I'm Not All There Myself

by Mel Gilden

What with the new Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland, and the fact that Ms. Laurie just threw a birthday party with Alice in Wonderland as its theme, I've been thinking lately a lot about Alice and the wonky characters she met in Wonderland and on the other side of the looking glass.

Certainly the kindest most considerate character that Alice met during her travels was the White Knight who, it has been suggested, was a stand in for Lewis Carroll himself. While that is all true, I was never as interested in the Knight as I was in some of the other characters. My favorite has always been the Cheshire Cat.

Cheshire CatAlice first meets the cat in the pepper-packed kitchen of the Ugly Duchess, but they don't actually have a conversation until later, after the baby the Duchess was nursing turns into a pig and runs off.

When they converse at last, the Cat gives Alice useful information: go one way and she will visit the March Hare; go the other and she will visit the Mad Hatter. "They're both mad," the cat confides. Mostly, the cat seems interested in word games — but not as preoccupied at being an authority on words, as Humpty Dumpty will be in the next book.

Shortly, the cat disappears, leaving behind only its grin. These days when I see a sliver of a moon, I am reminded of that grin — hence it is a Cheshire Cat moon.

But the thing about the Cheshire Cat that most appeals to me is that unlike the other characters in Wonderland, he is not a victim of his passions. The White Rabbit is preoccupied with time; the Caterpillar with his height and with who Alice is, exactly; the Duchess needs to find the morals in things; and the Queen of Hearts, of course, will cut off the head of anybody who disagrees with her about anything.

In contrast, the Cat seems very calm. He knows exactly who and what he is, and is confident enough in himself to play games with the Queen herself. (Can you chop off the head of anything that has a head, or do you need something to chop it off from?).

I've always wanted to be that confident and free. Perhaps that is why I think it is so funny when at the beginning of Goldfinger a girl asks James Bond — certainly confidence personified — why he carries a pistol, and he answers, "I have a slight inferiority complex." Bond and the Cheshire Cat? I'm a little surprised myself to come to this conclusion, but there it is.

(To read more adventures in Wonderland, see Mel's novel, The Jabberwock Came Whiffling. The first three chapters are free.)