The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

Henry Holiday’s cover for the first edition

Appropriately for a nonsense poem, Lewis Carroll’s Snark came into being last-line-first:

“I was walking on a hill-side, 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, some time 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.”

What the above account (from Carroll’s essay “Alice on the Stage”) doesn’t say is that the walk was taken in a break from caring for his 22-year-old cousin and godson, Charles Hassard Wilcox, who had tuberculosis. After tending his godson, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), managed three hours sleep then went for that walk, whereupon he became, so to speak, “snarked”. This was July 1874; Dodgson heard of his godson’s death on 11th November of the same year, by which time he seems already to have been making plans for The Snark’s publication. A diary entry for 23rd November mentions Ruskin coming round to look at illustrations Dodgson had commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. Dodgson initially asked for three pictures, one for each of the (at the time) three “fits”, but kept adding to the poem, and eventually had Holiday produce nine in all, including a frontispiece.

In the end, it wasn’t till October of the following year that Dodgson had the “sudden idea” (as he put it in his diary) to get The Hunting of the Snark published in time for Christmas. It turned out to be too late for that, so it came out at Easter 1876. It would go through eighteen reprints between then and 1910.

Initial reviews were mixed. The Weekly Dispatch, 16th April 1876, for instance:

Alice in Wonderland was such a delightful volume for all right-minded readers between the ages of four and fourscore, and Through the Looking-glass was such a capital continuation of it, that, while any book their author may write is sure to be eagerly devoured by them, perhaps no book he could write would be altogether satisfactory to them. The Hunting of the Snark, at any rate, is, we think, quite certain to be popular, and quite as certain to disappoint most of those who take it up. The disappointment, however, will not take shape till they have read to the end, and then perhaps it will be quite as much because the eighty pages to which the story does extend are not more evenly crowded with good things.”

Andrew Lang, in The Academy (8th April), perhaps put his finger on it by saying that, if it was “rather disappointing, it is partly the fault of the too attractive title”. Aside, then, from the disappointment of it not featuring Alice — who, I feel, would have punctured the tale from the start by asking the obvious question “What is a Snark?” — there’s a feeling The Hunting of the Snark simply promises more than it delivers. Or, contrariwise, that there ought to be more of it.

Tove Jansson’s cover for the British Library edition

In part, I think this is perhaps because, like Chaucer at the start of The Canterbury Tales, Carroll sets up his cast of characters embarking on this nonsensical quest (ten in all) but only gives six of them a lead place in one of the poem’s eight “fits”. We could, charitably, suggest he was sticking to the form of the unfinished Canterbury Tales by leaving gaps in his tale, but Chaucer at least had the excuse of being dead. Carroll, still alive, simply failed to give us a tale for the Boots, the Maker of Bonnets and Hoods, the Broker, and the Billiard-marker. The final “fit” is, really, exactly the sort of let-down ending you’d expect of a shaggy dog tale, but Carroll didn’t make his dog shaggy enough for it to work.

Like so many of the other greats of fantasy poetry I’ve covered in Mewsings, this is the story of a confrontation with a fantastical being. Wilde’s The Sphinx and Poe’s The Raven are all about that moment of confrontation; Keats’s Belle Dame and Rossetti’s Goblin Market are mostly about the devastating aftermath of such an encounter. Like The Snark, Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is all about the lead-up to the object of a quest, but I think the greatest similarity lies with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater: both start with an extended indulgence in weird exoticism (for Smith) or nonsense (for Carroll), before that very excess of indulgence leads to a final, terrible confrontation with something overwhelming.

What can be said about the nature of Carroll’s Snark? (And I’m conscious that, some years ago, I wrote a mewsings on the dangers of over-interpreting nonsense — “Fallacies of Wonderland” — but I still like to eke out what can be said.)

Chris Riddell cover

For instance, whereas The Canterbury Tales’ pilgrims represent a fair mix of the society of Chaucer’s day, the Bellman’s crew are often ridiculously specialised, and none with skills that might be of help in a hunt. This is epitomised by the Banker who, faced not with the Snark itself but the presumably lesser threat of a Bandersnatch, can only defend himself by offering the creature a “large discount” (on what?) and “a cheque”. They do not form a society, this crew, but a loose collection of isolated individuals.

The poem was conceived in a moment of isolation (“I was walking on a hill-side, alone” — recalling Keats’s “cold hill-side”) and ends with the Baker alone on a similar height (“On the top of a neighbouring crag”) encountering the ultimate loneliness of disappearing from the world altogether. (And it could well be that Dodgson, when he came up with the line, was contemplating the reality of his godson disappearing from the world altogether.) The only character apart from the fated Baker to encounter a Snark is the Barrister, who does so in a dream, where the Snark starts to take on the roles of the entire court — Defence, Prosecution, Jury and Judge — as though it were turning the entire world into one faceless “other”, that other being, ultimately, just oneself by another name. There’s certainly, then, an air of loneliness, absence (the Bellman’s empty map and directionless voyage) and solipsism about the Snark.

And the Snark is also — perhaps can’t help being — the embodiment, or non-embodiment, of nonsense, too: or the thing that awaits when nonsense ceases to be play and becomes a revelation of the meaninglessness of everything, or even, in the case of the Banker, of insanity (“Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity”). A Snark is sought through the purest nonsense of the non-sequitur, the collection of unrelated, random things forced together:

They sought it 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.

It’s as though the way to catch a Snark is to keep assembling unrelated things (including a crew of vastly unrelated professions), until the sheer mass of unrelatedness causes a fissure in reality and the creature, summoned like a demon, appears. (And is this what J G Ballard’s multiple protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition were doing with their “Terminal documents”? If so, what sort of Snark was Ballard trying to summon?)

Mervyn Peake cover

The thing that seems, in the poem, to separate nonsense from the wailing void of meaninglessness is the imposition of rules. The rules don’t, though, have to make sense. They can be as arbitrary as the Bellman’s “What I tell you three times is true.” And it’s notable that this rule is the thing that saves — and brings together — the only two characters who emerge from The Hunting of the Snark happier, and less lonely, than before: the Beaver and the Butcher. These two, who are set up as natural enemies (the Butcher’s specialisation is the butchering of beavers), on facing a moment of terror together, get through it by the application of the Bellman’s nonsensical rule (plus a little equally nonsensical mathematics). The point being, it doesn’t matter what gets them through their experience of terror, only that they do it together, and having done so, have punctured the divisions between them. (The Beaver is also the only character not defined by its specialisation. It’s of course an animal, but, though referred to as an “it”, has characteristics that Carroll’s contemporary audience would have associated with being female: it makes lace, and it weeps. The Butcher, meanwhile, recalls his childhood, “That blissful and innocent state”, and in that moment ceases to be a mere social role, and is humanised.)

Of course, the Baker has a nonsensical rule too:

“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!”

And, in a sense, he perishes not of the Snark — which, arguably doesn’t exist — but from the rule, and the fear it engenders. If a Snark doesn’t exist, it cannot be a Boojum; but if it doesn’t exist, it also can’t not be a Boojum, therefore every Snark is, potentially, a Boojum. The “What I tell you three times” rule leads to the truth (or at least a belief that there might be such a thing as truth — “truth” perhaps being definable as a belief that can be shared, and so a way out of isolation), but the “If your Snark be a Boojum” rule leads only deeper into nonsense, and so into isolation.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “so to speak, ‘snarked'”

I think The Snark — particularly in the second fit, “The Bellman’s Speech”, where the Bellman reveals his blank map, and the sixth, “The Barrister’s Dream” — contains some of Carroll’s best nonsense writing, second only to his absolute best, the “Advice from a Caterpillar” chapter of Alice and “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. And, if I can mention just one more favourite, there’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song”, perhaps the purest nonsense of the lot.

Patrick Woodroffe cover for Mike Batt’s musical version of The Hunting of the Snark


The Television Crossover Universe podcast interview

Television Crossover Universe podcastI’m very flattered to have been interviewed by the lovely people over at the the Television Crossover Universe podcast. This kicked off because of my poem, “Alice at R’lyeh”, which fits into the podcast’s theme (of discussing the way various TV, film, comic and other ‘universes’ link up), thanks to my mixing HP Lovecraft with Lewis Carroll, but the interview goes on to cover other poems and things I’ve done.

The podcast can be found at iTunes here, or via the TCU page. While you’re there, give a listen to some of the other episodes — I’m amazed at their knowledge of the ins and outs of so many universes. (Episode 12, where host Robert E. Wronski, Jr. is himself interviewed is a good starting point.)



Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger

Secret Gardens by Humphrey Carpenter, cover by Mark EdwardsSecret Gardens is Humphrey Carpenter’s study of the writers who created a Golden Age of children’s fiction, from the mid-Victorians (Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) to the Edwardians (Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, J M Barrie’s Peter Pan), with one post-World War I stray in A A Milne. Prior to this, English Literature had only recently “discovered” childhood as a special state; children had previously been seen as little adults, their size making them particularly convenient to be set to work in places adults couldn’t reach — up chimneys and down mines, for instance. But suddenly, to the Victorians (the wealthier ones, at least), children were the embodiment of all that was innocent, like little Adams and Eves before the Fall, and were therefore something to be preserved, prettified and sentimentalised. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) was the ultimate statement of this approach, leading to a fashion for dressing children up as little English aristocrats and growing their hair in golden ringlets. (In the worst of this strain of children’s literature, whole books were written in mis-spelled baby-talk, surely a joke only adult readers would get, and quickly tire of.)

Then came what Carpenter calls the “Arcadians”, who took a different approach. They made the effort to see childhood from the inside, as a golden age of imagination, freedom and make-believe. Adults, from this point of view, were seen to have lost something as they grew up. Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter and A A Milne were, in Carpenter’s view, the few who achieved perfection, with J M Barrie’s “terrible masterpiece” Peter Pan standing as a self-conflicted statement both in favour of not growing up, and the awful tragedy of not doing so.

The BorrowersIn the books for children that followed World War II, Carpenter detects a new theme, one in which children don’t just disappear into a golden, separated existence for the duration of their childhoods, but one in which they slowly discover their place in an “ongoing narrative”, and so learn to grow up. In The Borrowers (1952), “the first classic for children to emerge in England after the Second World War” (according to Carpenter), Arriety’s childhood world is less a “Secret Garden”, and more a prison from which she must learn to escape:

“The Borrowers’ domain beneath the floorboards, which is in many respects Arcadian… is characterised as above all stuffy, poky, and limiting. It is the precise opposite of Badger’s kitchen: it provides not womblike security but a choking constriction.”

It’s interesting to see how Carpenter focuses on how an “idea of childhood” was slowly developed, first being set aside and polished in its own special place (its secret garden) — necessarily so, to rescue it from pre-Victorian ideas of children being just little adults — then being reintroduced into the main narrative, reconnected with wider society and the idea of growing up, but only after that “special state” has had its properly special time.

Inventing Wonderland by Jackie WullschlagerWhere Carpenter traces the evolution of an idea, Jackie Wullschläger, in Inventing Wonderland, discerns a type. For her, the “Golden Age” of children’s writing belonged to “children’s writers who were also particular psychological types: boys who could not grow up”, and she singles out Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, J M Barrie and A A Milne for particular finger-wagging.

And, sadly, finger-wagging it is. Whereas Carpenter’s Secret Gardens is the study of an idea and a developing literary movement, Wullschläger’s “collective biography”, having stated its theme (that the best books for children were written by “boys who could not grow up”), doesn’t really examine or test it, and so is ultimately unsatisfying. (What about, for instance, the female writers — E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter — who contributed to the “Golden Age”? Were they “girls who could not grow up”?) Wullschläger has, it seems, an ideal of maturity against which these five male writers offend, but as she never defines it, you can only guess at it — and, sometimes, marvel at its stringency. At one point, she lists a group of children’s authors who, she says, “all lost parents when they were very young and then never fully accepted adult responsibilities”. In this list she includes J R R Tolkien: Tolkien, who served in the war, was a respected academic, had a successful marriage and a family life free of the horrors she describes in the lives of, for instance, Grahame and Barrie (each of whom had a child, adopted or otherwise, who committed suicide). Never fully accepted adult responsibilities? Just what is it that makes Tolkien fail the Wullschläger maturity test?

Lear - Complete Nonsense(The one author she shows some sympathy for is Edward Lear, though she misses the irony that it is exactly the sort of disapproval for human peculiarities she displays in Inventing Wonderland, that drove Lear in such despair from England to find a refuge on the continent.)

Wullschläger’s book, then, is interesting for its short biographies of a handful of writers, but draws no real conclusions as to what made their works successful — only on the fact that the writers themselves were immature. Of Tolkien and Lewis’s work, for instance, she says:

“Yet their work shows how fantasy continued to be shaped by the two forces which had driven Carroll and his contemporaries: nostalgia on the one hand, the need to find symbols and stories to reflect current anxieties, fears and doubts on the other.”

…implying that the only thing these extremely successful authors have going for them is a pair of negatives — nostalgia and fear. (If only she’d looked beyond her horror-word “nostalgia” to find, for instance, Tolkien’s deep, strong, and heartfelt connection with values in a past he both studied and admired.)

If it’s genuine insight into what made the “Golden Age” of children’s literature a golden age, then, you have to go to Carpenter’s book. The “Secret Gardens” so often located in children’s fiction are, at once, childhood itself, and an image of the imagination. A well-stocked imagination is one of the things that will, I think, see a child properly on his or her way towards a genuine, deep maturity — or at least arm them to withstand the jibes of the maturity police (those prey to what Ursula Le Guin has called “maturismo”: a swaggering, machismo-like version of grown-up-ness). This, I think, is more likely to be where these authors, so wounded in childhood that they could not, or would not, buy into the wider world’s maturity game, found their particular imaginative treasures, and thankfully passed them on to the rest of us.