‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ –Alice
Alice’s assertion, at the end of the climactic confrontation with the Queen of Hearts in the trial scene in Alice in Wonderland, dramatically brings the proceedings to an close… But it also highlights one of the many sources of humor in the book: Alice’s nemesis in the court—the Queen of Hearts – is indeed nothing but a playing card animated by Lewis Carroll’s imagination into a comically malevolent personality, whose favorite utterance seems to be “Off with her/his head”! Tenniel’s classic illustrations seems to perfectly complement Carroll’s presentation of the Queen.
And remember, Alice is not even the accused in the trial! She’s merely called as witness in the trial of the Knave of Heart for stealing the tarts, as per the nursery rhyme, which Carroll incorporates into his story, as an indictment read by the White Rabbit:
The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole the tarts,
And took them clean away.
The Queen is depicted as a comical stereotype, a despotic harridan brought to life, a “blind and aimless Fury,” as Carroll himself once described her.1 The King and Knave (the latter more familiar to us now perhaps as the “Jack”) are similarly depicted as individualized “three dimensional” comic personalities, and it seems as though the other royal members of the court—the “face cards”—are too.
But Carroll’s text describes the number cards as animated playing cards—“oblong and flat” who fall face down at the approach of the Queen—and Tenniel correspondingly pictures the gardeners like the cards they’re comprised of, essentially animated walking-and-talking sandwich-boards with heads, legs, and arms attached.
As such, I think they serve to foreground the more important characters: the Queen, King, Jack, Alice, etc. They really are the sort of “cardboard-cutout” characters that literary critics tend to mock! They also serve to remind readers of something we’re always implicitly aware of—that all these “characters” are playing cards brought to life—and this is another reason why their antics seem so comical. The inanimate, animated—objects and animals brought to life and imbued with human qualities, even if satiric ones. This provided a tried and true literary device in children’s literature long before Carroll.
Yet when Alice blurts out: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. The court deconstructs back into a pack of cards, raining down on Alice’ head, a moment of humor which is, however, not without some anxiety, as Tenniel brilliantly depicts. Amid the confusion, the non-playing card Wonderland characters in court—animals comprising the erstwhile jury—are pictured as fully reverted back into unfrocked frogs, mice, and birds. And a storm of cards swirls toward Alice, whose face shows clearly that she is not amused, all set against a darkly cross-hatched backdrop calling to mind an ominous storm (a Kansas tornado perhaps?).
Again, this depiction seems to perfectly match Carroll’s language, and perhaps extends it, thereby deepening the presentation of a funny, yet scary scene, one final vision before the sometimes-nightmarish midsummer-night’s dream finally yields back to bucolic daytime reality:
At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.
A “scream, half of fright,” flying objects around Alice’s head and face which she “tries to beat off”… This could be right out of Poe—or Hitchcock. (The Birds, anyone?). The sudden deconstruction of the Queen and her court back into a pack of cards that briefly assails Alice before falling onto the floor like dead leaves fluttering down is a terrifically dramatic moment. But in a flash, it’s all over and she’s back on the calm riverbank—all’s well.
The visual aspect of the this reverse-metamorphosis was dramatically realized in a production of Alice in Wonderland that I saw not long ago by the Salzburg Marionette Theatre (where the Queen was presented as an overt caricature of Queen Victoria, something Carroll wouldn’t have done but which was a funny adaptation for a modern audience). All the cards, as all the characters were “brought to life” on-stage by marionettes, adding a nicely surreal effect to the comical, ever-so-slightly-nightmarish fantasy.
When puppet Alice uttered the line, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”, the whole pack exploded, and Alice was deluged by a literal rain of playing cards falling on her and all over the stage—a perfect dramatization of Tenniel’s drawing, yet I think one more dramatic than a still illustration could possibly provide, no matter how striking. It’s one thing to read a description, even a vivid one, or to see an image, even one as evocative as Tenniel’s, but it’s quite another to see actual kinetic movement and tumbling items cascading down before your eyes. The effect isn’t “better”—it’s just more inescapable and dramatic to a modern viewer—at least this one.
I was recently reminded of that staging—and of course Carroll’s story—while cataloging a “toybook” version of the story about the Queen of Hearts and her tarts: The Queen of Hearts and the Damson Tarts, published sometime between 1857 and 1865 in London by Dean & Son. (Coincidentally—or maybe not—Carroll’s Alice was first published in 1865. Hmmm…) This illustrated eight-page paperback (somewhat like a comic book in format) begins with the first stanza of the “Queen of Hearts” nursery rhyme and then elaborates the story through the combination of text and illustration that characterizes the toybook format. (Damson by the way, is a type of sweet plum, popular for jam-making in the 19th century—I didn’t know that either and had to look it up.) Note the toybook depiction of the Queen. Here, she appears quite benevolent, and even slightly dishy, in contrast to either of the other versions we’ve looked at so far.
The Queen makes her tarts “to feast a chosen few” and sends “her cards” out to invite all the other kings and queens to a noble feast—a play on words reinforced by the accompanying illustration. (Remember, in those days people sent out invitation cards and left calling cards when visiting.) As in Tenniel’s later rendition, we see the combination of “three-dimensional” royalty and “sandwich-board” card-like courtiers. But for the most part, the characters are pictured as being “3D,” even though they retain the trappings and symbolic accoutrements of playing cards—the Knave’s poleaxe, for instance. Otherwise, what’s he otherwise doing with that in the court, especially as a suspected thief and a defendant?
I wonder if perhaps Carroll or Tenniel saw this depiction—or one like it—or if this playing card/realized character distinction was part of the received idea for this basic story that was then taken and reconceptualized. The nursery rhyme characters are, after all, based on playing cards: the King and Queen of Hearts, etc.
Note the thievish Knave lurking in the background behind the oblivious Queen in the first illustration. He’s depicted as a pretty disreputable—dare I say, knavish-looking—character in this version. He’s the thief—as readers, we know that from the rhyme—but when called upon to produce the tarts (which he has already eaten in this version, as we later read/see), what does he do? He blames the King’s cat!
“Your majesty,” said he, [the Knave] I think I know who is the foe,
Your cat it sure must be:
He looked at me quite guiltily
And ran away full speed…”
And the accompanying illustration shows the cat of course high-tailing it away—imagine a cat doing that when in trouble! The King doesn’t buy the Knave’s lame excuse—“Oh Knave for shame!… Do cats eat damson tarts?”—and he rages before the court.
The Knave is eventually indicted by his own jam-stained chin, and the King commands that he confess on “bended knee.” (Unlike the nursery rhyme version, there are no tarts for the knave to bring back in this telling.) But remember that friendly-looking Queen? She has other, distantly non-merciful, ideas: “Oh sire…He surely ought to die.”
In this version, the King rules, not the Queen who railroads the proceedings in Alice, and he opts for “mercy”—the Knave is to be beaten, as per the nursery rhyme. The text states this, but there’s no corresponding illustration of the actual beating, only one of the cowering Knave. The effect is to lighten the cautionary tone considerably, I think–illustration predominates over the text in terms of imparting overall meaning to us. Then, with justice dispensed, the king decides that a party is in order:
The King did then for music call,–said he, “We now will have a Ball.”
The company felt such delight, the danced till it was morning quite.
The story thus concludes with an all-nighter celebration, rather than pandemonium, as “Queen of Hearts episode” in Alice. The accompanying illustration, labeled “the King’s Grand Ball,” perfectly captures this festive-comic resolution–excluding the Knave though, if you look closely.
Having let the knave eat the stolen tarts, this version also does away with his repentance—and, of course, with his restitution of the stolen goods; the lines above take the place of the last three lines of the nursery rhyme, which have mysteriously disappeared:
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.
So with the same basic story line, we’ve seen essentially three different resolutions, if we factor in the combined effect of text and illustration: 1) restitution and repentance; 2) beating of the malefactor; 3) dancing and celebration.
An apparently earlier toybook version of the Queen of Hearts story, published between 1847-1854 by Dean & Co., features most of the same illustrations (omitting the smaller insets), and essentially the same text (the Queen is “troubled” instead of “ireful,” etc.). Titled New Story of the Queen of Hearts, it provides a variation of the ending with the Knave being beaten. The last illustration in this version shows the cowering Knave before his beating, and the last lines of text are here:
…mercy shall guide my will,
So let the thief be beaten.”
The lines ending the Damson Tarts have been deleted altogether and the illustration showing the festive dancing scene has been moved—somewhat incoherently, in terms of the accompanying text, or even the plot itself—to the front pastedown, above the beginning of the text: “The Queen of Hearts once made some tarts…” But when is this dancing celebration supposed to take place? And what’s its cause in this retelling? Things don’t really add up logically, but illogical or inconsistent plotting doesn’t really destroy delightful aspects of a children’s story as long as it’s indeed entertaining–and perhaps also instructive in a cautionary way.
As first, I was tempted to think that the New Story might be a one-time publication variation, or even a book whose leaves were rebound, a not-infrequent occurrence in old toy books—cheaply-bound, inexpensive items, often “read to death” by child readers. But book in hand, I can see that this toybook is still intact, as issued—the first, unnumbered leaf and leaf number eight are laid down to the original wrappers, which are still attached to each other along the spine edge.And another toybook variation—an undated French-language version probably dating from about 1850, possibly published by Dean too—essentially duplicates not only the New Story’s version of the story but also the page layout and design, the decorative bordered boxes into which caption title text is set, and also provides a text that’s a pretty close French translation—almost word-for-word. Again, the text ends with the Knave being beaten:
Main la merci encore guidera ma volunte,
Ansi, que le voleur soit battu.
It’s hard to know why both books end this way—with the Knave being punished with a beating—instead of with the restitution and repentance from the nursery rhyme version. Perhaps the toy book maker simply didn’t plan well and ran out of space in the preset eight-page format? (This sometimes happens.) Or, more likely, perhaps, the message for children was intended to be one frightening them away from theft by playing up the consequences, both in language and illustration? There may well be other explanations too. Beatings, or similar punishments, were quite common features in stories about bad children, as shocking as this seems to us now in a story aimed at children readers.
The story of the Queen of Hearts and her tarts was popular fodder for other illustrated children’s versions too. One of the best known is Caldecott’s The Queen of Hearts, first published by Routledge in 1881, and later reissued by Warne (which is the copy the Cotsen Library has). This book offers an interesting interplay of the text and interpretative illustrations, as well as an example of how book design can affect meaning in an illustrated book. Caldecott reproduces the classic nursery rhyme text verbatim, but his own illustrations and overall page design both shape—and indeed, modify—a reader’s reception of this text. Caldecott provides his characteristically gently satiric take on a “story,” via visual elements.
His cover design sets the tone: against a background of playing card on the ground, a comically wild archer of Diamonds (perhaps a youth?) apparently shoots at Hearts balloons, while a foppish attendant of the Queen of Hearts protests. The Queen is depicted partly within a bordered a frame making her look like a two-dimensional playing card—she’s both within the scene and outside it, an interesting narrative ploy. Is she a person? A playing card? Or both at once?
Caldecott presents a fairly glamouous Queen, like Dean’s earlier toybook version—and very much unlike Tenniel’s. Apparently, she’s quite a reader too—reading cook books, if you look closely—Caldecott’s creative invention, and perhaps his wry “educational” message to young readers?
The Knave’s thievery is also depicted with Caldecott’s gently satiric humor—the Knave is another real court dandy, shown caught “in the act” in Caldecott’s depiction. But how is he discovered this time? Take a look! The cat is witness, and Caldecott’s illustrations show the loyal cat ratting out the Knave…no doubt strictly in the interests of justice!
While adding no new text, Caldecott thus creates a much-enhanced role for the King’s cat via illustration, a role he expands even further with the line drawings accompanying the color wood-engravings in this book. The cat—which is not mentioned at all in the nursery rhyme and which is merely the Knave’s absurd object of blame in Damson Hearts—is turned into the eyes and ears of the King and an active agent of justice, as you can see in the composite view below of Caldecott’s line-drawings on four separate pages—no text is really needed!Following the nursery rhyme text, Caldecott shows the Knave being beaten by the King of Hearts—but here the act takes place in the background, with color illustration shifting the focus to the rest of the royals happily dancing the night away. (Note: the Queen of Hearts is dancing with the King of Clubs, while her consort administers punishment.) Illustration reinterprets the text, lightens the tone considerably, and adds a festive slant. Celebration is foregrounded, while punishment and severity are pushed into the background.
The Knave brings back the tarts, but Caldecott shows him giving them to celebrating little royal children of all four suits, not feasting adults as in Damson Tarts. So restitution is made—and crowned children get a treat, an ending with obvious appeal to child readers! (“Plumb-cake for ever, Huzza!,” as John Newbery put it.)
Interestingly, Caldecott also depicts liveried court-servants and heralds as playing-card, sandwich-board wearers—but unlike Tenniel, he provides them with bodies underneath. This certainly seems like some sort of visual allusion to Carroll’s work and Tenniel’s illustrations to me, which wouldn’t be a too surprising, since Alice in Wonderland was still hugely popular in the 1880s and 1890s, as it remains to this day.
1.Quotation from an article by Carroll, “Alice on Stage,” quoted by Martin Gardner in The Annotated Alice (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1960, p. 109)