretty voices, which is true of most members of the Corvidae family. Magpies were originally just called 'pies', which gives a whole new meaning to 'flying pies.' They are both highly intelligent and highly social, and like humans have an abiding love of collecting and hoarding interesting objects, especially shiny ones. This seems to have led some people, especially people of European descent, to take a remarkable dislike to them.
  27. Why Alice should imagine such a thing beats me. In any case, we are apparently now at least just beyond the end of the long hallway in the Rabbit hole. Thinking over the Mouse's story – perhaps he represents an unwitting intrusion by Alice's sister, who was therefore reading a history textbook and may have tried reading it aloud for awhile? Any veteran of university is familiar with this strategy for reading dull material without falling asleep and hopefully with retaining the information.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2014 23:14:59