Monthly Marvel: Cheshire Cat

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. The Cheshire cat, known mostly for its grin, is this month’s wonder.


CHESHIRE CAT

This week’s fantastic being is the Cheshire cat.

Image source: the Namesake webcomic (www.namesakecomic.com/), by Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon, who hold copyright. Used with permission.

Image source: the Namesake webcomic (www.namesakecomic.com/), by Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon, who hold copyright. Used with permission.

Although it was popularized by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the grinning Cheshire cat is actually older. Francis Grose’s 1788 A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue defines a Cheshire cat as a metaphor: “He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.” It might be that cats in Cheshire grin because of the abundance of milk and cheese in that dairy-cow-rich county, or it might be that cheeses once sold in Cheshire had a mould shaped like a cat which looked as though it might be grinning. The cheese was cut from the tail end, meaning that the last part to disappear was that smiling cat head. But then there are cats carved of sandstone grinning on St. Wilfrid’s Church tower in Grappenhall, Cheshire, near Carroll’s own birthplace. In The Book of Imaginary Beings Jorge Luis Borges notes that there was a gamewarden named Caterling in the time of Richard III who smiled whenever he crossed swords with poachers. And on it goes.

You and I both know the truth: Cheshire cats live not in Cheshire but in Wonderland. In Wonderland Cheshire cats can appear and disappear at will and engage in vexing conversation. When one such cat vanishes bit by bit, until nothing is left but that grin, Alice comments that she has often see a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat—which is almost certainly untrue, since dogs grin all the time. Walt Disney reports that the striped feline can separate his body parts and rearrange them as he pleases; Jasper Fforde observes that the cat is an overseer in the Great Library, but has been renamed the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat because place names change. In my opinion, however, Namesake has the best version: the Cheshire cats have nine lives, of course, and secretly rule Wonderland on the strength of being cats, who are always in charge.

Image source: the Namesake webcomic (www.namesakecomic.com/), by Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon, who hold copyright. Used with permission.

Image source: the Namesake webcomic (www.namesakecomic.com/), by Megan Lavey-Heaton and Isabelle Melançon, who hold copyright. Used with permission.

The Cheshire cat has a possible relative in the grinning Catbus that uses its hollow body—complete with windows and fur-covered seats—and its many caterpillar-like legs to bus forest spirits like Totoro around in the film My Neighbor Totoro. A young Catbus is called a Kittenbus. In June 2013 scientists named a species of velvet worm Eoperipatus totoro because it resembled the Catbus.

Posted by Christian H

 

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