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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, 'I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."

"What do you mean by that?" said the Caterpillar, sternly. "Explain yourself!"

"I ca'n't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."

"I don't see," said the Caterpillar.

"I'm afraid I ca'n't put it more clearly," Alice replied, very politely, "for I ca'n't understand it myself, to begin with; and being so may different sizes in a day is very confusing."

"It isn't," said the Caterpillar.

"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis – you will some day, you know – and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel a little queer, wo'n't you?"

"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.

"Well, perhaps your feelings may be different," said Alice: "all I know is, it would feel very queer to me."

"You!" said the Caterpillar contemtuously. "Who are you?"

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. Alice felt a little irritated at the Caterpillar's making such very short remarks, and she drew herself up and said, very gravely, "I think you ought to tell me who you are, first."

"Why?" said the Caterpillar.

Here was another puzzling question; and, as Alice could not think of any good reason, and the Caterpillar seemed to be in a very unpleasant state of mind, she turned away.

"Come back!" the Caterpillar called after her. "I've something important to say!"

This sounded promising, certainly. Alice turned and came back again.

"Keep your temper," said the Caterpillar.

"Is that all?" said Alice, swallowing down her anger as well as she could.

"No," said the Caterpillar.

Alice thought she might as well wait, as she had nothing else to do, and perhaps after all it might tell her something worth hearing. For some minutes it puffed away without speaking; but at last it unfolded its arms, took the hookah out of its mouth again, and said "So you think you're changed, do you?"

"I'm afraid I am, Sir," said Alice. "I ca'n't remember things as I used – and I don't keep the same size for ten minutes together!"

"Ca'n't remember what things?" said the Caterpillar.

"Well, I've tried to say 'How doth the little busy bee,'but it all came different!" Alice replied in a very melancholy voice.

"Repeat 'You are old, Father William,'" said the Caterpillar. Alice folded her hands, and began: –

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,

"And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head –

Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,

"I feared it might injure the brain;

But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again."

"You are old," said the youth, "As I mentioned before.

And have grown most uncommonly fat;

Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door –

Pray, what is the reason of that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,

"I kept all my limbs very supple

By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –

Allow me to sell you a couple?"

"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –

Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw

Has lasted the rest of my life."

"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose

That your eye was as steady as ever;

Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –

What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered thre questions, and that is enough,"

Said his father. "Don't give yourself airs!

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Be off, or I'll kick you down-stairs!"

"That is not said right," said the Caterpillar.

"Not quite right, I'm afraid," said Alice, timidly: "some of the words have got altered."

"It is wrong from beginning to end," said the Caterpillar, decidedly; and there was silence for some minutes.

The Caterpillar was the first to speak.

"What size do you want to be?" it asked.

"Oh, I'm not particular about size," Alice hastily replied; "only one doesn't like changing so often, you know."

"I don't know," said the Caterpillar.

"Well, I should like to be a little larger, Sir, if you wouldn't mind," said Alice: "three inches is such a wretched height to be."

"It is a very good height indeed!" said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).

"But I'm not used to it!" pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought to herself "I wish the creatures wouldn't be so easily offended!"

"You'll get used to it in time," said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth, and began smoking again.

This time Alice waited patiently until it chose to speak again. In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away into the grass, merely remarking, as it went, "One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter."

"One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself.

"Of the mushroom," said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.

Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and, as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question. However, at last she stretched her arms round it as far as they would go, and broke off a bit of the edge with each hand.

"And now which is which?" she said to herself, and nibbled a little of the right-hand bit to try the effect. The next moment she felt a violent blow underneath her chin: it had struck her foot!

She was a good deal frightened by this very sudden change, but she felt there was no time to be lost, as she was shrinking rapidly: so she set to work at once to eat some of the other bit. Her chin was pressed so closely against her foot, that there was hardly room to open her mouth; but she did it at last, and managed to swallow a morsel of the left-hand bit.

*                        *                        *                        *

*                        *                        *

*                        *                        *                        *

"Come, my head's free at last!" said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when she found that her shoulders were nowhere to be found: all she could see, when she looked down, was an immense length of neck, which seemed to rise like a stalk out of a sea of green leaves that lay far below her.

"What can all that green stuff be?" said Alice. "And where have my shoulders got to? And oh, my poor hands, how is it I ca'n't see you?" She was moving them about, as she spoke, but no result seemed to follow, except a little shaking among the distant green leaves.

As there seemed to be no chance of getting her hands up to her head, she tried to get her head down to them, and was delighted to find that her neck could bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent. She had just succeeded in curving it down into a graceful zizag, and was going to dive in among the leaves, which she found to be nothing but the tops of the trees under which she had been wandering, when a sharp hiss made her draw back in a hurry: a large pigeon had flown into her face, and was beating her violently with its wings.

"Serpent!" screamed the Pigeon.

"I'm not a serpent!" said Alice indignantly. "Let me alone!"

"Serpent, I say again!" repeated the Pigeon, but in a more subdued tone, and added, with a kind of sob, "I've tried every way, but nothing seems to suit them!"

"I haven't the least idea what you're talking about," said Alice.

"I've tried the roots of trees, and I've tried banks, and I've tried hedges," the Pigeon went on, without attending to her; "but those serpents! There's no pleasing them!"

Alice was more and more puzzled, but she thought there was no use in saying anything more till the Pigeon had finished.

"As if it wasn't trouble enough hatchig the eggs," said the Pigeon; "but I must be on the look-out for serpents, night and day! Why, I haven't had a wink of sleep these three weeks!"

"I'm very sorry you've been annoyed," said Alice, who was beginning to see its meaning.

"And just as I'd taken the highest tree in the wood" continued the Pigeon, raising its voice to a shriek, "and just as I was thinking I should be free of them at last, they must needs come wriggling down from the sky! Ugh, Serpent!"

"But I'm not a serpent, I tell you!" said Alice. "I'm a – I'm a –"

"Well! What are you?" said the Pigeon. "I can see you're trying to invent something!"

"I – I'm a little girl," said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through, that day.

"A likely story indeed!" said the Pigeon, in a tone of the deepest contempt. "I've seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You're a serpent; and there's no use denying it. I suppose you'll be telling me next that you've never tasted an egg!"

"I have tasted eggs, certainly," said Alice, who was a very truthful child; "but little girls eat eaggs quite as much as serpents do, you know."

"I don't believe it," said the Pigeon; "but if they do, why, then they're a kind of serpent: that's all I can say."

This was such a new idea to Alice, that she was quite silent for a minute or two, which gave the Pigeon the opportunity of adding "You're looking for eggs, I know that well enough; and what does it matter to me whether you're a little girl or a serpent?"

"It matters a good deal to me," said Alice hastily; "but I'm not looking for eggs, as it happens; and, if I was, I shouldn't want yours: I don't like them raw."

"Well, be off, then!" said the Pigeon in a sulky tone, as it settled down again into its nest. Alice crouched down among the trees as well as she could, for her neck kept getting entangled among the branches, and every now and then she had to stop and untwist it. After a while she remembered that she still held the pieces of mushroom in her hands, and she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller, and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.

It was so long since she had been anything near the right size, that if felt quite strange at first; but she got used to it in a few minutes, and began talking to herself, as usual, "Come, there's half my plan done now! How puzzling all these changes are! I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to another! However, I've got back to my right size: the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden – how is that to be done, I wonder?" As she said this, she came suddenly upon an open place, with a little house in it about four feet high. "Whoever lives there," thought Alice, "it'll never do to come upon them this size: why, I should frighten them out of their wits!" So she began nibbling at the right-hand bit again, and did not venture to go near the house till she had brought herself down to nine inches high.


  1. See note 42 at the end of the previous chapter.
  2. Here is poor Alice stuck in another situation where a creature demands in a deceptively simple way the answer to what is still a widely argued philosophical question. Are you the same person after a significant change of some sort? (But then, what's a significant change?) Or even after just a day's life experience, building up new memories and so on? It is broadly agreed that people can and do have life-changing experiences that lead them to describe themselves as different people afterwards.
  3. Evidently the Caterpillar isn't much inclined to try seeing things from another being's point of view, which isn't helped by the hookah-smoking by any means. Flat contradictions like this are one of Lewis Carroll's favourite means of generating total absurdities, as he contrasts the sorts of contradictions that do exist in mathematics and formal logic, but do not exist in terms of human experience.
  4. It is tempting to take the word 'short' literally here as meaning 'statements only a few words long' since this describes the Caterpillar's statements quite well. Since its statements are also rude and abrupt, they also fit another definition of short, 'in an abrupt, rude manner.'
  5. A rather dangerous approach, as Alice discovers almost immediately. On one hand she winds up leaving another opening for the Caterpillar to flummox her with, while on the other in victorian terms she would probably be obligated to introduce herself first after being acknowledged by the Caterpillar in the first place.
  6. For someone with something important to say, the Caterpillar seems entirely uninclined to encourage anybody to stick around and listen to it. Of course it does have something important to say in the end, but admittedly a dopey, grumpy, smoking character doesn't seem like the best source of interesting tidbits.
  7. In fact it doesn't!
  8. Rather remarkable advice from a character making no pretence to do anything of the sort. interpretations of such advice do vary; in my experience it is generally taken to mean 'don't start shouting at someone who angers you – but don't stick around for it either.' Advice is almost as notorious as words for changing meaning with time and person.
  9. A bit of an exaggeration surely, considering Alice's size changes have come from her experiments with Wonderland food and drink combined with her difficulties in imagining and providing for potential consequences.
  10. The Caterpillar gives an order, and as per usual Alice takes it, reciting another of Lewis Carroll's parodies of edifying victorian poetry for suffering children. According to WIkipedia, the source in this case is a poem called 'The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them' by Robert Southey, which runs as follows.

    "You are old, father William," the young man cried,
    "The few locks which are left you are grey;
    You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
    Now tell me the reason, I pray."

    "In the days of my youth," father William replied,
    "I remember'd that youth would fly fast,
    And abus'd not my health and my vigour at first,
    That I never might need them at last."

    "You are old, father William," the young man cried,
    "And pleasures with youth pass away.
    And yet you lament not the days that are gone;
    Now tell me the reason, I pray."

    "In the days of my youth," father William replied,
    "I rememberd that youth could not last;
    I thought of the future, whatever I did,
    That I never might grieve for the past."

    "You are old, father William," the young man cried,
    "And life must be hast'ning away;
    You are cheerful and love to converse upon death;
    Now tell me the reason, I pray."

    "I am cheerful, young man," father William replied,
    "Let the cause thy attention engage;
    In the days of my youth I remember'd my God!
    And He hath not forgotten my age."

    Needless to say, I far prefer the parody myself, and chose it for my one and only experience with having to memorise and recite poetry in front of a class.

  11. 'Suet' is a polite term for what is referred to in Canadian English as 'lard', animal fat that is solid at room temperature, usually from pigs. Blocks of it can be found in bird feeders, and it was once a common ingredient in candles and soap, and may well be again as oil and related hydrocarbons become rarer and more expensive.
  12. See note 4 to chapter three.
  13. Which begs the question: is the hookah still on top of the mushroom?
  14. Alice effectively resorts to the solution of treating the mushroom as folded in half along its axis of symmetry, which is how we could enforce 'sidedness' on a round object or fungus as the case may be.
  15. In case we needed more convincing that size changes happen to different parts of the body at different rates when trying out food and drink in Wonderland, here it is. The mushroom being less processed and the dose unclear, the effects are far more unpredictable than usual. It is interesting that the part of the mushroom that causes shrinking is in Alice's right hand, in view of the persistent association of 'good' with the 'right hand' and 'bad' with the 'left hand.' In victorian times it was still widely customary to attempt to enforce right-handedness on children who were naturally left-hand dominant, a practice persisting to this day in some catholic schools.

    This is far from all that the interesting ideas that can be found in this sort scene. Melanie Baylie in New Scientist identified its mathematical connections, as well as other mathematical squibs hidden among Alice's other adventures in Wonderland. See Alice's Adventures in Algebra: Wonderland Solved, New Scientist, Issue 2739, December 2009.

  16. I have happily reintroduced the asterisk-line markers that Lewis Carroll placed in the original text here as well.
  17. In general, Alice never loses her head so much as she loses her shoulders or her feet.
  18. Lewis Carroll is creating another parody here, this one of the view of a long, white neck as being a hallmark of beauty in victorian times, provided of course a woman so endowed still wore a closed collar of at least an inch or so in height. The A-budgeted B movie misnamed 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' directed by Francis Ford Coppola may not be scary, but it does provide an excellent summary of proper victorian women's dress and ideas about female beauty. (I liked the movie in spite of its faults, but it is best watched with the sound off!)
  19. Surely Alice must have some idea, having leaned against a buttercup to rest in a place persistently described as a wood by the omniscient narrator. One of Alice's quirks is that she isn't terribly observant of her surroundings.
  20. Admittedly, this is as appalling an idea as it is a fascinating one. Snakes are remarkable animals, not least because they can move so quickly even without legs. As long as they have some sort of relief to work with, they are able to move the scales on their bellies to help them push off against objects they encounter. It's quite a strange sight, and for many people far too insect- or worm-like for comfort.
  21. Pigeons are rather pudgy looking, multi-coloured birds that live in flocks. Nowadays wild pigeons are typically considered a nuisance, with a whole range of nasty looking devices being set out on and around the places they like to nest in urban settings. Remarkably, they may be related to the dodo. Certain pigeon species have been the object of various types of 'pigeon fanciers', who breed the pigeons for specific physical features such as colouring or tail shape. The most famous pigeon of all (after the urban variety) may be the carrier pigeon, once used for carrying messages. Another famous pigeon species is the passenger pigeon, because it went extinct in barely fifty years between the late 1800s and early 1900s after naturalists became fascinated with passenger pigeon flocks numbering billions of birds.
  22. An unusual use of 'suit' in the sense of 'fitting' or 'matching.' Usually this would mean complimentary to whatever or whoever was being suited in the sense of encouraging them. But it is equally true that something can be suitable for discouraging something or someone, and in fact 'suitable' is the more common term for this today.
  23. River banks, of course.
  24. This seems more and more like a vignette from the Looking Glass world, with 'pleasing' being done via behaviour considered displeasing in the ordinary world.
  25. 'Must needs' also encountered as 'needs must' is an odd phrase because at first it doesn't seem to mean anything sensible, reflecting its current linguistic obsolescence. I have found it defined as 'necessity compels', and based on the Pigeon's statements, perhaps also 'happens unavoidably.' According to The Phrase Finder it is an abbreviated version of the saying "needs must when the devil drives."
  26. It's no fun to find out a good bout of drama was all for nothing, although you'd think the Pigeon would be relieved rather than grumpy about the situation.
  27. Alice is nothing if not goal-oriented. The architecture and philosophy of victorian gardening is closely related to that of the renaissance, when gardening was one of the means by which certain people with lots of money imposed order on unruly nature. Besides flower beds, vegetable beds, and trees, a craze for topiary and mazes developed in the victorian era. (The aforementioned 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' includes an impressive recreation of a victorian garden with a maze in it as well.) However, between wars, inflation, and the lack of possibilities for automation of garden care, few gardens of this elaborate type exist any longer in private or public hands.
  28. As a bit of an aside, in many ways Dracula is the quintessential victorian novel, obsessed as it is with sex, death, evil, and the destruction of any woman who merely seems to step wrong in the annals of victorian prudery. It is now possible to read the novel for free in various on-line editions now that it has fallen out of copyright, but by far the best edition to read is the paperback one annotated by Leonard Wolf.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:53:28