Alice's Adventures in the Ural Mountains


August A Imholtz Jr.

A very important entry, but also in part a puzzling one, occurs in Lewis Carroll’s diary for 17 August 1862.  It reads:

In the afternoon Harcourt and I took the three Liddells up to Godstow, where we had tea: we tried the game of “the Ural Mountains” on the way, but it did not prove very successful, and I had to go on with my interminable fairy-tale of ‘Alice’s Adventures.’(1)

The important part, of course, is that Carroll had to go on with “the interminable fairy-tale of ‘Alice’s Adventures,” thus proving, were any proof required, that the tale which became Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was not told in one sitting on the famous 4th of July expedition to Godstow.  

The puzzling matter, however, is what was meant by “the Ural Mountains” game?

In a note on that passage in his edition of Lewis Carroll’s  Diaries, Edward Wakeling shrewdly speculated that “it was probably a word game played mentally” (2) and in a sense, as we shall see, that is the case.

Macmillan’s Magazine of March 1862 contained a short piece called “The Ural Mountains: A New Parlour Game.”  The article was signed E.E.B. and H.S. In this game one player would be chosen as the “judge” and the remainder of the players were divided into two teams, each with its own captain.  Here is how the game was described in that March issue of the  magazine, which was almost certainly read by Carroll.

The game is begun by the captains, one of whom accuses the other of some imaginary crime –  the more absurd the better.  He is then subject to an examination from his antagonist as to the circumstances of the charge, his means of knowing it, the supposed motives, and anything in heaven or earth that may be considered to be in any way connected with it. (p. 409)

That sounds a bit like the proceedings in the Wonderland trial of the Knave of Hearts.  The heart of the game, however, consisted of interrogation and counter-interrogation which were “carried on by each team member in turn, each being responsible for elaborating the charge or defense in a consistent way.  Any inconsistencies are challenged as ‘blots’ and referred to the judge; the side that ends up with the fewest blots wins.”(3)

The game was actually invented by Henry Sidgwick (1838 – 1900), the Cambridge Classical scholar, moral philosopher and economist who was as well  a founder of the Society for Psychical Research .  The account of the game was published by his long-time friend and fellow Cambridge Apostle,  the Classics schoolmaster Edward Ernest Bowen (1836–1901), who gave Sidgwick at least partial credit for it!  We know from a letter Sidgwick sent to his friend Graham Dakyns in March of 1862 that “he had nothing to do with the Macmillan’s article, though he ‘assuredly’ did invent the game.”(4)

Is it indeed surprising that Harcourt and the three Liddell girls did not take to “the Ural Mountains game”?  That surely could have been considered a blot on what was otherwise another enjoyable excursion.

Macmillan's Magazine

This was a monthly British magazine from 1859 to 1907 published by Alexander Macmillan. The magazine was a literary periodical that published fiction and non-fiction works from primarily British authors. Thomas Hughes had convinced Macmillan to found the magazine. The first editor was David Masson; he was replaced in 1865. George Grove edited the magazine beginning in 1873. In its first decade of existence, Frederick Denison Maurice was a prolific contributor.


(1)  Wakeling, Edward. Lewis Carroll’s  Diaries.  Luton: The Lewis Carroll Society, 1997. Vol. 4,   p. 115
(2) Ibid.
(3) Schultz, Bart. Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe. An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p. 34
(4) ibid.

Lewis Carroll Society - Lewis Carroll’s Diaries Vol 1 - 10.

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