That gem of a headline, “A Mad Tea Party,” on a recent Maureen Dowd New York Times column
got me wondering how many readers appreciated the nuanced allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I surely did. I have read Lewis Carroll’s wacky tea-party scene many times, and I made a point of catching Tim Burton’s film version to watch Johnny Depp bring the Mad Hatter to life.
I am struck by how many of these scenes I can recall from the books I read as a child. Without effort, I can quote Goldilocks, Br’er Rabbit, Captain Hook, Willie Wonka and Thumper more or less verbatim. The stories of the little red hen, Cinderella, the three little pigs, Snow White and the emperor’s new clothes are poised on the sidelines of memory, waiting to get into the game. It is a deep bench.
Do you remember the story of the grasshopper and the ants? The plot is pretty straightforward. Industrious ants spend the summer storing food to see them through the winter. All the while, the slacker grasshopper plays its fiddle and laughs dismissively at their hard work. Because my mother gave me a recorded version of the story on 45 RPM vinyl, probably a Disney product, I am able to sing the grasshopper’s theme song, word for word: “Oh, the world owes us a living ...” The singing came to an end as the snowflakes flew. In the Disney version, the grasshopper’s comeuppance is mitigated by the ants. An alternate ending—one no doubt favored by Republican parents—has the grasshopper dying miserably in the cold.
The theme of the story is unmistakable. The same is true for “The Little Red Hen,” another childhood favorite. It’s the story of a hen that raises a small crop of wheat. At each stage in the process—the planting, harvesting, milling, baking—she asks her friends, “Who will help me?” Each appeal is met with a chorus of “Not I” from the other barnyard animals. “Then I’ll do it myself,” she says. In the climactic scene, the hen asks, “Who will help me eat the bread?” Of course, every “not I” becomes “I will” in a trice. But the little hen has grit. “No, you will not,” she retorts. “You didn’t help me plant it, or water it, or harvest it, or mill it, or bake it. I shall eat it myself!” The story ends (dramatic pause here): “And so she did.”
The four-word conclusion is masterful. Besides being unequivocal, the blunt consonants are smoothed by iambic rhythm. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it inspired the fatalistic refrain “so it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist, copied it. He invariably closed his daily entries with “And so to bed.”
And so it is: These childhood stories permeate the culture. So much so that a writer at The New York Times can confidently invoke the Mad Hatter’s tea party in a four-word headline. Just think how many people can name the seven dwarfs. Or finish the couplet that begins “Fee-fi-fo-fum.” Or name the animal that huffed and puffed. The stories are not only inescapable; they are instructive. The little red hen and the industrious ants teach the importance of work. The ugly duckling gives hope to pudgy, pimply teenagers.
Many of the stories serve other purposes, scholars say. They address the “quest for romance and riches, for power and privilege and, most importantly, a way out of the woods and back to the safety and security of home,” Maria Tatar writes in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales.
Just as Hansel and Gretel did, we need to find a way out of the woods. In the good old days, the woods hid the trolls, ogres, witches and giants who were the principal threats to our well-being. Nowadays, we have congressmen to fear—not to mention the fact that the woods are choked with the brambles of income inequality and dysfunctional government. I have read that a dose of wolfsbane will cure a werewolf. Perhaps a dose of kid lit would redeem politicians like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. If it were up to me, I would have the senators re-read Bambi, “Goldilocks” and Robin Hood. Then, I’d give them a three-question quiz to make sure they grasped the salient points.
Question 1: What did you learn from Bambi’s rabbit friend Thumper?
Answer: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.
Question 2: What did you learn from Goldilocks’ lunch?
Answer: Avoid porridge that is either too hot or too cold. Eat the in-between porridge.
Question 3: What did you learn from Robin Hood?
Answer: When you take some money from the rich to help the poor, all of Nottingham prospers.
I think remedial reading is a step in the right direction, especially if Robert Fulghum is right—that all you really need to know is what you learned in kindergarten. Cruz and Lee are bright guys. They just have to get back to their kindergarten roots.
After Alice sat down with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the dormouse and listened to their gibberish, she pronounced it “the stupidest tea party I was ever at in my life.” Nowadays, in precincts outside Wonderland, plenty of people share the sentiment: They are tired of the mad tea party—the anger and the craziness of the Republican extremists. They want congressmen who debate like Thumper and act like Goldilocks. But most of all, they just want to live happily ever after.