05 July 2024

Lewis Carroll, creator of
a Wonderland: hidden
antisemitism or secret
commentary on the Talmud?

Alice drawing back the curtain on Oxford … is there an antisemitic thread in Lewis Carroll’s writings?

Patrick Comerford

I am musing over these few days about Alice in Wonderland and how the Alice stories began on a boat trip in Oxford on 4 July 1862, when Lewis Carroll first told the ‘Alice’ stories to Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

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 this year it takes place tomorrow (6 July). It commemorates the afternoon of 4 July 1862, when the Christ Church don and mathematician Charles Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice 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.

Lewis Carroll was the pen-name of the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. His books have been translated into 70 languages and are still among their best-selling children’s books. They have influenced a great variety of artists and writers, and Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) remains a cult classic.

What Alice Found There (1871) includes several celebrated poems such as ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ and ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’

Lewis Carroll was a polymath and was a pioneering photographer and portraitist in the early field of photography. He created several games, including a forerunner of Scrabble. He was also an accomplished mathematician and logician credited with establishing much of the foundation for modern logic, number theory and cryptography. Many of his invented words are now part of everyday conversation and many of his expressions have become common catchphrases, including ‘down the rabbit hole’, ‘curiouser and curiouser’, and ‘off with their heads’.

Carroll was an ordained deacon in the Church of England and remained a faithful Anglican throughout his life. But in recent years many writers and researchers have examined his writings more critically and claim that Carroll exhibits unambiguous antisemitism.

He characterised Jews as, among other things, ‘sarcastic’, ‘either hunchbacked or misers’, ‘obsequious unless very young’, ‘squinting’, ‘dishonest’, ‘look like goats’, ‘have beards a yard long’, and, of course, ‘have hooked noses’.

In his use of syllogisms and establishing logical premises, Carroll frequently used phrases such as ‘All Juwes [sic] are greedy.’ In his Symbolic Logic (1897), he used such propositions as ‘No Gentiles have hooked noses’, ‘No Jew is ever a bad hand at a bargain’, ‘There are no Jews in the house’, ‘No Gentiles have beards a yard long’, and – that frequent antisemitic allegation – ‘No Jews are honest.’ His other phrases include ‘No Gentiles say “shpoonj”,’ ‘No Jew is ignorant of Hebrew,’ ‘Some Jews are rich’.

Recent editions of Symbolic Logic retain these phrases, but include prominent disclaimers that the vile language was not deleted in the interests of retaining the historical accuracy of the original work.

Carroll saw Judaism as a religion of whiners and complainers entirely devoid of spirituality. For example, in Chapter 19 of his Sylvie and Bruno, Dr Arthur Forester, a character Carroll portrays as a highly intelligent and ethical character, depicts the Jews as mentally undeveloped. This is evidenced by a blind and faithful adherence to their Old Testament, in which ‘rewards and punishments are constantly appealed to as motives for action. That teaching is best for children, and the Israelites seem to have been, mentally, utter children.’

In Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll tells the story of a tailor – a stereotypical cliché for Jewish trades, although Carroll does not identify him as Jewish – who agrees to extend credit to a customer only if he agrees to pay double the outstanding debt each year.

In an essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ (1930), the economist John Maynard Keynes cites the attempt by Carroll’s tailor to secure specious and illusory future gain as a metaphor for his proposition regarding the irrationality of postponing personal gratification, and observes that Carroll almost certainly intended the tailor to be Jewish.

In a diary entry in 1885, Lewis Carroll comments on a children’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. He writes: ‘It was a very charming performance, and some of them have lovely voices, specially Elsie Joel who acted Mabel: she looks Jewish.’ It is as though Carroll is saying she was a surprisingly good actress, even though she is Jewish. Other reviewers admired Elsie’s performance without mentioning her Jewish appearance.

On the other hand, in correspondence on 18 August 1884, Carroll wrote: ‘One hospital manager wrote that he knew a place where there were a number of sick children, but he was afraid I wouldn’t like to give them any books – and why, do you think? ‘Because they are Jews!’ I wrote to say [that] of course I would give them some! Why in the world shouldn’t little Israelites read Alice’s Adventures as well as other children?

Perhaps on that occasion Carroll’s love of children trumped his contempt for Jews. He had already characterised Jews as ‘obsequious unless very young’, suggesting his animus towards Jews did not extend to Jewish children.

Carroll delighted in puzzles, metaphors, wordplay, and invented words – consider ‘Jabberwocky’, for example. There are many theories about the cryptic allegorical meanings of the Alice stories. Freudians, for their part, suggest his books represent an outlet for his repressed desires.

Some writers see Alice as a secret history of religious controversies in Victorian England, others as a metaphor for the monstrous mindlessness of the universe. Martin Gardner argues in The Annotated Alice, the entirety of Through the Looking Glass is a chess game ‘in which living pieces are ignorant of the game’s plan and cannot tell if they move under their own will or by invisible fingers.’ Indeed, Alice is the only mature and rational character in Wonderland. ‘We are all mad here’, says the Cheshire Cat.

One of the most intriguing, if not bizarre, hypotheses I have come across in recent weeks is by Dr Abraham Ettelson (1897-1971), an American Hasidic Jew and brain surgeon who fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

In a self-published 80-page small book, Through the Looking-Glass Decoded (1966), Ettelson argues that Alice is actually a cryptogram of the Talmud written in code. He notes the frequency and importance of mirrors and inversion in the Alice stories and concludes that Through the Looking Glass and the Talmud are mirror images of each other.

He argues that the principal subtext of Alice and Looking Glass is ‘the Jewish way’ and sees the books as Carroll’s use of a Midrashic approach that employs layered interpretations and ethical analysis to expound on the pshat or the primary meaning of the text.

Ettelson believes Jabberwocky is a code name for the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. He divides the word ‘Jabberwocky’ into two halves and then reads each part in a mirror; the result is ‘Rebbaj Yckow,’ or Rabbi Jacob. This gamesmanship echoes Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s construction of his own pseudonym: he formed the name by translating his first and middle names, Charles Lutwidge, into Latin, which became Carolus Ludovicus; reversed their order; and translated the name back into English as Lewis Carroll.

The first stanza of ‘Jabberwocky’ is:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Ettelson suggests these opening lines contain no less than half of all the Hebrew letters. One of Carroll’s nonsense words in ‘Jabberwocky is frumious, which Ettelson reads as a fusion of the words frum, a Yiddish word for a devout Jew, and pious. In another instance, the ferocious jaw-snapping Bandersnatch contains an anagram for Satan.

The ball of worsted wool that Alice’s kitten plays with symbolises the woollen tzitzit, which is not a far-fetched suggestion, for worsted wool is a twisted woollen thread and a tzizit is a tassel of twisted cord. Moreover, Carroll says Alice’s kitten ‘curled up in a corner.’ For Ettelson, this evokes the ‘four corners’ on which tzitzit are worn.

Most commentators dismiss the ‘Talmud theory’ as, at best, sheer fantasy. Yet they agree Ettelson’s methodology and analytical framework favourably compare with Carroll’s own logomania.

The illustrator Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), who provided 92 illustrations for the Alice books, was the principal political cartoonist for Punch. His portrayal of Jews included the usual antisemitic features such as a hooked nose and dark, oily hair. In particular, he frequently lampooned Benjamin Disraeli as Fagin, the Jewish leader of a crew of child pickpockets and robbers in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. In one drawing, he has Disraeli instructing his fellow politicians how to effectively pick the pockets of the public.

A cartoon by Tenniel in Punch on 9 August 1890 depicts Tsar Alexander III – a staunch antisemite who accused the Jews of the murder of Alexander II and launched pogroms against them – with his boot on the neck of a feeble and helpless bearded Jew and about to wield his sword of persecution. However, the ‘Ghost of Pharoah’ appears behind him and, speaking from bitter experience, warns ‘Forbear! That weapon [of persecution against the Jews] always wounds the hand that wields it.’

In this classic example of antisemitism, Tenniel is claiming the Jews wield a secret power that they use against those who would abuse them. In later drawings, he claims the Jews of Russia appear weak but are actually rich and powerful and use their secret cabal against poor Russian citizens.

Yet, when a number of prominent Oxford graduates joined in sending a memorial of solidarity to British Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler expressing sorrow and amazement regarding the Russian persecution of Jews, Lewis Carroll was one of the 245 signatories.

Carroll’s statements about Jews remain unexplained. No excuses should ever be made for his statements about Jews. They may well have been within the parameters of Victorian British behaviour, like the rest of his idiosyncrasies. Yet Alice in Wonderland is such a remarkable book and a lasting classic, its readers should wish the author was capable of transcending the common prejudices of his day.

Shabbat Shalom, שבת שלום

Could Jabberwocky is a code name for the Baal Shem Tov?

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
57, Friday 5 July 2024

The icon of the Presentation 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). Since voting yesterday (4 July) in the General Election, we have been awake throughout the night and we are still awake at this time of the morning watching the election counts and the results contiuning to come in.

It has been a truly memorable night, and there are still more than 40 results to come in, with some seats still on a knife-edge. But the political landscape of the country has changed dramatically over the past 24 hours. I have already had breakfast, so the day has already begun. Before I even think of facing a choice between goiing out to buy the papers or going to sleep for a few hours, 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 Presentation is eleventh 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: 9-13 (NRSVUE):

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

The elderly Saint Simeon takes the Christ Child in his arms from the Virgin Mary … a detail in the icon of the Presentation in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 20: the Presentation (Ἡ Ὑπαπαντή):

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 eleventh icon in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Presentation, or H Ὑπαπαντή (I Hypapante), meaning ‘the Meeting.’

This story is told in Luke 2: 22-40. The elderly Saint Simeon, a priest in the Temple, is inspired by the Holy Spirit to take the Christ Child in his arms and he declares: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation’ (verses 29-30).

According to the Mosaic law, the first-born son should be dedicated to God in the Temple at Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, where the mother also completes her ritual purification (see Exodus 15; Leviticus 12).

Forty days after the birth of her first-born son, a mother is to bring a lamb and a turtledove to the priest as a burnt-offering. But, ‘if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a purification offering, and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean’ (Leviticus 12: 8).

Forty days after the birth of Christ is celebrated, the Nativity cycle of feasts comes to a close when the dedication of the Christ Child is remembered in the Feast of the Presentation (or Meeting, or Dedication) of the Lord in the Temple, known in the West as Candlemas (2 February).

In this submission to the Mosaic law by Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child is an epochal or pivotal point in the story of salvation, told in the icons of this feast.

The scene takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem. As is normal in classic iconography, the scene appears to occur in the open, not concealed by walls, with the outside of the Temple shown in the background. The icon of the Presentation is dominated by a four-pillared dome, which was an architectural feature inside the Temple. It is a ciborium or kivorion (κιβωριου), a canopy contained in the sanctuary.

But the ciborium in the icon is not the tabernacle of the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed within 50 years of Christ’s dedication. The ciborium was a common feature of churches in the first millennium, covering the altar and having curtains to veil the consecrated host at particular times of the Liturgy, but are not so common in church architecture today.

The altar in the icon is behind two gates, like the Royal Doors of an iconostasis in a church. Upon the altar are not the stone tablets of Moses, but a Gospel book or the New Testament. It is no coincidence that the infant Christ appears to be handed to Saint Simeon over the altar. In some icons, the altar cloth is conspicuously decorated with the cross, in a highly anachronistic appropriation of the scene.

The Theotokos stands to the left, holding out her hands in a gesture of offering. Her arms are covered by her cloak, the maphorion.

Simeon receives the Christ Child in his arms, proclaiming him as ‘a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (verse 32). Simeon is bending over not just as an old man but in deep reverence, recognising as the Messiah the Christ Child he holds in his covered hands.

Simeon is a priest of the Temple and is bare headed in this icon, although in others he may be wearing a mitre. Tradition says the aged Simeon was one of the translators of the Septuagint, and sensed the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies of a virgin birth (see Isaiah 7:14). He receives the young pre-eternal God Incarnate just as he was promised he would before his death.

Christ is shown as a child, but he is not in swaddling clothes, clothed in a small dress with his legs bare. He extends his right hand in blessing those present, appearing as Lord and Saviour, and not merely a helpless babe-in-arms.

If Saint Simeon is a priest in this scene in the Temple in Jerusalem, then in this icon Saint Joseph is often presented in this icon as a deacon in a posture of supplication and with a deacon’s stole. Here he is shown with two turtledoves, reinforcing the humble background into which Christ is born. He carries the turtledoves on behalf of the Virgin Mary, reminding us that despite the doubts described in the Nativity icon, he is finally reconciled to his betrothed and trusts the infant to be truly the Messiah.

Anna is standing behind the Theotokos and pointing to the Christ Child. She is recognisable as a prophetess by the scroll she holds, sometimes closed, sometimes open.

The Feast of the Presentation is on 2 February. In the Orthodox Church, both baby boys and baby girls are taken to the Church on the fortieth day after their birth.

All five figures in the icon of the Presentation in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 5 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 (Friday 5 July 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord God, thank you for the long-standing partnership between USPG and the Diocese of Jerusalem. Bless their work in accordance with your will, in order that there may be more stories of transformation and restoration.

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

A second icon of the Presentation in the Church in Stony Stratford (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.