Meaning from the Snark

Lewis Carroll is certainly one of the most famous authors of the 19th century, but he is also one of the most confusing authors, although it may be remarked that he is particularly confusing to those who seek more than what his works mean, and see less than what his works say. While his works do contain an incredible amount of metaphor, allusion, allegory, satire as well as a gamut of references to everything under the sun, it seems to me that the main road to understanding his writings is not to seek for hidden meanings. I do not pretend to understand Carroll’s writings, but it strikes me as though it is not a matter of ‘understanding’ but a matter of ‘feeling’. Now, you may scoff at this sentimental notion, and declare it the ramblings of a fool, to which I shall merely tip my hat and proclaim ‘That is all I claim to be’.

I came across Carroll, as most of us do, through Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), and later through the novels themselves (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), and I admit I have read little critical material on him at all. Recently however, while researching the fundamental theories on the genre of fantasy, I came across David Sandner’s essay ‘Theorizing the Fantastic’, in which he explored some comments made by both Carroll and Tolkien regarding their sources of inspiration. “Both Carroll and Tolkien claim to have been moved to invent their classic fantasies by the sudden inspiration of a single sentence. Significantly, neither claims to understand what his sentence means at the moment of its arrival” (279). The example Sandner gives of Carroll’s works comes from his poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876), of which Carroll said:

I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse—one solitary line—“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza. And since then, periodically I have received corteous letters from strangers, begging to know whether “the Hunting of the Snark” is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, “I don’t know!” (281)

As mentioned above, Tolkien made similar comments with regards to The Hobbit, but this is about Carroll, so let us stick with him. It strikes me as comical that critics have been trying to understand the meanings behind many of Carroll’s strangest works while the author himself states “I don’t know!” Admittedly, there is plenty of allegorical and metaphorical material in the Alice novels (and as the Duchess says, “everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it”), but sometimes critics should look to the context itself, rather than to its implications outside the text (granted, that is sort of what we do, but sometimes we should look within other than outside). I suppose that the main problem comes from the fact that we want to know, yet we fail to realize that the lesson we are being taught is not ‘there is one answer’, but ‘your answer is as good as any’. In ‘Jaberwocky’, for example, the immensely famous first lines state:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

 All mimsy were the borogoves

And the mome raths outgrabe

Carroll’s most popular nonsense poem has been a source of critical nightmare for many literary critics, yet I don’t think it’s meant to be arduous, but be fun; a play on the ‘meaning of meaning’, and how arbitrary ‘meaning’ is. Following Mr. Sandner, who cites Humpty Dumpty’s enlightening, if confusing words, to analyze Carroll’s fantasy, I will also make use of Humpty Dumpty’s words as though it was Lewis Carroll himself addressing the reader for a moment. I think it is significant because it drives home the idea that words are the writer’s subjects, and they can make them dance about like puppets whenever they want (that is not to say, that we [readers/writers] should have no regards for language, but merely that we should also acknowledge their fluidity and arbitrariness). In Through the Looking Glass, when Alice asks Humpty Dumpty to explain the strange words in ‘Jaberwocky’, Mr. Dumpty explains that “‘TOVES’ are something like badgers – they’re something like lizards – and they’re something like corkscrews,” a “‘BOROGOVE’ is a thin shabby-looking bird,” a “‘RATH’ is a sort of green pig,” and “‘OUTGRABING’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.” This may at first seem to the reader like something very fine; Mr. Carroll has given us some strange words to which we don’t know the meanings, and not has had Humpty Dumpty explain them. We try to interpret the poem again however, and find that green pigs whistling make no more sense than ‘raths outgrabing’. Yet, when we take into consideration a statement made by Mr. Dumpty merely a few lines before that when discussing his use of the word ‘glory’ to mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you”, we realize that we cannot even trust his strange translations of ‘Jaberwocky’. Alice questions Humpty about the meaning of words, to which he replies:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

If words mean what he wants them to mean, then the reader cannot be certain that toves are something like badgers and lizards and corkscrews (even if we could imagine such a creature) and raths might not be green pigs at all. This way of thinking sheds light on a lot of Carroll’s ‘nonsense’ and ‘whimsy’; it means just what you choose it to mean.

The Hunting of the Snark follows the same nonsense logic of ‘Jaberwocky’, and the reader is forced to adopt a form of ‘doublethink’ (you’re welcome, Orwellians), in which they simultaneously accept that there is no meaning, and find meaning in the fact that there is no meaning. In other words, even without understanding many of the words, for they make no sense and are not supposed to make sense, they still make sense because of the context in which they appear. Allow me to elaborate: for starters, the poem is constructed in such a way that it resembles other children’s poetry; therefore the language is such that it evokes images of adventure and questing. Even while the reader has never seen, and will likely never see a Snark, or a Boojum, or a Jubjub bird, they still feel the weight of the names, as though they were infused with some magical, truer-than-true quality. They are used with a level of certainty and authority that produces in the reader an equal sense of certainty about the existence of these creatures and the dangers they pose to the members of the hunting party. Similarly, when we read ‘Jaberwocky’, we might not know what toves are, but we can ‘sort of’ imagine them gyring and gimbling. It has no ‘higher’ meaning, than the very images it conveys. It means what it means; whatever it means to you. Take the recipe for cooking a Jubjub bird, for instance:

Its flavour when cooked is more exquisite far

Than mutton, or oysters, or eggs:

(Some think it keeps best in an ivory jar,

And come, in mahogany kegs:)

You boil it in sawdust: you salt it in glue:

You condense it with locusts and tape:

Still keeping one principal object in view-

To preserve its symmetrical shape.

Do sawdust and glue and locusts and tape have allegorical meaning? Or course not. The words create images in our minds, exotic visions of a creature that does not exist, and fanciful ways of preparing it that may not even be real within the story itself – for its all nonsense. When discussing Humpty Dumpty’s words in his essay, David Sandner remarks “Dumpty is “just” making things up extempore (but does that make them untrue?).” Now we must ask the question, it’s all nonsense, yes, but does that make it any less real, any less meaningful?

To finish, I think that if any symbolic or metaphorical lesson about Carroll’s works can be gained from The Hunting of the Snark, (other than the lesson of allowing the words, no matter how whimsical and absurd, to create fantastic visions in our minds), comes from the repeating stanza throughout the poem:

They sought it [the Snark] with thimbles, they sought it with care;

They pursued it with forks and hope;

They threatened its life with a railway-share;

They charmed it with smiles and soap.

Let us substitute, for the sake of argument, all instances of ‘they’ with ‘critical readers’, and let us replace the Snark with ‘the meaning’, and let us see where that takes us. We, the critical readers, seek the meaning with absurd tools, with thimbles, forks and hope, and we threaten in order to make it come out, and we try to charm it with useless things. However, in our quest for meaning we fail to remember the Baker’s warning, and we discover too late that the meaning we seek is not there to be found, for the Snark was a Boojum, you see. And yet, it seems we cannot help but hunting that Snark, even knowing that in the end we’ll simply, quite likely, vanish.

———————————————-

References:

Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass (Kindle Edition, 2012).

—————– The Hunting of the Snark (Kindle Edition, 2012).

Sandner, David, ‘Theorizing the Fantastic: Editing Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader and the Six Stages of Fantasy Criticism’, in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol 16, no 4, (Fall 2006), pp. 277-301.

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