[In the spirit of just discovering the Radio production of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere starring James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch (among many other greats), I present an essay on Neverwhere, which is over a year old, but which is no less relevant. And if you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Neverwhere. Or go listen to their reading of it because it is just brilliant.]
A male character, presumably middle aged, and the largest authority of the unknown in the story, offers himself up. He does it for the sole purpose of gaining what is needed to help others. He is beat up, hung on a cross, and killed. Some time later (perhaps even three days later), he is brought back to life. Sound familiar? This description is apt for the death of the Marquis de Carabas in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. But it is also a story so familiar that we celebrate it every year with chocolate eggs. The magic of Neil Gaiman is that he weaves other stories into his own so intricately that we hardly even notice they are there.
My all time favorite passage in the book is another such circumstance. Towards the beginning of the book, Door announces that the group is searching for an angel called Islington. At this point, Richard begins to laugh. The narrator describes the laugh: “There was hysteria in there, certainly, but there was also the exhustion of someone who had managed, somehow, to believe several dozen impossible things in the last twenty-four hours, without even getting a proper breakfast” (133). Now, Gaiman’s descriptive and witty writing style is such that this particular description does not stand out as extraordinary in any capacity…unless you are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or the movie of the same name directed by Tim Burton and released in 2010. The movie pulls references from both Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Carroll, so for these purposes it may be a more comprehensive source. It is a reoccurring line in the movie that one should always believe in twelve impossible things before breakfast. This motto becomes essential to the movie when Alice slays the jabberwocky in the end, and so for Gaiman to weave it into his narrative so cleverly is nothing short of supremely impressive.
The parallels between Alice in Wonderland and Neverwhere, however, do not stop at the mention of twelve impossible things. While it is by no means simply a re-telling of the old story, there are a few similarities. For starters, Alice arrives in Wonderland by falling down the rabbit hole. London Below is, well, below. You must go down to get there (generally speaking). And if you go even further down, via Down Street, you arrive at an even more impossible location. Richard arrives in London Below as completely flummoxed as Alice. All either character wants to do is return home, to the safety and sanity of their familiar routine. However, both characters’ lives in the above world are predictable at best. Both characters have people telling them what to do, who to be, and how to behave, as well as what to do with the rest of their boring, predictable lives. Neither character seems to have the will or the gall to stand up and say, “Hold on now, this is my life and I’m going to live it the way I want.” Nevertheless, upon arrival in the mysterious worlds below England, they both just want to go home.
However, the other characters that are native to the underground worlds seem to know better. They know that for one reason or another, Alice and Richard will each be essential to their quest. Alice’s friends, particularly the Mad Hatter, know that she is to be the champion for the White Queen and slay the jabberwocky, a dreaded and imaginative monster. The Mad Hatter also continuously remarks on how Alice has lost her “muchness,” for which I believe we can substitute the word “moxi.” Through the course of the adventure, however, Alice somewhat reluctantly comes into her own, finds her moxi, and proves that she is the Champion, not only for the White Queen, but for herself and her own life.
Richard Mayhew experiences something similar. Strangers remark that he is the hero, they can tell by looking at him, but he also has very little moxi. As the story progresses, Richard too seems to find his ‘muchness’. He proves to be essential to gaining the key, as well as to slaying the imaginative monster of this Wonderland: the Beast of London. In the end, he too realizes that he can have more than the predictable life that is set out for him, and seizes the life he wants (though in this case, it is to return to the underground world).
With other smaller similar aspects, such as riddles (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” is a recurring question in Alice, and Door must answer the riddle of the key in order to obtain it), perhaps the largest similarity is the question of sanity. The entire Ordeal of the Key in Neverwhere is nothing more than a question of sanity. Is this all real? Or has he merely gone insane and been wandering the streets of London? In the end, Richard makes the correct choice to embrace the seeming insanity. It is, after all, best to believe in twelve impossible things before breakfast alone. Alice and the Mad Hatter also battle with the question of insanity. In the end, what Carroll is trying to tell us all is best summed up in another repeated line. First it is told to Alice by her father, and then later, she wisely dispenses the same advice to the Hatter. He asks her, “Have I gone mad?” and her sage response is “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” If only someone had been around to point this out to Richard, his Ordeal may not have been so arduous.