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Before C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien: The surprising faith of the author behind ‘Alice in Wonderland’

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and  “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll. (Karen Swallow Prior)

The 150th anniversary of “Alice in Wonderland” has been widely celebrated this year, but it is odd, a recent essay at the New Yorker notes, that how seldom the religion of its author, Lewis Carroll, is considered.

The scant attention given to Carroll’s Christian faith is particularly striking since he is, in many ways, the direct predecessor of authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who are practically Protestant saints in literary circles. Acolytes of Lewis and Tolkien readily dismiss suggestions that their works of fiction are mere allegories of the Christian faith. Yet, at the same time, their fans value both writers for their literary apologetics.

While a few critics may try to read allegories of doctrinal debates into the work of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was Dodgson’s pen name), no one would accuse him of writing Christian allegory, although that trippy rabbit hole certainly lends itself to all kinds of fun possible interpretations. Perhaps such strangeness explains why neither literary specialists nor Christian readers pay much attention to the relationship of Dodgson’s faith to his work.

But Dodgson’s writing bears subtle witness to the wonders of both creation and its creator in ways that deserve more attention. He was a committed, lifelong member of the Church of England. Although he balked at taking Holy Orders, he was ordained as a deacon in the church in 1861.

While his doctrinal views parted ways with those of his high church ancestors (his great-grandfather had been a bishop and his father a clergyman), Dodgson shied from the religious controversies plaguing the church at the time, remaining essentially what would have been considered orthodox.

“Most assuredly I accept to the full the doctrines you refer to — that Christ died to save us, that we have no other way of salvation open to us but through His death, and that it is by faith in Him, and through no merit of ours, that we are reconciled to God,” Dodgson wrote in a letter to a friend in 1897, “and most assuredly I can cordially say, ‘I owe all to Him who loved me, and died on the Cross of Calvary.'”

As one biographer writes, “The hard core of his belief was too sacred to be tampered with by what he believed to be heretical elements.”

Or, as the Queen tells Alice in the book’s sequel, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”

Dodgson found “divinity” in beauty: in the beauty of mathematics, which he taught at Oxford; in the beauty of the newly-invented art of photography; and in the beauty of words. He viewed “the pursuit of beauty as a state of Grace, a means of retrieving lost innocence,” the innocence once experienced in Eden, literary critic Karoline Leach writes.

“For the Victorians, caught as they were on the cusp of a new age in which all old certainties were dying, ‘Lewis Carroll’ came to mean a readiness to believe — in wonderland, fairytales, innocence, sainthood, the fast-fading vision of a golden age when it seemed possible for humanity to transcend the human condition,” Leach writes. “Carroll became a way of affirming that such things really had once been. Even before Dodgson’s death, his assumed name had become the ultimate embodiment of this Victorian aspiration toward otherworldliness.”

Otherworldliness should not be confused with godliness, of course, particularly godliness of an orthodox Christian variety. After all, the same age that brought “Alice in Wonderland” called forth “Peter Pan,” spiritualism and Madame Tussaud, too. But in an age shaped by the new Gospel According to Charles Darwin, otherworldliness was perhaps a more godly impulse than not.

Although Dodgson hardly beat his readers over the head with his Christian beliefs, whispers of the glory of God echo throughout his work. As the Duchess declares in “Alice in Wonderland,” “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” (The Duchess isn’t exactly a reliable character, but then again, almost no one is in Lewis’s world.)

While writers like Lewis and Tolkien address grand religious themes that require lions and lords, Dodgson depicts whimsies wrought by a creator who delights in his creation: the power and magic of words, the way truth is gnarled by human perspective, the constant footrace taking place in the human mind between imagination and reason, and the simple wonder of seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”

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