The Battle between the Red and White Knights

The Battle between the Red and White Knights by Sir John Tenniel; wood-engraving by Dalziel. Illustration for the eighth chapter of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (1871). Using the analogy of chess playing, the author draws the parallel between the Rules of Battle of the knights and the rules of chess playing. Can you think of other literary works that use analogies with chess? [In 2000 student assistants from the University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore, scanned this image and added text under the supervision of George P. Landow. You may use the 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.]

Commentary by Ray Dyer

John Tenniel's attention to the details of the narrative, in particular to the chess-game structure of Through The Looking-Glass, is maintained here. A prudent Alice is suitably positioned as bystander and observer, quite in keeping with the cautionary children's tales that were still in circulation at this time. But behind these first impressions are many less obvious issues and agendas.

Thinking of Carroll first, why, for example, has such a manifestly creative writer been drawn yet again to parody warfare? He clearly delighted in making the haughty and powerful, the aggressive and soldierly — in short, all destructive warmongers — look ridiculous. Tenniel has reflected this admirably (see also Looking-glass-world armies). Then, these combatants are older than Tweedledum and Tweedledee, although obviously not as old as The Aged, Aged Man Seated on a Gate later on. A latent issue here is the author's anxiety about his own mortality, which often appears in the present chapter, and which lends itself to a biographical-analytical approach. With his knights on horseback here, intent on inflicting damage, Tenniel indicates this progression in the warring parties' age and powers.

Yet another preoccupation in this chapter is the conflict between red and white. Tenniel is unable to show it in colour, but makes the Red Knight and his horse look considerably darker. Most readers will remember only black and white chess pieces, and red and black playing-card suits. Very little if anything entered Carroll's writings by accident; but, as seen in his lesser-known Sylvie and Bruno works, disguise and deception are common tactics (discussed at length in the author's books; see bibliography). Here, as elsewhere, there may be a link to the Victorians' universal delight in red and white when it came to roses, and the etiquette of flowers - the language and hidden sentiment of flora symbolica (see Ingram). The red rose then, as now, was joined to deep emotions. The Red Knight certainly seems to be getting the better of the White Knight here, despite the fact that, in the text, both fall off and shake hands, before the Red Knight gallops off, leaving the White Knight to see Alice safely out of the wood. This may suggest, on Carroll's part, a lingering nostalgia for his child heroine, and, on Tenniel's, an appreciation of the Red Knight's potential power, even if he must disappear into the distance at last.


Dyer, Ray. Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno with Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. Scholar's Annotated Edition. Leicester: Troubador, 2015

Ingram, John. Flora Symbolica. The Language and Sentiment of Flowers. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1887.

Last modified 7 August 2021