Puzzles in the Alice Books
Recently, I listened to a radio documentary called Two Thousand Years of Puzzling, tracing the history of the puzzle, from mazes to crosswords and everything in between. It mentioned Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - aka Lewis Carroll - author of the Alice books. Dodgson was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, and loved a good mathematical puzzle. In fact, he seemed to love puzzles of every kind. Just thinking about Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, I was struck by how many different types of puzzle feature in them. Here are some I noticed:
- Chess and Playing Cards. The main settings of the two books. Obviously, these are games, but there can be a lot of mathematics involved, and plenty of chess and playing card puzzles have been set and solved over the centuries.
- Riddles. The infamous, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Frustratingly, this one has no answer (although Jasper Fforde - that great Aliceophile - comes up with a few in his Thursday Next books).
- Spacial puzzles. How can Alice fit through the little door? She has to experiment with making herself bigger and smaller until she finds the answer.
- Word play. The Alice books are practically swimming in this. (See what I did there?) One example I like is towards the end of Looking Glass:
- "You look a little shy; let me introduce you to that leg of mutton," said the Red Queen. "Alice - Mutton; Mutton - Alice."
- "May I give you a slice?"
- "Certainly not. It isn't etiquette to cut any one you've been introduced to."
- (In this example, cut means both "to slice with a knife" and "to deliberately blank someone.")
- Games with complicated rules. The Caucus Race. (Another pun). The Queen's croquet game, played with hedgehogs and flamingos. The Rules of Battle between the Red and White Knights.
- The puzzle of Who Stole the Tarts?
- Mathematical calculations. Often simple ones made ridiculously complicated, as when Alice has to write down 365-1=364 as a sum for Humpty Dumpty, and even then he isn't convinced of the answer.