Lewis Carroll envisioned his Alice playing chess

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
1/29/2018 – If we were to create a list of notable writers who made significant contributions to chess, along with Alfonso X of Castile — also known as "the Wise" — Stefan Zweig, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, we would have to include Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), that is to say Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym chosen by the Briton to present his literary work. | Photo: Carroll's historical self-portrait

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When crossing the mirror

By the FIDE trainer and Argentine chess researcher, Sergio Ernesto Negri

After enumerating such names as those above, it is impossible not to add — unless we decide to be completely unfair — other outstanding authors that will transcend eternally and universally. These authors preceded the ones we mentioned above, and were among the first to incorporate chess into their writings. We shall mention al-Mas'udi, Ferdousi, Omar Jayam, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Bocaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega and William Shakespeare. Nor should we omit thinkers that noticed the game, at different times, and incorporated it as part of their deep reflections. Here we can name Gottfried Leibniz, Denis Diderot, Ferdinand de Saussure, Miguel de Unamuno, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Benjamin Franklin, George Steiner and, among such privileged company, we can mention a notable Argentine intellectual: Ezequiel Martínez Estrada.

In both literary genres — fiction and non-fiction — there are other unforgettable names of people that managed to include chess within the narrative arguments that arose from their genius. It is the case of Edgar Allan Poe (despite his diatribes towards the game), Jules Verne, Leon Tolstoy, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Elias Canetti, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Clarke, Fernando Arrabal (he even created a Hymn to Chess), Arturo Pérez-Reverte and, among the compatriots of Borges and Martínez Estrada: Leopoldo Lugones, Rodolfo Walsh, Abelardo Castillo and Ricardo Piglia.

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBut let's go back to Lewis Carroll, one of the members of the prodigious quintet that was presented initially, and to whom this work is dedicated. Of Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf (pictured, right) said:

"Since childhood remained in him entire, he could do what no one else has ever been able to do — he could return to that world; he could re-create it, so that we too become children again."

The fact that his literature was dedicated to children is generally emphasized, reinforcing the idea that his work gave special relevance to games — something especially enjoyed by children. By saying this, we shall avoid the pitfall of confusing Carroll with some sort of capitis diminutio (literally "decrease of head"). On the contrary, we must recognize the power and odd magic conveyed by his prose.

The authors that have managed to dive into the depths of children's worlds, and leave lasting impressions in the lives of their readers are exceptional. At the same time, the eyes of those who manage to notice and transmit the deep playful sense of life are also extraordinary. Carroll managed to do both, thus entering a very exclusive club of writers and thinkers.

Borges, who admired him deeply, when talking about Alice and her foray through the looking glass, was fascinated by "the dreamlike chess presented by Carroll". That "oneiric chess" is the axis of the plot of Through the Looking Glass, and key to what Alice found in there. This work was presented in 1872, seven years after the appearance of the also essential Alice in Wonderland.

The plot of the second instalment of a fascinating saga — which has Alice as its protagonist — deserves to be remembered. The girl, at a certain point, crosses the mirror placed in her room, and is thrown into a prodigious scenario. In a bucolic landscape, typical of the English countryside, a gigantic chessboard can be seen, with rows separated by streams and columns separated by hedges. A chess game with living creatures is being played.

She is invited to be part of the game and is given the role of a humble white pawn. She is promised, however, that she will become a queen once the promotion takes place — for that to happen she must advance, step by step, to the eighth rank. Throughout her excursion, she lives situations that are as magical as unforgettable, interacting with other pieces/characters. The experiences, besides having an effect of hilarity or strangeness, invite us to reflection. 

After fulfilling the expectation of becoming a queen, Alice wakes up, once again on the "right" side of the mirror. She now needs to find out — doubts abounding (these shared by the readers) — if the adventure really existed, or if the whole thing was only a dream.

The mirror is used as a very intelligent and proverbial device. The images projected on it, those of people and their respective environments, seem to acquire a life of their own shortly after being observed. They are a reflection of the real world. But, at the same time, it is completely plausible to imagine a parallel dimension hidden behind those elements, which inherently will always be mysterious.

As Borges put it in his poem "Mirrors":

The crystal spies on us. If within the four
Walls of a bedroom a mirror stares,
I’m no longer alone. There is someone there.
In the dawn reflections mutely stage a show.

The pieces that participate in the encounter — including the standout roles played by the White Queen, the Red Queen and the Red King (despite his impassivity) — have fantasy names, such as Tweedledee, Tweedledum, the Talking Sheep, the Elder, the White Knight, Humpty Dumpty, the Carpenter, the Walrus, the Raven, the Red Knight, and two that are very special: the Lion (representing England) and the Unicorn (Scotland), which are fighting for the supremacy of the kingdom.

Relations have been established with some public figures of the time, even to the point of believing that the White Knight represented Carroll himself. If this were so, we shall consider especially touching the scene in which that piece says goodbye to Alice after having protected her and having shown her the way to become a queen. This can be interpreted as a parable of what should have happened in real life.

It is well known that the author was inspired by a girl that went by the same name, Alice Liddell, who, along with her sisters, was educated by Carroll. They were the daughters of his personal friend Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford. Carroll taught the girls how to play chess. When Alice became an adult, the inevitable departure from her old counsellor took place. Surely, in those circumstances, he could have felt like the aforementioned White Knight that had to say goodbye to the girl in the story.

It is remarkable that in the initial position of the game that Alice joins — presented in the figure — no bishop appears, a piece that in fact is not mentioned in the entire book. It is likely that this omission implies a sign of respect or even fear in the face of a very powerful ecclesial elite. 

Alice to play

The initial position and corresponding sequence of moves that followed in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Upon observing this arrangement, it is clear that White could have easily given mate-in-three with: 1.Ng3+ Ke5 (if Kd4 or Kd3 the mate arrives even more quickly with 2.Qc3) 2.Qc5+ Ke6 3.Qd6#.

Given the fact that the course of the game is quite different, we realize we are in the presence of a first chess anomaly. However, since the Red Queen is the one that invites Alice to participate in the game — and to assume a role in the rival side — promising to crown her, this might be understood as a delaying strategy to distract White's pieces, which instead of seeing the girl move forward might have solved the game more quickly. After realizing this detail, and given the fact that White finally crashed through anyway — after the girl's promotion — we can interpret that, knowingly, the outcome is postponed in order to allow a bigger involvement of the protagonist.

In any case, it is evident that this transit to a higher rank (from pawn to queen) has an intended association with what would inevitably happen in real life. Alice's path, through the board behind the mirror, with its successive experiences, is comparable to the educational process that the girl must go through - on this side of the image — to achieve her goal of leaving her childhood behind (compared in this phase to a pawn) and getting to adulthood (when she would become, at least supposedly, a queen).

With regard to chess licenses, many more have been registered in the course of history. The most common one is to allow a player to make more than one consecutive move, which is contrary to the logic of a game where the participants are meant to take turns. Another one happens when a knight threatens Alice while placed contiguous to her, despite the fact that this piece is known for using a more sinuous movement. This happens concretely when the knight is on e7, Alice on d7, the White Queen on c8, the Red King on c6 and the White Knight on f5. In this position, the red knight is threatening c8 and c6, but by no means can it reach d7, where the girl is located.

An additional departure from the logic of the game is seen when the White King does not protect himself when in check. It is also strange to see that the pawn, when getting to the eighth rank, is not immediately transformed into another piece. Alice will consider herself a queen only at a later time, when the Red Queen stands next to her. The girl stands then between the two sovereigns, who submit her to a questionnaire on various topics, perhaps to verify that she deserves the sceptre.

Carroll then recounts the castling of the queens, conveying an episode in which the three sovereigns enter the palace together. This is yet another literary attribution taken by the author, since it is well known that in chess only the kings are allowed to castle, with the help of a rook. In this regard, Carroll, rather than appealing to the game's regulations — which he undoubtedly knew perfectly (he learned the game as a child at his home in Croft Rectory) — resorted to the various connotations of the verb 'to castle'. Taking these licenses into account, it is completely suitable to use the chess movement as an analogy to the queens entering the palace.

Regarding the deviations of some chess regulations, the mathematician and notable American scientist Martin Gardner said the following:

"It is true, however, as Carroll himself points out, that red and white do not alternate moves properly, and some of the 'moves' listed by Carroll are not represented by actual movements of the pieces on the board (...). The most serious violation of chess rules occurs near the end of the problem, when the White King is placed in check by the Red Queen without either side taking account of the fact. It is true that both sides play an exceedingly careless game, but what else could one expect from the mad creatures behind the mirror?"

Given the repeated chess incongruities, some attempts were made to generate an alternative order of moves that would fulfil both purposes: to be consistent with the story and the strict rules of the game. This task was achieved by Donald Liddell, who despite his surname had no relationship with the Alice that inspired the author. He published a 66-moves game that opens with the Bird (an opening that alludes to a great British player and chess historian of the nineteenth century), and culminates at the precise moment when Alice captures the Red Queen. It was first published in the British Chess Magazine in May, 1930 (volume 30, pages 181-184).

Beyond the technicalities, Carroll found in chess an unbeatable way to convey — with a sort of special magic — certain ideas and values. At the same time, a great literary discovery was made: it was now possible for the protagonist of a story to participate in a hallucinatory experience — in this case on the other side of a mirror. The author seems to invite us to reflect on the fact that it will always be possible to participate in a different reality which is much closer to us than we tend to believe. At the same time, it provokes admiration for a girl that — within a frame of innocence — explores unknown territories, and assumes the challenge of the undiscovered with joy, expectation, and a bit of recklessness.

In the game, the pieces are white and red, and not the classic black and white that corresponds to the universal canon of chess. In this regard, we can resort to the French researcher Michel Pastoureau, who pointed out how this subject evolved historically.

In the original versions of the game, such as chaturanga and shatranj, black and red pieces opposed each other. In India these colours were metaphors, respectively, of nothingness and wealth or passion; in the Muslim world, meanwhile, red meant life and black meant death.

In feudal times, given the influence of Christianity, white always represented purity, while both red (which, despite alluding to papal garments, is also the colour of the devil) and black were the tones that diverged the most from the former. In this context, for the first time, the use of black that came from the East was replaced by white in Europe.

Later, towards the thirteenth century, this will change to an antithesis that eventually will be considered perfect: that of white against black, a prototype that will definitely transcend. This is, after all, a rather exact antinomy, since the ideas of light, epiphany and good, associated with the colour white, contrast clearly with the darkness, perversion and evil that black conveys. In this sense, we return to the ancient Greeks, given that, for example, for Aristotle, white signified maximum transparency, while black referred to absolute opacity. 

Additionally, what was happening to the pieces transferred to the squares of the board? In primitive times these did not have any special colour, since the spaces were only delimited by lines. Then, red and black or red and white squares started to alternate. However, when the new model of antithetic colours was imposed, the squared surface, like the pieces, was also coloured in black and white.

Anyway, Sir John Tenniel, when illustrating his friend's story, presented a confrontation between red and white pieces. In the British context, one might think that these colours referred to other struggles, those staged by England and Scotland. In fact, in the coat of arms of the United Kingdom there is a crowned lion that corresponds to England — we shall remember that the cross of St George of that country's flag is red — and a white chained unicorn symbolizing Scotland. 

Imagen de un tablero de ajedrez y de un detalle en la que se ve a Alicia, de Sir John Tenniel, 1875

A chessboard and a crowned Alice, drawn by Sir John Tenniel, 1875

Regarding the design of the pieces taken as a point of reference by Tenniel, it is significant that it was not that of Staunton, the most recognized in his time — and the same one that remains in full force until today — but that of Saint George. This design was developed around 1849 precisely for the Saint George Chess Club in London.

Leaving the images aside and going back to the text, it should be noted that the immediate success of Alice's adventures was such that, during the author's life, numerous writers published their own reinterpretations in books that were collected by Carroll himself. It is clear that his work, since the very moment it was published, became an object of inspiration in different artistic genres.

In the literary world, the allusions to Carroll's work and figure in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake — his final work — should be pointed out.

Likewise, the recreation of Alice's journey through the mirror formulated by Massimo Bontempelli in La scacchiera davanti allo specchio (The Chess Set in the Mirror), where the traveler is a boy that interacts with the White King, who assures: "All men are proud and ignorant... to the point of not knowing that we, the chess pieces, are the most important creatures of creation. [...] You must know that chess pieces are much, much older than men. [...] We are an example for the humanity that we govern. [...] We are truly eternal." Moreover, none other than Vladimir Nabokov was given the task of translating the books that have Alice as their protagonist into Russian.

The suggestive and strong image of Carroll's muse assuming the role of a pawn in a human-scale chess match will be retaken again and again in later times. Anyhow, we shall remember that they come from way before as, for example, Rabelais had used them in Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Perhaps the most striking example in this regard, given its relevance and massive impact, is the case of the British writer JK Rowling, who includes a scene where Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron are forced to take part in a chess game as black pieces (bishop, rook and knight, respectively). They must try to save themselves. In this context, the fact that White's pieces are represented by living faceless figurines seems very disquieting.

Carroll was multifaceted. He is remembered classically in his role as a writer, but he must also be recognized for his contributions in the fields of mathematics and formal logic. On the other hand, he is known for having developed a mnemonic skill that led him, for example, to discover a method that allowed him to reproduce seventeen decimal places of pi. He was also a deacon of the Anglican Church. Moreover, he explored another area, which shows the broad scope of his interests and his need to explore new territories: he invented games.

It has not been duly verified, but based on some of Carroll's entries in his Diaries, it has been discovered that he invented a portable chessboard, which he used when he travelled by boat or by train. This is the "in status quo chessboard". We need to clarify, however, that the device was patented by a well-known English family that owns a sports Equipment Company called Jaques of London, which also obtained the exclusive rights to manufacture the famous Staunton chess set (the Staunton design was created by the artist Nathaniel Cooke).

Another very notorious passion of his was photography. He liked girls to appear as models in them, including the eternally present Alice Liddell. Some of his works in this area are somewhat controversial as sometimes the photographs portrayed nudity. Later, most of the portraits were modestly returned to the respective parents, or dully destroyed.

In spite of this tendency to choose some degree of crude exhibitionism, we might interpret that the photographer's intention was artistic, an attempt to find some sort of virginal purity through his lenses. In that case, instead of some kind of hidden perversion, we would find idealism or even ingenuity in his search for inspiration. 

However, due to the controversial characteristics of some of these works, the writer was accused by several scholars of having fed forbidden emotions in his young muses, and that is why he has been accused of having some personality traits of pedophilia. Another completely delirious theory is that — considering some clues detected in his writings and his complex personality — Carroll was the man hiding behind Jack the Ripper's enigmatic attire. 

El artista Dante Gabriel Rossetti y su familia (amigos del autor) jugando al ajedrez.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his family (friends of Carroll) playing chess. | Photo: Lewis Carroll

Fanny, Maria, Joanna y Anne Smithin jugando al ajedrez en el jardín de Dinsdale Rectory, Yorkshire (¿con Kitty, la gata a la que Alicia le dijo: “Hace un rato, cuando jugábamos, mirabas como si entendieras. Y cuando dije «¡Jaque!», ronroneaste…”?).

Fanny, Maria, Joanna and Anne Smith playing chess at Dins dale Rectory's garden in Yorkshire (along with Kitty, the cat that was checked by Alice: "A while ago, when we played, you stared like you understood. When I said 'check!' you purred ..."?) | Photo: Lewis Carroll

Henrietta y Margaret Lutwidge (tías del autor) jugando al ajedrez. Foto de Lewis Carroll

Henrietta and Margaret Lutwidge (aunts of the author) playing chess | Photo: Lewis Carroll

The truth is that in photography Carroll found a unique channel of artistic expression, perhaps one that allowed him to sublimate intimate desires that should not be shown socially, as they belonged to the terrain of the unattainable and forbidden. In any case, the use of the lenses ensured the proper distances were respected, leaving aside intimate feelings of guilt and social stipulations that could not be broken while giving way to the admiration of the virginal purity in his admired girls, among which Alice undoubtedly stood out.

Lewis Carroll and chess in his photography. Lewis Carroll and chess in his literary works. Lewis Carroll and chess in his daily life. The latter is well reflected in his Diaries and in a compilation of his Letters, where he records that chess was played by his mother and other members of his family. Moreover, Charles himself used to play in social situations, preferably on rainy afternoons or when travelling by train. He even attended a tournament as a spectator.

Another clear proof of his contact with chess is seen in his legacy as, after his death, several books on the subject were found among his belongings, including two by Howard Staunton, the best English chess player of the nineteenth century: the well-known "Chess Players' Companion" and "The Chess Tournament", a chronicle of the first modern chess tournament ever recorded, played in 1851 in London, and won by Adolf Anderssen.

As an educator, Carroll taught chess to many children — among them, as mentioned above, Alice and her sisters. While teaching chess, Carroll told stories inspired by the game in order to create a more enjoyable environment. He used these lessons to explain more mundane issues, such as the rights of queens or the ownership of castles, as one of his students, Enid Shawyer, commented later.

So it is no surprise that he imagined Alice assuming the role of a pawn-queen after going through the mirror. The idea was facilitated by Carroll's prolific imagination and extraordinary talent. This happened in a period when — as Alice Hargreaves herself (this was her married surname) recreated as an adult — both of them "learned chess excitedly".

It was clear that Lewis very much liked cards games as well, as they were present in "Alice in Wonderland". He also enjoyed checkers and the strange "go bang" (or gomoku), which uses the same pieces and board of go. He even invented some hobbies, such as the game "lanrick", which can be played by two players on a squared board with each contestant having five pawns (later, he created a version with eight pieces) and nine cards.

He also created a word game, where letters are supposed to be moved on a board to create words. Eduardo Stilman, an Argentine scholar attributes another creation to him: "...a heterodox version of chess with rules that are respected in his book: you play on a conventional chessboard with conventional pieces, but no chess player has ever managed to understand it."

This search for other ways of entertainment seems to indicate a very deep aspect of Carroll's personality. Despite his apparent circumspection, the formalities and rites of Victorian society, and his incursion in the path of faith, he was trying to escape the cultural straits of the time. The games, added to the fanciful literary stories, constituted a balm where he could rest at least briefly in more pleasant worlds.

It should not be forgotten that Charles Dodgson, who had a brilliant academic performance in university, shared his name with his father (who married his own cousin) and grandfather, an obvious sign of a very traditional family. The men in his family stood out fundamentally in the world of arms and spirituality. In that claustrophobic climate Carroll remained single, and pursued a religious career and became a deacon in 1861. He did not take the next step, however, and abandoned the idea of becoming a priest, a role for which he seemed predestined.

The fact that Alice participated in a giant chess game where she became a queen, in addition to the didactic significance, somehow captivated the author on a more intimate level, as he projected his own desires to become someone else, capable of showing a personality that is both shy and fanciful.

The convention that a pawn can promote to a superior piece is part of the rules of the game, a rather exceptional occurrence. The exotic character of this rule is an essential element that adds to the magic of the game.

And if Alice manages to promote, the fact that a humble pawn, necessarily connoted with masculinity, might become a queen represents a double shock for puritanical souls: it was very difficult back then to admit the social ascent of a humble figure, while the possibility of a transsexualization process was even more frowned upon.

Beyond these cultural and ethical debates, we can return to the classic interpretation that associates the trajectory of Alice on the board with the evolution of a life that had to unfold from infancy to an incipient maturity, with the set of challenges that arose at each stage of her growth.

Here we should explore the tone of the following exchange: "The Horse, who had put his head out of the window, quietly drew it in and said, ‘It’s only a brook we have to jump over.’ Everybody seemed satisfied with this, though Alice felt a little nervous at the idea of trains jumped at all. ‘However, it’ll take us into the Fourth Square, that’s some comfort!’ she said to herself." This kind of situations were the kind that Alice inevitably had to face on both sides of the mirror in order to reach the goals in her journey that will end up with her as a queen - on the other side of the looking-glass -, and with the completion of the process of shaping her own personality in real life. She became a queen on one side, and married and became a mother on the other.

In any case, as affirmed by one of Carroll's most renowned biographers, Morton Norton Cohen, in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, rather than criticizing or questioning the value system that governed the British society of the time, the author simply describes it.

On the other hand, if Carroll had been in love with Alice — that idea in itself is very persuasive — one could suppose that the author did not dare to "promote" himself, breaking the conventions of the time. Later, unfortunately for him, the girl progressively gained her definitive independence, proving, once again, that the work is independent of its creator.

Perhaps that is how we can describe the fate of the writer's life: a wandering in less predictable roads, without achieving his aspirations to delve into the less conventional, refraining from taking the final step, that which the pawn abysmally executes in chess when crossing the seventh rank of the board.

Therefore, we can suppose that deacon Dodgson ended up imposing himself over those who could be seen, in an orthodox perspective, as inner ghosts of Dodgson the artist. For this reason, the notable author took refuge in his literature, in his games and inventions, which contrasted a reality where he could only accept what was allowed and given.

The adventures of Alice behind the mirror, as reflected at the end of the story, only represent a dream. At least that was what the girl believed at first, although some scepticism remained. In fact, in a connection between possible parallel worlds, after returning from the excursion, she examined the idea that the black and white kittens that accompanied her in the room were, respectively, the Red and White Queens from the chess game.

In a greater interaction between reality and fiction, Alice Liddell had two kittens named Kitty and Snowflake, daughters of Dinah, another cat of brilliant appearance that was included in the plot of Alice in Wonderland. Accordingly, Carroll ends his Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There with the following verse: "Life, what is it but a dream?"

In this oneiric perspective, where one can alternatively dream or be dreamed, it is the uncertainty about what happened that which ultimately remains. However, there is one more element that addresses this dilemma. At a certain point in the story, he refers to the Red King, the one that remains undisturbed throughout the game in a central square: "'He’s dreaming now,' said Tweedledee: 'and what do you think he’s dreaming about?' Alice said 'Nobody can guess that.' 'Why, about you!' Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. 'And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?’ 'Where I am now, of course,' said Alice. 'Not you!' Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. 'You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!'"

Bishop George Berkeley was a notable Irish philosopher who coined the concept Esse est percipi ("To be is to be perceived"), understanding that bodies are nothing other than perceptions. Following his line of thought, we could affirm that, very probably for Carroll, "To be is to be (able to be) dreamed."

If we admit this reasoning, our existence, our entity, our own life, must necessarily be the dreaming object of a third party, be the dreamer a piece of a hypothetical game of chess (as happened to Alice), a divinity, or whoever. Anyhow, we are confronted with an idea that is quite disturbing.

Perhaps this was what inspired Borges to conceive his poem Chess: "God moves the player, and he, the piece./Which god behind God begets the plot/Of dust and time and dream and agonies?" It is possible to imagine that if the Red King was the one who dreamed Alice, precisely Alice could have been the one that dreamed Carroll and he, in turn, the one who dreamed Borges. So if we imagine that there is a god behind God, a successive chain could be established with an infinity of entities that are reflected in a mirror. That being the case, it is interesting to imagine that this might have happened in the very mirror that Alice crossed.

Dream or nightmare? This question was put forth once again by Borges (in collaboration with María Ester Vázquez) in a biographical work about Carroll: "The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was that which Arnold (Note: Edwin Arnold, English poet contemporary to Carroll) was not and would have never wanted to be, an eccentric Englishman. Singularly timid, he shied away from people and sought friendship in children. To amuse Alice Liddell, he wrote, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, two books that would make him famous: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In the first, Alice dreams that she is chasing a white rabbit; the persecution takes her through a forest to a place filled with fantastic beings, like queens and kings of the deck, who judge and condemn her, until she discovers that they are just cards and wakes up. In the second, Alice goes through a mirror and arrives at a region of strange beings; most of them are chess pieces that have come to life. Eventually, it is revealed that this region is only a board and that each adventure corresponds to a chess move. We will never know whether Lewis Carroll felt that in this unstable world of dissolving figures there is a nightmare taking place..."

Carroll really liked word games, so he incorporated them many times in his work. These games ultimately allowed him to combine two of his biggest hobbies: literature and the playful. One big example in his work is the usage of cheese and chess, which curiously has deep historical reminiscences. The first text published in 1474 in England, thanks to the invention of the printing press, is called Game ande playe of the cheese. It is a translation into English, from the original French, made by William Caxton for the monastery of Westminster, based on the classic manuscript of Cesolis. He was a Lombard Friar that gave moral lessons using the game as a reference for his preaching.

Carroll's nonsense literature was very famous, which resulted from transgressing the common forms of syntax and semantics in order to construct expressions that acquire a very different meaning than the one originally intended. Many of them emerged on a chessboard. In this regard, in his Diaries he describes that he arranged the letters in each square to reorder them later. In any case, the author became a notorious lexicographical inventor, following the footsteps of one of his emblematic characters, Humpty Dumpty, who said: "‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.’"

In his work, many cases of portmanteau were also presented. These are linguistic blends of words, in which parts of multiple words or their phones (sounds) are combined into a new word (as in smog, coined by blending smoke and fog). Carroll coined, for example, the term viscotivas, a term that refers to something that is at the same time viscous and active.

There is also room for the well-known anagrams. It is, for example, disturbing the semantic inversion in 'devil' and 'lived', one of Carroll's constructions. He also used to assign new meanings to a term, not always in a laudatory way, as shown in literature and literature, used in a clearly ironic tone.

Carroll's knowledge of logic played a fundamental role in all these grammatical recreations. The use of altered words, challenging the limits of the English language — finding new meanings and modifying the known ones — allowed him to create a number of realities. These are new worlds where the rigidities of Dodgson's environment, at least in the limited margins of literature, could momentarily disappear.

It is also logical to ask ourselves whether these altered words were not in some way born out of the stuttering that accompanied him during the course of his life. It is conceivable that those expressions that sprang from his mouth, as if asking permission to be pronounced and released, giving the feeling of permanent doubt, in front of a context that was presented as formal, direct and exact, helped him connect more easily with children, who upon noticing those babblings might have felt closer to an adult that was seen as less threatening.

In both works dedicated to Alice, and throughout all of Carroll's work, one can appreciate an expressive and argumentative richness that has been the subject of studies and interpretations by numerous researchers. From my perspective, and perhaps oversimplifying the approach, I can ensure that the hobbies that act as a backdrop for those stories — cards and chess — are ultimately an ideal narrative resource when trying to reflect (once again the mirror appears!) the essential characteristics of a deeper game: life itself.

It has been speculated that the author shows an intention to return to his childhood, and that with his writings he wants the readers to join him on that regressive journey. He did that in a time of economic progress, industrialization and urban growth, pushed by a society that went forward with a frenzy. This situation forced people to leave childhood as quickly as possible.

The use of the mirror as a protagonist, likewise, refers to the eternal question of the double, which is always present in literature, particularly during the romantic era. On a psychological level, it could be said that Carroll presented sides of his personality that were kept (or were supposed to be kept) hidden. Through the looking-glass, he was free to explore unexplained impulses, using allegories allowed in fiction.

In this framework, another detail worth mentioning as constitutive of Carroll's personality is the fact that, in order to say whatever he wanted, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson decided to hide behind the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. That is another word game. For its construction he used the following process: he took his full name, Latinized it, took it back to English and reversed its order. That is to say, Charles became successively Carolus and Carroll; while Lutwidge mutated into Ludovicus and Lewis.

It could also be said that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson constructed the alias Lewis Carroll through a mirror, as the right and left positions mutate laterally when reflected. The author did the same when he decided to invert the order in his name.

Most likely he intended to hide behind this alias, absolutely in vain, since we all have come to know him as Lewis Carroll.

"It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played — all over the world — if this is the world at all", writes Carroll in the chapter "The Garden of Live Flowers" in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

In the world of reality, in the oneiric experience, in childhood, in adulthood, in play, in life, chess always plays an essential role, as Lewis Carroll masterfully proved thanks to his Alice. That happens on this side of the mirror. And that happens, too, on the other side of the mirror. Always.

Text: Sergio Negri
Photos: via Sergio Negri (except Virginia Woolf: George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Translation from Spanish: Carlos Alberto Colodro

Correction 14:00 CET: Thanks to Arne Moll (who wrote about Lewis Carroll's chess problem in 2008) for pointing out the photo captioned "Lewis Carroll kissing Alice" is not genuine. We have removed it.


  • Carroll, Lewis; Alicia anotada de Martin Gardner, Akal, Madrid, 1998. 
  • Carroll, Lewis; Los Libros de Alicia, La caza del Snark, Cartas, Fotografías, traducción anotada de Eduardo Stilman, Ediciones de la Flor, Buenos Aires, 1998.
  • Charles Dodgson and Chess, The Lewis Carroll Society, no se indica autor, en http://lewiscarrollsociety.org.uk/pages/aboutcharlesdodgson/activities/chess.html (página web actualizada a julio de 2017). 
  • Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal de Joanne K. Rowling, Salamandra, Barcelona, 1999.
  • Introducción a la literatura inglesa de Jorge Luis Borges y María Ester Vázquez, Emecé, Buenos Aires, 1997.
  • Obras completas  de Jorge Luis Borges, Emecé, Buenos Aires, 1974.
  • Una historia simbólica de la Edad Media occidental de Michel Pastoureau, traducido por Julia Bucci, Katz Editores, Buenos Aires, 2006.

Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.


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