John Tenniel (1820–1914), “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (The Mad Tea Party), 1885, Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.
John Tenniel (1820–1914), “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (The Mad Tea Party), 1885, Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

12 Absurd Facts About Alice in Wonderland

John Tenniel (1820–1914), “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (The Mad Tea Party), 1885, Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.
John Tenniel (1820–1914), “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (The Mad Tea Party), 1885, Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came out in 1865, it was a blockbuster success. The book is widely credited with changing the landscape of children’s literature, adding nonsensical fun to what had been a genre obsessed with moralizing. This year, the literary cornerstone turns 150 years old. Here are a few facts you might not know about Alice and its author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll): 

1. The real Alice was the daughter of Carroll’s boss. 

The real Alice, who lent her name to the story, was the daughter of Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford, where Carroll taught mathematics. “Everyone who was employed by the school lived on campus,” says Carolyn Vega, the assistant curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library, which is currently running an exhibition on Alice. “Carroll met the dean and Alice’s older brother first, and that’s how he came to know the entire family.”

Alice Liddell in wreath as “Queen of May,” 1860. Image Credit: Albumen print, Photograph by Lewis Carroll (1832–1898). Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

2. The Mad Hatter never would have existed without the persistence of children.

When Carroll began telling a fantastic tale to Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a summer 1862 boating trip up the Thames, he didn’t plan on becoming a children’s author. But just like your niece who won’t stop begging to watch Frozen again, the kids wouldn’t stop asking him to tell the story—Carroll wrote about having to retell “the interminable Alice’s adventures” in his diary. He eventually turned it into a written novel, presenting it to Alice as an early Christmas gift in 1864. By the time he self-published the final version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, it had doubled in length, with new scenes including those with the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. “These episodes are likely something that came up later in the retelling of the story,” Vega says.

3. The original illustrator hated the first edition. 

Carroll commissioned prominent English illustrator John Tenniel to create the accompanying art for the story. When he saw an early copy of the book, Tenniel was so dismayed at how badly his drawings had been reproduced, Carroll scrapped the entire edition, spending more than half his annual salary to get it reprinted and leaving him in a financial hole before the book even came out. Luckily, once widely published, Alice enjoyed instant success. The books from the subpar printing were later sold in America.

4. It was first made into a movie in 1903. 

Only a handful of years after Carroll died, directors Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stowe made the story into a 12-minute film. At the turn of the century, that made it the longest film produced in Britain. Hepworth himself played the Frog Footman, while his wife was cast as the White Rabbit and the Queen. 

5. Carroll almost called it “Alice’s Hour in Elfland.”

Writing in his diary of the afternoon boating trip that inspired Carroll to come up with a story for young Alice Liddell, he tried out a few different titles for his novel. The original tale presented to the 10-year-old Liddell was called “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” but upon publication, Carroll decided he might call it Alice’s Hour in Elfland. Another rejected idea: Alice Among the Fairies. Eventually, he went with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland instead. Probably for the best.

6. It satirizes newfangled theories about math. 

Scholars have theorized that Carroll’s day job made its way into the book in the form of satire about 19th century innovations in mathematics, like imaginary numbers. For instance, the riddles like the one the Mad Hatter asks Alice about a raven being like a writing desk, “were a reflection on the increasing abstraction that was going on in mathematics in the 19th century,” as mathematician Keith Devlin told NPR in 2010. Carroll was a very conservative mathematician, and he found new forms of math emerging in the mid-1800s absurd compared to the algebra and Euclidian geometry he favored. 

 “Nothing but a pack of cards!" 1885. Image Credit: John Tenniel (1820–1914), Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014


7. The original illustrations were carved into wood.

Tenniel was a renowned illustrator by the time he took on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, known for his political cartoons. His drawings were first made on paper, then carved on woodblocks by engravers, which were then made into metal electrotype reproductions to be used in the printing process.

Carte de visite photograph of Lewis Carroll with lens, 1863. Image Credit:Photograph by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

8. Wonderland wouldn’t have seemed so absurd to the real Alice. 

“Some of the things that seem like nonsense to us would have made total sense to Alice and her sisters,” Vega explains. When the Mock Turtle says in the book that he receives lessons in drawing, sketching, and “fainting in coils” from an “old conger-eel, that used to come once a week,” the Liddells would have recognized their own art tutor, who gave the girls lessons in sketching, drawing, and oil painting. Much of the “nonsense” from the book was “based on people and places and experiences that these very real children had and would have been familiar with,” Vega says. 

9. The Dodo is based on Carroll. 

In the book, Carroll alludes to the 1862 boating trip that inspired the story by putting those present (Alice, her sisters, and Carroll's colleague) in the story as birds. Carroll was the Dodo, named after his real name, Charles Dodgson. As one story goes, the author had a tendency to stammer, introducing himself as “Do-do-dogson.” His sometimes debilitating stutter prevented him from becoming a priest, leading him to mathematics and writing instead. 

A page from the original manuscript given to Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll.Image Credit: Lewis Carroll (1832–1898), Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, completed 13 September 1864, Illustrated manuscript. © The British Library Board.

10. The original manuscript almost never leaves London. 

For its latest exhibition, New York City’s Morgan Library managed to get ahold of Carroll’s original manuscript of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”—the hand-written and illustrated version he gave to Alice Liddell. The book belongs to the British Library, and it rarely gets a vacation abroad. When it does, it’s a big deal, as The New York Times explains

[I]t is accompanied by security measures whose details are cloaked in obfuscation befitting Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Jamie Andrews, the head of cultural engagement for the British Library, said that it was not checked on the flight over (‘We don’t freight things like that’), but he would not say exactly where it was on the plane or who exactly was with it

It did cause a minor stir at the airport. "I showed the customs form to the customs guy at J. F. K.," Mr. Andrews said. The man looked at the declared value of the manuscript, a number Mr. Andrews would not divulge. "And he said, 'Jeez, son, what have you got in there, the crown jewels?' And in a sense it is our crown jewels."

“Off with herhead!” 1885. Image Credit: John Tenniel (1820–1914), Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.,The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

11. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was a pioneer of brand licensing. 

Carroll was a savvy marketer of his story and characters. That’s perhaps the main reason the story is so well known today, even for those who haven’t actually read the book. “He’s one of the first authors working with manufacturers to bring out related products,” Vega says. He was all about the tie-ins. He designed a postage stamp case decorated with images of Alice and allowed her image to adorn cookie tins and other products. For readers eager to learn more about the origins of the book, he produced a facsimile of the original manuscript, a rare move for an author of his day. Later, he created a shorter version of the book for even younger readers. His 19th century business savvy foretold franchise-obsessed companies like Disney decades before their founding. 

12. The book has never been out of print. 

It has been translated into 176 languages. Its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, sold out within seven weeks of its publication. 

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Central Press/Getty Images
Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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