Was Lewis Carroll on drugs?

My question is simple enough:
Did Lewis Carroll use any mind-altering substances when writing Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, or are they really just genuine works of imagination?

I’ve looked around and found conflicting info, so I’d be interested to see what people find.

Though I don’t know for sure, I would say no, for the following reasons:

(1) I’ve never read of any “expert” who seriously believes that Carroll was on drugs.

(2) The Alice stories started out as stories that Carroll made up spontaneously on a boat ride with Alice Liddell and her sisters. (From Wikipedia:

(3)It’s my understanding that “mind-altering substances,” while they might produce hallucinations or reduce inhibitions, can’t actually implant new, otherwise unimaginable ideas in the brain. Don’t underestimate the power of the human imagination.

The usual statement is that Carroll used ergot, which nobody to be taken seriously believes. Ergot’s toxicity generally precluded recreational use before modern chemistry isolated LSD from it, and it’s unlikely that Carroll would have had a need for it medicinally - it was most commonly used by midwives. It was sometimes used to treat migraines, and it is known that Carroll had them, but it is still a stretch. Some sources will also claim that “Alice in Wonderland” was inspired by migraine induced induced hallucinations:


That is perhaps more plausible, but I still don’t buy it, and it doesn’t take away from Carroll’s creative genius at any rate. Most people don’t turn hallucinations induced by migraines, hallucinogenic drugs or anything else into worthwile creative works. Such things may provide a trigger for existing creativity, but don’t substitute for it when it isn’t there in the first place. Medicinal use of opium on top of recreational use in the 19th century meant that millions of people experienced its effects, but only Coleridge wrote “Xanadu”.

Which is a surprising allegation. It sounds more plausible to allege that he accidentally ate some mushrooms, which do grow in the UK.

:confused: But do any hallucinogenic mushrooms grow in the UK? Or anywhere in the Eastern Hemisphere?

The Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria) is distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, including the UK. Hence, its purported use by so many widely separated cultures.

RyanA1084 writes:

> . . . or are they really just genuine works of imagination?

I think that this is what questions like this are really wondering about. Yes, there really is such a thing as a great imagination, and Carroll had it. The Alice books are two of the greatest works of literature of all time, as far as I’m concerned. They are full of creativity and meaning at many levels.

I was rather astonished, recently, to learn Robert Crumb (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Crumb) apparently has never done LSD. I always assumed he gobbling it like candy back in the day, when he was drawing some really hallucinatory panels for Zap! comix.

I’ve never heard that one. How ludicrous.

One allegation that comes up a lot is that he was a heavy user of laudanum, a tincture of opium readily available from Victorian druggists.

The rationale is: It could be had in London. He wrote weird stuff. Aha! The bottle marked “Drink me!” He must have been going through the stuff like a regular fiend.

This is very shaky reasoning, of course. The cake marked “Eat me” doesn’t correspond to any mind-altering substance, and they’re an obvious dyad.

In my opinion, Carroll’s writing does not seem much like that of someone who has a thing for opiates. It’s too tight. Perfectly precise. Bizarre, but internally consistent and carefully organized. Also, the dialogue is so keen and loaded with very sharp puns and clever logical absurdities.

Compare this with, say, Naked Lunch, or The Soft Machine. These books have a certain amount of natural wit, but they aren’t exactly glittering displays of cleverness. (Then again, Burroughs didn’t have Carroll’s education, so this may not be a valid comparison. Maybe a sharp enough mind could cut through an opium fog and produce something like Alice. I doubt it, though.)

There’s no evidence to suggest that Carroll used unusual drugs, though. Most of the people who come to that conclusion base their assumptions around things in the text or illustrations that remind them of drugs, but which really have no connection. This is really the same thing as people who claim that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is about marijuana or “Bridge over Troubled Water” is about heroin.

“Come on! The caterpillar’s sitting on a mushroom! Smoking a hookah!” Well, yes, a mushroom makes a good seat for wee creatures. We call some of 'em toadstools, for crying out loud. “Yeah, and toads get you high, too!” Erm, right.

I like to tease people by “suggesting” that the White Knight was talking about LSD.

He even says that it hasn’t been invented, and worries that it might not ever be invented. Of course he’s talking about LSD.

I don’t even think Lewis Carroll necessarily had an unusually great imagination (but he was a very clever writer). Ever spend time entertaining a young kid? I recently spent some time distracting the five-year old daughter of a friend of mine while Mom was doing some errands. The kid was making up stories about some of her dolls and I was inserting the same sort of ironic, over-her-head jokes that Lewis Carroll was inserting (a lot of characters in AinW are references to political figures of the time). The result had the same disjointed, hallucinagenic feel of a Lewis Carroll story. So – drugs not required. Just add in the hyperactive imagination of a kid (and their limited focus on any one character or plotline)

I don’t know where you got this idea. Robert Crumb was absolutely a user of LSD as well as a daily smoker of pot. He has dozens of comics discussing his personal experiences on LSD, and several interviews in which he recalls his trips - he claims that LSD broke open his “corporate-industrial America mindset” (or something to that effect, though I think that’s the term he used,) and seperated him from his ego.

Believe me. I’ve read almost everything he’s written or drawn. The man did LSD and plenty of it.

Doesn’t it? “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small . . .”


From The Brand New Monty Python Papperbokhttp://www.methuen.co.uk/brandnewmontypythonpapperbok.html:

Wait a minute, wait a minute! Drugs don’t cause hallucinations; they allow hallucinations. They inhibit the part of your brain that brutally sits on top of the brain’s unlimited imagination. A lucky few of us are naturally deficient in that limiting part of the brain. (Not me, dammit.)

Did you really think all those shimmering visions and dazzling cartoons were contained in that little pill you took, long ago? No, your mind did that. Pills aren’t that clever.

Those who point to the hookah-smoking caterpillar are ignoring the fact that most of the world’s hookahs, even today, are used for tobacco.

One of the most amusing parts of the hippie era was hearing giggling stoners who had stayed up all night and were watching Betty Boop and Popeye on Saturday morning. “Waaaaooow, man!” they’d say. “Those guys hadda be on acid! These cartoons are fantastic!” We are too quick to believe drugs are involved in the brilliant imaginations of artists. That’s my opinion.

I thought somebody mentioned it in a CS thread, but now I can’t find it.

The Liddell sisters weren’t collaborators at all, though – they were entirely passive as Dodgson spun his tale.

People often mistake the Alice stories for common nonsense – what you’d expect if they were based on situations posited by very young children and merely elaborated on by a clever writer. Not only does much of the content go over the heads of juveniles, it sails over the heads of most adults. The surrealism of the Alice books is largely due to their playful use of some very obscure elements of Classicism, and their supersaturation with sophisticated wordplay and trick logic.

They’re fun and funny, yes – but they’re also some of the most cryptic literary works ever set down.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s a pet peeve of mine for people to assume greats works of imagination are always linked to drugs! :slight_smile:

True. To anyone who’s interested, I recommend Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice.

Since he apparently was not a teetotaler (based on his twitting of a teetotaling politician in one story), presumably he had his pint of beer at the local pub. So that’s a “mind-altering substance”.

Hey - what’s everyone looking at me for? I don’t know…

We’ll ask you when you’re ten feet tall.