This or that?
One or the other?
Alice had asked the same of the Cheshire Cat oh so long ago:
‘What sort of people live about here?’
‘In THAT direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare.’….After a minute or two Alice walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. ‘I've seen hatters before,’ she said to herself; ‘the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won't be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.’
She had not gone much farther before she came in sight of the house of the March Hare: she thought it must be the right house, because the chimneys were shaped like ears and the roof was thatched with fur.
The March Hare’s house is nothing more than rubble. The foundations are all that’s standing; keystones at each of four corners, delineating a domicile no longer there. Hewn timber beams, splintered and scattered, are all that remain of the roof, the rabbit ear chimneys gone. The surrounding lawns have grown wild, the grass at certain intervals almost knee high. It was here on this verdant expanse that a massive table had been laid for tea time; a perpetual tea time, one that promised to stretch on into eternity. But that promise was broken and time returned, took hold, held sway, swept away. The table collapsed, its cloth, its napkins and cozies, riven and rotted. The profusion of chairs that lined either side, erect and straight-backed, like soldiers awaiting orders, withered, their joints swelling, loosening, giving way, their whittled wood decaying. A large armchair that had stood at the table’s head—the large armchair in which Alice had situated herself when sitting down without being invited—is reduced to its naked frame and jute webbing, its springs lounge in the shade of a leafless tree, scraps of worn burgundy velvet clinging. Bone china crunches underfoot. The tea things—the cups and saucers, the pots, the plates, the milk jug and sugar bowl, the forks and spoons—all broken, bent or buried. (It is just such a broken tea cup, just such a bent spoon that is recovered and removed.)
And what of the curious trio who once made up this mad tea party?
One can only surmise.
The March Hare was most likely a humble European brown hare (Lepus europaeus). And that old adage, “mad as a March hare”, was due to the species’ erratic and bizarre behaviour during the third month of the year, the thirty-one days that made up its breeding season. Their odd actions consist of boxing other hares, jumping vertically into the air for seemingly no reason, or remaining stone still, staring. An early fourteenth-century record of this strangeness appeared in the poem Blowbol’s Test, where it was said:
Thanne þey begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare
(Then they begin to swerve and to stare, And be as brainless as a March hare)
Hares live only four to five years in the wild; such a civilized example as the March Hare would probably have made it to seven or eight. Or he might just as well have ended up in a nice pot of Hasenpfeffer.
The Dormouse was almost certainly a specimen of the hazel dormouse or common dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) that is prevalent in English isles. They are mainly nocturnal, which is perhaps why the little fellow Alice met on that late-spring day in May, couldn’t keep his eyes open. Their name is actually based on this drowsy trait; it comes from Anglo-Norman dormeus, which means “sleepy”. In Elizabethan times, dormouse fat—whether eaten or rubbed on the limbs—was thought to induce a snooze. These tiny rodents have a life expectancy that matches that of the European brown hare (see above).
And what of that Hatter?
The Hatter probably eventually succumbed to mercurialism, the slow poisoning of the system by mercuric nitrate. Mercury, that shock of fluid silver, that lethal liquid metal, was used throughout the nineteenth-century in the process of making felt, and felt was needed for making hats. Hence hatters were contaminated, progressively, by the vapors until their brains shrunk, and dementia set in—thus giving rise to another old adage, “mad as a hatter”. Other symptoms of the malady include red fingers, red toes, red cheeks, sweating, and loss of hearing, bleeding from the ears and mouth, loss of teeth, hair, and nails, lack of coordination, excruciating shyness, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, and dizziness.
Sadly, given the brief natural lifespans of his fellow partiers, the Hatter would have soon been left alone at the table.
Maybe by that time his madness was so acute he failed to even notice.