Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Alice in Wonderland: Rule 42

owc-banner.jpgI’m going to digress for a moment but I promise it will all come around to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (another great cult classic like Alice) the answer to “the great question… of Life, the Universe and Everything is…forty two.” The better question of course, is what the great question is. The great computer Deep Thought says, “So once you know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.”

Now why am I talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when this is a discussion group about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Good question!

On page 105, the King invokes rule 42, “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.” The King wants Alice, who at the point has grown surprisingly large, to leave the court. Yet she fights back with logic,

Alice says, “…that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”
“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.
“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.

This scene immediately made me think of Douglas Adams‘s great answer, also 42. A little googling and I learned that the number 42 was significant to Lewis Carroll. The first Alice book had 42 illustrations! Do you think Douglas Adams chose 42 from Alice in Wonderland? What other meanings does the number 42 have?

Discuss…

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Morgan

    I had always believed that Adams answer was based on the significance in numerology of the numbers 6 and 7; often identified with the Devil, no.6 and God, no,7. The figure 42 could then be considered as the product of good versus evil. Carroll’s ‘oldest rule in the book’ however would seem to be closer to Adam’s sense of humour.

  2. Tony Geraghty

    If I remember correctly, it was the producer of the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who suggested 42 as the answer to life, the universe and everything. And yes, it was a link with Lewis Carroll.

    There is also another piece by Carroll which was written when he was 42. The Hunting of the Snark has, as one character, the Baker who had 42 boxes (which were left behind on the beach). One of the illustrations shows a number of boxes piled on a beach, one of which is clearly labelled as No. 42.

  3. Bruce Johnson

    The proof is even stronger — The first sign I’ve found is that original HHGTG radio plays were divided into “fits”, the term Carroll used for the chapters of the “Hunting of the Snark”

    As for Carroll — here is his most complex (and most often missed!) play on “42″ – from chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland.

    “I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is–oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!”

    The Anotated Alice points out how Alice’s calculations WORK… but note how the key is that base 42 does NOT work:

    Four times 5 is 12 in base 18. Four times 6 is 13 in base 21. If you keep going that way, increasing the base by 3, the product keeps increasing by one until you get to 20. Four times 13 is not 20 in a base of 42, but 1 followed by whatever symbol you are using for 10.

    4 x 5 = 12 base 18
    4 x 6 = 13 base 21
    4 x 7 = 14 base 24
    4 x 8 = 15 base 27
    4 x 9 = 16 base 30
    4 x 10 = 17 base 33
    4 x 11 = 18 base 36
    4 x 12 = 19 base 39
    4 x 13 = 1* base 42

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *