“‘Well, Miss Alice, you have looked long and hard at your uncle’s robe. Seen any crimson bears on it?’
She turned. The big black bear was grinning at her. She shook her head. Edgar rose to the bait.
‘There’s no such thing as a crimson bear.’” (The Crimson Bears, 25)
Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland sets a young girl against unconventional magic, creatures, and realms. She walks through Wonderland conversing with its inhabitants, learning of their cultures and customs, and revealing facets about herself in the process. Carrol utilizes this technique, posing real-life experiences through the lens of fantasy, to explore individual psychology and development. Tom La Farge’s The Crimson Bears (a single novel split into two published parts: The Crimson Bears and A Hundred Doors) seeks to do something similar. But where Carrol’s novel focuses on these individual traits, La Farge’s novel focuses on society and its power structures.
The Crimson Bears follows two young bears, Edgar and Alice, as they travel to Bargeton—a large city within their commonwealth. After a brief hitch where a Slizz, a lizard/sheep-like creature, begins ceaselessly following them, they arrive in Bargeton at their uncle’s estate. Here they see his massive amount of wealth and power. His estate is lined with gorgeous fixtures, intricately embroidered robes, a servant who answers quickly to every beck and call, and of course, a good deal of political intrigue. A revolution is on the rise, and the bears, the ruling class, seem to be the target.
While staying at their uncle’s estate, having been told they are to be soon sent home because of the coming revolt, their Slizz takes off and, calling to mind Alice’s initial jump through the rabbit hole, the bears take off after it out of the estate and into the unknown. It’s here that their awakening begins. They meet various groups, all oppressed in some way or another—the porcupine butler used as a servant; the cats of Clowncattown who despise the bears after having been held in subjugation for so long; the Ceruk who, while they initially appear to be oppressors themselves, have a far more complex history than is initially apparent.
The Ceruk themselves are from the same ilk as the Slizz, the difference being that the Ceruk happen to have the ability to talk. They themselves have cast out the Slizz as an inferior breed. While this too seems like a form of subjugation, during the recounting of the history of a Ceruk family Alice and Edgar meet, a brief footnote once again reveals some of Bargeton’s secrets: “The reader must understand that the whole body of law governing the relations of Slizz to Ceruk was framed by the bears” (The Crimson Bears, 201). The hate that the Ceruk hold for the Slizz does not stem from their own biases. Rather, it was a form of infighting that began because of the bears. The intent, however nefarious it may be, does not seem entirely clear. But given how long the world has been at the behest of the bears before this current revolution, one can imagine that it was implemented or “framed” by the bears to distract these groups and force them to fight amongst each other while those in power take the spoils for themselves.
***Spoiler alert*** It is no coincidence that these subjugated groups chose the Crimson Bear, a mythical creature thought not to exist, as the attacking force to start the revolution. While these mythic bears are just assembled machines, the poetic parallel, whether the attacking forces realize it or not, is as important as the revolution itself. The true bears will now be on the receiving end—forced to fight against their own kind due to some fear instigated by an outside group. “Gribo has devised that all the fire is blamed upon the Crimson Bears; and Claudio, like a creature lately blind, hugs still a fixed false image, recks not of changes in the world. To him the Thoog still smile as friends and offer hope of rescue.” (A Hundred Doors, 42). And, when all the fighting is over, the results of this revolution are unclear. Neither group achieves true victory, but it seems that the seeds of change have been planted. ***Spoiler ended***
Finally, La Farge includes many aspects about the importance of art in revolution. We discover the true root of the feud between Ceruk and Slizz because of storytelling, Alice finds a form of solace in literature and, after the revolution is over, while Edgar goes off to explore the world on his own, she begins to write. She likely envisions that a recounting of these events will spur on the next revolution, something with a possibly more immediate and effective outcome. This also might have been La Farge’s goal in writing the novel. Not only does it serve to entertain as a unique fantasy tale, but also as a subtle political work, a call for change.
Having read La Farge’s spiritual sequel to this novel, Zuntig, his artistic intent is becoming clear. He crafts wonderful worlds filled with fantastical elements to help illuminate the various aspects unique to the human condition: fear of death in Zuntig, lust for power in The Crimson Bears. He uses anthropomorphized animals because it forces us to grapple with the odd nature of these structures as they are being attributed to creatures that do not typically display them. It allows us to understand why these structures exist in our world, how we can minimize their unfavorable aspects, and whether we can enhance the good through revolution, art, or general exploration.
Andrew Hermanski is currently a high school English teacher. He has received his Master’s in public health and his B.S. in psychology from the University of Arizona. Although his formal educational background is in the sciences, his love for literature and teaching has led him to pursue a different career path. His focus in literature lies in postmodernist and experimental fiction. In his free time, he also loves to watch movies, cook, write fiction and book reviews, and play video games (and, of course, to spend time with his partner and his cats). Find him on Goodreads, Twitter, or moderating over on the TrueLit subreddit.