There’s always been something slightly strange going on in the Mushroom Kingdom. Whether it’s Princess Peach’s dubious ability to reign effectively over her subjects, or the fact that a giant turtle dinosaur wants to continually abduct and marry said princess, Mario has definitely had his work cut out for him ever since he began his adventure in this peculiar land of sentient fungi.
But just how did Mario (and Luigi, for that matter) wind up here? And isn’t this whole thing with mushrooms just a little bit trippy? Well, dear readers, the answers to these perennial questions require us to follow a white rabbit down a particularly large rabbit-hole.
While the games themselves don’t give much away about how these plumbers found themselves warping through pipes and growing flight-inducing tanooki tails, the equally bizarre story of Alice in Wonderland might just shed some light on the origins of these now staple components of the Super Mario Bros. series. So without further ado, let’s dive into the weird and wonderful world of Wonderland and see what mysteries lie in wait for us.
They had no idea what they were letting themselves in for…
It’s been well documented that Mario and Luigi are both Italian-American plumbers who live in New York. Mario previously worked as a carpenter in Donkey Kong, but he swapped his hammer for a plunger when he and his brother took to fighting the evil creatures of the city sewers in the arcade game, Mario Bros. Then something remarkable happened– the ’80s.
Now having been born on the other side of the pond in the UK, I wasn’t exposed to the delights of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! But just after Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 were released back in the late ’80s, a curious back-story began to emerge for the portly plumber duo.
If you can stomach watching the first ten seconds of the super ’80s rap opening to The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!— you can watch it all if you really want to– then you’ll see that Mario and Luigi were transported to the Mushroom Kingdom by a strange portal that opened up in a New York drain pipe. Likewise, the much rarer Japanese anime film, Super Mario Bros: Peach-hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen (or SMB: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach) also shows Mario and Luigi falling down a pipe which warps them to the Mushroom Kingdom.
Contrast these magical descents down a set of pipes to the similarly fantastical fall of young Alice down the rabbit-hole and Bob’s your uncle (not a Bob Hoskins joke…). Moreover, whereas Alice ran after a white rabbit with a pocket-watch and a waistcoat, some of the sewer dwelling monsters of Mario’s New York look remarkably similar to the koopas we’ve come to know and love over the past 25 years.
…and all they wanted was to get back home to the Mushroom Kingdom.
So far, so surreal. But let’s move on to those mushrooms. When Alice encounters the blue caterpillar, he tells her that she will either grow taller or shorter depending on which side of his mushroom she decides to take a bite from. This scene will undoubtedly be ringing bells for Mario fans in the form of the red Super Mushroom and its evil twin, the purple Poison Mushroom.
Interestingly, Miyamoto has actually denied being influenced by Alice in Wonderland in this respect, and in the Iwata Asks: New Super Mario Bros. Wii interview he had this to offer as an explanation:
Iwata: By collecting a mushroom, Mario increases in size to become Super Mario. But why a mushroom?
Miyamoto: Well, the mushroom… When you think about Wonderland, you think about mushrooms, right? (laughs) Some time ago I was being interviewed and I spoke about Alice in Wonderland. But it seems there was some misunderstanding and it’s since been stated that I was influenced by Alice in Wonderland. That isn’t the case. It’s just that there has always somehow been a relationship between mushrooms and magical realms. That’s why I decided that Mario would need a mushroom to become Super Mario.
This is certainly true– since Shakespearean times there have been many instances in literature where mushrooms have been used to denote a theme of magic and fairies, and one recurring image in particular is the idea of a mushroom “fairy ring” which acts as a gateway into an alternate elfin kingdom (if you’re particularly interested in reading more on this topic then check out this).
So while Mario’s mushrooms might not have taken their cue from Alice in Wonderland, I’d argue that there are still traces of the tale’s themes and ideas hidden within the Mushroom Kingdom, particularly in Mario’s power-ups.
Of course, we don’t see Alice spouting fireballs from her hands or stomping around in a giant shoe, but she does go through a multitude of other transformations aside from her continual changes in height. One example of this occurs just after Alice has met the blue caterpillar and takes a bite of the mushroom. She grows so tall that she gets stuck in a tree, but her neck also grows completely out of proportion so that it’s able to “bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent.” She curves her neck down in “a graceful zig-zag” and dives back into the leaves, only to be hissed at by a pigeon who believes she’s a snake come to steal its eggs. Alice fiercely refutes this, but the pigeon isn’t convinced and the following exchange occurs:
“I’ve seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You’re a serpent; and there’s no use denying it. I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!”
“I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do you know.”
“I don’t believe it,” said the Pigeon; “but if they do, why then they’re a kind of serpent, that’s all I can say.”
Alice is stunned into silence by this answer, and her reaction mimics an earlier response she had when she’s trying to figure out why she keeps changing:
“But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?”
She considers whether she’s actually become one of her friends and gets into a general muddle over rhymes she used to know by heart and whether London is in fact the capital of Paris. She eventually overcomes her brief identity crisis, but I think this question can equally be applied to Mario when he uses his power-ups.
Is Mario really the same person when he suddenly acquires the ability to create fire from the palm of his hand? Is he the same man when he gains the power of flight, or when he turns into a stone statue, however briefly? Have all his years as a man who can seemingly turn his hand to every sport under the sun been a secret ploy to challenge the very essence of Mario’s identity? Probably not, but there’s no denying that his physical transformations are certainly a lot more drastic than those of Alice, and the most potent example is this is Mario’s complete metamorphosis into a rock when he dons the tanooki suit.
And let’s not forget the ending either-– in true Super Mario Bros. 2 style, Alice suddenly wakes up back in the lap of her sister just after she gets attacked by a pack of cards, realising that her whole adventure has been little more than a dream. In the same way, as Mario chucks his last vegetable-projectile at the evil Wart and the victory parade begins to start up, the camera pulls back unexpectedly to reveal another snoozing Mario fast asleep in his night-cap, dreaming about the very adventure the player has just completed.
All in all, then, I’d say that the Super Mario Bros. series actually draws quite heavily on the themes and ideas proposed in Alice in Wonderland, with or without the inclusion of mushrooms. Even if you dispute whether the cartoon or the anime film form part of the official Mario canon, there’s still the little things like the repeated cloud and hedge design in Super Mario Bros. that echoes some of the mathematical puzzles held within the pages of the story, as well as Giant Land in Super Mario Bros. 3 and the whole mechanic of jumping into paintings through-the-looking-glass style in Super Mario 64.
So, does this make Bowser the Jabberwock? Is Lakitu the jubjub bird? Are piranha plants a variation of the bandersnatch? In the words of Alice herself, “let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all.” Which do you think it was?