Down the Rabbit Hole
Digital Volunteer Kyla Hill has been digging into the connection between the cathedral’s architecture and Lewis Carroll’s famous characters. She brings his fantastical world to life with her own creative take using a mixture of research and story writing.
December 28, 2023
The famed children’s author Lewis Carroll has long been associated with Oxford for his Alice novels, published in 1865. What is not as well known about his life, is his long-standing connection with Ripon Cathedral, where it is thought that several architectural features inspired his stories. Though my research, I have examined the Mayoral stall and wooden carvings for their connection to his infamous characters.
Jump to Sections
The Carroll Connection
Lewis Carroll was born Charles Dodgson in Derbyshire England as the oldest son to nine siblings. Dodgson’s father was archdeacon of Richmond and rector of Croft on the Yorkshire/Durham border. In 1852, when Dodgson was twenty years old, his father, Charles Sr. became Canon of Ripon Cathedral where the children were forced to live for thirteen weeks out of the year. Dodgson spent his Sunday mornings in the quiet north Yorkshire town.
Dodgson’s introverted nature and position as “gentleman” within the community meant that he rarely socialised with families outside of the clergy during his winters at Ripon. He most likely spent many hours in the Cathedral studying the architecture, lost in his imagination. As son of the Canon, he would have been extremely familiar with the layout of the Cathedral and its various historical features. For example, the wooden carving on the back of the mayoral misericord in the quire shows a gryphon chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole that is thought to be his inspiration for Alice’s departure down the rabbit hole.
Ripon as a whole, is rich with Wonderland inspiration. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Henry George Liddell, father to Alice, was sent to Bishopton Grove School in Ripon where he spent several miserable years. Ironically, the principal of Ripon College became father to the “Alice” depicted in original illustrations for the book. After Charles Dodgson’s own unsuccessful attempts at illustrating his novel, he enlisted cartoonist John Tenniel to bring his stories to life. Whilst searching for a model for his Alice character, Dodgson was shown a photograph of Mary Badcock, daughter of principal Reverend Badcock and was granted permission for illustrations.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first told in Oxford in July 1862 after a decade visiting Ripon. By the 1860/70s Sir George Gilbert Scott carried out a major restoration of the quire area but Dodgson would have been long familiar with strange carvings in the stalls, the Anglo-Saxon crypt and decorative sculptures on the walls. Perhaps this familiarity was due in part to Canon Dodgson’s unsuccessful but eager attempts at creating daily evening services in the Cathedral, allowing the imagination of the future Lewis Carroll run wild.
The Gryphon Misericord
The cathedral quire houses incredibly intricate wood carvings detailed upon individual bench stalls. One such seat, the mayor’s stall, holds misericord that depicts a gryphon and a rabbit. The low relief sculpture shows a vicious gryphon chasing a rabbit who is moments from leaping into his burrow. There are three openings to the burrow where one rabbit can be seen leaping into the tunnel. The gryphon’s talon touches the rabbit leaving the viewer unsure about the ending of the scene. Does the gryphon lose the rabbit before it jumps into a hole? Or does the rabbit succumb to the Gryphon’s strength?
Similar to the carved Gryphon, Carroll creates the character of the Gryphon, which features in chapters 9-11 of Alice and Wonderland. He has a slight cockney accent, coughs uncontrollably, and is sentenced to bring Alice to the red queen.
“They very soon came upon a Gryphon, lying fast asleep in the sun. “Up, lazy thing!” said the Queen, “and take this young lady to see the Mock Turtle, and to hear his history. I must go back and see after some executions I have ordered;” and she walked off, leaving Alice alone with the Gryphon. Alice did not quite like the look of the creature, but on the whole she thought it would be quite as safe to stay with it as to go after that savage Queen: so she waited.”
This piece of creative writing is inspired by Carroll spending time in the cathedral:
Listen to an excerpt here:
The grey toned morning sky filtered through the dusty panes, relics of bygone centuries of art and religious fervor. Charles shivered under his woolen coat. He longed for the southern air, memories of Oxford and warmer mornings floating amidst his thoughts. His thoughts of wild daisies and iced cakes are interrupted by a loud cough from the reverend. He was typically monotonous and slow to make any loud noise for fear of jubilance. Mr. Dodgson eyed his son at his sudden jump. Charles, as the oldest boy, sat next to the archdeacon, his father, who had been appointed rector of Ripon Cathedral when Charles was twenty. Perhaps, he would be able to bear the dull, cold mornings, if he was permitted to sit on the brilliantly carved stalls. Royals, used to sit here he had been told reverently by his father who now sang loudly from the medieval seats.
Charles blew a breath of frigid air from his lips. February seemed to last forever and ever. The choir began a solemn refrain of some melancholy melody. It felt, to Charles, like a sharp bell reverberating throughout the frigid space. Even that, after a moment, sunk into the ancient, worn stones and he once more felt himself drifting into a frozen reverie. Upon the offering part of the service, a man in thick velvet robes sidled through the space. Charles turned to drop his coins into the dusty basket. He found himself studying the sculpted animals that perpetually faced the congregation. The Gryphon and Rabbit stall was used specially for the Lord Mayor. This meant that the wood carvings seldom looked at the floor.
He considered this a great reprieve from the quiet drone. The Gryphon and the Rabbit, locked in an endless chase. Charles squinted at the medieval wood and marveled at the centuries old carvings. Had he been younger (or much closer) he would have liked to poke his finger into the burrow hole where the rabbit leapt. How very curious for the gryphon to race after a rabbit. Surely Gryphons had other, more important business to attend to, being fantastical made up creatures after all. Perhaps, the rabbit had been late for service like Charles almost was that morning. Maybe the Gryphon wanted to see what was kept in that hidden burrow, but then again, maybe he just wanted dinner- Charles also wanted dinner. He found himself longing to escape into the burrow hole, behind that hasty rabbit, where perhaps a realm of gryphons and teas were awaiting him
The Queen and the Cat
“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed “Off with her head!”
Hidden amongst the arches of the cathedral there is a striking figure of a lady standing atop a bodiless cat. The pair are painted gold and rest upon a red beam which contrasts with the muted tones of the stone behind them. The smiling lady is adorned with a crown and an unsheathed sword. Her hand rests dutifully on her heart. The queen stands proudly in her pulpit, perhaps unaware of the wide-eyed cat, hiding underneath her. It is easy to draw the comparison between the Queen of Hearts, who is known as an imposing presence, surveying her court with arrogant pride. The sword placed upon the facade of the pulpit she stands in seems to denote the nature of her reign. Her character is that of a warrior, or in the case of Alice in Wonderland, tyrant. The bodiless cat, whose wide-eyed features show the personality of Alice’s Cheshire cat. The combination of the two together make an unmistakable connection to the young Dodgson’s inspiration.
Queen of Hearts
“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion – a blind and aimless fury.” – Alice on the Stage, an article written by Carroll
It is rumoured that the infamous Queen of Hearts, heady with rage and ‘ungovernable passion’ is a caricature of Queen Victoria, a comparison set in stone by Jonathan Miller’s 1966 television series of Alice. Queen Victoria was renowned as a powerful monarch whose husband, Prince Albert, was consistently second to his dear wife. This power dynamic echoes that of the Queen of Hearts, a woman to who assumes power over everyone.
“Would you tell me, “said Alice, a little timidly, “why you are painting those roses?”
She may also be a reference to Queen Margaret of the House of Lancaster, the original arbiter of “the roses must be red,” as she proudly used a red rose as a symbol of her house in the War of the Roses. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice sees three playing cards painting white roses with red paint. The Queen of Hearts threatened the soldiers with death if they couldn’t produce the red roses she demanded after they accidentally planted white ones. This plays into the Victorian stereotype of violent queens in the 15th and 16th centuries, which Carroll would have been familiar with when writing the book. Monarchs such as Elizabeth I and Queen Mary and Queen Margaret were believed to be rabid supporters of executions and in particular, beheadings!
The Cheshire Cat
“We’re all mad here”
The remarkable mischievous smile, distinctive of the invisible cat has always been iconic to readers. The phrase ‘Cheshire cat’ originated in the 18th century and refers to the well-fed dairy cats in the Cheshire region of England. However, Carroll’s own Cheshire cat may well also be partly inspired the carving in the cathedral where a cat-like face without a body sticks his tongue out in crazed enthusiasm from underneath the skirts of a queen.
In the book, the Cheshire Cat belongs to the Duchess. He is an intangible trickster, appearing around Wonderland seemingly whenever Alice least expects him. He is known for his short, sometimes wise, and always perplexing phrases as he gradually appears or disappears. Always leaving a lingering smile behind. His demeanor is marked by cunning wit, mischief, and mysterious conversation. Lewis Carroll’s character is most notably beheaded by the Queen of Hearts, though he escapes by disappearing his body before his mischievous grin.
In medieval folklore, creatures called “Blemmyes” existed as mystical, wise ambassadors to their otherworld. These creatures were humanoid with the notable exception that their face was placed in their chest, and they were otherwise headless. The connection between medieval Blemmyes and Lewis Carroll as Ripon Cathedral knew him, is a tenuous yet established one. It has long been thought that Dodgson’s Humpty Dumpty and Mr. Nobody and Mr. Somebody are direct inspirations of the Blemmyes stall. However, in a broader sense, the idea of the Blemmyes creature may be widely used in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
For young Alice, several humanoid creatures with disproportionate features appear to guide and instruct her throughout Wonderland, ie. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb, the Duchess, the Queen of Hearts. These exaggerated characters seem to represent a playful looseness with the human form in that mystical land where everything is not quite right. As Alice delves further into Wonderland, the surreal nature of the realm dances lightly between slight variations in rationale and a total disregard of logic.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – The White Queen to Alice.
This near-humanness in many ways adequately describes Ripon Cathedral. In a house of God, where death and resurrection, Anglo-Saxon and Victorian life exist side by side, it is not so “impossible” to imagine that Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, found inspiration here.
Written by Kyla Hill, Digital Volunteer