A Dream That Tells The Truth: Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland offers a fanciful study in dreaming that provokes the question of whether Wonderland is merely a dream from which we may at any time awaken. What makes the film great, though, is the follow-up question as to whether it being a dream even matters. At its core, Alice in Wonderland provokes us to consider a dream that tells the truth.
“Curious-er and curious-er:” This is the heartbeat of life in Wonderland. At the outset of her foray into this strange world, Alice is obliged to contemplate her powers of observation, to question whether what she is seeing is real or just a figment of her imagination. Alice is quickly drawn into the curious nature of her environment, which to her is uncanny, like something forgotten and yet remembered, something foreign and yet revelatory. The Mad Hatter helps us resolve these paradoxes when he says to Alice, “Well, if I’m part of your dream, and I’m half mad, that means that you must be half-mad to have dreamt me up!” In this we come to understand that Wonderland is a dream that tells Alice something true about herself. The path to this self-knowledge, however, is perilous, and the film does not equivocate in expressing Alice’s risk of losing herself in the dream. Even so, Alice—and the viewerare exhorted to find their “muchness,” or a courage of imagination, and to be willing to dream nonetheless.

One of the more fascinating themes of the film, and the culmination of the dream motif, is in the “Oraculum,” a scroll that shows what will happen during each day of Wonderland, past, present, and future. The Oraculum is fascinating because of its allusion to a long-standing tradition of dream-theory. In the middle ages, a philosopher named Macrobius wrote a treatise about dreams, categorizing them according to their varying characteristics. One such category was termed “Oraculum”—from the same roots as our term ‘oracle’—and referred to a dream that tells accurate information of the future. As such, when the film refers to this idea, it is making the provocative claim to its modern audience that not all dreams are fictions. In the world of the film, prophecy is portrayed as a type of dreaming, but a dream that tells true things about the world.

A film that dwells so much on dreams would be incomplete if it didn’t include something about what it means to wake up. For Alice, the departure from Wonderland brings her back into ‘the real world.’ This is where the film is at its most profound. Alice takes what she has learned about herself and the world during her time in Wonderland and lets it meaningfully inform how she thinks and acts. It is in this that the film vindicates the fanciful and pays homage to the positive impact that wonder can have. Without spoiling the plot, the film ends with the sentiment that all the greatest people of history were dreamers, were half-mad, were willing to live with one foot in our world and one in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland is about how the imagination can tell us truth; it is a dream that shows us something real. It joins a respectable tradition of Christian thinkers who thought that our imaginations are a gift, something that can teach us and add to our joy. To put it simply, Alice in Wonderland helps us to practice wonderment, to see the seemingly impossible beauty in the world around us.

Published by

Hayden Butler

Hayden Butler is an ardent student of Literature. He is passionate about the role of narrative as a cultural device, and believes that the careful study and enjoyment of story can make us deeper and more virtuous as Christians and as human beings. He recieved his B.A. in English Literature at Biola University, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the Inez McGahey Award for Literary Scholarship. He graduated from the Torrey Honors Institute, attaining to the Order of Peter and Paul. Hayden’s academic interests include critical theory, metaphysical poetry, and philosophy of education. Outside of the classroom, he is a student of martial arts and oil painting, loves a good cup of tea, and owns an embarrassing number of Star Wars novels. He seeks to live an examined life in peace and beauty. He currently teaches AP Literature and Geometry at Capistrano Valley Christian High School and works as a waiter at a Victorian Tea House.

  • http://www.dismantledthoughts.com Renee Bolinger

    Nice insight- I didn’t catch the significance of the name of the Oraculum. I wonder though what is the significance of Alice’s inability to escape the dream? The film seems to emphasize that though she considers Wonderland merely a product of her mind, none of the usual tricks work. Also there’s the line of realization, where Alice states “they weren’t dreams… they were memories!” I don’t know what to make of that, unless possibly the story is arguing that the proper way of responding to a dream is to treat it as a real past, like memories.

  • Hayden Butler


    I viewed Alice’s inability to “wake” herself as a suggestion that Wonderland is, in fact, not a dream in the “figment-of-my-imagination” sense. Even if it were, however, there is that line by the Mad Hatter to consider, and the implication that even if Wonderland is a pure fiction, it still tells Alice something true.

    Oh! And the memories motif slipped my mind. I’m off to think about that now…

  • T.A.Carroll

    I like the point about the Oraculum and especially the place of the creative imagination. I worry, however, that interpreting Wonderland as dream does an injustice to the story. The transport in and out of Underland argues for the reality of parallel worlds which, while they may also appear in dreams (indeed nightmares), are themselves ‘true worlds’. This (like magical realism) asks for the belief in the impossible (at least six time before breakfast), not just a greater evaluation of dream and imagination.

  • Hayden Butler


    I may not have been overt about this, but I completely agree with your concern for the preservation of parallel worlds. In fact, much of the point of my comments was to move away from a pejorative view of dreaming (i.e. seeing them as non-realities) so to help people understand just how excellent an idea Wonderland is. I think that wonderland is a dream insofar as it is that very occupation of the impossible, but that it accesses reality and has bearing on other worlds.

    In short, I agree with you.

  • http://www.aangamik.net/ Elayne Tuholski

    What a post!! Very informative also easy to understand. Looking for more such posts!! Do you have a twitter or a facebook?
    I recommended it on digg. The only thing that it’s missing is a bit of speed, the pictures are appearing slowly. Anyway thank you for this blog.

  • Melisa Urbina

    Except that you’re talking about the 2010 film and in that film Wonderland isn’t a dream and they outright state it at one point clearing up Alice’s, as well as the viewers’, confusion on whether it is all a dream or not. Absolem helps clear that up for Alice reminding her that when she first arrived at Underland she was a small stupid girl and, having misheard the proper name of the place, she mistakenly referred to it as Wonderland. In this film adaption, “Wonderland” is not meant to be a dream but instead a magical world where Alice is given the chance, through all of the crazy occurrences she goes through from the moment she arrives until the moment she leaves, to grow up enough to be able to decide exactly who she wants to be in life without giving in to what everybody else wants for her. In this film, her trip to Wonderland helps her to answer and address all of the questions and problems she is presented with before she falls through the rabbit hole (i.e. finding out Margaret is being cheated on, seeing the bad shape Imogen is in and not wanting to end up like her, and Hamish asking for her hand in marriage). The conversation Alice and Absolem have before her fight with the Jabberwocky about Underland being real and her nightmares being memories is supported by three scenes towards the close of the movie. Unlike in the two books about Alice and Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll, when Alice returns from Wonderland in this film she is seen climbing out of the rabbit hole instead of waking up from a slumber. You could say that in the film the rabbit hole is somewhat like a portal to the land of Wonderland. In the final scene that Alice shares with Lord Ascot you can visibly see the very real claw marks that the Red Queen’s beast left on Alice’s arm which wouldn’t be there if the ambush had all been a part of a dream. In the final scene of the movie as Alice is preparing to sail to China, a blue butterfly lands on her shoulder and she greets it by saying “Hello, Absolem”. This take for the 2010 version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was somewhat criticized at the time by people who did not like that it broke away from the books. The film, for the most part, specially broke away from the dream aspect of the books. The books beg the questions “Is Wonderland a dream?” and “If Wonderland is a dream what does this dream mean?” while Tim Burton’s film adaption is more like a coming of age story for Alice Kingsleigh in which her trip to Wonderland helps her to choose between becoming her own person and living her own life or being the person everyone else expects her to be and living the life her mother and sister have planned out for her. If you wanted to write an article about dreams, what dreams could mean, and whether the fact that they’re dreams matters or not in referrence to Alice and to Wonderland you should have simply stuck to the books. The books have a much deeper meaning and Through the Looking Glass’ ending goes even beyond simply begging the question “Is Wonderland a dream?” by making Alice and the viewer ponder “What if life itself is a dream and we are all the figment of someone’s imagination?”. Your article was very well written but the points you are making, or trying to make, are completely negated by the fact that they outright state that everything Alice has gone through in Wonderland (properly called Underland) is not a dream. Your article fails from the start because it’s based on something that is incorrect concerning the movie.

    By the way, you could try to argue that when Alice returns to the engagement party and speaks to the twin girls she negates the whole Wonderland not being a dream thing by saying “you remind me of twin boys I met in a dream” but not really because she doesn’t have the time as she’s trying to make a quick exit, nor that people would believe her, to tell them exactly where and how she met Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.