Once I had a dream where Wonderland got taken over by Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame so I decided to write a story about it.
When I got home one evening, I said to myself what all teachers must have thought at least once: ‘My students are idiots.’ As soon as I said it out loud to myself, I imagined saying it out loud in front of said students. I probably won’t have been the first teacher to do such a thing, I thought, but it probably wouldn’t make them any less stupid.
What made me say those things, you might ask? Well, I am an English Literature teacher, and one thing you learn in that position is that children these days don’t appreciate a good story.
Certainly everyone who has ever taught English Literature has had those moments. When you had to tell your class that Frankenstein was the monster’s creator, not the monster, and the monster doesn’t have a square head. When you had to tell your class Romeo and Juliet wasn’t really supposed to be romantic. When you had to tell them there was more to the story than what popular culture told them.
It was that day I had been teaching my class about The Hunchback of Notre…Notre Dame de Paris. I asked my class if they knew anything about the story. First person I pointed to, Billy, all he said about it was that it was “the story about the hunchback”. It had more than just a hunchback, I told him, and then Jenny – one of the few students who actually wrote poetry in her free time, not that the poems of hers I’ve read are anything exceptional – elaborated on Billy’s point. ‘Yeah, Quasimodo his name was, I think. And…he had to live alone in the belltower, just because he looked different. I think that sucks.’
Most of what she said wasn’t wrong, but I told her that he didn’t live alone, he had been adopted. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said, ‘it was the bad guy, King Rollo or something.’
Oh, that was it. I not only corrected her about Frollo’s name, I told her that he was more than just “the bad guy”. He did evil deeds due to his lust for Esmerelda, but he did adopt Quasimodo of his own will and he did tutor Pierre. The class only saw him as “the bad guy” because that’s how Hollywood portrayed him, because of how the story had been simplified for mass consumption.
It reminded me of something I heard – I think it was from Jenny, even – about how people often rewrite Alice in Wonderland into a horror story. Someone rewrote it so that Wonderland was a monochrome wasteland ruled by a faceless demon version of the Mad Hatter. Some people.
I remembered my youth, when I read the works of Lewis Carroll, and liked the books the way they were. After reading them, I went out into the garden on those sunny summer days and looked for a rabbit hole myself. Those memories dominated my mind as I marked the day’s papers, so I only gave them half the attention I usually did. Not that it really mattered.
Each paper I looked at, I thought about the student behind it and wondered if they ever did read a great classic that wasn’t assigned to them. They didn’t have the imagination or intelligence I had when I was their age, they just lied around playing those computer games all day, their understanding of the work was basic at best…
All of a sudden, I lost all interest in marking. There was something else that deserved my attention.
Down the hall hopped a giant white rabbit. Not just any white rabbit, The White Rabbit, complete with jacket and waistcoat. The very character I had been hoping to see running through my garden as a child was running down my halls, and seeing him made me a child once again. While I knew I should have been taking a picture or alerting the public about the existence of a fictional character, I found myself chasing after him, watching him hop outside my front door.
When he leapt down that giant hole that had suddenly appeared in my front garden, I leapt down myself without a moment’s hesitation.
I fell down a hole, yet there didn’t seem to be much of a fall. I know that Alice fell and fell and passed by several objects on the way down, and yet for me, there was no transition between diving into the hole and landing among some wet weeds.
Whatever images the word “Wonderland” conjured up for me, this place had none of that. It looked more like I was in the garden of an abandoned home than anything from Lewis Carroll. The sky was shrouded in dark grey clouds, as if a storm was coming, and I stood in an overgrown garden filled with weeds and dead flowers, shuddering from the harsh breeze.
The White Rabbit took a look around and sighed, shaking his head. ‘It’s been like this ever since Frollo took over.’
My childhood dream had turned into a mockery. I swore I even saw Jenny in the garden – dirty blonde hair, checkered shirt and all – laughing at me. Just when I think I’m entering the world of my childhood, I instead enter a world full of literary perversions. Any sense of excitement or wonder I had drained from me instantly, and I could only clutch my fists.
I almost didn’t notice the White Rabbit hopping away towards something that actually did seem to come towards a fairy tale – a giant castle, decorated with hearts on its walls, and towers that resembled red licorice.
Again I followed him, all the while trying to make sense of what I had just heard. Frollo only did the evil things he did because of lust, and he was an archdeacon; he certainly didn’t seem the type for taking over a fantasy world. Did he think Esmerelda would love him if he ruled Wonderland?
As I ran through the garden, I accidentally kicked a can into the air, and when I looked down, I saw another, along with other modern rubbish.
The modern world had invaded Wonderland. It had probably invaded Frollo’s Notre Dame as well. If Frollo knew about modern junk food, he probably knew about the adaptations of his story. His psyche was unstable enough without having to learn there were films made that portrayed him as eviller than he actually was. He had been driven to hang someone, now he had been driven to embrace popular culture’s perception of him.
Now this was my chance to be a hero, like those I had read about. Not only would I free Wonderland, I would finally put my wide knowledge of literature to good use. All would finally recognise my genius. Certainly it was no accident the White Rabbit came to me; certainly he knew that there was no-one as wise as I.
The White Rabbit ran into the castle. I would have ran in after him if not for a certain figure approaching the door. A certain bald figure in priestly robes.
Something told me this was Frollo, and all of a sudden, I fully realised where I was and what I was doing. This was the realm of my childhood, the sky and grass and ground and trees and dead plants springing from the words Carroll wrote. Here before me was a character from the lugubrious works of Victor Hugo, one driven mad by lust, no less. A figure I thought of as wholly fictional, now flesh and bone before me, staring at me in a way that made my blood cold.
Yet still I cried out to him, ‘Stop!’ He narrowed his eyes and grimaced, yet I continued, ‘I know what this is,’ I continued, ‘I know what they’ve done…those stupid…you’ve been portrayed as evil….overly evil by…you did this to Wonderland because of…how they didn’t understand you. I know you’re more complex…you don’t have to…you don’t have to…’
His response was to laugh. A laugh that stung my ears and paralysed my muscles; were it not for that, I would’ve hit him in the face right there and then. He laughed and laughed, probably how he laughed when Esmerelda was hung.
‘You think I did this?’ Frollo said, looking back at the castle, then back at me, ‘Ah, they said Frollo took over, but they didn’t say which Frollo.’
I didn’t answer, but I couldn’t tell if it were out of fear or confusion. As soon as he said that, the thought entered my mind that if the literary Frollo could come into existence, one of his cinematic counterparts could as well.
‘This world has been taken over by my brother, Jehan,’ sighed Frollo, ‘Can you believe in more than a century since this world was formed, he was the one who introduced them to alcohol? They liked beer so much, they made him the new King.’ Frollo gestured towards the garden I stood in. ‘That had nothing to do with me. The people here just don’t do as much gardening as they used to, and as for the sky, well, Wonderland has rainy days like your world does.’ He took another look at the castle. ‘I came here to talk to him about this. At least he doesn’t ask me for money anymore.’
He noticed my silence and continued, ‘Oh, do you not know my brother? Have you not read my…’
‘I have, I have!’
‘If the long descriptions dissuaded you, I won’t hold it against you…’
‘No, I have, I know how your book has been…’
‘Well,’ said Frollo, ‘in relation to an earlier point, you were half right. This is because of my story’s prominence in popular culture. You see, despite my…actions, people constantly approach me, asking me to sign copies of my book as well as the film adaptations, Quasimodo too, yet Jehan, while adapted often, never quite got the cinematic fame I have. Some adaptations of Hugo’s work are fine works in their own right, but don’t include him. That’s one reason he went and did what he did here.’
Sure enough, the front door of the castle opened again, and out came a man with unkempt blonde hair holding a tankard. Following him were several playing card men, each holding tankards of their own, stumbling out of the castle. ‘Hello, brother,’ said Jehan, for that was who he was, ‘you’ve brought a friend. Have some.’
Another tankard was shoved in my face. After all that I had seen, this was exactly what I needed.
As soon as I guzzled it, I suddenly found myself back in my home, a paper stuck to my face with saliva. Of course, the logical answer to this was that it was all a dream, yet that childlike part of me awoke again and told me it was real.
The White Rabbit had to have come to me for a reason.
I took a look inside my fridge. All my beer was gone, white fur in their place.