Novels About Playing Cards: Alice in Wonderland

Posted by Will Roya on

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

In a previous article we shared some of our favourite playing cards that depict novels. But how about novels that depict playing cards? Already for centuries playing cards have embedded themselves into our lives and culture, and crawled their way into language, paintings, and music. But what about literature?

It's not hard to think of examples of books where playing cards are part of the wider background of a novel. Perhaps we find them in the hands of characters who are having a social game of bridge, or in the hands of gamblers trying their luck at Blackjack at a casino or playing Poker in the back room of a saloon. But are there other examples besides Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery (see our previous article) where playing cards become central characters, and key figures in the story?

The example that will spring to mind for most people is Lewis Carroll's classic work, Alice in Wonderland.

The Book

This story is one that almost everyone has come across in their life. But if you're like most people, then you've only been exposed to Alice via Disney films, or perhaps through an abridged version for young children. You really owe it to yourself to read the original book by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865. Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, who excelled in playing with words, and delighted in logic and fantasy. In Alice in Wonderland we see all these skills and interests on display, and come together in a wonderful and charming story.

If you don't have a copy of the book, you can easily find it online, because the copyright has long lapsed. I suggest you head here, where you'll find a downloadable PDF of a virtual edition created by Peter Zelchenko in 1998 for BookVirtual. This project is a true typographically accurate replica of the original Macmillan edition and this free digital edition was produced by VolumeOne.

Alice in Wonderland


The Story

For those unfamiliar with the story, what can you expect? Alice in Wonderland is a story of childlike innocence and curiosity, as we journey into a world of the surreal, the fantastic, and the whimsical.

Togther with the seven-year-old Alice, we follow a talking white rabbit, and fall into a rabbit-hole, by which we enter an imaginary and wacky world where nothing is at it seems.

Alice in Wonderland


If you were the kind of child who always asked the “why?” question, and who liked to challenge what everyone else regarded as normal, you’ll love this book. In this story, Lewis Carroll gives us a picture of a world where everything that we accept as normal is turned upside down. We find ourselves in a land which is populated by an arrange of fantastic characters that entertain us with their wit and whimsy. Consider this excerpt from an absurd conversation Alice has with the Cheshire Cat:

“By-the-bye, what became of the baby?” said the Cat. “I’d nearly forgotten to ask.”
“It turned into a pig,’ Alice answered very quietly, just as if the Cat had come back in a natural way.
“I thought it would,” said the Cat, and vanished again.


In one of the book's more famous scenes, Alice finds herself at a mad tea-party together with the March Hare, a Hatter, and a Dormouse., where she is bombarded with paradoxical riddles, and astonished with absurd logic.

“…they drew all manner of things – everything that begins with an M –”
“Why with an M?” said Alice.
“Why not?” said the March Hare.


Alice in Wonderland


The Playing Cards: Croquet with Queen of Hearts

But it is in the next chapter, entitled "The Queen's Croquet Ground", that we meet our playing cards for the first time. After leaving the tea party, Alice enters a garden, where she sees a procession of living playing card characters, which all have human heads, arms, and legs. Chief among them are the King and the Queen.

The suits of these playing card characters all correspond to different roles in the royal court, with the Spades serving as gardeners, Clubs as soldiers, Diamonds as courtiers, and Hearts as members of the royal family.

Alice in Wonderland


Click on the images below to read the first few pages of this chapter:

Alice in Wonderland


Alice in Wonderland


Alice in Wonderland


It's here that we read about the antics the execution-minded Queen of Hearts with her constant refrain “Off with his head.”.

After this Alice commences what has to be one of the most bizarre games of croquet ever witnessed.

Alice in Wonderland


The Playing Cards: The Trial of the Knave of Hearts

The final two chapters of the book put the spotlight once again on our playing card friends, as Alice witnesses a trial overseen by the King of Hearts as judge, to settle a case where the Knave of Hearts has been accused of stealing the Queen's tarts. At this point Lewis quotes the old and well-known English nursery rhyme "The Queen of Hearts", which cleverly forms the basis of his plot:

"The Queen of Hearts / She made some tarts, / All on a summer's day;
The Knave of Hearts / He stole those tarts, / And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts / Called for the tarts, / And beat the knave full sore;
The Knave of Hearts / Brought back the tarts, / And vowed he'd steal no more.
"

Alice in Wonderland


Alice herself is called upon to give testimony against the Knave, and a measure of chaos ensues when Alice first knocks over the jury box filled with animals. She then challenges the King and Queen of Hearts about the absurdity of the proceedings.

Alice in Wonderland


I won't spoil what happens in the final scenes as the pack of cards starts to gang up against Alice. You can read the final pages of the book for yourself here:

Alice in Wonderland


Alice in Wonderland


The Message

Is Alice in Wonderland all nonsense? I don’t think so, because there's much more to this story than first meets the eye. Behind the outer layer of apparent `nonsense' Carroll conveys a great deal of sense. There's a wonderful version of the book entitled The Annotated Alice, that was produced by famous mathematician and logician Martin Gardner. In this annotated version, Gardner explores a lot of the imagery and ideas of the Alice in Wonderland story, and explains some of the references and influences behind the characters and more. As a mathematician, he especially points out many of the clever logical and mathematical concepts found in the story. There's also a lot of political commentary and parody of the popular culture of the day which he identifies and explains. For example the farcical trial at the end is generally understood to be a lampooning of the British legal system.

What Lewis Carroll really wants us to do is return to reality along with Alice with a renewed appreciation for everything that is normal and accepted. But because this whimsical tale and its fantasy world is so nonsensical and enjoyable, you’ll want to return there many a time, and enjoy its sheer madcap humour. Alice in Wonderland is full to the brim with wild humour, farcical fantasy, witty wisecracks, and even slapstick comedy. You’ll be amazed by the cat-less grin of the Cheshire-Cat, amused by the absurd logic of the mad Hatter, and in hysterics over the antics of Queen of Hearts. I especially enjoyed the abundance of delightful puns, paradoxes, and parodies. While much of the deeper significance will escape young children, they will certainly enjoy it as a fantastic story, and rediscover it with even greater pleasure as adults. A classic is a book that appeals to people of all times and ages, and that’s certainly the case with Alice in Wonderland; this is truly a classic for the child in all of us!

Special mention should also be made of the illustrations accompanying the first published versions of the book. The original pictures were wood engraved by John Tenniel, and his artwork has become forever connected with the story of Alice, and has influenced a great deal of subsequent imaginings of it.

Alice in Wonderland


The Tribute Deck

So the book is about playing cards, but are there playing cards about the book? Of course! With the glut of custom decks on today's market, surely it is inevitable that the circle would become complete, and someone would make a deck of playing cards based on this novels about playing cards.

And sure enough, there are several such decks that are marvellous tributes to Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit deck features a simple black and colour scheme with line art that was inspired by the classic John Tenniel woodcut illustrations from the original Alice in Wonderland books. The Wonderland Tarot deck has more playful and colourful artwork by Morgana Abbey, but is also a homage to the style of John Tenniel.

But perhaps my favourite Alice in Wonderland themed deck is the Alice in Wonderland deck created by graphic designer and illustrator Sasha Dounaevski, who has been a fan of the Lewis Carroll stories since her childhood.

Alice in Wonderland playing cards


The simple blue and white colour scheme is a recurring feature of the deck, and Sasha has used linear drawings with a minimalist style and with a childish and playful feel, believing that this best suits the absurdity and logic of the story. Just like the book itself, there are many imaginative details that the artist has provided, but there's also plenty of scope for you as reader to imagine details of your own.

The card backs represent the garden that Alice gets into, with a distinctive symmetrical pattern. The Aces each recount part of Alice's adventures and companions, e.g. Pigeon (Spades), the child that turned into a pig (Clubs), the mad tea-party (Diamonds), and a mallet-flamingo (Hearts).

Alice in Wonderland playing cards


But as with most custom decks, it's the court cards that are the real highlight, depicting characters like The Cheshire Cat, Mad Hare, Hatter, White Rabbit, and more - including of course The Queen of Hearts and The King of Hearts.

To distinguish the suits clearly, the black suited court cards have a blue background, while the red suited court cards have a beige background.

Alice in Wonderland playing cards


The number cards are also customized with uniquely shaped pips in a non-standard arrangement. An extra feature of these is a unique symbol for each different suit, each of which has been derived from the story, e.g. the pocket watch, the pepper pot.

The Jokers feature the magical food/drink from the story which made Alice small and big respectively: the "Drink Me" mixture and the "Eat Me" cake. Also of note are two bonus cards, one of which pictures the book's final court scene - which appropriately features lots of playing cards!

Alice in Wonderland playing cards


This deck is a wonderful tribute to the famous book, given the extensive customization and how the Alice in Wonderland theme has been incorporated in every aspect of the playing cards, making it a charming deck for the child in all of us!

Final Thoughts

In many ways playing cards have become a microcosm of life. Art mirrors life, and when playing cards find a place in our art, then they are giving us reason to reflect on ourselves and on our lives. But art can also be enjoyed for its own sake, and those of us who are playing card enthusiasts will appreciate the clever way that playing cards have found a place in novels like the ones discussed above, and will enjoy reading these stories and appreciate the clever ways they incorporate playing cards.

Not only have playing cards become an integral part of our lives, but as a form of art themselves, they also reflect something about life. With today's myriad of custom decks, we are now in a position where playing cards have become works of art, and reveal something about what we like, and they are indications of what is important to us. And in cases of decks about Alice in Wonderland, they have even become tributes to works of art that themselves honour playing cards. So why not head down a rabbit hole, and join me in enjoying some of these great books which honour our 52 paper friends!

playing card old image



About the writerEndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.

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Last update date: 5/6/20

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