The Croquet Game

Even if he’s known for his Alices, Lewis Carroll privately produced and printed a huge amount of pamphlets, writings and pieces. Among the over two hundred pamphlets, twenty of them are the reinvention of original games, as he seemed to have a knack for finding new and original ways of playing old games. The complete […]

Even if he’s known for his Alices, Lewis Carroll privately produced and printed a huge amount of pamphlets, writings and pieces. Among the over two hundred pamphlets, twenty of them are the reinvention of original games, as he seemed to have a knack for finding new and original ways of playing old games. The complete collection of these writings was published in 1996 under the title The Universe in a Handkerchief: Lewis Carroll’s Mathematical Recreations, Games, Puzzles, and Word Play by Martin Gardner, the same author of the Annotated Alice I’ve been consulting since the beginning of this series of pieces.

The Universe in a Handkerchief: Lewis Carroll’s Mathematical Recreations, Games, Puzzles, and Word Play by Martin Gardner

Among these writings, there’s a set of rules for Castle Croquet, a game he played with the Liddel sisters, but don’t think we’re looking at a parody, here. As this website clearly points out:

Castle Croquet, by way of contrast, is a serious variation of the standard game, and, as the reader quickly will see, presents a more complex set of strategic problems than does ordinary croquet.

But what is ordinary croquet and how is it played? Let’s see.

1. The Croquet Game

1.1. Regular Croquet

The description of the game as we intend it nowadays can be found first in the set of rules registered by Isaac Spratt, a London toy dealer who was producing equipment for both croquet and badminton and was highly influential in standardizing both. His pamphlet on the rules of croquet was registered in November 1856 with the Stationers’ Company in London and by 1860 the game was one of the most popular games played in Britain. The game quickly became a meeting ground for both sexes to meet, as it could be played outdoor by women without impediments, and was often used as an excuse for courting and exchanging ideas freely. While cricket and football stayed on as sports for men, a prejudice we’re still trying to debunk nowadays, croquet and tennis were viewed more favourably as sports that women could play without fear of being considered inappropriate.
According to this excellent article, croquet also had a role in changing fashion: women, who were wearing long dresses with wide skirts, were accused of cheating, particularly by men who found themselves out-played, and it was believed that women were using their skirts to move the ball. Women’s skirts got shorter, allowing the scandalous reveal of feet and even ankles. Wild times.


There are apparently different theories on the origin of croquet and if you’re curious you should take a look at Nicky Smith’s Queen of Games: The History of Croquet.
A first theory of course considers the hypothesis that the game came from France in the span between 1660 and 1685, when Charles II was put back on the throne by the so-called Restauration. That game back in the day was called paille-maille, coming from a Latin meaning ball and mallet and akin to the French variant jeu de mail. This was the preferred theory until a few decades ago and was supported by the 1977 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

This is how the game is described in Samuel Johnson‘s Dictionary published in 1755:

“A play in which the ball is struck with a mallet through an iron ring”

This is how paille-maille is later described in the 1801 book The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt:

“Pale-maille is a game wherein a round box [wood] ball is struck with a mallet through a high arch of iron, which he that can do at the fewest blows, or at the number agreed upon, wins. It is to be observed, that there are two of these arches, that is one at either end of the alley. The game of mall was a fashionable amusement in the reign of Charles the Second, and the walk in Saint James’s Park, now called the Mall, received its name from having been appropriated to the purpose of playing at mall, where Charles himself and his courtiers frequently exercised themselves in the practice of this pastime.”

According to a second theory, the game didn’t come from France but from Ireland (in either cases, Britain didn’t invent anything) and it’s not as old as the first theory suggests: it was a game originally played on the beach and arrived around 1850, right before being rendered popular by Spratt and his pals.
Supporters of the first theory and supporters of the second one do not talk to each other based on principle.

The basic principle of croquet is that you have to hit wooden balls with a mallet and have them pass through hoops. The rules, however, are far from being simple and there are a lot of variations that make it a strategic game. Each player in fact can hit both his own and his opponent’s balls, to score points and, at the same time, to reduce the opponent’s chances of scoring points by positioning his bowls at the end of the game. The balls have to go through a certain path, under hoops and across the greenfield, and at the end of their path they have to hit a picket.
The game ends in two possible ways: when one of the players finish the path with their ball or when a player scores a certain amount of points.

The standard croquet equipment include:

  • two stakes;
  • nine wickets;
  • six balls;
  • six mallets.

1.2. Castle Croquet

As a mathematician and a passionate chess player, Carroll jumps at the occasion of dealing with the complex configurations that the balls can have on a field and of course, being Carroll, he introduces a rich narrative into the rules. The pamphlet was published anonymously by Carroll in 1863 and republished in August 1867 in Aunt Judy’s Magazine. A full version of the rules was published in the US by Abercrombie & Finch and a copy can be purchased here.

What follows is the original text, at least I think, but an extended description can be found here, for which I’m taking the glossary below.

1.2.1. Castle Croquet Glossary

The kingdom (the entire playing area) consists of five territories: four castles and Open Land. (See illustration.) Each castle consists of a tower (the stake), an archway (the hoop closest to the stake), and the gate (the hoop furthest from the stake). The area in the middle of the kingdom, between all the gates, is Open Land.

A Guard in his own castle is said to be “on duty”; the Knight in his own castle is said to be “at home.” A Knight or Guard inside an opponent’s castle is called an “intruder”.

The shot you take on your turn is called a “stroke”; you are said to “strike” your ball, and the ball that makes contact with your mallet during your turn is called the “striker.” Players “strike” a ball; balls “hit” other balls. Your turn consists of one stroke on your Guard and one on your Knight, with additional strokes allowed (under most circumstances) for passing through hoops and hitting other balls.

When a striker hits another ball, that ball is “dead” to the striker only–the striker can not hit that ball again until the striker passes through an appropriate hoop.

A page photographed here.

1.2.2. Castle Croquet Original Rules

I. This game requires 8 balls, 8 arches, and 4 pegs: 4 of the balls are called “soldiers”; the other “sentinels.” The arches and pegs are set up as in the figure, making 4 “castles,” and each player has a castle, a soldier, and a sentinel. Before the game begins, each player places his sent within a mallet’s length of his peg, and does the same with his soldier when his turn comes to play.
(N.B. The distance from one gate to the next should be 6 or 8 yards, and the distance from the gate to the door, or from the door to the peg, 2 or 3 yards.)

II. If a sentinel goes through the gate of his castle, in the direction from his peg, he is said to “leave” the castle; when next he goes through it in the opposite direction, he is said to “re-enter” it, and son on. A sentinel, that has not left his castle, is said to be “on duty”; if he leaves it, he is said to be “off duty”; if he re-enters it, to be “on duty” again, and so on.

III. To begin the game, the owner of Castle No. 1 places and plays his soldier, and then plays his sentinel; then the owner of Castle No. 2, and so on. Each player has to bring his soldier out of his castle (by playing it through the gate)m, and with it “invade” the other castles in order (e.g., No. 3 has to invade castles 4, 1, 2), re-enter his own castle, and lastly, touch his peg, his sentinel being “on duty” at the time; and whoever does all this first, wins. To “invade” a castle, the soldier must enter at the gate, go through the door (either way), touch the peg, and go out at the gate again.

IV. If an invading soldier touch, or be touched by, the sentinel “on duty” of the castle he is invading, he becomes “prisoner,” and is place behind the peg. He may be released by the sentinel going “off duty,” or by his own sentinel “on duty” coming and touching the peg: in the latter case, his sentinel is at once replaced as at the beginning of the game. The released soldier is “in hand” till his next turn, when he is placed as at the beginning of the game.

V. When a soldier goes through an arch, or touches a peg, “in order,” or when a sentinel takes a prisoner, he may be played again. Also when a sentinel leaves, or re-enters, his castle, he may be played again, but may not exercise either of these privileges twice in one turn.

VI. If the ball played touch another (neither of them being a sentinel “on duty”), the player may “take two” off the ball so touched, but must not move it in doing so. If, however, the ball so touched be his won sentinel, “off duty,” he may take a croquet of any kind, as in the ordinary game. He may not “take two,” or take a croquet twice in one turn off the same ball, unless he has meanwhile gone through an arch, or touched a peg “in order.”

N.B. The following arrangement of the 8 balls as soldiers and sentinels will be found convienent:

  • Castle Soldier Sentinel
  • I Blue Pink
  • II Black Yellow
  • III Brown Orange
  • IV Green Red

1.2.2. Castle Croquet: Advice to the Player

There are two distance methods of play, which you may adopt in this game, and each has its own special advantages: the one consists in keeping your sentinel “on duty”; the other, in bringing it “off duty.”

In the first method, your sentinel remains constantly at home, except when your soldier is in danger of being taken prisoner, when it is played up to the peg of the castle you are invading, so as to be ready to release your soldier. In this method, the best position for your sentinel is opposite to the centre of your gate, and a ball’s width from it, so that if a soldier, trying to invade your castle, should touch it, it must have a previously passed through the gate. From this position it is easy to take a prisoner in any part of your castle by the following rule:–Play your sentinel just through the gate; this gives you another turn, in which you play it in again, getting as near as possible to the invading soldier; this gives you another turn, in which you may take it prisoner. The same process may be employed for playing your sentinel up to the peg of the castle you are invading, if it should happen that you cannot play it straight for the peg. This process, however, must not be employed when you have a prisoner in your castle, as it would be released by your sentinel going out.

In the second method, your sentinel keeps with your soldier: when playing your soldier, you carry the sentinel along with it, through one or more arches, by taking “loose croquets” or “split strokes”; and when your soldier can do no more, you either play your sentinel close up to it, ready for the next turn, or, if you soldier is in danger of being taken prisoner, you “take two” off it, getting as close as possible to the enemy’s sentinel in the first stroke, and driving it to a safe distance in the second.

The first method is the safest, when any of the other players is better than yourself, as it enables you to prevent his entering your castle and so to delay him; but as soon as all the players, whom you have reason to fear, have passed through your castle, you had better bring your sentinel “off duty,” and help on your soldier.

The second method enables you to make rapid progress in invading the other castles: you can also take prisoners almost as easily as in the first method, by “taking two” off your soldier, getting near your gate in the first stroke, and entering your castle in the second; this gives you another turn, in which you may take a prisoner. It has, however, the disadvantage of loss of time if your soldier should be made a prisoner, as in this case your sentinel has to got home, get “on duty,” and return, before it can release your soldier.

If your soldier is taken prisoner, and you release it by touching the enemy’s peg with your sentinel, you are in a position in which you may often retard the other players: first, by placing your sentinel (which is done directly after the release) in a line between your peg and an invading soldier which is aiming at it; secondly, by placing your soldier (which is done when your next turn comes) close to your sentinel, playing it so as to drive your sentinel in the direction of an invading soldier, and then taking it prisoner.

It evidently follows from this that, when you have taken yourself a prisoner, and happen to be invading the castle from which it came, you should not wait till the enemy’s sentinel has touched your peg and so released the prisoner, but you should yourself release it (as soon as the enemy’s sentinel has nearly reached your peg) by playing your own sentinel out through your gate and in again: in this case the sentinel, which was on its way to your peg, cannot be carried back at once, but must be played all the way home.

In “taking two” off a ball you may, if you choose, play your own ball so as only just to move it, and then strike it in the direction of the other, and thus drive it a distance. This has nearly the same effect as the “loose croquet” of the ordinary game, but with this difference, that it does not give the right of playing again.

If a soldier, about to invade your castle, is lying near your gate, you may take it prisoner thus:

–Play your sentinel out, near the soldier; then hit it with your sentinel, and “take two” off it, so as only just to move your ball, taking care to have the soldier in a line between your sentinel and your gate; then drive both in together; this gives you another turn, in which you may take it prisoner.

2. The Queen of Hearts’ Croquet

Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life: it was all ridges and furrows: the croquet balls were live hedgehogs, and the mallets live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches.

Carroll’s original illustration

In Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the mallets were ostriches, instead of flamingos, but the main concept stays the same: the game is made weird not only by the usage of live animals, one common and one exotic, but also by the nature of the players.

[They] all played at once, without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very sort time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting “Off with his head!” or “Off with her head!” about once in a minute.

John Tenniel (1889)

John Tenniel, above, decides to capture the moment when Alice and the flamingo look at each other and so does Arthur Rackham, below, but the pose of Rackham is of course more refined and better conveys the idea of general weirdness.

Arthur Rackham (1907)

Illustrations of this scene can be divided into roughly two or three categories: the ones focusing on just Alice, like Tenniel and Rackham above, the ones featuring Alice and the Queen close together in an occurrence that doesn’t happen in the book, mixing her up with the Duchess, and the ones with the general scene, sometimes featuring the appearance of the Cheshire Cat (see next post) and sometimes not.

2.0. Just Alice

Moritz Kennel follows in the footsteps of Rackham and Tenniel and gives us his characteristics Alice, with her hat, quietly trying to convince her flamingo to hit a dismal-looking hedgehog.

Moritz Kennel (1975)

If you’re looking for something different, take a look at Renee Nault‘s work. She’s an amazing illustrator and she worked on a graphic novel for Margaret Atwood’s celebrated Handmaid’s Tale, and she gives us this allegory of a killer Queen with flamingos, edgehogs and cards flying around, prepared for the collective exhibition Curiouser: Contemporary Art Inspired by Alice in Wonderland at the Fifty Fifty Arts Collective in Victoria, BC. Keep an eye on her Etsy shop.

Renee Nault

2.1. The Croquet Game

Among the ones featuring the general scene, I have to applaud Blanche McManus, the first illustrator after Tenniel, who decides to give us a twist on the fact that hoops are played by the Queen’s subjects: since they’re playing cards, almost everyone always depicts them as flat, as you see Elena Bazanova below.

Elena Bazanova

Blanche McManus opts for something different, which means the whole scene is even more ridiculous and relatable: the queen bullies her subjects into playing the hoops while bending over in a completely undignified position. Also, the flamingo doesn’t look happy at all.

Blanche McManus (1899)

2.2. Alice and the Duchess

Among the ones featuring Alice and the Duchess in close quarters, one of my favourites is the one by Gwynedd M. Hudson, with an amazing first-plane shot of fantastic heart-shaped flowers in black and red. In the background, the Queen’s Castle is of course a castle of cards and you can also see, on the right, a group of other card figures and what looks like a playfield tent, also made of cards.

Gwynedd M. Hudson (1922)

Agnes Richardson shows them together too, with a style that reminds a lot of Maria Kirt and Mabel Lucie Attwell. I love the headress of the Duchess, though she could really use a better designer for her clothes.

Agnes Richardson

Their intimate attitude might come from a specific passage in the book, when the Cheshire Cat asks Alice if she likes the Queen and this is her answer:

“Not at all! She’s so extremely-” Just then she noticed the Queen was close behind her, listening, so she went on: “-likely to win, that it’s hardly worth while finishing the game”.

That’s probably why lots of authors give her a nosy attitude, like in this other illustration by Alexander Koshkin. Still, this is not how it happens and that character is the Duchess from the following chapter.

Alexander Koshkin (2006)

A much more stern queen is looking upon Alice in this drawing by Iassen Ghiuselev, which I feel gives a much more accurate representation of what’s happening here.

Iassen Ghiuselev (2000)

We have already seen a beautiful one by Thomas Robinson when we talked about the Queen.

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