Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Recently, we’ve been rereading Lewis Carroll’s (1832-1898)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
We’d come to the very end of Chapter IV, “The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill”, about to begin Chapter V, “Advice from a Caterpillar”, and there, in the original publication, is this illustration, by Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914),
of, as the text tells us:
“…a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top [of a mushroom] with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah…”
If you read us regularly, you know that the first thing which would strike us isn’t necessarily the image, but that word, “caterpillar”. Where in the world did the term “caterpillar” come from? The answer you might see in this image—
Here in the US, this is commonly called a “wooly-bear” or “wooly-worm”, although it is not really wooly, and certainly not a bear, although perhaps a little wormy. In fact, it’s the larva of a Pyrrarchtia Isabella, the Isabella tiger moth. These are a North American creature, but there are similar hairy caterpillars in Europe.
Well, we know the life stages of butterflies and moths from a biology class long ago,
so, if this is a caterpillar, what’s the next step? Imagine that someone long ago, instead of calling it a “wooly bear” thought that it looked more feline—a kind of very fuzzy feline. And that person, who spoke (late) Latin, called it a “catta pilosa”, a “hairy cat” which, through Old North French “caterpilose” into Middle English “catyrpel” became, yes, a “caterpillar”. To help to see how that pronunciation changed, think of southern English dialects which don’t pronounce those R’s and you immediately get “cat-uh-pill-uh”, which is just on the edge of that older word.
Now that we have that straightened out, more or less, the next question is: what is a caterpillar doing in the text—and, further, why is it smoking a hookah? Or, if you’re not familiar with that gadget,
perhaps we should also ask, what’s a hookah?
To begin, we can only guess why there’s a caterpillar there. It’s in the manuscript version which Carroll presented to the original Alice in 1864, (although in Chapter III and without a chapter title), so it appeared sometime in the early process of composition.
As we understand it, the story began as a piece of oral creation, a story told on a boating trip with the original Alice, her two older sisters, and an Oxford friend, on 4 July, 1862. We might imagine then, that, somewhere along the way, a caterpillar appeared, perhaps dropping into the boat? Certainly there are various common caterpillars which appear at this season in England. (Here’s a LINK for you to explore them: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife/how-identify/identify-caterpillars )
So, if we have a caterpillar appear, what might it be doing? It will probably talk—most creatures in Wonderland do—but could it perhaps be doing something exotic, as well? Carroll’s illustration, although the text says that he was smoking a long hookah, depicts the caterpillar as smoking something different, a chibouk, a kind of very long-stemmed Turkish tobacco pipe.
A hookah, as you can see both from our photos above and below and from Tenniel’s illustration, consists of a smaller bowl, in which the tobacco is placed and lighted, on top of a bigger flask of water, through which the smoke is sucked and “purified” as the smoker inhales it through a long hose, then blows it out again, as we see in Tenniel’s version of the scene.
The point, however, is that, hookah or chibouk, this suggests a Middle Eastern theme, especially if we imagine that the mushroom upon which he is seated is an ottoman, a kind of backless sofa/couch
the very name of which tells us where it comes from.
A further clue might be found in the Tenniel illustration: the caterpillar appears to be wearing something with long, loose sleeves, rather like the kinds of robes worn by Middle Eastern gentlemen in Victorian fantasy paintings of that world
as well as Victorian “smoking jackets”—actually more like a bathrobe in this 1840s fashion illustration–
which gentlemen wore in leisure moments at home, complete with a distinctive “smoking cap”,
often, as here, modeled upon another Middle Eastern garment, the headwear called a fez. (Although this gentleman seems to prefer a cigar to a hookah of chibouk.)
So, if we put these various bits together, we would offer the following: that we have the suggestion that Alice, in this strange place, has come upon a gentleman caterpillar, lounging on an ottoman in somewhat “Middle Eastern” dress, idly smoking an exotic kind of pipe.
We might indicate one more detail, one which we’re a little reluctant to add, but there may be a clue in the description of the caterpillar’s speech and actions:
“…at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.”
And, in the final moments of their conversation, the caterpillar:
“…took the hookah out of its mouth, and yawned once or twice, and shook itself.”
Perhaps this is just a very lazy sort of creature, but, other things were smoked besides tobacco in hookahs and, of course, there have always been readers who have attached so-called “drug culture” ideas to Wonderland—as if the whole thing is based upon some hallucinatory dose. To us, who spend a lot of time in Victorian and later fantasy worlds, this is completely unnecessary and actually does a disservice to the author’s wonderful imagination—and yet, there is that sleepy quality…
We’ll leave this to you, dear readers, with thanks for reading, with a wish that you will stay well, as well as our reassurance that there will be
If you would like to see the hand-written early version of Alice, which Carroll gave to Alice, it is now in the British Library, and here’s the LINK: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alices-adventures-under-ground-the-original-manuscript-version-of-alices-adventures-in-wonderland