Smile! Few characters have been beloved as the Cheshire cat has. His wit and eternal grin have captured the imagination of several generations of people around the world. Who was this mischievous kitty? What was Lewis Carroll’s inspiration in writing this character? Not everything is known for sure, but there are some intriguing potential answers!
The Inspiration Behind the Cheshire Cat
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”
Curious or not, the Cheshire Cat made his debut on the world stage in 1865 when Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll wrote down the “Alice” stories at the request of his muse, Alice Liddell, the young daughter of one of Carroll’s colleagues. Though it was not the first version of the “Alice” stories Carroll published, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the first version of the story to include the Cheshire Cat.
Lewis Carroll actually did not invent the idea of a grinning Cheshire cat. In the Victorian era the phrase “grin like a Cheshire cat” was well-known. No one is certain of the origin of the phrase, but there are many theories.
- Cheshire cheese
At the time Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, cheese in the town of Cheshire was often molded to look like a grinning cat. This gimmick highly amused the customers.
- Church carvings
- An Inn Sign
There is an inn not far from where Carroll lived that had a painted image of a grinning cat on its sign.
- The British Shorthair cat breed
British shorthair cats were very popular in England during the Victorian era. These cats have round heads, round eyes, and always appear to be smiling. The illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s books, John Tenniel, used a British Shorthair cat, then known as a British Blue, as his inspiration for the Cheshire Cat illustrations.
- A local cat-like gargoyle
An Iconic Role in Wonderland
“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” – Cheshire Cat
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat is owned by the Dutchess (who also made her first appearance in this book). He is Alice’s only real link with reality. Unlike other characters in the book, the Cheshire Cat appears to be aware of the real world. After all, how would he know he’s mad if he didn’t have a point of reference?
Through clever advice, the Cheshire Cat proves that has clear insights to the rules of Wonderland. He can break rules of the world that others can’t break which makes Alice wonder if he can be trusted. In the end, the Cheshire Cat is possibly Alice’s only friend in Wonderland.
Beyond Lewis Carroll’s Books
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
Since the publishing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, many different versions of the story (and the Cheshire Cat) have been written and made into films. Here are 3 of the most notable Alice films:
- Alice In Wonderland (1903) directed by Percy Stow
This silent film is only 9 minutes and 33 seconds long. It was the first adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to be adapted to the big screen. The Cheshire Cat appears simply as a floating image of a cat with long hair (Maine Coon perhaps). The film is damaged, but it can still be viewed on Youtube here. The Cheshire Cat appears in this film at 4:48.
- Alice In Wonderland (1951) by Walt Disney
Disney was a huge fan of Lewis Carroll and had tried to adapt his story to film a few times before finally creating his animated feature. At the time it was released, the film had disappointing reviews. However, over time, Disney’s pink and purple striped Cheshire Cat has become a cultural icon all around the world. The Cheshire Cat was voiced by the same actor who originally voiced Winnie the Pooh. To watch a clip of Disney’s 1951 Cheshire Cat click here.
- Alice In Wonderland (2010) by Disney
The new version was directed by Tim Burton and displayed his signature Gothic styling. The new storyline depicted Alice as an adult once again trying to escape the pressures of growing up. She helps all of the classic Alice In Wonderland characters to save wonderland from destruction. The Cheshire Cat, voiced by Stephen Fry, continued his role of the mischievous guide through Wonderland in the film. To view a clip, click here.
- Through the Looking Glass (2016) by Disney
This film was created as a follow-up to the 2010 Disney Film Alice In Wonderland. Tim Burton and the cast of the first film came back again for this sequel. See a clip of the Cheshire Cat’s performance here.
Do you remember when your first heard of the Cheshire Cat?