Staff Pick - Through the Looking Glass | Mechanics' Institute

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Staff Pick - Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I was quite a voracious reader at a young age, and on my eighth birthday my parents bought me a very nice hard-backed edition of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  Published in 1871, this sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) was another hallucinogenic romp through the mathematical game-mind of its creator, but, rather than playing-cards, the template this time was chess.

Beautifully illustrated by John Tenniel, the setting Alice finds herself in is contrary and curious: drowsily she follows her kitten through a mirror, and into a mirror-world.  All is topsy-turvy, and Alice must run with the Red Queen to simply stay in one place, while the White Queen tells Alice that “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day.”

As Alice proceeds in her adventures to the eighth square (to become a Queen), we are introduced to some of the classic characters from English literature: Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Walrus and the Carpenter. Jabberwocky, that masterpiece of so-called ‘nonsense-verse,’ lies in the pages of this fabulously rich book.  The author has also given all the chess pieces an alias in the Dramatis Personae that precedes the action.

Perhaps most interesting of all, Carroll includes a chess problem, along with the key to the action, for White Pawn (Alice) to play, and to win in eleven moves.

There is much written about this problem elsewhere; suffice to say, in a later edition, Carroll advises:

“As the chess-problem, given on the 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 ‘check-mate’ of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set up the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance with the laws of the game.”

Playing a not insignificant part in my childhood development, opening up the ‘doors of perception’ with its mind-bending use of language and ‘illogical’ thought, Through the Looking Glass is the very finest fiction using chess as a theme, surpassing any book (or film) I have read or seen since.

When Alice says “One can’t believe impossible things” and the White Queen replies “Why, sometimes I’ve believed six impossible things before breakfast,” we are at the very heart of the matter: Carroll is daring us to use our imagination.

Sound advice for us all, but an absolutely essential attribute for a chess player.

- Paul Whitehead

Mechanics’ Institute has this story in several books, in eBook format, and DVDs in our collection.

Posted on Jul. 19, 2023 by Paul Whitehead