Turning Wisdom on Its Head

When reading Alice’s description of the griffin contrasting with its later action’s I found myself wondering…

Whatever happened to the wise and fearsome creature of Greek Mythology, the majestic and powerful guardian of treasure and divine power?

Those qualities seem lost on this gryphon, indeed although Alice at first describes him as rather frightening, his later parodies with the mock turtle show him to be quite silly.

Up till now the insanity of the characters can be attributed to their type of animal/person as seen with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. The hatter’s of Victorian England were actually susceptible to mercury poisoning. In most cases lead to the victims of mercury poisoning exhibited tremors which hampered speech and movement, in advanced stages they began to hallucinate and show other psychotic symptoms. So you would expect the hatter to be a crazy and rather demented character. The same is true for the March Hare. His personality stems from the folk belief that in March male hares went insane, due to mating season. So of course the March hare, matches his counterpart the hatter perfectly.

Due to Carroll’s amazing attention to detail, in everything from choosing the type of animals to match their personality to tying much of the story back to the actual lives of the Liddell girl’s one must wonder, what exactly happened with the griffin?

While it seems the gryphon would be a far better character than either the Cheshire cat or the Caterpillar to represent a wisdom figure he is instead just as inane and foolish as the Mad Hatter or March Hare. Was this character coincidence or a planed feature of the story?

I would have to hypothesize that Carroll planned the griffin to be exactly the opposite of what most would expect the wise mythical creature to be. He represents the absence of wisdom and order in Wonderland. It seems as if as the story progresses things become less and less clear. The story itself seems to become rather haphazard losing even the slight remnants of purpose that Alice possessed at the beginning. So by turning the personality of this majestic creature on its head he erases any remnants of reality from wonderland, removing any still clinging thoughts of normalcy from the reader’s mind.

But in the end we are still forced to wonder.

Does the Gryphon represent the final death of wisdom in Wonderland or is he merely another strange but ultimately meaningless critter in Carroll’s strange world?

4 Responses to “Turning Wisdom on Its Head”

  1. You can’t kill something that was never alive. In my opinion, the Gryphon couldn’t have meant the final death of wisdom because there really wasn’t any wisdom to begin with. While some characters seemed to make more sense than others, were they really wise? Or did they simply appear to be because all we have to compare them to is the solid insanity of the rest of Wonderland? Just throwing that out there.

    As for the Gryphon being the exact opposite of what we would assume, I totally agree. I do think that Carroll intentionally wrote the Gryphon to be this out-there character that only confused things. Since this IS Wonderland, there really couldn’t be very many sensible characters, as it would take away from the over-all feel of madness. Maybe he chose the Gryphon to be one of the oxymoron-ic characters because of the fact that one would expect him to be someone they could rely on to be sensible, and then you find out that you can’t, and that he’s just like everyone else. It’s almost like you’d expect someone to jump out and yell “PSYCH!!!”

  2. I have never thought about the Gryphon and the other characters in Wonderland in the way you presented it. Very interesting find! Throughout the story, objects, feelings, and characters are flipped/ opposite of how they are perceived in the “real world”. I only noticed the feelings/objects becoming opposite instead of actually looking at the characters. Carroll may have meant for the characters to be the opposite, or perhaps he didn’t think about the characters in Wonderland vs. “real world”…who knows?

    As for your final question: I could argue both. For one, the Gryphon could be just a meaningless fill in character to allow Alice to discover “something” about herself, or Carroll could symbolize the Gryphon as the death of “adult authority” over Alice.

    Brava!

  3. Meighan A. Says:

    A very nicely written and explained opinion! It all makes a lot of sense to me, now, after reading this. My only thought is this; there is no “death of wisdom”. It is a wonderland, it is where one ‘wonders’! Wisdom ruins wonder. How can you have wisdom there in the first place to have it be able it ‘die’?

  4. Very intriguing point! It is not out of place for Carroll to portray the Mad Hatter or the March Hare as insane, due to the meaning of their origins. The griffin however, was not given the wisdom or majesty of its implications. Perhaps it is implying that wisdom within wonderland is represented as silliness, a term any child could relate to, and Carroll made it that way for the purpose of entertainment. In fact there probably no wisdom as you have pointed out. There may or may not be wisdom in the analyses of this story, it’s up to the reader to decide, but I do think the story itself is meant to be random. In terms of wonderland madness is a given whereas logic and reason is about as scarce as true understanding of wisdom in our world. Your title also caught my attention, and I imagine it as quite a Carroll-like image, fit nicely into Alice’s story.

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