04 July 2024

An end to another spell
in Wonderland and to
the Mad Hatter’s party while
painting the roses red

Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories begin on 4 July 1862 … is today's election going to put an end to the Mad Hatter’s party?

Patrick Comerford

I have voted, I have exercised my democratic right and I have fulfilled my civic responsibility.

I voted in Stony Stratford early this morning, and I plan to stay awake all night, watching the election counts and waiting for results. I may stay awake util well into the morning, hoping for and anticipating many Portillo moments.

I wondered two weeks ago whether anyone had noticed the coincidence that fact that the election date today (4 July) is also the date on which the Alice in Wonderland stories began. On a boat trip in Oxford on 4 July 1862, Lewis Carroll first told the ‘Alice’ stories to Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

We live in a political ‘wonderland’, filled with mad hatters, tea parties, and people who fail to look at themselves in the mirror, yet would bring us all down the rabbit hole.

Alice’s Day is an annual city-wide celebration in Oxford on the first Saturday in July of all things about Alice in Wonderland, and takes place this year on Saturday (6 July).

It commemorates the afternoon of 4 July 1862, when the Christ Church don and mathematician Charles Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters Edith (then 8) and Lorina (13), daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a boat trip from Folly Bridge to Godstow, where they had a picnic.

The children begged him to tell a story, and to amuse them he told a story about a little girl, sitting bored by a riverbank, who finds herself tumbling down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland.

He wrote up these tales of a girl called Alice and her fantastical adventures for Alice in a manuscript entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in 1864 and published an expanded version as Alice in Wonderland in 1865, under the pen name Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. A sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, was published in 1871.

The entire print run sold out quickly and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland became an overnight publishing sensation, among both children and adults. The book’s first avid readers included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde.

It was quickly followed by Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There in 1871. It has never been out of print since then and has been translated into at least 176 languages.

In a paper in Prospect magazine, Professor Richard Jenkyns of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, said Alice in Wonderland is ‘probably the most purely child-centred book ever written.’ He argued that its only purpose ‘is to give pleasure.’

But for 160 years or more, critics and analysts have argued with one another about whether the Alice stories are about sex, drugs, politics, racism, the class system or psychiatric care, or all of these in various combinations, or merely an in-house commentary on the internal politics of Oxbridge college life.

Are they the most popular fairy tales in the English language? Or are they social satire?

Francine F Abeles’s edition of Dodgson’s political pamphlets presents a man who was fundamentally concerned with fairness. Summoning his mathematical abilities to issues related to electoral politics, he simultaneously made important contributions both to political science with his proposals for proportional representation and to mathematics with ideas that we now know as game theory.

From 1881 to 1885, Dodgson engaged with important political debates of the day, including the extension of the voting franchise, the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons, and proportional representation to ensure consensus and minority representation.

In a letter to The Spectator in 1875, he warned that secular education would inculcate attitudes that led students to tolerate oppression, injustice and slavery. He also protested against the abuse of animals, the existence of slavery, the mistreatment of factory workers, and the degradation of women.

He looks at reality through the eyes of a child, for whom adults are cruel, childlike, irresponsible, impulsive, and self-indulgent. Through Alice’s eyes, he sees these characteristics in authority figures and in royalty. And so he questions the authority of adults and of royalty and mocks the commonly-held prejudices of his day.

Painting the roses red … roses in a garden in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Alice could be read as a political allegory or satire, with Wonderland a symbolic England, ruled tyrannically by the Queen of Hearts, who represents Queen Victoria.

In an article in Punch in 1928, CW Giles suggests Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass provide a commentary on the War of the Roses (1455-1485), in which the House of York, symbolised by the White Rose, and the House of Lancaster, with the emblem of the Red Rose, fought for the English throne and political power.

The Queen of Hearts – the Red Queen of Through the Looking Glass who demands red roses – is the Lancastrian Queen Margaret. She is the wife of Henry VI, the ineffectual Red King, and demands the execution of the captive Duke of York, the knave in Wonderland: ‘Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head.’ And again: ‘Off with his head and set it on York gates.’

He identifies the Duchess of Wonderland with Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, Queen Margaret’s mutual enemy. Shakespeare tells how the Queen boxed her ears, whereupon the Duchess vowed: ‘She shall not strike Dame Eleanor unavenged.’

The sequel is in Wonderland on the croquet-ground, where Alice asks the White Rabbit, ‘Where’s the Duchess?’

‘Hush! Hush!’ said the Rabbit in a low hurried tone ... ‘She’s under a sentence of execution.’

‘What for?’ said Alice.

‘She boxed the Queen’s ears,’ the Rabbit began ...

The Duchess doses the baby with pepper and then chastises him for sneezing. For Giles, the baby is Richard of Gloucester, who eventually takes the throne as Richard III.

The baby is transformed into a pig, and Richard III’s emblem is a boar – which also gives us the York ham.

If Richard III is the baby, then the White King is his elder brother, Edward IV. The King’s messengers, Hatta and Haigha – the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in Wonderland – are of course of the White Rose faction: the Hatter is Warwick the Kingmaker and the March Hare symbolises the Yorkist claim to the throne based on the descent from Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to Richard II.

The fall of Humpty Dumpty, attended by the army of the White King, may refer to Richard III, who is portrayed in history and by Shakespeare as being hump-backed, and who was defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. He was reburied in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty discusses semantics and pragmatics with Alice:

‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’’

‘But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,’ Alice objected.

‘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.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

But perhaps, on this election night, these tales should be read as commentaries on British politics at the time and on the failings of the British justice system of the day, with the willingness of politicians to change colours whimsically.

We see the violence built into the Victorian justice system displayed by the aristocracy of Wonderland, the Duchess and the Queen, and the mangling of justice in the trial:

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

The royal gardeners paint white roses red in order to appease the Queen and to avoid decapitation. The Hatter is imprisoned before his trial ‘and of course the crime comes last of all,’ says the Queen.

Painting the white roses red may suggest that people have to hide what they truly are in order to avoid loss or gain political advantage and promotion hastily.

As I sit up late tonight and into tomorrow morning, I expect to see not so much white roses being painted red, but blue blotches on the map turn red. I expect more than one politician who was feeling smug until recently hear the democratic, 21st century equivalent of ‘Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head … Off with his head …’

It may even be a night that means those who were responsible for the Mad Hatters’ parties that we all saw during the Covid lockdown are forced to accept responsibility for their actions.

‘Off With The Heads!’ … the Queen of Hearts

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
56, Thursday 4 July 2024

The icon of the Transfiguration in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity V). Later this morning (4 July) I hope to vote in Stony Stratford in the General Election …. and I plan to stay awake throughout the night and well into Friday morning watching the election counts and the results.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon depicting the Transfiguration is tenth from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 9: 1-8 (NRSVUE):

1 And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.

2 And some people were carrying to him a paralyzed man lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, child; your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take your bed, and go to your home.” 7 And he stood up and went to his home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

The Transfigured Christ … a detail in the icon of the Transfiguration in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 19: The Transfiguration (Ἡ Μεταμόρφωσις):

In recent weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The tenth in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Transfiguration, or H Μεταμόρφωσις.

In many icons of the Transfiguration – including a fresco I saw in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó in Crete a few weeks ago – we see on the left, Christ leading the three disciples, Peter, James and John, up the mountain; in the centre, we see these three disciples stumbling and falling as they witness and experience the Transfiguration; and then, to the right, Christ is depicted leading these three back down the side of the mountain.

In other words, we are invited to see the Transfiguration not as a static moment but as a dynamic event. It is a living event in which we are invited to move from all in the past that weighs us down, to experience the full life that Christ offers us today, and to bring this into how we live our lives as Disciples in the future, a future that begins here and now.

The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word for Transfiguration in the Gospels is μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis), which means ‘to progress from one state of being to another.’ Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly. Saint Paul uses the same word (μεταμόρφωσις) when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18).

This metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what Orthodox writers call deification. Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation – to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.

The Transfiguration points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation shall be transfigured and filled with light.

According to Saint Gregory Palamas, the light of the Transfiguration ‘is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.’ It not only prefigures the eternal blessedness that all Christians look forward to, but also the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.

In a lecture in Cambridge many years ago [2011], the late Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware], the pre-eminent Orthodox theologian in England, spoke of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming, because through the incarnation Christ raises our human nature to a new level, opens new possibilities.

The Incarnation is a new beginning for the human race, and in the Transfiguration we see not only our human nature at the beginning, but as it can be in and through Christ at the end, he told us.

But with the Transfiguration comes the invitation to bear the cross with Christ. Peter, James and John are with Christ on Mount Tabor, and they are with him in Gethsemane. We must understand the Passion of Christ and the Transfiguration in the light of each other, not as two separate mysteries, but aspects of the one single mystery. Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary go together; and glory and suffering go together.

If we are to become part of the Transfiguration, we cannot leave our cross behind. If we are to bring the secular, fallen world into the glory of Christ, that has to be through self-emptying (κένωσις, kenosis), cross-bearing and suffering. There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well as taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.

The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world, he said. And Metropolitan Kalistos reminded us of the story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:

What is the most important time?

The most important time is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.

Who is the most important person?

The person who is with you at this very instant.

What is the most important task?

‘This task is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’

The light that shone from Christ on the mountaintop is not a physical and created light, but an eternal and uncreated light, a divine light, the light of the Godhead, the light of the Holy Trinity.

The experience on Mount Tabor confirms Saint Peter’s confession of faith which reveals Christ as the Son of the Living God. Yet Christ remains fully human as ever he was, as fully human as you or me, and his humanity is not abolished. But the Godhead shines through his body and from it.

In Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. But at other points in his life, the glory is hidden beneath the veil of his flesh. What we see in Christ on Mount Tabor is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. ‘So, this should be our attitude to the secular world,’ Metropolitan Kallistos said.

Or, as the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech (1939-2015) once said: ‘Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.’

Metropolitan Kallistos spoke in that lecture in Cambridge of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, opening new possibilities.

The Transfiguration shows us what we can be in and through Christ, he told us.

In secular life, there is a temptation to accept our human nature as it is now. But the Transfiguration of Christ offers the opportunity to look at ourselves not only as we are now, but take stock of what happened in the past that made us so, and to grasp the promise of what we can be in the future.

The Transfiguration is not just an Epiphany or a Theophany moment for Christ, with Peter, James and John as onlookers. The Transfiguration reminds us of how God sees us in God’s own image and likeness, sees us for who we were, who we are and who we are going to be, no matter how others see us, no matter how others dismiss us.

The Transfiguration is a challenge to remember always that we are made in the image and likeness of God. And, no matter what others say about you, how others judge you, how others gossip or talk about you, how others treat you, God sees your potential, God sees in you God’s own image and likeness, God knows you are beautiful inside and loves you, loves you for ever, as though you are God’s only child. You are his beloved child in whom he is well pleased.

Peter, John and James … a detail in the icon of the Transfiguration in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 4 July 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Saint Luke’s Hospital, Nablus.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Thursday 4 July 2024) invites us to pray:

Jesus, bringing comfort and healing to those in the care of hospitals around the world. Give them strength for today and hope for tomorrow.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, we beseech you,
that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered
by your governance,
that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
send down upon your Church
the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in all who minister the gospel
your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Transfiguration depicted in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Transfiguration … a new icon in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)