If you’re going to watch a heart-string tugging Christmas special with children on or around the holidays, why you’re not watching the 1966 animated adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is beyond me. Hell, I used to babysit for twins who liked watching it in the middle of August, and why not? The Grinch both steals and saves Christmas (spoiler alert!), so it’s best to feel comfortable about that well before December hits. The point is, the original 1957 picture book and the ‘66 cartoon version are genius and showcase Theodore Geisel at possibly the tippy-top of his powers. Not only does The Grinch story make Christmas vaguely secular with a snap of its fingers, it does so without offending anyone and with silly amounts of originality.
But just what are the Whos down in Whoville? Are they human? What is the Grinch? What’s the connection between these Whos and the Whos living on the speck-of-dust planet in Horton Hears a Who!? Are those Whos who Horton heard the same species of Whos of which Cyndi Lou Who (who was not more than two) is a member?
Taken in order of publication, Horton Hears a Who!—the immortal story of the awesome elephant Horton rescuing an entire miniature world situated on a speck of dust—was released in 1954, three full years before How the Grinch Stole Christmas. If we take Horton as the establishing text defining the Who society, then it stands to reason the creatures we see in Grinch are all located on that same microscopic world. This means then, that Horton is totally responsible for saving Christmas, too, at least the Christmas located on the Who Planet.
But, the technology the Whos possess in Horton Hears a Who! is noticeably more advanced than what the Whos in Whoville seem to have in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! It’s possible to suggest a few explanations for this, the simplest of which is that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a prequel to Horton Hears a Who!, the former taking place in the distant past of a less-populated and pre-industrial Who society. This seems likely enough, but it is sort of weird that an entire race of people called “Whos” would name their main city “Whoville.” I mean, people probably didn’t start calling things “Personville” until Dashiell Hammett showed up. We can give the Whos a pass on this oddity if only because we know what a bonkers culture they are.
Alternately, if we assume the Whos have a little more sanity than demonstrated in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, then perhaps that book is actually a story which exists inside Who culture. It might be one of their oldest fables, perhaps even approaching religious significance. The Whos we see in Horton Hears a Who! are scientific and complex, whereas as the Whos in How the Grinch Stole Christmas are sort of wishy-washy earthy-crunchy. These folks then, might simply be the fictional representation of ideal Whos, while the Whos in Horton are the, um, “real” Whos. To be fair, neither explanation is totally clean and it still doesn’t explain why they speak English or inherited Christmas from what is essentially an outside world, but the connection starts to make a little more sense.
What’s more fun is to theorize that the Whos (either versions) are aliens. A speck of dust flying around our world is a good way to describe Earth whipping around the sun. A giant space elephant might be totally responsible for our salvation too, and perhaps even our creation. (This is basically the philosophical core of Prometheus, right? Only in that one the space elephant turns on us?)
A little more evidence that the Whos are aliens can be found in their visible biology. Little Cyndi Lou Who appears to only have one leg, which she sort of floats on, like a kind of land mermaid. Of course, we also see other Whos with two legs, leading some among us to theorize that maybe Whos only grow their second leg once they’re two years old. Further, if we assume the Grinch is a Who (who simply transformed into the Grinch because he was an asshole) then we discover these creatures have the ability to change the size of their hearts and, miraculously, their eye colors. This notion is contradicted in the blasphemously apocryphal Jim Carrey live action version of the story in which they reveal the Grinch has always been green and ugly. This doesn’t work for me. Instead I like to think of The Grinch as a more Gollum/Sméagol character. His dark tendencies transformed him not just emotionally, but physically, too.
So is the Grinch a Who or not? In the story, when he’s saving the sleigh, there’s a line about him being as strong as “10 Grinches, plus 2” implying a “Grinch” is its own species. But, if we apply the idea that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is metafiction inside of Horton Hears a Who!, then this can easily be dismissed as clever wordplay.
What’s that you say? It’s all just clever wordplay? If you think that’s true, then wait until next time, when I explain why One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is Dr. Seuss’s Ulysses. Until then, we can all head into the holiday season looking for tiny specks of dust containing goofy aliens who hold the spirit of Christmas in their hearts forever.
Some aspects of this article appeared in a slightly different form on Tor.com in 2011
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.