Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland – The Public Domain Review

an excerpt:

Watercolour depiction of the fly agaric, 1892. Likely painted at an art class near Bristol, England, the writing says “Agaricus muscarius” and “Leigh woods Sept/92” — Source

Let us turn now to the most famous and frequently-debated conjunction of fungi, psychedelia, and fairy-lore: the array of mushrooms and hallucinatory potions, mind-bending and shapeshifting motifs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Do Alice’s adventures represent first-hand knowledge of hallucinogenic mushrooms?

The scenes in question could hardly be better known. Alice, down the rabbit hole, meets a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, who tells her in a “languid, sleepy voice” that the mushroom is the key to navigating through her strange journey: “one side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter”. Alice takes a chunk from each side of the mushroom and begins a series of vertiginous transformations of size, shooting up into the clouds before learning to maintain her normal size by eating alternate bites. Throughout the rest of the book she continues to take the mushroom: entering the house of the Duchess, approaching the domain of the March Hare, and, climactically, before entering the hidden garden with the golden key.

Lewis Carroll's illustration of caterpillar on mushroom

Lewis Carroll’s illustration of the caterpillar scene from his original manuscript of the story. There’s nothing here to suggest it is meant to be a fly agaric — Source.

Since the 1960s this has often been read as an initiatic work of drug literature, an esoteric guide to the other worlds opened up by psychedelics — most memorably, perhaps, in Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit” (1967), which conjures Alice’s journey as a path of self-discovery where the stale advice of parents is transcended by the guidance received from within by “feeding your head”. This reading is often dismissed by Lewis Carroll scholars,7 but medication and unusual states of consciousness certainly exercised a profound fascination for Carroll, and he read about them voraciously. His interest was spurred by his own delicate health — insomnia and frequent migraines — which he treated with homoeopathic remedies, including many derived from psychoactive plants such as aconite and belladonna. His library included books on homoeopathy as well as texts that discussed mind-altering drugs, including F. E. Anstie’s thorough compendium, Stimulants and Narcotics (1864). He was greatly intrigued by the epileptic seizure of an Oxford student at which he was present, and in 1857 visited St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in order to witness chloroform anaesthesia, a novel procedure that had come to public attention four years previously when it was administered to Queen Victoria during childbirth.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Alice’s mind-expanding journeys owed anything to the actual drug experiences of their author. Although Carroll — in daily life the Reverend Charles Dodgson — was a moderate drinker and, to judge by his library, opposed to alcohol prohibition, he had a strong dislike of tobacco smoking and wrote sceptically in his letters about the pervasive presence in syrups and soothing tonics of powerful narcotics like opium — the “medicine so dexterously, but ineffectually, concealed in the jam of our early childhood”.8 Yet Alice’s adventures may have their roots in a psychedelic mushroom experience. The scholar Michael Carmichael has demonstrated that, a few days before he began writing the story, Carroll made his only ever visit to Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a copy of Mordecai Cooke’s recently-published drug survey The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860) had been deposited.9 The Bodleian copy of this book still has most of its pages uncut, with the exception of the contents page and the chapter on the fly agaric, entitled “The Exile of Siberia”. Carroll was particularly interested in Russia: it was the only country he ever visited outside Britain. And, as Carmichael puts it, Carroll “would have been immediately attracted to Cooke’s Seven Sisters of Sleep for two more obvious reasons: he had seven sisters and he was a lifelong insomniac”. …

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