By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Jabberwocky’ is one of the most beloved poems in the English language, perhaps not least because it does such interesting things with that language. A masterpiece of nonsense verse, ‘Jabberwocky’ actually addresses some very real issues and reflects some serious and important themes.
Let’s take a closer look at Lewis Carroll’s poem – which he actually began writing in the 1850s, before the version we know and love today was eventually published in 1871 in his novel Through the Looking-Glass.
Beneath all the nonsense verse, ‘Jabberwocky’ is fundamentally an example of the classic quest narrative: a hero leaves home to embark on a perilous journey, and when he arrives at his destination he will try to achieve some goal, before returning home and receiving a hero’s welcome.
The quest narrative often involves the equilibrium being restored at the end of the story, and this is neatly signalled by Carroll when he repeats the first stanza of the poem as the final stanza. Order has been restored, thanks to the hero’s actions – only the world is slightly safer now he has slain the Jabberwock!
The Hero and Heroism.
Another important theme of ‘Jabberwocky’ is heroism, and the idea of the hero. Our intrepid adventurer sets off to slay the Jabberwock, despite the warnings about what he faces (‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!’). He defeats the creature against the odds and returns home, where he is praised for his courage.
Overcoming the Monster.
Part of many quest narratives is what the late Christopher Booker, in his The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, called the ‘overcoming the monster’ motif. A terrifying monster is threatening a community, and only the acts of a brave hero will save the townspeople from the danger of being killed, eaten, or burnt to ashes (delete as applicable).
The myth of St George is a classic example of this motif: George slays the dragon which is terrorising a village and becomes a hero and saviour. Another famous example is the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which sees the titular hero slaying the monster Grendel (as well as Grendel’s mother, and a dragon, although the last of these also proves to be Beowulf’s undoing).
The Jabberwock itself is described as having ‘jaws that bite’ and ‘claws that catch’, but Carroll also tells us:
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
The ‘eyes of flame’ suggest the wild nature of the creature (‘flame’ also summons dragons, of course), and the challenge the unnamed hero faces in overcoming this particular monster. This makes his victory even more triumphant.
How should we categorise or classify ‘Jabberwocky’ in terms of its genre? It’s clearly a work of nonsense literature, and a big part of much nonsense literature, especially the works of Lewis Carroll and his contemporary Edward Lear, is a fantastical setting far removed from our own world.
‘Jabberwocky’ contains a monster invented specifically for the poem (this is how it was illustrated, if you want an idea of what it’s supposed to look like), but even familiar details are rendered strange and fantastical, to give the impression we’re in a world of enchantment. Take the hero’s sword, for instance: Carroll uses the word ‘vorpal’ to describe it, an adjective coined by Carroll and usually taken to mean ‘deadly’ – as it certainly proves to be for the Jabberwock.
Perhaps, though, of all of the themes in Lewis Carroll’s poem, language itself is the most pervasive theme. Carroll does some very interesting things with language in ‘Jabberwocky’, inventing fictional monsters (the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch) and even whole words, several of which (chortle, galumph) are now in common use.
One way to analyse the poem, then, is to view it as, above all else, a celebration of the power of language to be twisted, reshaped, and reinvented. We are so used to the line that language is a tool we have developed to enable clear communication (see George Orwell’s famous essay on language, for example), and this is true; but it doesn’t quite tell the full story.
For in literature, we can also take delight in stretching and remaking language, by coining fabulous new words or inventing new phrases which baffle and confuse us, but also encourage us to think about what they might mean.
For example, in the phrase ‘the slithy toves’, we may not know what ‘slithy’ means, or what a ‘tove’ is (both words were invented by Carroll for the poem), but we know that ‘slithy’ is probably an adjective and ‘toves’ is surely a plural noun. And we can even deduce (correctly, as it happens) that ‘slithy’ bears some relation to ‘slimy’, given the resemblance between the two words.