In Alice in Wonderland, Alice takes a punting trip on the River Cherwell with her tutor and a step down the longest hole in children’s literature, the journey from working-world Oxford into the land of fairyland. The shortest distance between two points begins the longest day in Wonderland. And thus begins the travel that spawned a generation of fairy-talers.
In the beginning, we see Alice drowsy and bored, full of facts and figures, the jumbled-up matter of “Latitude or Longitude” and the Antipathies [Antipodes]. She isn’t sure whether cats eat bats, or bats eat cats, much less where she might get to at the end of her fall, when suddenly she lands on a pile of sticks and dry leaves.
In the land to which she arrives, the first thing she sees is her very busy white rabbit reaching a paw into his waistcoat pocket, consulting his watch and hurrying off down the dark hall, at the end of which is a golden key and a door which leads to “the loveliest garden you ever saw.” The worried rabbit is the last vestige of the adult world Alice leaves behind, and the door to the garden is the entrance into Wonderland. Of course Alice longs “to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains,” but our Alice is too tall. She soon finds a bottle marked “Drink me,” which might help her find a way into the garden. Becoming small, she soon realizes she must become tall again to grab the key before reducing herself again to enter the enchanting door to the garden. Thus begins the story of Alice’s entrance into the world of Wonderland.
All children are used to being unobtrusive observers on the edge of the work-a-day world of adulthood: the times tables, the geography facts, the science experiments, the drill of school, the worries “of cabbages and kings”, the things that ultimately make us seemingly big. How encumbered we adults are by these things, and how we assume children must learn and ultimately shoulder these burdens, burdens which they seemingly pick up and discard in their playtime meanderings.
But the tiny golden key to childhood, through which the door to faerie is opened, and the poetry that puts it all together, is the key of literature. And here Alice shows us the way. Obeying the “Drink me” and “Eat me” of the magic world, she enters through the door and leads us on adventure.
But what other children enter into the magical land through a fall, through a door in the wall, through a magical passageway, a drink that makes them small or larger, and a golden key?
There is Lucy in the Wardrobe; the Bastables treasure-seeking; the Swallows and Amazons in their boats on the river; Cyril and Anthea and their Phoenix egg in the carpet; Bobbie and her siblings keeping track of the great engines, Mossy and Tangle and the golden key.
The world of children is the world of fantasy, in which a rabbit in a blue jacket might get lost in Mr. McGregor’s garden, or children with a love of train engines might solve every problem they encounter on the edge of the mountains of the adult world, just in the nick of time. But unless we let our children dive down the rabbit hole, and loose them of the facts of the working world, they might never find the key that solves the mysteries of childhood life; and these lessons might be lost from the childhood memory chest which is the treasure trove of adult meaning.
On her way down the rabbit hole, Alice finds an empty marmalade jar, and puts it in one of the cupboards lining the edges of the hole into Fairyland. How if the marmalade jar be full? A sticky bear’s paw may reach into the jar and make marmalade sandwiches to place under his blue felt hat, safe for later, and we may find ourselves wandering our way into Portobello Road market, to some elevenses with a very wise guide to children’s problems. The wisdom of the ages is found not in the math of our school days, but limning the pages of Fairyland and the realm of Story.
As Jesus said to His disciples, “Let the little children come unto Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”