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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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


"Here!" cried Alice, quite forgetting in the flurry of the moment how large she had grown in the last few minutes, and she jumped up in such a hurry that she tipped over the jury-box with the edge of her skirt, upsetting all the jurymen on to the heads of the crowd below. and there they lay sprawling about, reminding her very much of a globe of gold-fish she had accidentally upset the week before.

"Oh, I beg your pardon!" she exclaimed in a tone of great dismay, and began picking them up again as quickly as she could, for the accident of the gold-fish kept running in her head, and she had a vague sort of idea that they must be collected at once and put back in the jury-box, or they would die.

"The trial cannot proceed," said the King, in a very grave voice, "until all the jurymen are back in their proper places – all," he repeated with great emphasis, looking hard at Alice as he said so.

Alice looked at the jury-box, and saw that, in her haste, she had put the Lizard in head downwards, and the poor little thing was waving its tail about in a melancholy way, being quite unable to move. She soon got it out again, and put it right; "not that it signifies much," she said to herself; "I should think it would be quite as much use in the trial one way up as the other."

As soon as the jury had a little recovered from the shock of being upset, and their slates and pencils had been found and handed back to them, they set to work very diligently to write out a history of the accident, all except the Lizard, who seemed too much overcome to do anything but sit with its mouth open, gazing up into the roof of the court.

"What do you know about this business?" the King said to Alice.

"Nothing," said Alice.

"Nothing whatever?" persisted the King.

"Nothing whatever," said Alice.

"That's very important," the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: "Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course," he said, in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

"Unimportant, of course, I meant," the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an under-tone, "important – unimportant – unimportant – important –" as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down "important," and some "unimportant." Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates: "but it doesn't matter a bit," she thought to herself.

At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, called out "Silence!", and read out from his book, "Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court."

Everybody looked at Alice.

"I'm not a mile high," said Alice.

"You are," said the King.

"Nearly two miles high," added the Queen.

"Well, I sha'n't go, at any rate," said Alice: "besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now."

"It's the oldest rule in the book," said the King.

"Then it ought to be Number One," said Alice.

The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily. "Consider your verdict," he said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.

"There's more evidence to come yet, please your Majesty," said the White Rabbit, jumping up in a great hurry: "this paper has just been picked up."

"What's in it?" said the Queen.

"I haven't opened it yet," said the White Rabbit; "but it seems to be a letter, written by the prisoner to – to somebody."

"It must have been that," said the King, "unless it was written to nobody, which isn't usual, you know."

"Who is it directed to?" said one of the jurymen.

"It isn't directed at all," said the White Rabbit: "in fact there's nothing written on the outside." He unfolded the paper as he spoke, and added "It isn't a letter after all: it's a set of verses."

"Are they in the prisoner's handwriting?" asked another of the jurymen.

"No, they're not," said the White Rabbit, "and that's the queerest thing about it." (The jury all looked puzzled.)

"He must have imitated somebody else's hand," said the King. (The jury all brightened up again.)

"Please your Majesty," said the Knave, "I didn't write it, and they ca'n't prove that I did: there's no name signed at the end."

"If you didn't sign it," said the King, "that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man."

There was a general clapping of hands at this: it was the first really clever thing the King had said that day.

"That proves his guilt, of course," said the Queen: "so, off with – ."

"It doesn't prove anything of the sort!" said Alice. "Why, you don't even know what they're about!"

"Read them," said the King.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked.

"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

There was dead silence in the court, whilst the White Rabbit read out these verses: –

"They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him...

She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):

If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;

They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,

He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)

An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it.

Don't let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be

A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me."

"That's the most important piece of evidence we've heard yet," said the King, rubbing his hands; "so now let the jury –"

"If any of them can explain it," said Alice, (she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn't a bit afraid of interrupting him) "I'll give him sixpence. I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it."

The jury all wrote down, on their slates, "She doesn't believe there's an atom of meaning in it," but none of them attempted to explain the paper.

"If there's no meaning in it," said the King, "that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn't try to find any. And yet I don't know," he went on, spreading the verses on his knee, and looking at them with one eye; "I seem to see some meaning in them, after all. ' – said I could not swim –' you ca'n't swim, can you?" he added, turning to the Knave.

The Knave shook his head sadly. "Do I look like it?" he said. (Which he certainly did not, being made entirely of cardboard.)

"All right, so far," said the King; and he went on muttering over the verses to himself: "'We know it to be true' – that's the jury, of course – 'If she should push the matter on' – that must be the Queen – 'What would become of you?' What indeed! – 'I gave her one, they gave him two' – why, that must be what he did with the tarts, you know –"

"But it goes on 'they all returned from him to you'," said Alice.

"Why, there they are!" said the King triumphantly, pointing to the tarts on the table. "Nothing can be clearer than that. Then again – 'before she had this fit' – you never had fits, my dear, I think?" he said to the Queen.

"Never!" said the Queen, furiously throwing an inkstand at the Lizard as she spoke. (The unfortunate little Bill had left off writing on his slate with one finger, as he found it made no mark; but he now hastily began again, using the ink, that was trickling down his face, as long as it lasted.)

"Then the words don't fit you," said the King, looking round the King with a smile. There was a dead silence.

"It's a pun!" the King added in an angry tone, and everybody laughed. "Let the jury consider their verdict," the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

"No, no," said the Queen. "Sentence first – verdict afterwards."

"Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loudly. "The idea of having a sentence first!"

"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purple.

"I wo'n't!" said Alice.

"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

"Who cares for you?" said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). "You're nothing but a pack of cards!"

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

"Wake up, Alice dear!" said her sister. "Why, what a long sleep you've had!"

"Oh, I've had such a curious dream!" said Alice. And she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and, when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said "It was a curious dream, dear, certainly; but now run in to your tea: it's getting late." So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.


  1. Gold fish, the ever popular denizens of clear glass fish bowls all over north america, are a species of carp from asia. Their popularity is related to their hardiness, although they don't tend to co-exist well with other sorts of fish in the confines of bowls or fish tanks. Gold fish will grow to fit their surroundings, so one that starts out as a tiny individual in a bowl will rapidly grow out into a not so cute fish in a larger tank. Their maximum size seems to be roughly 20 to 25 centimetres long, based on gold fish I have seen in wall tanks at fancier chinese restaurants.
  2. English has a small repertoire of stock phrases for those moments when we have small accidents or mishear someone, including 'beg your pardon', which is still in common use. 'Excuse me,' is another one. They are all variants on 'don't blame me for this, it was an accident' and can sometimes seem a bit senseless. If you have ever watched someone distractedly apologize to a mailbox or other inanimate object they've bumped into as they rush to get somewhere, that is an example.
  3. At this point the usefulness of writing their names on their slates should be clearer to both the Gryphon and Alice!
  4. It would be difficult for a lizard set into an approximately sitting position to look anywhere else in view of the structure of their heads. A lizard's head and neck still has many features in common with that of a fish, contemporary fish being contemporary lizards' distant cousins. An actual neck between head and shoulders was quite an evolutionary innovation, and many lizards still have the rough equivalent of an early version neck with little vertical flexibility, meaning they can move their heads easily and widely from side to side, but less so up and down. There is a great book that discusses the early evolution of flexible necks and limbs in fish related to amphibians. It is called Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.
  5. No doubt there is a fine art to correcting a king or other authority figure in a public place, especially when they have slipped off-script. In the case of the King of Hearts, who appears to be perhaps a bit dunce-like after all, he would definitely be in trouble without the assistance of the fastidious White Rabbit.
  6. The mile in question being a british mile (about 1.6 kilometres), another remnant of the roman invasion of britian. The romans defined their mile on the basis of the distance a military unit marched in 1 000 paces.
  7. If the Knave didn't write the verses, how would he know?
  8. People have been signing documents for at least as long as there have been writing systems of some kind in use. The earliest 'signatures' were apparently made using carved seal-stones, stamps, or rings. Some of the most elaborate examples have been excavated in iraq and greece. When literacy was less common, a seal was an important work-around as a person didn't need to be able to read to use one, and they could be elaborated enough to make forgery difficult. An early sign of increased literacy and the legal ability of the poor to sign documents in their own right was the restriction of seals to the nobility, and the signing of documents with 'a mark,' usually an x with the person's name written in beside it by a notary.
  9. Is the White Rabbit trying to set the King up to say something else rather obvious and at least sensible?
  10. 'To give someone a good character' meant to vouch for a person's honesty and that they were indeed who they said they were. This was commonly done using letters of introduction in the victorian period, a time well before the proliferation of idenity cards, passports and the like. Arguably this is a more secure system in the longer term, if the recent misuses of personal documentation in the second world war and today in advertising are any indication.
  11. 'To have a fit' usually means 'to have a temper tantrum.' It was formerly used for many sorts of sudden, violent physical reactions, including epileptic attacks and cerebral hemorrhages or strokes. A character in older stories who suffers an 'apoplectic fit' has suffered a stroke that has rendered them at the least speechless, at worst dead. A person can be predisposed to strokes by high blood pressure, and emotion or exertion that causes a sharp rise in blood pressure can indeed cause a stroke. This led to the broadening of the use of the term 'apoplectic' to being rendered speechless with rage.
  12. Alice is finally finished with deferring to animals or people. It is interesting that Alice never opts to use her bit of mushroom that causes growth to outgrow the other people and creatures she meets.
  13. Six pennies, or half a shilling, once a passable even if not generous tip for someone performing a menial task on behalf of someone else in victorian england.
  14. By the 1800s, the word 'atom' was barely 300 years old, and there was no real sense of an atom's size until 1865. Nevertheless, a surprising amount of information had been deduced from experiments with gases and collating information about different pure substances in the earliest versions of the periodic table.
  15. Poor Bill the Lizard, subject to a fit the Queen of Hearts denies she would ever have. An inkstand could be a small tray with recesses to hold several pens, and one or two bottles of ink. Expensive stands would have built in ink reservoirs and fancy finishes. A more humble sort of inkstand would have one ink bottle and a socket to set the pen in between uses. The pen stands in banks, now themselves almost completely vanished, are a much reduced version of these earier inkstands. The dip pen used with inkstands was commonly used right into the second world war, although inexpensive reservoir (better known as fountain) pens were commonly available. Unlike most types of ballpoint pen, reservoir and dip pens alike need to be applied to the paper with little or no pressure to make a mark. When well balanced, the likelihood of suffering writer's cramp while using them is quite low.
  16. Puns are popularly denounced as the lowest form of humour, which seems a bit unjust. The number of clever uses of puns in literature is quite impressive, and books like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy are made up of almost nothing else, including visual as well as verbal puns. Overall I'm inclined to rank puns above toilet humour and fart noises, but no doubt there are plenty of people who would disagree with me.
  17. Not quite the twentieth time, although the King has called for the verdict quite often. I mentioned 'procedural fairness' previously, and in a court setting this tends to mean all the steps carried out to prevent a verdict being reached or acted on before the evidence of a crime has been tested and examined. Needless to say, there is little procedural fairness evident in this particular court room!
  18. 'To hold the tongue' is to keep quiet, as it is nearly impossible to speak while keeping your tongue still. It was a commonplace not so long ago that children 'should be seen and not heard' so in all likelihood the real Alice heard this order more than once from many of the adults she interacted with.
  19. The 'it's only a dream' explanation has been vastly overused, and in some cases imposed on a story that didn't have it originally, especially in the case of books remade as movies. A famous exmaple of this involving a popular children's book is MGM's version of The Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The scriptwriters and director performed several unfortunate surgeries on the story, the revision of Dorothy's trip to Oz into a concussion-induced dream being one of the most obvious. Another change was the reduction of Dorothy from Baum's plucky original to a rather timid, snivelly child. This second change is especially obnoxious considering the fact that this was a groundbreaking characterization inspired in part by Baum's conversations with his mother-in-law Matilda Joslyn Gage, a prominent Feminist activist and scholar. In fact, Gage inspired the book, as described at the website of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.

Annotator's Extra Note: Purists will notice that I have opted to leave off the last five paragraphs of Lewis Carroll's text. This is pure self-indulgence on my part, as I find those paragraphs an awful and unnecessary coda that lapses into the sentimental sludge Carroll had firmly mocked until then. They are also representative of the poorer examples of his work, which sadly includes almost all of his children's writing outside of the Alice books and The Hunting Of The Snark.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:00