Curiouser and Curiouser: Advice from a Caterpillar

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Chapter 5

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence and Alice surveyed the jungle. In every direction she could see mushrooms, each with their own caterpillar inhabitant. Each caterpillar was different, there were spiky ones and stripy ones, and one that looked like a fluffy little moustache. The original Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice: “Who are YOU?”

Alice replied, “I–I hardly know. 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 “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t understand it myself. Being so many 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, then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll understand how odd it feels, won’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 odd to ME.”

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 can’t keep the same size for ten minutes together!”

“Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, I would like to be a LITTLE larger,” 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.

The Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, yawned, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, remarking as it went, “One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.”

What an odd statement to make, Alice thought to herself, one side of what?

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

Alice looked 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. She could hear frogs, birds, animals all around her but she could not see anyone to help. And the other caterpillars had left too. Feeling there was nothing left to do Alice stretched her arms around the mushroom 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 that there was no time to be lost, as she was shrinking rapidly; she nibbled 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 and managed to swallow a morsel of the left-hand bit.

Alice walked towards some trees to the side, it would be easier to know if she was the correct height again when compared to a tree she thought. But she had forgotten that the jungle was only a jungle so long as she was small.

`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.

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 would bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent. She had just succeeded in curving it down into a graceful zigzag, 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, and 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 hatching 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! 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. `go away!’ said the Pigeon in a sulky tone, as it settled down again into its nest.

Alice remembered that she still held the pieces of mushroom, and she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, growing sometimes taller and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.

‘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, `if I introduce myself whilst I’m at this height I would frighten them all terribly’ So she began nibbling at the righthand bit again and did not venture to go near the house till she had brought herself down to nine inches high.

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‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

One of the most recognisable characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the caterpillar. After escaping the house of the White Rabbit by shrinking to just three inches high (“a very good height indeed!”), Alice comes across the caterpillar sitting on a mushroom.

There are over 1500 different species of caterpillar, the larvae of moths and butterflies, in Staffordshire. Just like Alice in her adventures, they vary in size greatly! Youngsters of a small species can be just a millimetre long. Large species can be over 8cm in length before getting ready to change into an adult moth or butterfly – about the same size as Alice’s caterpillar. One of the largest caterpillars that can be found locally is the Elephant Hawk Moth. Named for its resemblance to an elephant’s trunk, it can be found in gardens on Fuchsia plants.


There was a large mushroom growing near her, about the same height as herself; and when she had looked under it, and on both sides of it, and behind it, it occurred to her that she might as well look and see what was on the top of it.

When Alice tastes a chunk from each side of the mushroom in an attempt to regain her original height, it’s not the first time, or last, that she risks her life in the story. Alice’s unlucky first bite causes her to shrink even further, but even outside Wonderland gambling with unidentified fungi isn’t recommended. They can be difficult to identify, with the appropriately-named Death Cap resembling several edible species. The False Death Cap is not dangerous, but is still considered unedible as it doesn’t taste very nice and isn’t worth the risk of confusing it with a Death Cap! Most fatal mushroom poisonings can be attributed to the Death Cap, with an estimated 30g being enough to kill. Survivors often require liver transplants.

The red and white toadstool of fairy-tale imagery is the Fly Agaric. It belongs to the same family as the Death Cap, Amanita. The Fly Agaric is poisonous, though deaths are rare and it is eaten in some parts of the world. Proper care and preparation is needed while cooking to break down the poisons – but don’t try this at home! It is one of many mushrooms that can cause hallucinations.

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