A College Student’s Explication of “Jabberwocky”

May 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

At first glance, the poem Jabberwocky – as Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, transcribed in Alice in Wonderland – appears to be pure unintelligible gibberish, a madman’s ravings about some unfathomable and inexplicable beast. It rambles about “vorpal blades” and “slithy toves”, “frumious Bandersnatches” and things that go “snicker-snack”, and not once does it apologize for its fantastical nature. Indeed, a person reading this poem aloud would doubtless be considered unfit for normal, sane society. Yet there is something about the poem “Jabberwocky” that has sparked an infatuation with the nonsensical among the young and the old alike. And why not? Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were, after all, preordained as children’s books in the first place, so it should follow then that so too was the “Jabberwocky”.Perhaps even more so than the larger epic engulfing it, this nonsensical poem has seen its influence spread across nations and across centuries. Its absurd nature helped spawn The Beatles’ perennial classic “Yellow Submarine,” much as the Fab Four’s “I am the Walrus” was inspired by Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” J.K. Rowling paid homage to it in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with Professor Dumbledore’s opening speech: “Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” Carroll’s influence can even be felt often in President Bush’s speeches. But what, pray tell, is it about this specific poem, especially since there are tens of thousands of similar and, in the case of Edward Lear’s limericks, arguably better nonsense poems? Why has “Jabberwocky” persevered in the mythos of the fantastical for so long?It is for this question that three different perspectives present themselves: The “Jabberwocky” as written by a mathematician, as written by a logician, and as written by a writer.Carroll’s role as a prominent mathematician can be seen quite easily throughout the poem if, like so many other things that populate the world beneath the rabbit hole, one knows what to look for. This should come as little surprise; after all, the majority of Alice and Looking Glass reflect different mathematical shenanigans, most of which could only occur in Wonderland because of their inherent impossibilities. Nowhere in the real world could a scientist find himself dealing with a sudden inflation in size, let alone a subsequent and even more rapid descent to miniscule proportions. No one has ever found themselves confronted with an army of playing cards, and few have ever fallen down a rabbit hole the length and breadth of an underground skyscraper. And, with the exception of the recently discovered black hole phenomenon, there has never been an extra-spacial anything in which the interior of an object was larger than its exterior (Clevinger). Hopefully there haven’t been too many instances of talking rabbits. But in Wonderland, where reality and impossibility intermingle, these events can be narrated and explored in full – despite being narrated and explored by Alice, who can hardly be considered sufficiently mathematically-inclined to understand the logistical significance of the world around her. What then of the “Jabberwocky?” This is where Humpty Dumpty enters the picture. In the story, Alice comes upon this nursery rhyme entity and finds him to be quite pompous and arrogant, not even bothering to address her when speaking (at one point early on he speaks not to her, but to a tree). Then, after asking her age, the giant egg criticizes her for being seven years and six months, and not leaving off at seven years, humorously adding a dark undertone in suggesting that “With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.” Further down the way Alice, curious about Dumpty’s talent with word definitions, recites the first verse of the “Jabberwocky” poem: “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.” Hearing this, Humpty Dumpty launched into a detailed analysis of the poem and the definitions of the nonsense words. For example, ‘slithy’ is “lithe and slimy.” Also, “. . . ‘mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable’ . . .” These words – which combine two distinct meanings into one compact package – are what Dumpty calls ‘portmanteaus’ (Carroll). This does not mean that the words are ambiguous, mind; ambiguity implies that two meanings exist, but only one is actually in use. A portmanteau, on the other hand, permits both definitions to coexist simultaneously and without conflict. This practice of streamlining words is not unique to Carroll’s visions; it has been used numerous other times, most prominently in James Joyce’s epic Finnegan’s Wake, which accommodates them by the tens of thousands, including ten hundred-letter thunderclaps. The great thing about portmanteaus is that even if a reader doesn’t have the slightest idea as to what is being said, a silent inkling of its emotional context is still available to grasp. This is how one can read through “Jabberwocky” and, without understanding a single nonsensical word, can still catch the drift of the story, perhaps even understand it all. But logically, this should not be; a person reading even the previously quoted first verse should have left shaking their heads in disbelief of the pure and utter idiocy presented to them. Yet despite all rationality, this does not happen. Somehow, the brain picks up on the inner meanings of these words, fits them into place (or rather, stretches the place to fit them in it), and ends up drawing remarkably accurate conclusions. These conclusions likely will not match up even remotely with the original author’s intent or lack thereof, but nonetheless the equation works. It is as though the details of the story are decided on by the reader’s own interpretations, but the overall story is defined by the author. The whole scenario can be likened to a “mad lib” gone horribly wrong: adjectives fit where adjectives should go, verbs where verbs should (despite being the proudest of the words, and quite temperamental), and for all intents and purposes the prose flows perfectly as proper English grammar dictates (or at least, insofar as the poetry itself will allow). Now, what does this have to do with mathematics, which has earlier been promised to somehow be linked to the topic? To answer this, a simple – yet hardly so – algebraic formula may be utilized: Two plus two equals five. This equation, a long-time favorite of freethinkers and scientists alike, essentially states that two products combined together may give rise to side effects that transforms the whole into more, or at least different, than the sum of its individual components . . . synergy takes place (Byrne). Just as two medicines combined may produce a third, unintended result, so too can words be paired to create a new, seemingly unrelated word with the added benefit of achieving a subliminal sympathy that tells the reader that, “No, you don’t know what I mean, but you do know where I aim.” Thus, the use of portmanteaus is not only in some specialized elements a substantially more efficient means of writing, it is also theoretically capable of achieving an as-yet inexperienced plane of reader-writer interaction that permits an infinite number of stories to arise from a single source. From the mathematical perspective, then, the ‘X’ variable is found within the individual mind and not in the hard ink and paper, just as many artists feel it should be. With that said, let the page now turn to the logician’s perspective. This view can be derived mainly from what seems to be an innocent exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a 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.”What the giant egg is asking, then, is whether or not we are bound to the preexisting rules of grammar and vocabulary, and if so, what is the justification for constraining oneself to them? Dodgson himself answered these questions at length in Symbolic Logic. In opposition to the views of the group he dubbed “The Logicians,” he argued that the words in language do not actually carry a sovereignty that demands that they are the correct words as determined by some greater Entity. Instead of accepting this Grecian logic, Carroll states that, “If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book, “Let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’,” I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.” This acceptance of words as arbitrary things, despite being arguably more correct, failed to win out in the end, but it does not deflect Carroll’s aim. The idea that a person may use a word in ways not formerly implemented is a fantastical idea, for sure, but it also opens many doors – several of which Humpty Dumpty ventures through in his dissection of “Jabberwocky.” In this poem, it is clearly not the words that are the master. This is why the diction is nigh impossible to comprehend; the same can be said for Humpty Dumpty’s speech, which rather abuses this privilege. In his article “The Philosopher’s Alice in Wonderland,” Roger W. Holmes sums up the argument nicely and succinctly: “May we . . . make our words mean whatever we choose them to mean? Do we have an obligation to past usage? In one sense words are our masters, or communication would be impossible. In another we are the masters; otherwise there could be no poetry” (Carroll). At last, the final means of relating “Jabberwocky”: from the literary perspective, with specific regards to the meaning (not, mind, the definitions) of the nonsense words used. This is similar to the logician’s perspective in that it covers the justification behind nonsensicality, but it differs in one obvious area: Whereas the earlier argument asks how old words can be used in new ways, this asks how new, invented words can be used in old ways. Obviously, words like ‘brillig’ and phrases like ‘Callooh! Calleh!’ never appeared in a dictionary (although if they did, I should like to see that dictionary for further review), so they have no basis for being rationally defined except through the use of context – which is itself as thoroughly impossible to define as the rest. Then – then look at Humpty Dumpty’s definitions. These are words had to be invented because they simply do not exist. There are no words for four o’ clock in the afternoon, so ‘brillig’ had to be made. No beast such as the Jabberwock had ever been found before the poem was written, thus the necessity for the obtuse term (On a side note, after closer inspection it has been found that ‘gyre’ is in fact a word, and its meaning is the same in the real world as it is in Alice’s Wonderland). In his autobiography On Writing, prolific author Stephen King says, “The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning. Given that, why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only cousin to the one you really wanted to use?” To use another quote, did the Bard himself commented on this subject when, in Romeo and Juliet, he quipped, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Granted, at the time Shakespeare was referencing it as a side-swipe at the Globe Theatre’s rival, the Rose Theatre (Phrase Finder) . . . but it still certainly applies here. Now apply this to “Jabberwocky.” If the bird Carroll saw was a Jubjub bird, how could he then justify calling it by another other name, even for the sake of making more sense? If he’d called it a gryphon or such, there would be none of this arbitrary confusion. Calling the vicious Jabberwock a dragon would paint a suitably vivid beast into the mind of the reader – but that is an escape for less confident writers. It would have been an outright lie to substitute these obscure words with something more palatable, and despite his constant stream of riddles and trickery, Carroll saw no need to cloud the skies further by telling the wrong story. To do so would have been even more unfair to the readers than it would be to use impossible wording. Finally, having said all of that, and having run out of the typewriter’s equivalent to breath, I would like to take this opportunity to suggest that, like so many of the riddles in Carroll’s world, not a word of this is necessarily what Dodgson had in mind as he wrote his nonsense poetry. After all, the man had a mind like that of a child, and there are several other, much more likely reasons for him to write “Jabberwocky” than to oppose the then-modern rules of diction. Thusly, this is not a paper aiming to show what he meant in writing; it is merely trying to open the reader’s mind to more interpretations of a poem which is certainly no stranger to being interpreted. And in the end, is that not what nonsense poetry is all about? Interpretation?Works CitedByrne, David. Personal interview. 28 April 2004.Carroll, Lewis. “The Annotated Alice.” Bramhall House. New York. P. 261 – 276.Clevinger, Brian. “8-bit Theatre.” Comic strip. .King, Stephen. “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” Simon & Schuster. P. 118. Phrase finder, the. “A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet.” .Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, Inc. Broadway, New York. October 1998. p.123

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