The Prisoner

The Prisoner is a sort of Cold War, spy-thriller, 1960s-for-1860s version of Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Number 6 (whose name, I suspect, was intended to give him seniority over 007) disappear into another world — Wonderland on one hand and the Village on the other, both of them parodies of a very familiar-seeming England — and there do their best to both defend and discover their identities via a series of eccentric, surreal, threatening and nonsensical encounters. After all, what better way to find out who you really are than to have to defend your individuality against every form of attack 1960s paranoia can come up with, from brainwashing to hallucinogenic drugs, mind-transference to social isolation, even involvement in politics?


History has made Britain surreal. Its cultural self-image is littered with old, unmoving artefacts and practices — judges in periwigs, soldiers in Busbies, undertakers in top hats, penny-farthing bicycles, grown men in old school ties and old school blazers. Its upper echelons — the slowest to change, so the most surreal and divorced-from-reality — are drenched in weird rituals, silly costumes, nonsensical-but-pompous titles, rules that must be obeyed because they’ve always been obeyed, and ways of doing things that have just always been that way. The only reason Number 6 can’t tell which side it is that runs the Village is that its comically parodic, overly-British version of British life is both ridiculously over-the-top and spot-on accurate at the same time.


Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland have an uneasy sort of humour: the humour of nonsense, or absurdity, something that can so easily slip into cosmic or Kafkan horror. In a sense, The Prisoner is a sitcom, as sitcom characters are characters who, whatever happens to them in the course of an episode, always return to the same situation, the same personality, by the end. This is true of Number 6, who even manages to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’, only to insist on parachuting back into it, whereupon he finds himself, of course, in the same situation as when he started. The basic joke in The Prisoner-as-sitcom is that everyone and everything is a calculated deception meant to break Number 6’s sense of himself. Ha ha ha.


The basic situation of The Prisoner is also similar to many horror stories, where the protagonist finds themself in an isolated village whose inhabitants seem to share a secret, and may be working at making them one of them — as in, for instance, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.


Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland end with a trial — a nonsensical, mock-trial — which both Alice and Number 6 rise above and destroy. (The Prisoner also sees Number 6 made into the new Number 2 and put upon a throne, just as Through the Looking Glass sees Alice made into a queen.)


Detectives, spies and secret agents were a peculiar sort of 20th century Everyman. I like to think of this collection of character-types as Existential Agents. 1908, the year that saw the publication of the archetypal Occult Detective (Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence) also saw the publication of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the first Existential Agent I can think of. Whereas Occult Detectives embody the encounter between rationality and the irrational/supernatural, the Existential Agent embodies the quest for identity, against either social or psychological forces. One pops up in Dennis Potter’s superlative The Singing Detective — which, like the final episode of The Prisoner, also features a singalong of ‘Dem Bones’ — questing through his creator’s real and fictional pasts for the clue that will release him from his personal Hell. I suspect Twin Peaks’s Dale Cooper of being at least half an Existential Agent, which immediately throws Fox Mulder under a shadow of doubt, too. (Existential Agents aren’t necessarily secret agents. Secret agents hunt for secrets; Existential Agents have secrets, often from themselves.)


What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s like Number 6’s explanation of his entry into the Village craft competition (a genuinely escapist piece of art) in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’:

‘It means what it is!’

Or, from ‘Hammer into Anvil’:

‘It means what it says!’

What both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland do is work towards creating a destabilised world, denying any obvious sense of narrative, as well as any obvious sense of rationality, to break up all certainties and create the sort of free-flowing, let-it-all-hang-out, deliquescent reality in which, free of external constraints, Number 6 and Alice can really find themselves. It’s a bit like that strange gloop a caterpillar turns into before forming itself into a butterfly.

But why am I asking what it all means? Remember, “Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.” Or, as they say in ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’:

‘It is possible that there is no clue to be found… Breaking a code or cipher is a finite problem. But, as I’ve said… we don’t know that there is a problem. And if there is, on what level of reasoning it is set.’

Which sounds, as it should, like the purest nonsense.

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, cover by Mark EdwardsSecret Gardens is Humphrey Carpenter’s study of the writers who created a Golden Age of children’s fiction, from the mid-Victorians (Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) to the Edwardians (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, J M Barrie’s Peter Pan), with one post-World War I stray in A A Milne. Prior to this, English Literature had only recently “discovered” childhood as a special state; children had previously been seen as little adults, their size making them particularly convenient to be set to work in places adults couldn’t reach — up chimneys and down mines, for instance. But suddenly, to the Victorians (the wealthier ones, at least), children were the embodiment of all that was innocent, like little Adams and Eves before the Fall, and were therefore something to be preserved, prettified and sentimentalised. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) was the ultimate statement of this approach, leading to a fashion for dressing children up as little English aristocrats and growing their hair in golden ringlets. (In the worst of this strain of children’s literature, whole books were written in mis-spelled baby-talk, surely a joke only adult readers would get, and quickly tire of.)

Then came what Carpenter calls the “Arcadians”, who took a different approach. They made the effort to see childhood from the inside, as a golden age of imagination, freedom and make-believe. Adults, from this point of view, were seen to have lost something as they grew up. Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter and A A Milne were, in Carpenter’s view, the few who achieved perfection, with J M Barrie’s “terrible masterpiece” Peter Pan standing as a self-conflicted statement both in favour of not growing up, and the awful tragedy of not doing so.

The BorrowersIn the books for children that followed World War II, Carpenter detects a new theme, one in which children don’t just disappear into a golden, separated existence for the duration of their childhoods, but one in which they slowly discover their place in an “ongoing narrative”, and so learn to grow up. In The Borrowers (1952), “the first classic for children to emerge in England after the Second World War” (according to Carpenter), Arriety’s childhood world is less a “Secret Garden”, and more a prison from which she must learn to escape:

“The Borrowers’ domain beneath the floorboards, which is in many respects Arcadian… is characterised as above all stuffy, poky, and limiting. It is the precise opposite of Badger’s kitchen: it provides not womblike security but a choking constriction.”

It’s interesting to see how Carpenter focuses on how an “idea of childhood” was slowly developed, first being set aside and polished in its own special place (its secret garden) — necessarily so, to rescue it from pre-Victorian ideas of children being just little adults — then being reintroduced into the main narrative, reconnected with wider society and the idea of growing up, but only after that “special state” has had its properly special time.

Inventing Wonderland by Jackie WullschlagerWhere Carpenter traces the evolution of an idea, Jackie Wullschläger, in Inventing Wonderland, discerns a type. For her, the “Golden Age” of children’s writing belonged to “children’s writers who were also particular psychological types: boys who could not grow up”, and she singles out Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, J M Barrie and A A Milne for particular finger-wagging.

And, sadly, finger-wagging it is. Whereas Carpenter’s Secret Gardens is the study of an idea and a developing literary movement, Wullschläger’s “collective biography”, having stated its theme (that the best books for children were written by “boys who could not grow up”), doesn’t really examine or test it, and so is ultimately unsatisfying. (What about, for instance, the female writers — E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter — who contributed to the “Golden Age”? Were they “girls who could not grow up”?) Wullschläger has, it seems, an ideal of maturity against which these five male writers offend, but as she never defines it, you can only guess at it — and, sometimes, marvel at its stringency. At one point, she lists a group of children’s authors who, she says, “all lost parents when they were very young and then never fully accepted adult responsibilities”. In this list she includes J R R Tolkien: Tolkien, who served in the war, was a respected academic, had a successful marriage and a family life free of the horrors she describes in the lives of, for instance, Grahame and Barrie (each of whom had a child, adopted or otherwise, who committed suicide). Never fully accepted adult responsibilities? Just what is it that makes Tolkien fail the Wullschläger maturity test?

Lear - Complete Nonsense(The one author she shows some sympathy for is Edward Lear, though she misses the irony that it is exactly the sort of disapproval for human peculiarities she displays in Inventing Wonderland, that drove Lear in such despair from England to find a refuge on the continent.)

Wullschläger’s book, then, is interesting for its short biographies of a handful of writers, but draws no real conclusions as to what made their works successful — only on the fact that the writers themselves were immature. Of Tolkien and Lewis’s work, for instance, she says:

“Yet their work shows how fantasy continued to be shaped by the two forces which had driven Carroll and his contemporaries: nostalgia on the one hand, the need to find symbols and stories to reflect current anxieties, fears and doubts on the other.”

…implying that the only thing these extremely successful authors have going for them is a pair of negatives — nostalgia and fear. (If only she’d looked beyond her horror-word “nostalgia” to find, for instance, Tolkien’s deep, strong, and heartfelt connection with values in a past he both studied and admired.)

If it’s genuine insight into what made the “Golden Age” of children’s literature a golden age, then, you have to go to Carpenter’s book. The “Secret Gardens” so often located in children’s fiction are, at once, childhood itself, and an image of the imagination. A well-stocked imagination is one of the things that will, I think, see a child properly on his or her way towards a genuine, deep maturity — or at least arm them to withstand the jibes of the maturity police (those prey to what Ursula Le Guin has called “maturismo”: a swaggering, machismo-like version of grown-up-ness). This, I think, is more likely to be where these authors, so wounded in childhood that they could not, or would not, buy into the wider world’s maturity game, found their particular imaginative treasures, and thankfully passed them on to the rest of us.

Fallacies of Wonderland

I’ve just been reading Aspects of Alice, a compendium of essays and extracts about the two Alice books and their author, dating from soon after Alice in Wonderland‘s publication (including a near-contemporary reviewer suggesting Carroll was plagiarising Tom Hood’s From Nowhere to the North Pole, which Aspects‘ editor Robert Phillips points out was published some years after the first Alice book) up to the late 1960s (with a short article called “Lewis Carroll — The First Acidhead”, written in such a hippie-ish idiom, it’s quite quaint).

The essays I enjoyed were of two types: those which were about Dodgson the man, full of the sort of facts you’d like to think you could remember well enough to drop into conversations (“Did you know Charles Dodgson invented a machine for noting down ideas in the night?”) but never can; and those which praise the books, usually in a suitably playful or poetic style (Walter de La Mare or W H Auden’s contributions, for instance), without insisting on an interpretation. The essays I didn’t enjoy were by critics who had a theory, and who were seeking to prove their theory by applying it to the Alice books. Or perhaps I should say, were seeking to disprove (disenchant) the Alice books by applying their theory. These critics were what I think of as reductionists.

Fantasy is easy prey to reductionists. I think this is because good fantasy (i.e., not allegory) has a free-floating symbolical quality to it, meaning it can be applied to anything you happen to be concerned about, and still seem relevant. The Lord of the Rings can be read as being about the Second World War, or the Atom Bomb, or political power, or personal greed, or the victory of the small against the powerful. It can even be just a compelling story, free of any sort of interpretation whatsoever. Reductionists say, “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.” And there’s no arguing with them because yes, it is about X; it’s also about all these other things, as well as being about nothing at all, but to this the reductionists just smile knowingly and say “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.”

The most obvious example are the Freudians, who get a whole section of Aspects. Freud didn’t write about the Alice books, as far as I know, and the essays herein are by lesser hands, which is perhaps why they’re so risible — these are lesser thinkers, working with another man’s theory. They go through the Alice books saying, “Ah yes, here of course we have a phallic symbol. And oh look, there’s another.” — counting off the phallic symbols as though the number of them might prove something. The height of ridiculousness comes on p. 361, where there’s a large-type heading, “The Symbolic Equation: Girl=Phallus”, which made me giggle. (I’d say it made me titter, only you know those Freudians…) One thing Freudianism — or any reductionism — can’t stand is laughter, which is perhaps a good test to hold up to any critic-with-a-theory. “Can you still believe it while laughing?”

It reminds me of my last encounter with a stuck-in-the-mud Freudian, Maureen Duffy’s The Erotic World of Fairy (I wrote a review of it on Amazon), where she proclaimed Peter Pan to be a “free-flying phallus”, as though that actually meant something, in fact was a damning indictment. Instead it conjured an image… that again led to giggling.

The Freudians aren’t the only reductionists in Aspects of Alice. That hippie writer is another. His reductionism is that all imagination is evidence of drug use. (Aspects also contains a version of Grace Slick’s lyrics to “White Rabbit”, which are a far better evocation of Alice-as-psychedelia. Slick’s lyrics aren’t reductionist, because they’re using the Alice books as a springboard to create something new, and end up adding to the books’ richness, not attempting to reduce it.) Another was “Alice’s Journey to the End of Night” by Donald Rackin, whose form of reductionism is to assert the Alice books are “a comic horror-vision of the chaotic land beneath the man-made groundwork of western thought and convention”. The counter-argument, that most people’s reaction to the Alice books is to enjoy them rather than get depressed, seems to have escaped him.

As well as laughter, another thing reductionism can’t handle is wonder. Fantasy works best, for those who like it, when it conveys a sense of wonder. Wonder might be defined as a moment of freedom from mere understanding, a sense of something greater than anything that can be put into words. You can only accept wonder for what it is, not reduce it, explain it, define it.

And at the end of it all, it’s the wonder that remains. I’ve forgotten all the reductionists’ attempts to convince me Alice is a phallus, or the tormented soul of modern man, or an acidhead in nursery dress. Instead, I want to read the Alice books again, if only to wash all that (oh so serious) nonsense out of my head and put a little of the genuine stuff in its place — the pure, fantastic, wonder-making nonsense, which is much more what the Alice books are about.

My own particular form of reductionism as far as the Alice books are concerned (I can’t help having one), is they’re about how ridiculous the adult world can seem to a child. The adult world is a world of reductionists — people who’ve lost their sense of wonder, or replaced it with well-reasoned blinkers against what they fear — which could be why the Alice books attract such a train of critics so blind to their own place in them:

“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.”

Alice waited a minute to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said “Good-bye!” once more, and, getting no answer to this, she quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, “Of all the unsatisfactory —” (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort have such a long word to say) “of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met —”

Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland

This adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was filmed for TV broadcast in December 1966. Director/adapter Jonathan Miller aimed to be faithful to the book, with all the dialogue (except where improvised by the actors) lifted directly from Lewis Carroll’s text. But this, I think, is the adaptation’s main fault. Alice in Wonderland is a curious mix of episodes and skits, not really a story at all, and I think what you need to do with Alice is either find a way of making a story out of it, or to adopt some angle or interpretation to provide a constantly-running theme, something to give it a sort of narrative or spine. The original book wins through on sheer prissy impudence; adaptations need to offer something more.

Miller has two angles on Alice, neither of which really works for me. The first is to connect the book with dreams, and various of his directorial decisions (such as sometimes having Alice’s dialogue overdubbed while she doesn’t move her lips) come from his wanting to make the narrative more dreamlike. But I think Alice isn’t about the dream-world as much as it’s about the world of language, which has its own peculiar logic. Wordplay and double-meanings approached with a literal mind, and the ability of words to be strung together correctly but nonsensically, are what Alice, and other nonsense literature, is about. For me, this puts Alice at the head of a continuing tradition of wordplay fantasy, which includes the Oz books, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It’s that tight-but-illogical logic that makes Alice what it is, not its dreaminess, which is more the province of surrealism. (In my mind, nonsense and surrealism are two quite different things. Nonsense applies logic to things that aren’t logical; surrealism revels in the irrational, with no need of logic.)

Miller’s other approach is to connect the book with “the longueurs of childhood”, a nostalgia for endless summers of blissful boredom, and in his initial edit, he had some long periods in which the actors just sat around doing nothing, in an attempt to conjure this feeling. These were edited out after a viewing by BBC executives, with only a few hints of them left in, leaving some curious points at which conversation lapses, everyone sits around staring into space, then conversation resumes. But I think the book is too energetic, too little-girl curious, for this to feel right. Kids are only bored until they have something to do; Alice, exploring Wonderland, very much has something to do. (It’s teenagers who get bored even when they have something to do; but then again, Miller’s Alice is a teenager.) Lewis Carroll, an Oxford don who could afford to spend entire days picnicking with the Liddells so he could come up with the Alice story in the first place, probably had no need to feel nostalgic for such long-lost periods free of responsibility, so they weren’t part of his book.

For me, Alice is in Wonderland because she’s a child — childhood, and the way a child views the illogical adult world, is Wonderland. All the various creatures Alice meets on her journey are comic versions of adults stuck in their own peculiarly nonsensical worldviews. Alice is the child regarding these adults with a cutting innocence. The book is all about her, in her self-contained bubble of childhood, coming into contact with the dreadfully meaningless self-importance of the adult world, and seeing it for the farce it really is: tea parties and courtrooms at which one must know the nonsensical rules of how to behave, a Queen with the power to cut off your head on a whim, and so on.

Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter

The result of Miller wanting to be faithful to the book is that the TV film feels just like a series of sketches. It relies entirely on the performers’ abilities to enchant with their personalities, rather than a story’s, or thematic argument’s, ability to keep you interested. Thus there are a few highlights that linger in the mind (Peter Cook is excellent as the Mad Hatter, John Bird is funny but too brief, Peter Sellers as the Red King, etc.), but elsewhere a good deal of puzzlement as the film moves from scene to scene without making it clear how or why. Thus, Alice stands outside a door trying to get in, then has a conversation with John Bird, then just opens the door and goes through. Why didn’t she do that first of all? You certainly have to know the book to be able to tell what’s going on, which has the unfortunate effect of making an adaptation nothing but a companion piece to the book, rather than an interesting work in its own right.

It’s easy to be too reverential to the book that’s the source of an adaptation. I enjoy watching film adaptations of books I’ve read, not to quibble with how they’ve departed from the text, but rather to see what they’ve made of it, what their interpretation is. An adaptation is a thing that exists alongside a book, and only subtracts from the original when, by being too literal, it reveals how shallow that original was in the first place.

For a more positive view of Miller’s Alice, see Jonathan Coulthart’s blog post on it. (I really like Miller’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You adaptation.)