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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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


Click each link in the annotations at right to advance the state of the board.


  1. Alice meets R. Q.
  2. Alice through Q's 3d (by railway)
    to Q's 4th (Tweedledum and Tweedledee)
  3. Alice meets W. Q. (with shawl)
  4. Alice to Q's 5th (shop, river, shop)
  5. Alice to Q's 6th (Humpty Dumpty)
  6. Alice to Q's 7th (forest)
  7. W. Kt. takes R. Kt.
  8. Alice to Q's 8th (coronation)
  9. Alice becomes Queen
  10. Alice castles (feast)
  11. Alice takes R.Q. & wins
  1. R. Q. to K. R's 4th
  2. W.Q. to Q.B's 4th (after shawl)
  3. W. Q. to Q. B's 5th (becomes sheep)
  4. W. Q. to K. B's 8th (leaves egg on shelf)
  5. W. Q. to Q. B's 8th (flying from R. Kt.)
  6. R. Kt. to K's 2nd (ch.)
  7. W. Kt. to K. B. 5th
  8. R. Q. to K's sq. (examination)
  9. Queens castle
  10. W. Q. to Q. R's 6th (soup)

So she was considering in her own mind. So she was considering in her own mind. So she was considering in her own mind. So she was considering in her own mind.

Looking-Glass House

The Game



  1. When I first read this book as a child, it happened that there was a complete box of chess pieces available to play with, but no board. So it was an ongoing mystery to me why this diagram was here for some time, and I certainly couldn't make sense of the notation underneath the diagram, though I could see it was a sort of weird table of contents. Being thirty years older than when I first read the book (eep!) I thought it would be fun to work out what is going on here at last, and learn how to play chess at least badly as a happy correlate.

    The first challenge I encountered in this little project was figuring out what notation Lewis Carroll is using here, as it has apparently been completely superseded since 1981 by a modern (?!) notation first introduced in 1773 called algebraic chess notation. The notation used here is descriptive chess notation, and although Wikipedia's Chess article does not include a cross-reference to it just now, there is a Wikipedia article on it. The descriptions below are mainly derived from those Wikipedia articles.

    For our purposes here, what we need to know is this: the chess pieces are set up at each end of the board. At each extreme end, the first row is made up of the court pieces. That is, the Rook (R), Knight (Kt), Bishop (B), Queen (Q), King (K), Bishop (B), Knight (Kt), and Rook (R). The next row is taken up by the eight Pawns (P). Based on the view given on your screen, the left four files (the columns) are designated the Queen's, the right four the King's. To designate a given square, you give the abbreviation Q or K to indicate which side of the board you are on, then the abbreviation of the court piece that heads that file. Of course, if the square is in the Queen's or King's file, you will not have a second letter. You complete the designation with a row number, counting from which end of the board you sit at to play.

    After that, we need a bit of information about the moves that the different pieces can make.
    • A pawn can skip to the second square in front of it, as long as there are no pieces in the way. Or a pawn could move just one square, or one square to the left or right diagonally. In the diagonal move case, the pawn can capture opposing pieces.
    • A queen can move any number of squares on any diagonal, up, down, left, or right, as long as there is no other piece obstructing the path. Otherwise the queen may still move freely directionally, but may be able to move only a square or two.
    • A knight has a somewhat hard to describe move; it consists of moving two squares in an L shape so long as the squares are not in the same rank, file, or diagonal as the knight. What this means practically is that the grid of 8 squares immediately around the knight are ones the knight cannot be moved to, and the knight may jump over other pieces.
    • A king is quite immobile in comparison to the first three pieces. A king can move one square in any direction, and also has a special move called castling that involves a rook as well. This is not the same thing as what Carroll labels "castling" in the chess problem above.
    • A rook can move any number of squares along a rank or file, as long as there are no other pieces in the way. Otherwise a rook is obstructed in the same way as a queen.
    • And finally, a bishop may move any number of squares diagonally as long as no other pieces obstruct it, and so it is also potentially limited in how many squares it may actually move.

    Lewis Carroll himself has this to say about the game in his preface to Through the Looking Glass in 1896:

    As the chess-problem, given on a previous page, has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the "castling" of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the Palace: but the "check" of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final "checkmate" of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance with the laws of the game.

    Using this information, the first thing I did was recreate the game position by position, which you can go through sequentially by using the links above. However, just in case your screen size is not quite right to get at the links and see the board change conveniently, you can run the game as a proper slide show instead. I have not gone so far as to recreate the check mate of the Red King, but it is clear even to myself as a raw novice that the otherwise inert White Rook could combine with the White Knight for just that purpose – which perhaps explains why this piece is there as it is not moved at all otherwise.

  2. Logically enough, the game has been going for some time already, so there are already many pieces removed from the board and the Red Queen has apparently traversed much of it.
  3. White plays first, and accordingly Alice is listed as moving first here. In terms of the story, it is actually the Red Queen who leaves first, but the implication is that her move is not finished before Alice's is anyway. Alice takes the first type of move allowable for a pawn listed above. The extraordinary speed of queens is related of course to their ability to move as far as they like in any direction so long as there are no other pieces obstructing the path they mean to take.
  4. Since Alice's ambition is to become a queen herself, it stands to reason that she would meet the other queen on the board. The character contrast between the White and Red Queens is one of the earliest depictions of the "stern governess"-"scattered nurse" dyad as opposed to the somewhat more common "good witch"-"bad witch" characterizations that become endemic just a little later.
  5. This is the only really overt reflex of the original boating trips on which the Alice stories were composed and told by Lewis Carroll to the Liddell girls. It also has fascinating overtones of the dreadful and nearly inescapable souvenir shops now inflicted on most places with pleasant venues for walks, boating, swimming, and the like.
  6. Humpty Dumpty's appearance is a bit peculiar, even for a fantasy story of this type, because practically all of the other characters so far have been altered versions of chess pieces. It is tempting to see Humpty Dumpty as a sort of rook, given his wall-sitting proclivities.
  7. As she did in her adventures in Wonderland, for a time Alice forgets her own name, this time due to the influence of the forest she travels through. The passage is a remarkable encapsulation of Victorian male anxieties in the face of forests and other environments not created by people.
  8. As can be seen by cycling through the stages of the game, the White Knight arrives in a nick of time, as in a twist of irony the White King comes very close to being caught even as the Red King snores away nearby.
  9. Having reached the last row (for the player in white) also known as the first row (for the player in red), Alice can now be promoted to any piece besides what she already is. She of course wishes to be a queen, and indeed this is not an uncommon option taken by chess players. This makes sense considering the freedom of movement queens have. Draughts has a similar promotion option.
  10. Apparently a putative monarch is not "officially" one until they have been crowned and invested with the symbols of their control over others. The symbols famously include a sceptre, globe, and ermine-lined cloak in the case of various British monarchs.
  11. It says a lot for Lewis Carroll's skilled use of the chess game itself to tie the events so far together that when matters begin to unravel during the feast, that is genuinely what is happening. The metaphysical framework of the Looking Glass world is so thoroughly violated that Alice inevitably wakes up.
  12. In real life, the player who wins in chess succeeds in checking the opposing player's king such that there is no escape for him. Which begs the question of why this particular event constitutes Alice's victory in the game.
  13. With a clear path and no risk of encountering the White Knight, the Red Queen heads back to her end of the board, though on the Red King's side.
  14. This is the White Queen's first appearance, flying rather like a great soaring goose over land as opposed to the Red Queen's equally fast but still more earthbound mode of travelling.
  15. The White Queen's abrupt transformation into a bad-tempered sheep surprised me enough in earlier readings that it wasn't until I began setting up this page and read it in the record of moves, I didn't understand that this was what had happened. Puzzled by the transition, I had come to the conclusion that the White Queen had flown off after her errant shawl and somehow the sheep spontaneously appeared. In fact, this transition is one of the most genuinely "dreamlike" in the book, in the sense that there really is no sense to what happened in any way, yet the dreamer, Alice, sees nothing strange in it.
  16. Still manifesting as a bad-tempered sheep, the White Queen has interesting undertones of Jekyll and Hyde. Both of the Alice books were printed prior to Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, and certainly nothing so sinister as Stevenson's material is here. That said, older children can experience a confusing range of behaviour from adults who are beginning to expect them to behave more as adults while also still treating them like children.
  17. Fleeing from the Red Knight seems logical at first, though for the Red Knight it makes more sense to focus on the relatively immobile White King. As it happens fleeing the Red Knight isn't totally logical here, as the White Queen is in the squares the Red Knight can't move onto before she flees, which prevents him from troubling anyone else.
  18. Now the White King is in some difficulty, and while it may seem in the context of the chapter chronicling this event that the White and Red Knights clash in relation to Alice, she simply happens to be in the right place at the right time to see it. Alice herself is in no danger from the Red Knight, as she is in one of the squares he can not move onto.
  19. Having successfully fended off the Red Knight, the White Knight returns to his original position. This seems to relate to a desire to keep the White Knight within the right range of squares to allow him to be interposed between the White King and threatening Red pieces.
  20. Alice is already crowned and sceptred, so it seems rather late to give her an impossible examination.
  21. As Lewis Carroll noted in the quote above, this isn't the usual meaning of castling. In chess proper, castling is a move that a king can make once per game. According to Wikipedia, this involves the king moving two squares along the first row for the player making the move, towards a rook. Then the rook can be moved to the last square the king crossed. Apparently this can't be done if there are any pieces between them, which makes sense as they can't jump other pieces, if either of them has moved, or if the king is in check or would be in danger of being checked. Hmm. Alas, Wikipedia offers no explanation for why a person would want to use this move, or the reason it was created.
  22. The White Queen moves firmly out of Alice's reach, and in doing so demonstrates the peculiar geography of Looking Glass land. The distance a given square represents is not consistent, which is unsurprising in a novel of the absurd. It is tempting to play with the idea that Looking Glass chess boards are both non-Euclidian and lumpy. Carroll would emphatically not have approved of this – he was a fierce opponent of the gradual ousting of Euclid from the mathematics curriculum.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:04