Alexander Woollcott’s 1939 portrait of [Alice in Wonderland] as a “gay tapestry” and of Dodgson as a “shy, retreating man who left so much bubbling laughter in his legacy to the world” is still pretty much the popular perception (witness the number of filmmakers who have come to grief pursuing it), but one rather at odds with the intellectual intensity of the Reverend’s magic kingdom. How many extracurricular smiles can there be for a child, after all, in a tale whose heroine must reason and argue as hard and as fast as she can for her very survival? Alice laughs but three times. On each occasion her fancy has been caught by some minor absurdity — the antics of a footman, the flamingo she must use at croquet, and the news that the Duchess has boxed the Queen’s ears. Against these weigh her unending puzzlement and the frequency with which, like a startled eye, this puzzlement dilates into apprehension, dismay, even terror. Add to these moments the four occasions she is provoked to actual tears and the seventeen to defensive fits of temper. A common epithet in the book is the word “poor” — “Poor Alice!,” “Poor little thing!” If Wonderland is the recess bell in the history of children’s literature, to what strange playground have we been excused?
John Goldthwaite, The Natural History of Make Believe