Literature

A Short Analysis of ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Jabberwocky’ is perhaps the most famous nonsense poem in all of English literature. Although the poem was first published in Lewis Carroll‘s novel Through the Looking Glass in 1871, the first stanza was actually written and printed by Carroll in 1855 in the little periodical Mischmasch, which Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) compiled to entertain his family. Below is ‘Jabberwocky’ (sometimes erroneously called ‘The Jabberwocky’), followed by a brief analysis of its meaning. ‘Nonsense’ literature it may be, but let’s see if we can make some sense of the glorious nonsense.

‘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 jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
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.

Jabberwocky: a summary

In terms of its plot, ‘Jabberwocky’ might be described as nonsense literature’s answer to the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf: what Christopher Booker, in his vast and fascinating The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, calls an ‘overcoming the monster’ story.

A hero leaves home and goes out into the world in order to face down some evil; after encountering difficulties and tests of his bravery, he is triumphant and vanquishes his foe; and then he comes home again. It’s a story told again and again Jabberwockyin literature, from Beowulf to The Lord of the Rings. Of course it is also an example of what we would now call the fantasy genre: supernatural or fictional monsters or creatures feature (namely, in Carroll’s poem, the Jubjub Bird, the Bandersnatch, and, of course, the Jabberwock itself.

The structure of Carroll’s poem echoes this basic plot structure (‘overcoming the monster’) in two ways: through adopting the ballad metre traditionally used for poems telling such a story (that is, the four-line stanza, or quatrain form), and through repeating the opening stanza in the closing stanza, suggesting the hero’s return home after his adventure.

Jabberwocky: an analysis

As well as being an example of a fantasy quest, the poem is also a masterpiece of linguistic inventiveness: every stanza is a feast of neologisms – new words, coinages, nonsense formations. Several of them have even entered common usage: ‘chortle’ (a blend of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’) and ‘galumph’ (meaning to move in a clumsy way) are both used by many people who probably have no idea that we have Lewis Carroll to thank for them. (‘Mimsy’, too, is often credited to Carroll – though it actually existed prior to the poem.)

Consider that opening stanza:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Consider Carroll’s use of (invented) words in this stanza. What are ‘toves’, and why are they ‘slithy’? What does ‘slithiness’ (is that a word?) look or feel like? The same with ‘mimsy’. Noam Chomsky’s ground-breaking work in linguistics surrounding children’s ability to acquire a linguistic ‘grammar’ demonstrated that even if we don’t know the meaning of a word, we can often deduce what kind of word it is: i.e. we know ‘mimsy’ is an adjective, or describing-word, even though we don’t fully know what ‘mimsiness’ is.

Carroll is using both ‘slithy’ and ‘mimsy’ as portmanteau words: slithy, for example, is a blend of slimy + lithe, while mimsy suggests miserable + flimsy. Another term for a portmanteau word is, in fact, a blend, and some linguists prefer to use the word blend. But the term ‘portmanteau’ came about because, after Alice has encountered the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ in Through the Looking-Glass, and puzzled over the meaning of these unfamiliar words, she meets Humpty Dumpty, who tells her, when she quotes the above stanza:

‘That’s enough to begin with,’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted: ‘there are plenty of hard words there. “Brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’

‘That’ll do very well,’ said Alice: ‘and “slithy”?’

‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

A portmanteau was, in Victorian times, a case or bag for carrying clothing while travelling; the word is from the French meaning literally ‘carry the cloak’.

So, as well as being a fine piece of imaginative literature, ‘Jabberwocky’ also demonstrates a central principle of language: what linguists call productivity or open-endedness, namely the phenomenon whereby users of a language can endlessly create new words or phrases. As Noam Chomsky’s theory of a Universal Grammar shows, users of a language demonstrate an innate linguistic creativity from a young age, and this is how children are able to pick up a new language relatively quickly: they learn not simply by acquiring knowledge, but by using an in-built talent for spotting how words are put together to form meaningful utterances. If something is both lithe and slimy, why not combine the two words – both their sounds and their meanings – to create slithy?

Here is a brief glossary of what the various nonsense words in ‘Jabberwocky’ mean. As poems go, this one must have one of the highest rates of neologism-to-words of all classic poems in the English language. Perhaps surprisingly, many of them have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary; we have put (OED) after those words which have an entry in the dictionary.

Jabberwock: the monster (with jaws and claws – we aren’t given much else by way of description) (OED with the extended meaning ‘incoherent or nonsensical expression’)

brillig: the time when people begin broiling things for dinner (around 4pm)

slithy: lithe and slimy (OED)

toves: a (fictional) species of badger with horns like a stag and which lives predominantly on cheese (OED)

gyre: twirl around like a gyre (actually predates Carroll)

gimble: bore holes like a gimlet

wabe: the wet side of a hill soaked by the rain (OED)

mimsy: unhappy or miserable (OED)

borogoves: (fictional) type of bird

mome: grave or solemn (OED)

raths: (fictional) turtle with a mouth like a shark and a smooth green body; lives on swallows and oysters  (OED)

outgrabe: emitted a strange noise (past tense of, presumably, outgribe) (OED)

Jubjub bird: ‘An imaginary bird of a ferocious, desperate and occasionally charitable nature, noted for its excellence when cooked’ (OED)

frumious: so angry or furious as to be fuming (OED)

Bandersnatch: ‘A fleet, furious, fuming, fabulous creature, of dangerous propensities, immune to bribery and too fast to flee from; later, used vaguely to suggest any creature with such qualities’ (OED)

vorpal: (of a sword) keen and deadly (OED)

manxome: fearsome or monstrous (OED)

Tumtum tree: a fictional tree

uffish: huffish (OED)

whiffling: blowing in puffs or gusts of air (this word predates Carroll)

tulgey: thick, dense, and dark (OED)

burbled: to speak in murmurs (OED)

snicker-snack: with a snipping or clicking sound (OED)

galumphing: to gallop in triumph (OED)

beamish: radiant or shining (this word predates Carroll)

frabjous: fair and joyous; fabulous (OED)

chortled: chuckled and snorted (OED)

For more information about what individual words of the poem mean, see Humpty Dumpty’s explanation of ‘Jabberwocky’ from Through the Looking-Glass. Continue your odyssey into the world of nonsense verse with our discussion of Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: Illustration for ‘Jabberwocky’ by John Tenniel, 1871; Wikimedia Commons.

11 Comments

  1. The second-best poem in the world. First-best is “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

  2. Reblogged this on Kathy Waller ~ Telling the Truth, Mainly and commented:
    An analysis of the second-best poem in the English language.

  3. What fun! Making up words is a a wonderful way to
    use one’s imagination.

  4. This is what I tell people when they ask how I can possibly do my job at MIT’s Writing Center, reading all those crazy technical papers. Who cares what it means? It’s English.

  5. Ancientfoods

    Thanks for the analysis of what is my all time favorite poem.

  6. Love this post! Fantabulous! (of course I love it, I like making up words, too – :)

  7. Pingback: Interesting Facts about Lewis Carroll | Interesting Literature

  8. Lewis Carroll was a linguistic and mathematical genius, whose writing continues to fire the imagination.

    • I like your ref to Christopher Booker’s book and the overcoming a monster theme! The Seven Basic Plots has changed (or focussed) the way I read literature completely! I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.

  9. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    Of interest to fellow ‘Alice’ fans.

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