Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Alice through the Looking Glass

Alice dressing the White Queen - Tenniel - Six impossible things before breakfast - Dr Sally Basker

Alice a-dressing the White Queen – Tenniel

“Six impossible things before breakfast,” is a quote from ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll. It comes from a conversation between Alice and the White Queen starting with a line from the White Queen (Wikiquote, 2015):

“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”.


At one level, we can see this as just another of Alice’s wacky meetings. But let’s put in in context.

At the start of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (the first book), we learn, “… so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible”.

Alice’s conversation with the White Queen occurs over a third of the way into ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ (the second book). By this time, she has had a series of amazing adventures and meetings:

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Alice In WonderlandAlice Through the Looking Glass
Seen a White Rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and carrying a watch and followed it down a rabbit hole.Travelled through the looking glass (mirror) into the reflected world.
Shrunk by drinking a potion and grown by eating cakeWatched chess pieces walking around on a chess board.
Taken advice from a caterpillar smoking a hookah.Met talking flowers in a beautiful garden and seen the countryside set out like a chess board.
Made friends with a grinning, vanishing, Cheshire Cat.Taken part in a chess game with its own peculiar rules.
Attended a mad tea-party with the Mad Hatter, Dormouse and March Hare.Met Tweedledum and Tweedledee and prepared them for battle.
Played croquet with the Queen of Hearts using live flamingoes and hedgehogsMet the White Queen who lives backwards and has a memory that works both ways so she can remember things in the future.

So, after all she’s has been through, why can’t Alice believe one impossible thing, let alone six impossible things before breakfast?

The Looking Glass Chess Game

One of the big differences between Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass is the game that’s played: croquet is played in Wonderland using live flamingos and hedgehogs; while chess is played in Looking Glass.

Lewis Carroll describes Alice’s reaction to the Red Queen’s chess game:

“… her heart began to beat in excitement as she went on. ‘It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played  – all over the world – if this IS the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I WISH I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join – though of course I should LIKE to be a Queen, best.’

So, she’s desperate to play, is willing to start as a Pawn and ambitious to become a Queen. The Queen recruits Alice as a Pawn; she starts in the Second Square but she’ll be a Queen when she gets to the Eighth Square. The Queen then goes through an elaborate process of giving her directions that outline ownership and environmental challenges:

“A pawn goes two squares in its first move, you know. So you’ll go VERY quickly through the Third Square – by railway, I should think – and you’ll find yourself in the Fourth Square in no time. Well, THAT square belongs to Tweedledum and Tweedledee – the Fifth is mostly water – the Sixth belongs to Humpty Dumpty … the Seventh Square is all forest – however, one of the Knights will show you the way – and in the Eighth Square we shall be Queens together, and it’s all feasting and fun!”

During this, Alice is admonished for not thanking the Queen for these directions. She is then told to

“Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing (jargon?) – turn out your toes as you walk (process?) – and remember who you are (play your role and/or know your place?)!”

Alice’s first journey to the Fourth Square is all about value (of time, land and products – smoke from the engine) as well as the rules, ignorance and the benefits of advice from an older mentor. There are also lessons about understanding others, names, and teams.

While on the Fourth Square with Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Alice hears a cautionary tale about character when we hears how the Walrus and the Carpenter manipulate the Oysters to come for a walk … and then eat them. We then prepare for a bout of infighting (Tweedledum vs Tweedledee) over a child’s rattle with the potential for collateral damage to the trees.

When Alice finally meets the White Queen she learns about yet another rule, “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”

From impossible to innovation

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have linked ‘impossible’ and ‘innovation’:

‘Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible’ – Albert Einstein.

‘It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible’ – Arthur C Clarke.

‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong’ – Arthur C Clarke.

‘Impossibility is only the figment of an insufficient imagination’ – Walt Disney.

So, we might suggest that believing the impossible and attempting the absurd are the fuel of innovation and that the barriers include an over-abundance of structure, formality, constraints, rules, roles and ambition.

Believing one and perhaps as many as six impossible things before breakfast sounds like good training for innovation.

Where will you start?



Wikiquote (2015) Through the Looking Glass. (website) [accessed 6 April 2015]
Psychology Today (2015) Unconscious. (website) [accessed 6 April 2015]
Tenniel J – Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Source: Wikipedia
Tenniel, J – Alice a-dressing the White Queen. Source: The Victorian Web,

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