[ The Snap-dragon-fly — Illustration by John Tenniel to chapter 3, "Through the Looking Glass,"

The Snap-dragon-fly — Illustration to the third chapter of Through the Looking Glass by John Tenniel. Wood-engraving by the Dalziels. “Its body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy... [it lives on] Frumenty and mince-pie,” explains the Gnat in this chapter.

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Commentary by Ray Dyer

This illustration may be best considered when partnered with the following one, of the "bread-and-butter-fly," Both names rely, as did the previous one for the "rocking-horse-fly," on Lewis Carroll’s delight in reshaping and coining new words or expressions. Each time Alice offers the Gnat a name of a real insect from her world, the name is quickly extended into a new entity, by a process of linguistic condensation similar to portmanteau word-formation. When Alice offers "Dragon-fly," the Gnat immediately responds with the new "snap-dragon-fly," coined by Carroll’s word condensation with the snapdragon flower. When Alice then names "Butterfly," the Gnat names "Bread-and-Butterfly" (again, see next illustration), a condensation with the popular bread-and-butter simple meal. [Some editions vary in typography of these names. Consistency would demand "bread-and-butter-fly," though Carroll’s language could be stubbornly idiosyncratic when his fertile mind saw differing shades of meaning or new representation].

When the snap-dragon-fly is considered with its following illustration, the bread-and-butter-fly, the two could be seen as Carroll’s attempt to appeal to “all children,” rich and poor, as he would on more than one occasion declare as his mission. When some four years later, for example, he published his The Hunting of the Snark (1876), he instructed the publisher to include a loose insert - An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves "Alice." In his later children’s book Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, he was also careful to include characters who were simple farming folk of frugal means. In Chapter V, a chapter built around little Bessie, the farmer’s daughter, her mother places a piece of cake in front of Bruno, and questions him as to his knowledge of “wilful waste.” When Bruno admits to no such knowledge, the mother prompts Bessie to recite the appropriate moral poem: "For wilful waste makes woeful want, and you may live to say ‘How much I wish I had the crust that then I threw away!’"

The two Tenniel illustrations here under consideration could thus be said to represent the two sides of this dichotomy, of rich and poor. The snap-dragon-fly is the affluent partner, made of plum-pudding and holly leaves, with a head made of a raisin burning in brandy. It lives on frumenty and mince-pie. The bread-and-butter-fly is the frugal partner, with wings of thin slices of bread-and-butter, a body made of a crust and a head of a lump of sugar. It lives on weak tea with cream in it — and if it is unable to get any, it cannot survive. With this stratagem, Lewis Carroll thus aims his children’s works at all classes of people.


Carroll, Lewis. Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. London: Macmillan, 1893.

Commenary added 27 April 2021