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The Red Queen is a fictional character in Lewis Carroll's fantasy novella, Through the Looking-Glass.


With a motif of Through the Looking-Glass being representations of the game of chess, the Red Queen could be viewed as an antagonist in the story as she is the queen for the side opposing Alice. Despite this, their initial encounter is a cordial one, with the Red Queen explaining the rules of Chess concerning promotion — specifically that Alice is able to become a queen by starting out as a pawn and reaching the eighth square at the opposite end of the board. As a queen in the game of Chess, the Red Queen is able to move swiftly and effortlessly.

Later, in Chapter 9, she appears with the White Queen, posing a series of typical Wonderland/Looking-Glass questions ("Divide a loaf by a knife: what's the answer to that?"), and then celebrating Alice's promotion from pawn to queen. When that celebration goes awry, Alice turns upon the Red Queen, whom she "considers as the cause of all the mischief", and shakes her until the queen morphs into Alice's pet kitten. In doing this, Alice presents an end game, awakening from the dream world of the looking glass, by both realizing her hallucination and symbolically "taking" the Red Queen in order to checkmate the Red King.

Confusion with the Queen of Hearts

The Red Queen is commonly mistaken for the Queen of Hearts in the story's predecessor, Alice in Wonderland, but in reality shares none of her characteristics other than being a queen. Indeed, Carroll, in his lifetime, made the distinction of the two Queens by saying:

I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion - a blind and aimless Fury.
The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm - she must be formal and strict,
yet not unkindly; pedantic to the 10th degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses![1]

Lewis Carroll, in "Alice on the Stage"

The 1951 animated film Alice in Wonderland perpetuates the long-standing confusion between the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts. In the film, the Queen of Hearts delivers several of the Red Queen's statements, the most notable being based on her "all the ways about here belong to me". Both characters say this to suggest importance and possible arrogance, but in the Red Queen's case it has a double meaning since her status as a Chess-queen means that she can move in any direction she desires.

In both American McGee's Alice and Tim Burton's film adaptation of the books, the characters are also combined, leading to further popular misconception. Also, Jefferson Airplane's song "White Rabbit" contains the lyric "and the Red Queen's off with her head", another instance of the two characters combined or mistaken for one another.

Adaptive uses outside the arts

Red Queen's Hypothesis

The Red Queen's Hypothesis, Red Queen, "Red Queen's race" or "Red Queen Effect" is an evolutionary hypothesis. The term is taken from the Red Queen's race in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. The Red Queen said, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." The Red Queen Principle can be stated thus:

"For an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with."[2]

The hypothesis is intended to explain two different phenomena: the advantage of sexual reproduction at the level of individuals, and the constant evolutionary arms race between competing species. In the first (microevolutionary) version, by making every individual an experiment when mixing mother's and father's genes, sexual reproduction may allow a species to evolve quickly just to hold onto the ecological niche that it already occupies in the ecosystem. In the second (macroevolutionary) version, the probability of extinction for groups (usually families) of organisms is hypothesized to be constant within the group and random among groups.

The paradox of sex — the "cost" of males

Science writer Matt Ridley popularized the term "the red queen" in connection with sexual selection in his book The Red Queen. In the book, Ridley discussed the debate in theoretical biology over the adaptive benefit of sexual reproduction to those species in which it appears. The connection of the Red Queen to this debate arises from the fact that the traditionally accepted theory (Vicar of Bray) only showed adaptive benefit at the level of the species or group, not at the level of the gene (although, it must be added here that the protean 'Vicar of Bray' adaptation is very useful to some species that belong to the lower levels of the food chain). By contrast, a Red-Queen-type theory that organisms are running cyclic arms races with their parasites can explain the utility of sexual reproduction at the level of the gene by positing that the role of sex is to preserve genes that are currently disadvantageous, but that will become advantageous against the background of a likely future population of parasites.

Sex is an evolutionary puzzle. In most sexual species, males make up half the population, yet they bear no offspring directly and generally contribute little to the survival of offspring. In fact, in some species, such as lions, males pose a positive threat to live young fathered by other males (although this could be viewed as a manifestation of Richard Dawkins' so-called selfish gene, whose 'goal' is to reproduce itself, which may as a consequence suppress the reproduction of other genes). In addition, males and females must spend resources to attract and compete for mates. Sexual selection also can favor traits that reduce the fitness of an organism, such as brightly colored plumage in birds of paradise that increases the likelihood for an individual to be noticed by both predators and potential mates (see the handicap principle for more on this). Thus, sexual reproduction can be highly inefficient.

One possible explanation for the fact that nearly all vertebrates are sexual is that sex increases the rate at which adaptation can occur. This is for two reasons. Firstly, if an advantageous mutation occurs in an asexual line, it is impossible for that mutation to spread without wiping out all other lines, which may have different advantageous mutations of their own. Secondly, it mixes up alleles. Some instances of genetic variation might be advantageous only when paired with other mutations, and sex increases the likelihood that such pairings will occur. Also, in asexually reproducing organisms, especially parthenogenetic organisms, mutations conferring an advantageous allele will have to occur twice, before the advantageous allele becomes fixed in the population, resulting in a longer phase where the heterozygote for the disadvantageous allele (relative to the new advantageous allele) is fixed in the population.

For sex to be advantageous for these reasons requires constant selection for changing conditions. One factor that might cause this is the constant arms race between parasites and their hosts. Parasites generally evolve quickly because of their short life cycles. As they evolve, they attack their hosts in a variety of ways. Two consecutive generations might be faced with very different selective pressures. If this change is rapid enough, it might explain the persistence of sex.

See also
  • Evolutionary arms race
  • Chaos theory
  • Punctuated equilibrium
  • Self-organized criticality

In business

“Red Queen marketing” is defined as the business practice of launching new products in order to replace past failed launches while the overall sales of a brand may remain static or growth is less than fully incremental (Donald Kay Riker, 2009)[3]. The concept is important since traditional financial metrics, such as sales and revenue growth, do not adequately describe a company’s efficiency at product development and marketing. In a perfectly efficient development process the sales of a new launch would contribute entirely incremental growth; if that launch simply replaces prior launches, or cannibalizes related brand offerings, the company is practicing a form of Red Queen marketing. Companies that launch new products at an increasingly high rate over time to maintain the status quo are likely practicing Red Queen marketing.

In popular culture

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The 2010 live-action film Alice in Wonderland, fashioned as a sequel to the novel, features Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen.[4] Bonham Carter's head was digitally increased three times its original size on screen.[5] Bonham Carter's character is a combination of the Red Queen, Duchess and the Queen of Hearts,[6]. The Red Queen is the older sister of the White Queen, and her first name, Iracebeth, is a play on the word "irascible," as she is easily irritated and quick to anger. She also hates animals, choosing to use them as furniture.[7] She is madly in love with the leader of her army, the Knave of Hearts, and has executed her husband the King for fear that he would leave her. She frequently throws temper tantrums with deadly results, generally ending with cries of "Off with his/her/their/your head!" The White Queen theorizes she has a tumor pressing against her brain, explaining both her large head and her deranged behavior. The film implies that Iracebeth is jealous of her sister, whom her subjects genuinely love.

Carter has said that she based her performance on her toddler-aged daughter.[8]

In the video game adaptation of the film, she plays a minor role, first appearing as a mere illustration. She is not seen in person until near the end of the game, first playing croquet and beheading the hedgehogs she uses as balls whenever they miss their target at her castle, and then again both before and after the battle with the Jabberwocky.


  1. Gardner, Martin; Lewis Carroll (1998). The Annotated Alice. Random House. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-517-18920-7.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  2. The Red Queen Principle
  3. OTC Product News, April 24, 2009
  4. Kit, Borys (October 24, 2008). "Crispin Glover joins Alice in Wonderland". The Hollywood Reporter (Nielsen Business Media). Retrieved October 25, 2008. [dead link]
  5. Topel, Fred (December 19, 2008). "Alan Rickman talks about Alice in Wonderland". Retrieved February 21, 2010.  External link in |work= (help)
  6. "The inhabitants of 'Alice in Wonderland'". USA Today. Gannett Company. June 23, 2009. Retrieved January 9, 2010. 
  7. Salisbury, Mark (March 2010). "Alice in Wonderland: The curious one that will get the kids screaming...". Total Film (Future Publishing). 
  8. Laws, Roz (March 5, 2010). "Film: Johnny Depp on magic, madness and The Wiggles". Birmingham Mail. Trinity Mirror Midlands Limited. Retrieved March 7, 2010. 

Further reading

  • Bell, G. (1982). The Masterpiece Of Nature: The Evolution and Genetics of Sexuality. University of California Press, Berkeley, 378 pp.
  • Lewis Carroll. 1960 (reprinted). The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, illustrated by J. Tenniel, with an Introduction and Notes by M. Gardner. The New American Library, New York, 345 pp. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There [1]
  • Dawkins, R. & Krebs, J. R. (1979). Arms races between and within species. Proceedings of the Royal society of London, B 205, 489–511.
  • Francis Heylighen (2000): "The Red Queen Principle", in: F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels), URL:
  • Pearson, Paul N. (2001) Red Queen hypothesis Encyclopedia of Life Sciences
  • Ridley, M. (1995) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-024548-0
  • Leigh Van Valen. (1973). "A new evolutionary law". Evolutionary Theory 1: 1—30.
  • Vermeij, G.J. (1987). Evolution and escalation: An ecological history of life. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

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