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The Curious Origins of Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Interesting facts about the surprising history of Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Who is being described? Born in the north-west of England near Manchester, he was a literary man who was also noted in his day for his interest in science and mathematics. In terms of physical appearance, he was known for being particularly tall, considerably taller than average. He gave us Tweedledum and Tweedledee, pioneered a system of code-writing, wrote one of his most famous works for a young girl, and appears to have had an interest in the occult.

The above may sound like a description of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, but in fact we’re talking about John Byrom (1692-1763), English poet and the real originator of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Byrom was born in Manchester on 29 February 1692, and would grow up to be a notable poet and hymn-writer, Tweedledum and Tweedledeeprincipally remembered now for writing ‘Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn’, supposedly as a Christmas gift for his daughter. He also pioneered geometric (modern) shorthand, later perfected by Isaac Pitman.

But perhaps these days Byrom’s greatest legacy is the one he bequeathed to subsequent writers, particularly Lewis Carroll: Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But where did the characters come from?

Well, aptly for a hymn-writer, Byrom took his cue from the world of music. In particular, Byrom invented Tweedledum and Tweedledee in a poem that satirised and mocked two rivalling schools of music at the time. (‘Tweedle’ from twiddle, as in to tweak an instrument.) Byrom’s poem runs:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

So, the two names first appear in a poem devised to highlight the petty disagreements between two musicians and their followers, with the names designed to suggest that very little actually separates the two factions, in practice. So although the modern reader may most readily associate Tweedledum and Tweedledee with Lewis Carroll, who used the names for the two fat brothers who appear in Through the Looking-Glass, it is to John Byrom that we owe a debt for (supposedly) originating the names, and for suggesting the idea of two people whose differences are not so great as they would have us believe.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee also appear in an ‘elegy’ by Peter Pindar, the pseudonym of satirist John Wolcot (1738-1819): ‘Poor Tweedledum must also taxes pay, / Must bend to Puff, or woe to Tweedledum!’ This poem also predates Carroll’s 1871 novel, and is used with a similar meaning to Byrom’s original.

Five years after the pair showed up in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the anti-war nursery rhyme ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ was published in Extraordinary Nursery Rhymes (1876):

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Had a mighty battle,
And what was it all about, think ye?
About a penny rattle.
So nations foolishly make wars,
And loud their cannons rattle;
When oft they have as little cause,
As Tweedledum for battle.

But it was Carroll who would really fix the twins in the popular consciousness, of course. Carroll was obviously aware of the nursery rhyme (and may also have known Byrom’s original epigram), but in Through the Looking-Glass, the brothers agree to have a battle but never actually go through with it. Although it’s often assumed that the two characters in Carroll’s novel are twins, they might alternatively be viewed as mirror-images of each other, especially since they complete each other’s sentences.

We’ve discussed Carroll’s fascinating life and literary achievement in our Interesting Facts about Lewis Carroll.

Image: Tenniel illustration of Tweedledum (left) and Tweedledee (right), cropped to show only the two characters, excluding Alice. Author: John Tenniel, 1871. Wikimedia Commons. 

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on May 7, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Interesting indeed! I had read the anti-war poem, but never the ‘original’ work with their names. I still prefer the Tweedles of Carroll’s work…but Alice’s Adventures hold many of my favorites.

  2. Great post! I wonder if we should give more credit to John Tenniel for fixing the characters in the public imagination, because it’s his illustrations that we think of when we think of the characters.

  3. Interesting! So it was an expression!

  4. Brilliant. Love that the origin lies in music!

  5. Byrom’s use does suggest the terms in some form were current before or during his time. The OED only cites printed evidence, and that of Byrom. Would a popular writer of that period introduce wholesale, without any framing, such unknown terminology, I wonder?

  6. Reblogged this on Anakalian Whims and commented:
    I love factoids like this!

  7. Fascinating information as always. Wasn’t it Carroll’s intention that they should be mirror images with separate identity?

  8. I’m pretty certain the characters refer to the ‘war of the buffoons’ or ‘Quarrel of the comic actors’ as some translate it which was the battle between French and Italian styles of Opera. One style was opera buffa (or buffon) and the other was comic opera – neither of which mean quite what they sound like they do! From opera buffa however, we get the word buffoon which came to have the meaning we almost associate with those most famous of twins!

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