Literature In Lyrics: Alice In Wonderland

by Amanda Flinner

In our Literature In Lyrics series, we look at how famous books have inspired songwriters and worked their way into song lyrics. Here, it's Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

It doesn't seem likely that a children's novel from 1865 would find its way into a psychedelic hit from the '60s. That is, until you take a closer look at Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the story of a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a world of talking animals and shape-shifting substances. Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane thought the whole thing sounded like an LSD trip and borrowed pieces of the plot for the band's 1967 hit "White Rabbit," named for the novel's humanlike hare. For this edition of Literature In Lyrics, we look at more songs inspired by Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.
I found myself in Wonderland
Get back on my feet again
Is this real?
Is this pretend?
I'll take a stand until the end

- "Alice" by Avril Lavigne

Like Avril, several artists wrote and performed Alice-inspired tunes for Tim Burton's 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, but let's take a look at songs specifically inspired by the book rather than the movie. In the 1865 children's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, young Alice tumbles down a rabbit hole and discovers a world full of anthropomorphic creatures and magical food that has the power to alter her size. Her journey starts at the end of the rabbit hole, where she comes upon a hallway lined with doors, big and small.

She ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
There are doors that let you in
And out
But never open
But they are trapdoors
That you can't come back from

- "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" by Radiohead

Once Alice realizes all the doors are locked, she starts to think she'll be trapped in the hallway forever. Her plight inspired Radiohead's 2001 "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," but Thom Yorke was more concerned with what was on the other side of the doors.

"I was sort of in that corridor, mentally for six months," the Radiohead frontman explained. "And that was an extremely central part, for me, what I was writing. 'Cos every door I opened, it was like, dreading opening it. 'Cos I didn't know what was gonna happen next."

As for Alice, she spies an idyllic garden beyond one of the doors, only she's too big to fit through the tiny entrance – until she discovers a curious bottle labeled "DRINK ME."

I'll take another drink me, baby
Slowly I'll disappear

- "Drink Me" by Anna Nalick

After some hesitation, Alice guzzles the strange liquid and shrinks down to 10 inches, the perfect size to enter the garden door – only it's locked, and she's much too small to reach the key on a now too-tall table.

This bottle was not marked "poison," so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off.
For her 2005 song "Drink Me," Anna Nalick took inspiration from an Alice In Wonderland reference in John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. The singer explained: "There is a character in there who was beautiful her whole life, but she's a very disturbed little girl. And as she gets old, realizes that her looks are gone and that she's ready to go, she drinks a bottle of poison and she imagines that she's like Alice in Wonderland, slowly getting smaller and smaller and smaller until she finally fades away."

Alice does worry about disappearing completely. "For it might end, you know, in my going out altogether, like a candle," she says. But when she devours a tiny cake, with EAT ME spelled out in currants, she grows... and grows... and grows...

Go ask Alice, when she's ten-feet tall
- "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic 1967 hit "White Rabbit" was inspired by Alice's trippy journey through a land filled with mind-altering substances. It's no wonder children grew up to be curious about drugs, says the band's singer, Grace Slick. "They'd read us all these stories where you'd take some kind of chemical and have a great adventure."

"White Rabbit" is populated with characters from Lewis Carroll's story, including a caterpillar who draws wisdom from a pipe.

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call

After several bouts of growing big and small, a brain-addled Alice comes across a blue, hookah-smoking caterpillar perched atop a magic mushroom. He instructs her to use pieces of the shroom to regulate her height. Her next stop is the Duchess' house nearby, where she meets another fantastical creature: the Cheshire Cat.

She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.
Didn't you flash your green eyes at me?
Didn't you calm my fears with a Cheshire Cat smile?

- "Wonderland" by Taylor Swift

Alice stumbles upon a chaotic scene in the Duchess' kitchen, where the cook is hurling dishes and causing everyone to sneeze with an overabundance of pepper. When she's put in charge of a baby who turns into a pig, Alice is ready to call it a day. She sees the Cheshire Cat chilling on a tree branch and asks him for guidance. After warning her that everyone in Wonderland is quite mad, he gives her directions to the homes of the March Hare and the Hatter. Then he fades out of sight, leaving only his smile behind.

Taylor Swift alludes to the scene in her 2014 song "Wonderland," where she compares falling in love to tumbling down the rabbit hole and finding Wonderland. Swifties concluded the green-eyed guy with the Cheshire Cat smile is Taylor's ex-boyfriend Harry Styles.

The Mad Hatter he waits for Alice
To come to tea again

– "Sherry Fraser" by Marcy Playground

Alice arrives at the March Hare's house in the middle of a tea party where the Hatter and other Wonderland inhabitants are present. She quickly learns the Cheshire Cat was right – everyone in this fantasy world is a bit loony, including this Hatter who bothers her with nonsense riddles.

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep.
"Sherry Fraser" appeared on Marcy Playground's 1997 debut album, which also featured their Top 10 hit "Sex and Candy." John Wozniak and the song's namesake dated as teens and – he told us - they both loved acid and Alice In Wonderland. In the song, Wozniak waits for his old lover's return just as the Mad Hatter waits for Alice to come to tea again. The band continued the Alice In Wonderland theme on their 2009 album, Leaving Wonderland... In A Fit Of Rage (with artwork by none other than Sherry Fraser).

The knights are gathered at her side
To watch the game unfold
Careful where you tread
You may lose your head

- "Queen of Hearts" by Saxon

After leaving the tea party in a huff, Alice makes her way to the Queen of Hearts' croquet ground, where anthropomorphic playing cards are setting up a croquet game with flamingos and hedgehogs as implements. Alice witnesses the temperamental queen's ire when she orders beheadings at the slightest inconvenience – which is a sign of things to come. Near the end of the story, the queen falsely accuses Alice of stealing her tarts, and orders, "Off with her head!" Only when she realizes she's dealing with a pack of cards does Alice awake from her stupor, finding herself back in the real world.

Why, they're on a pack of cards, after all. I needn't be afraid.
"Queen of Hearts" by the heavy metal band Saxon was inspired by two monarchs from the Alice universe: the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen. The latter, who appears in the 1871 sequel, Through The Looking-Glass, challenges Alice to an elaborate chess match that could end with Alice becoming a queen herself. Saxon's lyrics revolve around the game, but the stakes are deadly and doled out by the Queen of Hearts: "Careful where you tread, you may lose your head."

Alice's next adventure, Through the Looking-Glass, also inspired several musicians, including John Lennon. He had the book in mind when he wrote the famous Beatles tunes "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" and "I Am The Walrus."

Previous entry: The Catcher In The Rye

May 23, 2020
More Song Writing

Comments: 3

  • Lonnie Cook (doowopsvoice) from Santa Ana, CaliforniaThe first song i know of that talks about "Alice in wonderland" was one that was instrumental in influencing my writing. It is from over 60 years ago by Neil Sedaka.
  • Crabalocker Fishwife from HannoverAre you only looking at Alice in Wonderland or also Through the Looking Glass? If you include the latter you cannot leave out I am the Walrus by the Beatles
  • Skyler from NevadaThey need to add melanie martinez's mad hatter song in this list.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Top American Idol Moments: Songs And Scandals

Top American Idol Moments: Songs And ScandalsSong Writing

Surprise exits, a catfight and some very memorable performances make our list of the most memorable Idol moments.

Joe Jackson

Joe JacksonSongwriter Interviews

Joe talks about the challenges of of making a Duke Ellington tribute album, and tells the stories behind some of his hits.

Artis the Spoonman

Artis the SpoonmanSong Writing

Even before Soundgarden wrote a song about him, Artis was the most famous spoon player of all time. So why has he always been broke?

Little Richard

Little RichardFact or Fiction

Was Long Tall Sally a cross-dresser? Did he really set his piano on fire? See if you know the real stories about one of rock's greatest innovators.

Don Brewer of Grand Funk

Don Brewer of Grand FunkSongwriter Interviews

The drummer and one of the primary songwriters in Grand Funk talks rock stardom and Todd Rundgren.

The Untold Story Of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine

The Untold Story Of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary MachineSong Writing

Fiona's highly-anticipated third album almost didn't make it. Here's how it finally came together after two years and a leak.