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


Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

Young Joe Coppock is lying in bed at home, alone, recuperating from an unspecified illness. (He gets sickly headaches and has to stay out of the sun; he also has one good eye and one “wonky” one, and has to wear a patch over the good one to make his brain set the wonky one right.) A train passes — the only train Joe ever hears, which he’s nicknamed Noony because it passes at noon — and he hears a call from the yard outside:

“Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!”

Joe rushes to find a rag (an old pair of pyjamas) and a bone (a lamb’s shoulder blade he’s stored with his little collection of bird’s eggs). In return, the rag-and-bone man gives him a donkey stone (used for whitening doorsteps, and which here bears an ancient horse symbol on its back) and his choice of pot from a chest on the rag-and-bone man’s cart — a chest which, oddly, has Joe’s name on it. Joe picks a small white cup with the words “Poor Man’s Friend” on it, that contains a tiny fragment of violet-green paste. The rag-and-bone man’s eyes are the same colour. His name is Treacle Walker, and as well as being a rag-and-bone man, claims to be a healer, of “All things; save jealousy. Which none can.” (“Treacle” originally meaning medicine, apparently.)

They go inside to the hearth and Treacle Walker produces a bone flute, which he lets Joe play. Joe produces a couple of notes, which are instantly answered by the call of a distant cuckoo — a cuckoo we never see (though Joe certainly tries to, as he wants to add one of its eggs to his collection) but which seems to preside over the rest of the novel, as though by playing his notes and waking this bird, Joe has set something in motion.

Poor Man’s Friend, image from Worthpoint

But what? What is going on here? It soon becomes apparent that, however normal Joe’s convalescent life may seem at first, it’s anything but. We never see his parents. Things only seem to happen at noon, after the hoot of the train lets Joe know what time it is. And noon is when the sun is at its strongest, so it’s when Joe isn’t supposed to be outside. It’s as though his recovery, his need to stay out of the sun, his only seeming to exist in the noon of the day, are all a way of showing that Joe is stuck, his life composed of rituals (like the list of places he routinely checks from his window, to see who might be out there). And his home is an oddly reduced sort of home, consisting only of a bed (for rest and recovery), a hearth (for warmth, and conversations), and a door (to keep the unwanted out). Not so much a real home, then, as the archetype of one — a home in a dream, or a memory of homes past.

Treacle Walker comes to this world unasked for, and offers few answers as to why he’s here. He speaks a sort of nonsense (though, knowing Garner, it’s all, I’m sure, authentic dialect and abstruse vocabulary): “craven nidget”, “my amblyopic friend”, “the hurlothrumbo of winter”, “a lomperhomock of night”, “furibund”. “Such tarradiddles,” he exclaims at one point, “such macaronics. Such nominies for a young head.” He later claims:

“I have been through Hickety, Pickety, France and High Spain, by crinkum, crankims, crooks and straights.”

Treacle Walker comes across as a mix between the old wizard Cadellin of Garner’s first two books, and Murrangurk, a.k.a Strandloper, from his novel of that name — a walkabout tramp and shaman, a wise man of quiet power and mystery. But with his nonsensical hints, he’s also a bit of a Cheshire Cat to Joe’s Alice (and Joe soon takes his own trip through the Looking Glass, chasing a trio of characters who have emerged from his favourite comic). Perhaps we’re not in the real world, then, but a sort of Garner version of Wonderland.

coverJoe, it turns out, has a bit of Strandloper about him, too, but where William Buckley had to go through a hellish journey in the bowels of a ship and the unforgiving outback of Australia to learn to see the sacred in his home landscape, Joe already has the gift of second sight thanks to his “wonky” eye, as he learns when he goes to have it tested. Looking at an eye chart, he sees the usual jumble of random letters with one eye, but with the other sees letters that spell out what Joe doesn’t at the time know to be a pair of “catalectic hexameters” (more of Treacle Walker’s educated nonsense) in Latin. Later, venturing into a local patch of marsh, he finds that, when he looks at it with his special eye, it stretches off forever, as though he were seeing the present and the past in the landscape at once — like Murrangurk the shaman, in all but that he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing or why.

In the bog, Joe meets Thin Amren, a naked man in a leather hood who has, till now, been sleeping (and dreaming) under the water. Was he woken by Joe’s cuckoo call on the bone flute? It’s fairly clear that, just as the mark on the donkey stone resembles the White Horse of Uffington, Thin Amren is a bog-body, one of those eerie sacrifices preserved in the waters from ancient times. What’s he doing walking about, talking to Joe? And what of the characters that emerge from Joe’s comic, the Knockout (whose name, like the waters of the dreaming bog, implies a state of unconsciousness), Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit and his adversaries Whizzy the Wizard and the Brit Bashers? Why is Joe surrounded by imaginary characters?

Norman Ward’s Stonehenge Kit from The Knockout comic

Perhaps, though, that’s the wrong way to put it. Perhaps Joe isn’t so much surrounded by imaginary characters as in his natural element. Perhaps he’s imaginary himself. Because, to me, Treacle Walker reads like it’s all taking place inside Garner’s head. These are all characters we’ve met in his fiction before, in different forms. Joe is, though younger, like so many of Garner’s troubled young male protagonists, with their “badly” fits and visions. Like those boys and men — the Tom/Thomas/Macey of Red Shift, the William Buckley of Strandloper — he has his totemic objects, his nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but actually ancient or old or magical artefacts. They had their “Bunty”, their “grallus”, their “swaddledidaff”; Joe has his marbles (with their nonsensical schoolboy names, his “dobber glass alley”, and his “blood alley”), his “Poor Man’s Friend” cup, his donkey stone — he has a whole host of totemic nonsense objects, in fact. But each of these characters is a progression, a variant, and here, for the first time, we have a young Garner protagonist not in a relationship with a woman whose work it is to heal him (in fact, there are no women in the book). But there is still healing going on, and as in those earlier books it’s healing that works through telling, through story, through opening up despite the difficulty in doing so. (This book has its equivalent of the invitation-to-tell-a-story conversation that occurs in other Garner books. Here, it’s “Tell me.” “I can’t.” repeated three times, before the dam breaks and the telling starts.)

However much the setting, here, resembles that of Garner’s own childhood, it’s not a real world. At one point, Treacle Walker calls the yard outside Joe’s home “this Middle-Yard”, and makes it sound like the Middle-Earth of norse myth, the region between heaven and hell where men spend their brief mortal moment, which might as well be a dream.

Boneland coverIf Joe is a sort of Tom/Thomas/Macey, and Treacle Walker a Cadellin and a Murrengurk, what of Thin Amren, the bog man who should be dreaming? Perhaps he’s that other presence that lurks in Garner’s fiction, the Sleeper Under the Hill (and Joe briefly goes out to a hill and feels the presence of a sleeper under it, and also feels a “Nothing. No one. Only loss”, like an echo of the deep sense of emptiness and isolation in Tom from Red Shift or Colin from Boneland, though here it’s only a moment, then it’s gone). Thin Amren is a dreamer, and whether he’s a figure from Joe’s inner life, or Joe is his dream, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that between them they represent the young present rooted in the ancient past, and in this they sum up the entire Garner double-vision view of the world. They aren’t cause and effect, but coexistent.

Near the end of this very short novel, Joe asks a question of Treacle Walker (whom Thin Amren, another dialect nonsense-talker, calls “that pickthank psychopomp”) which might be a solution to this whole situation, but if so, it’s a throwaway one. I prefer my feeling that all the characters, here, are Garner archetypes, and it’s all taking place in the author’s dream-time world. What we have here, then, is Garner’s autobiography, not of facts or reminiscences, but of his dreaming self, in which the boy he once was, the sick kid in bed who was twice declared dead, turns into the shamanistic wanderer, the healer and storyteller, the combined tramp-and-wizard, the bog-man dreamer and comic-reading little boy, all in one. (And I can’t help likening the cuckoo Joe wakes with his playing of the bone flute with the idea that Garner, as a young man, came to feel alienated from both his family and the landscape he’d grown up in, when he was the first of them to be educated, and so to come to see the world through both the folkloristic view of his family, and the archeological and historical view of a scientist. That, perhaps, was the cuckoo-call that set off his own writerly journey.) This is the story of how all these dualities are in fact one thing, and how they return to that oneness, through the calling of a cuckoo and a chase through mirrors. And, like all of Garner’s books, it’s a story of healing — self-healing.

One more thing to say is that, for perhaps the first time in his novels, I really feel Garner, here, is having fun. Not that there isn’t distress and peril and pain (Joe’s headaches, his being chased through mirror-worlds, the loneliness he feels on the hill), but there’s an air of nonsense-play, and a fondness for the little things of distant childhood (comics, marbles, trains, bird’s eggs) that far outweighs the darker elements.

It’s a dream, this novel, a making sense through image and archetype, on the level of imagination and story, which has, really, been the trajectory of Garner’s novels from the start. This, perhaps, is it in its purest, most concentrated, yet lightest, form yet.


Meddie, and other poetry updates

I’ve added a few poems to the Poems section of my website over the course of this year — The Night Black Suit, Jack Fear, Tumbledown Tom, and Doctor Freud most recently. I thought I’d end the year with a whole batch more, including this (longish) mix of Greek myth, hair care, and the modern workplace, Meddie:

Also newly up are the story of a rather pointless but nevertheless rewarding quest (Spike and Doodles), Lovecraft-meets-Alan Bennett (New Neighbours), the tale of a very brave little girl (Molly Millie May McGrew), and a couple of other shorter ones (The Imposter, The Icky Drip).

I’ve also added a popup menu at the top of the page, so you can sort the poems by various criteria, including the ability to see what’s been added recently.

Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!