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Introduction "Jabberwocky" is probably Carroll's most well-known poem. It is the first of many nonsense poems set into the text of the beloved English novel Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1872, six years after the more commonly known Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Because the poem employs conventional structures of grammar and many familiar words, however, it is not "pure nonsense." In fact, while both books were composed for the ten-year-old Alice Liddell, it is generally accepted that Carroll's studies in logic firmly ground the thought beneath the imaginative works, so that adults find as much to appreciate in the novels and poetry as children. The importance of "Jabberwocky" as a central focus of meaning for the novel is indicated by Carroll's intention that the drawing of the Jabberwock should appear as the title-page illustration for Through the Looking-Glass.
In the novel, Alice goes through a mirror into a room and world where things are peculiarly backward. She finds a book in a language she doesn't know, and when she holds the book up to a mirror, or looking-glass, she is able to read "Jabberwocky," a mock-heroic ballad in which the identical first and last four lines enclose five stanzas charting the progress of the hero: warning, setting off, meditation and preparation, conquest, and triumphant return. The four lines that open and close the poem were published originally in 1855 as Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. It is this stanza that Humpty Dumpty, whom Alice meets shortly after reading the poem, takes pains to explicate. While the meaning of the poem is obscured by its nonsense elements, and general interpretations widely vary, Humpty Dumpty's explication is certainly much less helpful in discovering meaning in "Jabberwocky" than Alice's initial response:
"Somehow it fills my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate--"
Author Biography Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on January 27, 1832, in Daresbury, Cheshire; he was the eldest son of a clergyman in the Church of England. At a young age, Dodgson began writing humorous poetry and demonstrated an aptitude for mathematics. After completing his education at home and at schools in Richmond and Rugby, he began studies at Oxford at the age of 18. Two and a half years later Dodgson was made a fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, and assumed a position as lecturer in mathematics. In 1856 he began writing humorous pieces for journals under the pen name Lewis Carroll, which was based on Latin translations of his first and second names. 1856 was also the year Dodgson met Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of Christ Church, who later served as the model for the protagonist of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the other "Alice" books. Four years later Dodgson's first mathematical treatise was published. He remained at Oxford for the rest of his life, lecturing until 1881 and writing a variety of scholarly works on mathematics and logic as well as his poetry, fiction, and essays. He died in Guildford, Surrey, England on January 14, 1898.
Poem Text 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. "Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The frumious Bandersnatch!" He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought. And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came! One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back. "And, hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy. 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. Poem Summary Lines 1-4: Carroll explicitly defined certain words when the first stanza of this poem was published as a poem in its own right as "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." He provided a glossary, or list of meanings, for some of the unfamiliar words; this list was later incorporated into Humpty Dumpty's explication in Alice in Wonderland. The first line begins with the now archaic English contraction for "It was" and contains the noun "brillig" which Carroll says comes from the broiling or grilling done in the early evening (br + ill + i[n]g) in preparation for dinner. "Toves" are supposedly badger-like creatures, and the adjective "slithy" is a portmanteau made up of "lithe" and "slimy." The definition offered for "gyre" in the second line is "to scratch"; "gimble" is defined as "to bore holes." Carroll has directed us to pronounce these both with a hard "g." However, in American English "gyre" is pronounced with the soft sound of the "j" in "june." Furthermore, "gyre" as a noun in its own right means "to circle," so it makes sense that its use as a verb might have that same meaning. "Gimble" is said to be associated with the noun "gimlet," "a small tool for boring holes." "Wabe" is defined by Carroll as "the side of a hill," but the explanation proposed by Alice as a portmanteau of "way + before/ behind" seems much more helpful. Thus, the line can be read, quite poetically, as "Did spin and spike in the way beyond." The second line ends with a semi-colon in some versions of the poem, but with a colon in the last version edited by Carroll. A semi-colon would indicate a lesser break than a period, establishing two independent thoughts connected into one sentence. A colon suggests a further amplification of, or elaboration on, what has already been said, and in fact in this case the colon might stand for a break plus the word "however": "It was evening and the toves were having a great time [; however,] the borogoves weren't very happy and the raths felt so bad they cried." "Mimsy" in line 3 is made up of "flimsy" and "miserable," and the "borogoves" which it describes are said to be parrots. The "raths" of line 4 are defined as turtles, and Carroll offers an interesting etymology, or word history, for the adjective "mome" as being related to "solemn," which he suggests comes from an earlier (imaginary) word "solemome." The verb that ends the stanza is said to derive from a word meaning "to shriek," although Humpty Dumpty is more explicit, indicating that it is something "between bellowing and whistling," which suggests a sobbing, crying kind of sound, and which coupled with the sound of "outgrabe," perhaps might come close to being a past tense form for "outgrieve," or "grieve out[loud]." Carroll's original intention of the alliteration of the hard "g" for "gyre" and "gimble" in line 2 is lost with the American pronunciation of the soft "j" beginning "gyre." However, the assonance between the vowel sounds in "slithy" and "gyre" in lines 1 and 2 remains to emphasize the musicality of the poem, as does the assonance of the short "i" in "brillig," "gimble," and "mimsy" in lines 1, 2, and 3, respectively, and the long "o" sounds in "borogoves" and "mome" in lines 3 and 4. The stanza containing lines 1-4 establishes the setting for the story about to be told. Carroll has offered a literal English translation of the passage:
It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side: all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out. There were probably sun-dials on the top of the hill, and the "borogoves" were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of "raths," which ran out, squeaking with fear, on hearing the "toves" scratching outside. This is an obscure, but deeply-affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.
The first two lines set a scene of lighthearted happiness in which all seems well, but the last two hint at impending doom.
Lines 5-8: The first proper noun in this stanza is related to the title of the poem itself, and so bears some serious consideration in both its form as the thing, the "Jabberwock," and the activity of the thing, "Jabberwocky." The first part of either word is "jabber," and a synonym for this is "babble," a word that brings up immediately an association with the biblical tower erected in the city of Babel. "Babble" thus refers to the sounds that resulted from God's confusion of the supposed one original human language into many so that people could no longer understand each other and cooperate to build the tower to heaven. "-Wock" or "-wocky" may refer to an old Scottish word for "voice." Hence, the "Jabberwock" could be called a "Babble-Voice," and "Jabberwocky" might be "Babblement." The central idea is that a father is warning his son against a creature whose sounds are without meaning.
The father's warning becomes explicit in the sixth line about the dangers inherent in the Jabberwock's jaws and claws. In the seventh line he extends the warning to include a second important creature: the Jubjub bird. Since sound is such a significant feature of this poem, it seems justified to take the sound of "jubjub" as being close to the word "jujube," a candy named for a fruit tree, and to assume an association with the sticky sweetness of the fruit the bird eats. Furthermore, in Carroll's later book-length poem The Hunting of the Snark it is made clear that the Jubjub bird sings songs that are attractive to the Jabberwock, so that one would likely find the Jabberwock in close proximity to the Jubjub bird.
"Frumious" in the eighth line is a portmanteau explained at length in Carroll's preface to The Hunting of the Snark (which he says "is to some extent connected with "Jabberwocky"). In short, to simply have two words packed together as, for example, "fuming-furious," does not have the poetic effect of "frumious," for it stresses the one over the other. Thus, "if you have … a perfectly balanced mind, you will say 'frumious.'" This gives the full effect of both meanings in a familiar-sounding adjective structure that is much more efficient than a hyphenated word.
Also in the eighth line, the third proper noun, "Bandersnatch," has two parts, which appear readily comprehensible: "Bander-" and "-snatch." The "snatch" would of course refer to something which "snatches" or takes, as a "snitch" is one who "snitches." "Bander" might feasibly be a combination of "band" and "banter," a kind of portmanteau. There is a specialized meaning of the word "band" which is in keeping with Carroll's pursuits in logic, wherein "band" refers to the link between the subject and predicate of a sentence that helps them make sense together. "Banter" is a light verbal exchange between people. Thus it might be that the father is warning the son against this creature who pretends to exchange conventional pleasantries (for example, "Have a nice day!") while actually stealing the meaning or sense from the words.
The sound of the poem is enhanced in this stanza by the use of alliteration of the "j" in the words "Jabberwock," "jaws," and "Jubjub," and of the "b" in "Beware," "Jabberwock," "bite," "Jubjub," and "Bandersnatch."
The basic sense of lines 5-8 is clear. The grammatical structure here, as with all the stanzas, is familiar and not nonsensical in itself. In addition, Carroll's use of nonsense words follows what we know and expect of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, and in fact most of the nonsense words are adjectives and nouns.
A plausible "translation," or interpretation, of the stanza might be: "Be careful of the Babble-Voice, my son, because it will either bite you or scratch and tear you. And take care around the bird that eats those sticky-sweet fruits, for the Babble-Voice is attracted to its song, and where you hear the one you will often find the other. And for Heaven's sake, stay away from the fuming and furious creature that robs sentences of their meaning!"
Lines 9-12: In line 9 of this stanza "sword" has assonance with the adjective "vorpal." This is a portmanteau which might imply the joining of the words "verbal" and "voracious," given the emphasis in the previous stanza on words (the "jabber" of the Jabberwock) and jaws. Thus it would seem reasonable to imagine that the son takes up his "voracious word-sword" to go out and do battle with a thing that misuses or abuses words: the "Babbler" or "Babble-Voice." The colon at the end of this line implies that the act of taking the sword in hand entails more than simply picking it up; it means engagement in the task, so that the sword is "in hand" while seeking the foe, and even while resting and thinking.
The adjective "manxome" in line 10, which is in assonance with the long "o" of "foe" could be interpreted as having something to do with "Manx," such as an enemy coming from the Isle of Man. Interestingly, "Manx" also refers to the ancient Celtic language once spoken on this island. Now hardly ever heard and no longer taught, the Celtic languages are characterized by their musicality. Thus, once again, there is an emphasis on the sound of language, rather than its sense. This is further picked up by mention of the "Tumtum tree," for "tum" is an onomatopoeic imitation of the sound made by plucking a tense string, accentuated by the alliteration of "t" sounds. With this understanding of the three nonsense adjectives "vorpal," "manxome," and "Tumtum," we can see the son or knightfigure armed with his word-sword against an enemy who uses words for sound, waiting and thinking by a singing tree that might attract such an enemy.
It is in lines 9-12 of this stanza that the ballad of the Jabberwock can be established as an allegory about language itself. Carroll's background supports this because of his studies in logic and the concern for language that naturally goes along with that. This is further established by the associations of the sense and sound of language in the portmanteau words. Keep in mind that Carroll has "verified" the identical first and last stanzas as ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry, and that the "foe" to be dealt with is recognized in the third stanza as "manxome" or of a Celtic language-speaking race. Historically, the Anglo-Saxon language displaced the Celtic languages indigenous to the British Isles and became the precursor to the English language.
Lines 9-12 could be read thus: "The boy took up his hungry word-sword and went off on a long search for the foe who speaks the lyrical Celtic language, but eventually came to rest under the tree that makes a musical sound in the wind, thinking that the Babble-Voice might come this way, attracted by the sound."
Lines 13-16: "Uffish" in line 13 is a likely combination of the word "huffy" meaning "arrogant," the word "offish" meaning "aloof," and perhaps the word "oafish," meaning "like a simpleton." In the following line the Jabberwock is described in stark contrast to the removed distance and coolness of the boy's attitude: "with eyes of flame" carries the connotation, or hint, of fire and passion.
"Whiffling" in line 15 is the first of two seemingly nonsense words, associated with things the Jabberwock does, which are in fact actual verbs. "Whiffling" means "to blow or drive with puffs of air"; it may be used as a figure of speech meaning "to speak evasively."
Presumably the boy is aware of the Jabberwock's imminent arrival as it comes noisily through the wood, which is described in line 15 as "tulgey." This is an adjective perhaps compounded of the word "turgid" meaning "swollen" (but also often used to describe language that is "grandiloquent" or "overblown") and the word "fulgent," which means "glittering" or "of a showy splendor."
"Burbled" in line 16 sounds like a portmanteau made up of "bubbled" and "gurgled," but is in fact a word that is onomatopoeic for "bubbled"; in addition, it is used figuratively as "to confound or confuse," as well as for its alliteration with the "b" and "r" sounds in "Jabberwock."
Lines 13-16 might be explained as saying: "The boy was aloof, thinking, when he heard the fiery and passionate Babble-Voice, as if blown by puffs of wind, come through the overblown and showy woods of its natural habitat; as it came, it made sounds without any possible sense or meaning."
Lines 17-20: The double two-counts at the beginning of this line suggest that it is with two back-and-forth slashes of the sword that the boy slays the Jabberwock "through and through." The quickness of the action is further suggested by the internal rhyme of "two" and "through," as well as by the onomatopoeia of "snicker-snack." This is a portmanteau made up of "snickersnee," a word for "a large knife," and "snack," meaning "bite, snap," but also "a sharp remark."
Lines 17-18 could be paraphrased as: "The ancient Anglo-Saxon language met the even more ancient Celtic languages and very quickly and thoroughly, as if with a hungry word-sword and the force of incisive observation, displaced them. Thus the Celtic languages were no longer used and so did not grow and change, or live; the work of the world went on in Anglo-Saxon, which ultimately developed into the English language."
In lines 19-20 the boy has proved successful in the battle and takes the Jabberwock's head as a proof. He goes "galumphing" back, a verb made up by Carroll to mean "galloping in triumph." Note how the "uffish" of line 13 combines with "galumphing" to give a connotation of clumsiness, perhaps of an individual not particularly subtle or sensitive.
Lines 21-24: The father asks the question in Archaic English, a reminder from Carroll that this is supposedly an ancient Anglo-Saxon legend. The question is presumably answered by the presence of the Jabberwock's head, and he calls his son to his arms for a welcoming hug, using the adjective "beamish" for its alliteration of the "b" sound. Carroll very likely intended the play on the word "son" in line 5 with "sun," making this word for "radiant" even more precise in its usage in this particular instance.
Line 23 contains joyful exclamations at the success of the boy. "Frabjous" is a portmanteau feasibly combining "fabulous" (in both the sense of "beyond belief" and "relating to fable") and "rapturous" (in both the sense of "ecstatic" and "being taken away"). Again, the musicality characteristic of a ballad is accentuated by the internal rhyme of "O frabjous day!" with "Callooh! Callay!" as well as by the alliteration with the hard "c" and "l" sounds. "Callooh! Callay!" at first glance appear to be two of what are perhaps four of the only true nonsense words in the poem (along with "Jubjub" and "Tumtum"). However, again taking into consideration the emphasis on sound in this poem and the emphasis on echo words in its composition, it would make sense to find something that sounds like these syllables (as with "Jubjub" and "jujube"). In this case, it might be suggested that the words are actually a type of portmanteau made up of "collocate" and "colloquy," so that the father's joy is at having things once again "put in proper order" ("collocated") by the death of the Jabberwock, and at having the Jabberwock's demise and his son's return make "dialogue" ("colloquy") between him and his son possible.
The word "chortle" in line 24 to describe the father's wordless joy at his son's return is made up of "chuckle" and "snort." Along with "galumphing" it is one of two portmanteaus in this poem which have come into the English language for valid use.
The sense of lines 21-24 could credibly be rendered: "The father welcomes his son on this 'fabulous' day--a day that will live in legend, a 'rapturous' day that will forever mark when the life was taken from the Celtic languages. The father welcomes the boy to 'properly ordered dialogue.'"
It is interesting to note that the father's joy, however, is expressed with "chortling"--a nonsense word that has now become a valid verb. In contrast, the verbs used for the Jabberwock in the fourth stanza that seemed to be nonsense were in fact valid words at the time Carroll was writing.
Lines 25-28: See lines 1-4 above. The sense of these lines, repeated, might carry this idea: "In the world there is still, as always, the mix of joy and sorrow which it is possible for animals without language to express."
Themes The Heroic Quest Despite its seeming playfulness, "Jabberwocky" contains a very serious theme as old as literature itself (as seen in such ancient texts as The Odyssey and Beowulf). This theme is the heroic quest, in which a (usually) young male will strike out for parts unknown, encounter some horrific beast, and either triumph over this force of darkness or be consumed by it. The roots of the literary heroic quest reach as far back as Greek, Roman, and early Christian mythology, and examples include Jason and the Argonauts encountering all types of fantastical beasts in their quest for the golden fleece, Oedipus' victory over the vicious Sphinx to rescue the city of Thebes, and David's encounter with Goliath. The tradition of the heroic quest is prevalent in poetry as well as in drama and fiction, and this theme has long appealed to young boys (remember Jack, the Giant Killer?), who are expected to eventually strike out on their own and conquer their demons (personal or otherwise) in order to "prove" their manhood. Along with Carroll's memorable fabrication of imaginative new words in "Jabberwocky," the heroic quest recounted in the poem is a key reason why it remains one of the most popular (if not the most popular) examples of nonsense verse ever penned.
Indeed, once past the disorienting yet fanciful description of the opening stanza, the reader encounters a number of elements that are the heroic quest's stock-in-trade. These include fantastical and menacing creatures (the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch), ancient weaponry (the "vorpal sword"), the long journey into a dark forest where the hero's encounter with "the manxome foe" is to take place, and the mandatory return of the vanquished creature's head as proof of the heroic deed. In composing "Jabberwocky," Carroll clearly wanted to evoke mythical battles of long ago, in the knowledge that such action-packed episodes appeal deeply to the youthful audience he so cultivated.
Carroll is known for having directed much of his literary output specifically at young girls, whose company he is well-known to have preferred over that of young boys. "Jabberwocky," however, is clearly aimed more at young male readers, dealing as it does with the gender-specific theme of the heroic quest. The power of such archetypal material, of course, has by no means diminished in this day and age; one only has to look at the immense popularity of the Star Wars movies among male youngsters for proof of this fact. Yet it is important to note that at the time of the publication of "Jabberwocky," during the height of Victorian England, young men, more so then than now, were expected (and even pressured by their fathers) to undertake some type of heroic quest, whether it be for queen or country or for personal or familial gain. Back then, there weren't many people who questioned the ostensible validity of war and aggression under sanctioned circumstances, and such endeavors were even encouraged by most fathers of their sons. The pressure to be a hero, therefore, was very much in the Victorian public mind, and the greater the menace (i.e., the Jabberwock with its "jaws that bite" and "claws that catch"), the greater the glory and paternal pride for the son.