The King and Alice. Sir John Tenniel. Wood-engraving by Dalziel. Illustration for the seventh chapter of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (1871).

"The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown:
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town."

Commentary by Ray Dyer

The popular nursery rhyme here borrowed by Lewis Carroll is the third such choice of material almost certainly taken from his own childhood (see Ch. IV, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Ch. VI, Humpty Dumpty). The work demanded of John Tenniel in depicting the complex scene - with a very full foreground, and yet other important characters and events visible in the background - must have been much greater for the artist than, say, for his execution of The King's Messenger in Prison, and may well help to explain the lengthy delays experienced in the final appearance of Through the Looking Glass. Tenniel's experience and success in the illustration of political satire for Punch would have greatly helped him, despite Carroll's chaffing and bemoaning (see Looking-glass-world armies.

There are well-known heraldic and political implications in the juxtaposition of the Lion and Unicorn. These and the associated popular nursery rhyme date from the seventeenth-century unification of England (the Lion) and Scotland (the Unicorn) under King James I. Here, however, and with Tenniel's consummate skill and experience in similar affairs, the two men succeed in maintaining the politically-charged nursery rhyme characters temporarily in the background. The foreground meanwhile becomes free for a quite different ploy, in part probably unconsciously motivated by the author, and faithfully reproduced by his illustrator.

Whilst nowhere named by Carroll as The Mad Hatta, the character here wearing the distinctively familiar hat, and also with his hands full of a cup of tea and a slice of bread, can be none other than the Hatter of the famous Tea party of Carroll's earlier Alice book, as previously discussed in The King's Messenger in Prison. With Hatta thus reunited alongside his fellow companion the other Messenger, now seen to be the March Hare (see The King and the Messenger), the author, whilst maintaining the flow of his story, continues to soften his personal loss and longing with such substitutes as he has for the departed real Alice, now grown beyond the fairytale Alice and the author himself.

In 2000 student assistants from the University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore, scanned the image above and added the text prior to the commentary under the supervision of George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the site and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Last modified 7 July 2021