Dune’s Sandworms and Alice in Wonderland’s Caterpillar Are Smoking the Same Stuff

Dune’s Sandworms and Alice in Wonderland’s Caterpillar Are Smoking the Same Stuff
Who are you? (Image: Disney/Warner Bros.)

It’s difficult to put your finger on what it is about classic stories like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that keeps us coming back to and reimagining them over and over again. But in the case of those two novels, at least some of the answer becomes clearer when you consider them as texts in rhyme with one another.

In Dune and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, young white people from privileged backgrounds find themselves transported to strange worlds where their senses of self and perceptions of reality are torn asunder while they’re under the influence of mind-altering substances. Different as the trappings of Alice and the Kwisatz Haderach’s respective adventures are, they both speak to our deep-seated, and often messy fascination with tales of people who become existentially lost (while blitzed) before finding themselves.

Before Dune brings Paul Atreides face-to-face with one of the awe-inspiring sandworms of Arrakis, or exposes him to the spice that unlocks new depths of his extraordinary abilities, the novel first details how the prince’s Bene Gesserit-trained powers of observation are what gives him his edge. Though most of what Paul understands about the universe is shaped by what he learns from watching his father and training with Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, Lady Jessica goes to great lengths to ensure that her son is raised as a royal who understands the power that comes from being calculating.

Imaginative as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s young heroine is, it’s debatable whether she might be able to see any of herself reflected in Paul Atreides and his far-flung life in other galaxies. But the way that Alice consistently clings to logic to ground herself as she tumbles deeper and deeper into Wonderland does compliment Dune’s depiction of Paul grappling with the transformational shifts in his life that follow his arrival on Arrakis. Compared to Paul — for whom spice is the main transformative catalyst — Alice ends up ingesting a much broader array of mysterious elixirs and baked goods that alter her in one way or another. But Arrakis and Wonderland can be read as similar places that immediately force Paul and Alice, respectively, to consider who they are in the grand scheme of their new environment.

Image: Macmillan Image: Macmillan

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is quite direct and literal about how Wonderland itself changes Alice before she downs an elixir that shrinks her to a minuscule size. Prior to her first size change, the many tiny doors she finds while chasing the White Rabbit down the hole effectively “make” Alice larger than she understands herself to be. Alice’s reasoning for drinking the liquid that makes her small has less to do with any wish to be a few inches tall, and more to do with her desire to travel further into Wonderland, a place that requires her to become many different versions of herself as she encounters new people.

Throughout Dune, Paul reflects on how simply being on Arrakis for an extended period of time begins to awaken a new kind of understanding of others that alarms him at first. This deeper perception is something Paul has in common with Lady Jessica, but one of Dune’s most pivotal moments focuses on the mother and son acknowledging how his exposure to the spice found in everything on Arrakis has begun to set the two apart in a profound manner. For all of the ways that spice sharpens Paul’s senses and provides him insight about the near future in flashes, he still stumbles through the present on Arrakis as the feud between Houses Atreides and Harkonnen dictate his day-to-day life.

Where Dune is much more explicit and direct in the way it deploys its ideas about narcotics and orientalist fetishism, Wonderland instead works in unsubtle metaphors couched in fantasy aimed at children. Though Wonderland’s caterpillar doesn’t feature as largely in that story as Dune’s sandworms do theirs, the characters play somewhat similar roles as embodiments of the Otherness that defines the places they come from. Wonderland never specifies what the caterpillar is puffing from the hookah he periodically takes drags from during his first encounter with Alice. But the novel’s specific mention of the caterpillar’s waterpipe works as a way of coding the creature as a kind of stand-in for the Middle Eastern and North African cultures and people associated with the device — both of which were the objects of intense, and often problematic, fascination during the late 19th century when Wonderland was first published.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Screenshot: Warner Bros.

The caterpillar’s foreignness to Alice is part of what both fascinates and confounds her about him as the two begin their circuitous discussion about who she is and how she might go about growing larger and smaller during her travels. When the caterpillar asks Alice who she is, she initially assumes that it’s merely asking for her name, but the caterpillar’s dissatisfaction with her answers speaks to how what he’s really looking for is a bit of introspection from the young girl. The true nature and long-lasting repercussions of Paul’s relationship with the sandworms are only hinted at in Herbert’s first Dune novel and in Denis Villeneuve’s first film. The novel’s creatures don’t question Paul directly about whether or not he knows if he’s the Kwisatz Haderach, but they play an important role in how he comes to understand his place on Arrakis. Confounding as Paul finds the sandworms at first, and the way they only seem interested in causing destruction, he begins to see them in a drastically different light as House Harkonnen moves on House Atreides in an attack that forces Paul to join forces with Chani and the rest of the Fremen.

The onset of Paul’s prophetic dreams about how his influence will affect the arc of history isn’t a direct result of anything the sandworms do to him, but as parts of Arrakis and the source of the planet’s spice, they’re a necessary component of the evolution he undergoes within Dune. Alice’s time in Wonderland — all of which turns out to be a dream — is more fanciful at times than the glimpses of the future Paul receives, but the images in both youths’ heads similarly leave them even more curious about the worlds around them than they first were.

As Martin Gardner notes in The Annotated Alice, Wonderland’s a novel that lends itself to an unknowable number of symbolic and allegorical interpretations — which is a feature rather than a bug with nonsensical prose. The parallels between Dune and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may be wholly coincidental, but it doesn’t make these shared narrative quirks any less curious and fascinating to think about.