As Lewis Carroll’s Alice comes to the end of her journey through the looking glass world, she has also come to the end of her patience with its strange power games and arbitrations. At every stage of the adventure, she has encountered someone who wants to dictate rules and protocols, and a lesson on table manners from the Red Queen finally triggers rebellion. “I can’t stand this any more,” Alice cries, as she seizes the tablecloth and hurls the entire setting into chaos (279). Then, catching hold of the Red Queen, she gives her a good shaking, until the rigid contours of the imperious figure become fuzzy and soft. At this point, the hold of the dream dissolves and Alice, awakening on the other side of the mirror, realises she is shaking the kitten. Queens have long been associated with ideas of transformation. As Alice is duly advised when she first looks out across the chequered landscape of the looking glass world, the rules of chess decree that a pawn may become a queen if she makes it to the other side.
The transformation of pawn to queen is in accord with the fairy tale convention of the unspoiled country girl who wins the heart of a prince and is crowned as his bride. This works in a dual register: on one level, it is a story of social elevation, from the lowest to the highest rank; on another, it is a magical transition, as some agent of fortune intervenes to alter the determinations of the social world. But fairy tales also present us with the antithesis and adversary of the fortune-blessed princess, in the figure of the tyrant queen who works magic to shape destiny to her own ends.
The Queen and the mirror converge in the cultural imaginary, working transformations that disrupt the order of nature, invert socio-political hierarchies, and flout the laws of destiny. In “Snow White,” the powers of the wicked queen are mediated by the looking glass, which reflects and affirms her own image while also serving as a panopticon, keep the entire realm under surveillance, to pick up any signs of threat to her pre-eminence. All this turbulence in the order of things lets loose a chaotic phantasmagoria that is prime material for film and animation. Two major film versions of “Snow White” have been released in the past few years—Mirror Mirror (2012) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)—while Tim Burton’s animated 3D rendition of Alice in Wonderland was released in 2010. Alice through the Looking Glass (2016) and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the 2016 prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, continue the experiment with state-of-the-art-techniques in 3D animation and computer-generated imaging to push the visual boundaries of fantasy.
Perhaps this escalating extravagance in the creation of fantasy worlds is another manifestation of the ancient lore and law of sorcery: that the magic of transformation always runs out of control, because it disrupts the all-encompassing design of an ordered world. This principle is expressed with poetic succinctness in Ursula Le Guin’s classic story A Wizard of Earthsea, when the Master Changer issues a warning to his most gifted student:
But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. (48)
In Le Guin’s story, transformation is only dangerous if it involves material change; illusions of all kinds are ultimately harmless because they are impermanent.
Illusions mediated by the mirror, however, blur the distinction Le Guin is making, for the mirror image supposedly reflects a real world. And it holds the seductive power of a projected narcissism. Seeing what we wish for is an experience that can hold us captive in a way that changes human nature, and so leads to dangerous acts with material consequences. The queen in the mirror becomes the wicked queen because she converts the world into her image, and in traditions of animation going back to Disney’s original Snow White (1937) the mirror is itself an animate being, with a spirit whose own determinations become paramount. Though there are exceptions in the annals of fairy story, powers of transformation are typically dark powers, turbulent and radically elicit. When they are mediated through the agency of the mirror, they are also the powers of narcissism and autocracy.
Through a Glass Darkly
In her classic cultural history of the mirror, Sabine Melchior-Bonnet tracks a duality in the traditions of symbolism associated with it. This duality is already evident in Biblical allusions to the mirror, with references to the Bible itself as “the unstained mirror” (Proverbs 7.27) counterpointed by images of the mortal condition as one of seeing “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13.12).
The first of these metaphoric conventions celebrates the crystalline purity of a reflecting surface that reveals the spiritual identity beneath the outward form of the human image. The church fathers drew on Plotinus to evoke “a whole metaphysics of light and reflection in which the visible world is the image of the invisible,” and taught that “humans become mirrors when they cleanse their souls (Melchior-Bonnet 109–10). Against such invocations of the mirror as an intermediary for the radiating presence of the divine in the mortal world, there arises an antithetical narrative, in which it is portrayed as distorting, stained, and clouded, and therefore an instrument of delusion. Narcissus becomes the prototype of the human subject led astray by the image itself, divorced from material reality. What was the mirror if not a trickster? Jean Delumeau poses this question in a preface to Melchior-Bonnet’s book (xi).
Through the centuries, as Melchior-Bonnet’s study shows, these two strands are interwoven in the cultural imaginary, sometimes fused, and sometimes torn asunder. With Venetian advances in the techniques and technologies of mirror production in the late Renaissance, the mirror gained special status as a possession of pre-eminent beauty and craftsmanship, a means by which the rich and powerful could reflect back to themselves both the self-image they wanted to see, and the world in the background as a shimmering personal aura. This was an attempt to harness the numinous influence of the divinely radiant mirror in order to enhance the superiority of leading aristocrats. By the mid seventeenth century, the mirror had become an essential accessory to the royal presence. Queen Anne of Austria staged a Queen’s Ball in 1633, in a hall surrounded by mirrors and tapestries. The large, finely polished mirror panels required for this kind of display were made exclusively by craftsmen at Murano, in a process that, with its huge furnaces, its alternating phases of melting and solidifying, its mysterious applications of mercury and silver, seemed to belong to the transformational arts of alchemy. In 1664, Louis XIV began to steal unique craftsmen from Murano and bring them to France, to set up the Royal Glass and Mirror Company whose culminating achievement was the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The looking glass world of the palace was an arena in which courtiers and visitors engaged in the high-stakes challenge of self-fashioning. Costume, attitude, and manners were the passport to advancement. To cut a figure at court was to create an identity with national and sometimes international currency. It was through the art of self-fashioning that the many princesses of Europe, and many more young women of title and hereditary distinction, competed for the very few positions as consort to the heir of a royal house. A man might be born to be king, but a woman had to become a queen.
So the girl who would be queen looks in the mirror to assess her chances. If her face is her fortune, what might she be? A deep relationship with the mirror may serve to enhance her beauty and enable her to realise her wish, but like all magical agents, the mirror also betrays anyone with the hubris to believe they are in control of it. In the Grimm’s story of “Snow White,” the Queen practises the ancient art of scrying, looking into a reflective surface to conjure images of things distant in time and place. But although the mirror affords her the seer’s visionary capacity to tell what will be, it does not give her the power to control the patterns of destiny. Driven to attempt such control, she must find other magic in order to work the changes she desires, and so she experiments with spells of self-transformation. Here the doubleness of the mirror plays out across every plane of human perception: visual, ethical, metaphysical, psychological.
A dynamic of inherent contradiction betrays the figure who tries to engage the mirror as a servant. Disney’s original 1937 cartoon shows the vain Queen brewing an alchemical potion that changes her into the very opposite of all she has sought to become: an ugly, ill-dressed, and impoverished old woman. This is the figure who can win and betray trust from the unspoiled princess to whom the arts of self-fashioning are unknown. In Tarsem Singh’s film Mirror Mirror, the Queen actually has two mirrors. One is a large crystal egg that reflects back a phantasmagoria of palace scenes; the other, installed in a primitive hut on an island across the lake, is a simple looking glass that shows her as she really is.
Snow White and the Huntsman portrays the mirror as a golden apparition, cloaked and faceless, that materialises from within the frame to stand before her. This is not her reflection, but with every encounter, she takes on more of its dark energies, until, in another kind of reversal, she becomes its image and agent in the wider world. As Ursula Le Guin’s sage teaches the young magician, magic has its secret economies. You pay for what you get, and the changes wrought will come back at you in ways you would never have foreseen. The practice of scrying inevitably leads the would-be clairvoyant into deeper levels of obscurity, until the whole world turns against the seer in a sequence of manifestations entirely contrary to his or her framework of expectation.
Ultimately, the lesson of the mirror is that living in obscurity is a defining aspect of the human condition. Jorge Luis Borges, the blind writer whose work exhibits a life-long obsession with mirrors, surveys a range of interpretations and speculations surrounding the phrase “through a glass darkly,” and quotes this statement from Leon Bloy: “There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do . . . or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light” (212).
The mirror will never really tell you who you are. Indeed, its effects may be quite the contrary, as Alice discovers when, within a couple of moves on the looking glass chessboard, she finds herself entering the wood of no names. Throughout her adventures she is repeatedly interrogated about who or what she is, and can give no satisfactory answer. The looking glass has turned her into an estranged creature, as bizarre a species as any of those she encounters in its landscapes.
“The furies are at home in the mirror,” wrote R. S. Thomas in his poem “Reflections” (265). They are the human image gone haywire, the frightening other of what we hope to see in our reflection. As the mirror is joined by technologies of the moving image in twentieth-century evolutions of the myth, the furies have been given a new lease of life on the cinema screen. In Disney’s 1937 cartoon of Snow White, the mirror itself has the face of a fury, which emerges from a pool of blackness like a death’s head before bringing the Queen’s own face into focus. As its vision comes into conflict with hers, threatening the dissolution of the world over which she presides, the mirror’s face erupts into fire.
Computer-generated imaging enables an expansive response to the challenges of visualisation associated with the original furies of classical mythology. The Erinyes are unstable forms, arising from liquid (blood) to become semi-materialised in human guise, always ready to disintegrate again. They are the original undead, hovering between mortal embodiment and cadaverous decay. Tearing across the landscape as a flock of birds, a swarm of insects, or a mass of storm clouds, they gather into themselves tremendous energies of speed and motion. The 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders, gives us the strongest contemporary realisation of the archaic fury. Queen Ravenna, played by Charlize Theron, is a virtuoso of the macabre, costumed in a range of metallic exoskeletons and a cloak of raven’s feathers, with a raised collar that forms two great black wings either side of her head. Powers of dematerialisation and rematerialisation are central to her repertoire. She undergoes spectacular metamorphosis into a mass of shrieking birds; from the walls around her she conjures phantom soldiers that splinter into shards of black crystal when struck by enemy swords. As she dies at the foot of the steps leading up to the great golden disc of her mirror, her face rapidly takes on the great age she has disguised by vampiric practices.
Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a figure midway between Disney’s fairy tale spectre and the fully cinematic register of Theron’s Ravenna. Bonham Carter’s Queen, with her accentuated head and pantomime mask of a face, retains the boundaries of form. She also presides over a court whose visual structures express the rigidities of a tyrannical regime. Thus she is no shape-shifter, but energies of the fury are expressed in her voice, which rings out across the presence chamber of the palace and reverberates throughout the kingdom with its calls for blood. Alice through the Looking Glass, James Bobin’s 2016 sequel, puts her at the centre of a vast destructive force field. Alice passes through the mirror to encounter the Lord of Time, whose eternal rule must be broken in order to break the power of the murdering Queen; Alice then opens a door and tumbles in free-fall out into nothingness. The place where she lands is a world not of daydream but of nightmare, where everything will soon be on fire, as the two sides in the chess game advance towards each other for the last battle.
This inflation of the Red Queen’s macabre aura and impact is quite contrary to what Lewis Carroll had in mind for his own sequel. In some notes about the stage adaptation of the Alice stories, he makes a painstaking distinction between the characters of the queen in his two stories.
I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion—a blind and aimless Fury. The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm—she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the 10th degree, the concentrated essence of governesses. (86)
Yet there is clearly a temptation to erase this distinction in dramatisations of Alice’s adventures. Perhaps the Red Queen as a ‘not unkindly’ governess is too restrained a persona for the psychodynamic mythos surrounding the queen in the mirror. The image itself demands more than Carroll wants to accord, and the original Tenniel illustrations give a distinctly sinister look to the stern chess queen.
In their very first encounter, the Red Queen contradicts every observation Alice makes, confounds the child’s sensory orientation by inverting the rules of time and motion, and assigns her the role of pawn in the game. Kafka or Orwell would not have been at all relaxed about an authority figure who practises mind control, language management, and identity reassignment. But here Carroll offers a brilliant modernisation of the fairy story tradition. Under the governance of the autocratic queen, wonderland and the looking glass world are places in which the laws of science, logic, and language are overturned, to be replaced by the rules of the queen’s games: cards and croquet in the wonderland, and chess in the looking glass world. Alice, as a well-schooled Victorian child, knows something of these games. She has enough common sense to be aware of how the laws of gravity and time and motion are supposed to work, and if she boasts of being able to believe six impossible things before breakfast, this signifies that she has enough logic to understand the limits of possibility. She would also have been taught about species and varieties and encouraged to make her own collections of natural forms. But the anarchy of the queen’s world extends into the domain of biology: species of all kinds can talk, bodies dissolve or change size, and transmutations occur instantaneously. Thus the world-warping energies of the Erinyes are re-imagined in an absurdist’s challenge to the scientist’s universe and the logician’s mentality.
Carroll’s instinct to tame the furies is in accord with the overall tone and milieu of his stories, which are works of quirky charm rather than tales of terror, but his two queens are threatening enough to enable him to build the narrative to a dramatic climax. For film-makers and animators, though, it is the queen who provides the dramatic energy and presence. There is an over-riding temptation to let loose the pandemonium of the original Erinyes, exploiting their visual terror and their classical association with metamorphosis.
There is some sociological background to the coupling of the queen and the mirror in fairy story. In reality, the mirror might assist an aspiring princess to become queen by enchanting the prince who was heir to the throne, but what was the role of the looking glass once she was crowned? Historically, the self-imaging of the queen has intense and nervous resonances, and these can be traced back to Elizabeth I, whose elaborate persona was fraught with newly interpreted symbolism. Her portraits were her mirrors, and they reflect a figure in whom the qualities of radiance associated with divinity were transferred to the human monarch. Elizabeth developed the art of dressing herself in wearable light. If she lacked for a halo, she made up for it with the extravagant radiata of her ruffs and the wreaths of pearls around her head. Pearls in mediaeval poetry carried the mystique of a luminous microcosm, but they were also mirrors in themselves, each one a miniature reflecting globe. The Ditchely portrait of 1592 shows her standing as a colossus between heaven and earth, with the changing planetary light cycle as background. This is a queen who rules the world through the mediation of her own created image. It is an inevitable step from here to a corresponding intervention in the arrangement of the world at large, which involves the armies and armadas that form the backdrop to her other great portraits. And on the home front, a regime of terror focused on regular public decapitations and other grisly executions completes the strategy to remaking the world according to her will.
Renowned costume designer Eiko Ishioka created an aesthetic for Mirror Mirror that combines elements of court fashion from the Elizabethan era and the French ancien régime, with allusions to Versailles. Formality and mannerism are the keynotes for the palace scenes. Julia Roberts as the Queen wears a succession of vast dresses that are in defiance of human scale and proportion. Their width at the hem is twice her height, and 100,000 Svarovski crystals were used for their embellishment. For the masked ball scene, she makes her entry as a scarlet peacock with a high arching ruff of pure white feathers. She amuses herself by arranging her courtiers as pieces on a chess-board. So stiffly attired they can barely move more than a square at a time, and with hats surmounted by precariously balanced ships, they are a mock armada from which the Queen may sink individual vessels on a whim, by ordering a fatal move.
Snow White and the Huntsman takes a very different approach to extreme fashioning. Designer Colleen Atwood suggests the shape-shifter in the Queen’s costumes, incorporating materials evoking a range of species: reptile scales, fluorescent beetle wings from Thailand, and miniature bird skulls. There is an obvious homage here to the great fashion designer Alexander McQueen, whose hallmark was a fascination with the organic costuming of creatures in feathers, fur, wool, scales, shells, and fronds. Birds were everywhere in McQueen’s work. His 2006 show Widows of Culloden featured a range of headdresses that made the models look as if they had just walked through a flock of birds in full flight. The creatures were perched on their heads with outstretched wings askance across the models’ faces, obscuring their field of vision. As avatars from the spirit realm, birds are emblems of otherness, and associated with metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. These resonances give a potent mythological aura to Theron’s Queen of the dark arts.
Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman accordingly present strikingly contrasted versions of self-fashioning. In Mirror Mirror we have an approach driven by traditions of aristocratic narcissism and courtly persona, in which form is both rigid and extreme. The Queen herself, far from being a shape-shifter, is a prisoner of the massive and rigid architecture that is her costume. Snow White and the Huntsman gives us a more profoundly magical interpretation, where form is radically unstable, infused with strange energies that may at any moment manifest themselves through violent transformation.
Atwood was also costume designer for Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, where an invented framing story foregrounds the issue of fashioning as social control. Alice in this version is a young woman, being led by her mother to a garden party where a staged marriage proposal is to take place. Alice, as the social underling in the match, is simply expected to accept the honour. Instead, she escapes the scene and disappears down a rabbit hole to return to the wonderland of her childhood. In a nice comedic touch, her episodes of shrinking and growing involve an embarrassing separation from her clothes, so divesting her also of the demure image of the Victorian maiden. Atwood provides her with a range of fantasy party dresses that express the free spirit of a world that is her refuge from adult conformity.
Alice gets to escape the straitjacket of social formation in Carroll’s original stories by overthrowing the queen’s game, and with it her micro-management of image and behaviour. There are other respects, though, in which Alice’s adventures are a form of social and moral fashioning. Her opening reprimand to the kitten includes some telling details about her own propensities. She once frightened a deaf old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyaena and you’re a bone!” (147). Playing kings and queens is one of little Alice’s favourite games, and there is more than a touch of the Red Queen in the way she bosses and manages the kitten. It is easy to laud her impertinence in the face of the tyrannical characters she meets in her fantasies, but does she risk becoming just like them?
As a story of moral self-fashioning, Alice through the Looking Glass cuts both ways. It is at once a critique of the Victorian social straitjacket, and a child’s fable about self-improvement. To be accorded the status of queen and with it the freedom of the board is also to be invested with responsibilities. If the human girl is the queen of species, how will she measure up? The published version of the story excludes an episode known to editors as “The Wasp in a Wig,” an encounter that takes place as Alice reaches the last ditch before the square upon which she will be crowned. She is about to jump the stream when she hears a sigh from woods behind her. Someone here is very unhappy, and she reasons with herself about whether there is any point in stopping to help. Once she has made the leap, there will be no going back, but she is reluctant to delay the move, as she is “very anxious to be a Queen” (309). The sigh comes from an aged creature in the shape of a wasp, who is sitting in the cold wind, grumbling to himself. Her kind enquiries are greeted with a succession of waspish retorts, but she persists and does not leave until she has cheered him up. The few minutes devoted “to making the poor old creature comfortable,” she tells herself, have been well spent.
Read in isolation, the episode is trite and interferes with the momentum of the story. Carroll abandoned it on the advice of his illustrator John Tenniel, who wrote to say it didn’t interest him in the least (297). There is interest of another kind in Carroll’s instinct to arrest Alice’s momentum at that critical stage, with what amounts to a small morality tale, but Tenniel’s instinct was surely right. The mirror as a social object is surrounded by traditions of self-fashioning that are governed by various modes of conformity: moral, aesthetic, political. Traditions of myth and fantasy allow wider imaginative scope for the role of the mirror, and by association, for inventive speculation about human transformation in a world prone to extraordinary upheavals.
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