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What Was In The Caterpillar's Hookah From Alice In Wonderland?

There's no denying that Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" (1865) is the trippiest work of nineteenth-century literature after Thomas de Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" (1821). While De Quincey's title leaves no ambiguity about its inspiration, readers have often wondered if Carroll (the pen name of mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) wrote "Wonderland" as a flight of fantasy or an allegory for marijuana and other drugs.

Aside from noting the general bizarreness of the tale, people who interpret the tale as a drug odyssey tend to zero in on three moments: Alice takes a potion to grow smaller, eats a mushroom to grow taller, and meets a hookah-smoking caterpillar. But what was in that pipe - marijuana, hashish, opium or tobacco?

Supporters of the drug theory include Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, who famously adapted Carroll's story into the song "White Rabbit" from the album Surrealistic Pillow (1967). During a 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Slick offered her interpretation of "Wonderland."

"It's about following your curiosity. The White Rabbit is your curiosity. Alice follows him wherever he goes. He leads her to drugs, though, and that's why the song was written. Hey, all major children's books do this. In 'Peter Pan,' sparkle dust lets you fly. In the 'Wizard of Oz,' they awaken in a poppy field to see the beautiful Emerald City. Our parents read us stories about chemicals that make it possible to have a good time."

What the literary critics think

But literary critics aren't convinced because there's no evidence that Dodgson ever used opium, hashish or any other mind-altering substances that were available in his lifetime. Dr. Heather Worthington - a scholar of Children's Literature - argues that the drug reading has more to do with American counterculture than Dawson's intentions.

"The notion that the surreal aspects of the text are the consequence of drug-fueled dreams resonates with a culture, particularly perhaps in the 60's, 70's and 80's when LSD was widely-circulated and even now where recreational drugs are commonplace," Worthington told the BBC's Sophie Robehmed in 2012.

Robehmed concluded that alleged drug references "may say more about the people making them than the author."

So your imagination puts marijuana or whatever else it wants into the caterpillar's pipe. But whatever the Disney animators stuffed in the hookah certainly wasn't tobacco.


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