We are all familiar with the entertaining fictional character of the Cheshire Cat, popularized in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland novel.
Illustration by John Tenniel (1866) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
But where did this intriguing character originate from and did it (as with other stories of great renown) have an origin from somewhere or something else?
Francis Grose (1788) in ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue‘ referenced the term of ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat’ as the act of laughing and smiling that was used by the general population. The ‘Brewers Dictionary’ states that the term refers to an old Cheshire cheese that was shaped into the form of a cat, eaten from tail end to the head (which of course was the last part of the animal to disappear) and the face was shaped to resemble that of a grinning cat.
The Lewis Carroll Society in 1992 attributed the creation of the character to a gargoyle found in St. Nicolas Church in Cranleigh, where Lewis Carroll used to visit while he lived there (although this is questionable as he moved there after he had written Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
By far the most likely explanation is the influence of Lewis Carroll’s father, Reverend Charles Dodgson. He was Rector of Croft Church and the Archdeacon of Richmond in North Yorkshire. Lewis lived there from 1843 to 1850 and would have seen the carving of the Croft Cat inside the church.
Just as Tolkien would have most likely influenced by Aesop and his story of the Fir Tree and the Bramble, when creating the Ents, so Lewis Carroll would have most likely been influenced by local stories, objects and even cheeses! This is not a criticism, far from it, but a celebration of how stories and things from the past can play a wonderful part in creating memorable characters that we all cherish today.