Catherine Shaw, ‘04
West Chester University
Lewis Carroll, famous for including nonsensical poems in his beloved Alice stories, used “Jabberwocky” in Alice’s second Adventure: Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The poem is recognized as one of his most famous, and included made up words that have slipped their way into English dictionaries. The New American Handy College Dictionary has even come to use the word “Jabberwocky” to describe “gibberish” and “nonsensical speech” (369). Lewis Carroll, although using plenty of “jabberwocky” in his poem, never the less tells a gripping story with his use of diction, imagery, and themes that tie to the larger works the poem appears in.
Carroll begins and ends “Jabberwocky” with the same stanza that is filled with his nonsense words including “brillig,” “slithy,” and “wabe”. In fact, he wrote the first stanza years before the rest of the poem appeared in Through the Looking Glass (Carroll, Alice 255). Knowing that the readers of the novel would not understand this fantastical stanza, Carroll included an explication of his own through the words of Humpty-Dumpty later in Through the Looking Glass. Humpty-Dumpty explains what the author meant with his use of words like “slithy.” Carroll believed in enhancing meaning by combining words to take on the meaning that each word would have separately.
Even though the first stanza is indecipherable to one who has not read Humpty-Dumpty’s clarification of it, it sets up the whimsical nature of the poem for the reader. In addition, the stanza, despite being written years before ties the rest of the poem together and creates the feeling of one congruous whole. Carroll continues to use “home-made” words throughout the poem, mixing them with common words that tell the story of the “Jabberwock” beast.
The poem tells the story of a fairy-tale, filled with beasts and bravery. The scariest beast of all in the world of the poem is the Jabberwock, although the land is filled with others like the “bandersnatch” and the “jubjub” bird. Carroll uses or creates words like these that are obviously very carefully picked so that he may convey his story in a vivid and entrancing way. In an “entraviving” manner, perhaps, he would say. The word use in Jabberwocky fits in with the world that Alice has wandered in to as it is filled with things she does not immediately understand, things she is not used to finding in her own reality.
Imagery is an important element to Carroll’s Jabberwock. He makes it apparent from the start that the action is occurring in a land other than our own, even a land other than Wonderland. It immediately sucks the reader into a land where imagination is king, as there is no reason to the way things are. The poem appears in a book that Alice picks up, making it a fairy-tale even inside the odd land of the looking glass. “Jabberwocky” is typed backwards in the book, increasing the effect of wonderment on Alice, who can understand none of it. Its appearance in the book heightens the strangeness of the poem itself, amazing Alice even after her own adventures. Alice and the reader are left to see the poem as a tale of something strange and bewildering.
“Jabberwocky” follows the boy on his quest to rid his land of the evil Jabberwock. The reader immediately understands the task is not an easy one and that the beast is a terrible menace on the village the boy and his father reside in. Alice herself exclaims that, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas-only I don’t exactly know what they are” (Carroll, Alice 132). The reader, like Alice, knows that the action has consisted of the heroic actions of a boy slaying a monster, even though Carroll doesn’t use conventional words to tell the story. The imagery is so sharp, that although the reader may not understand all the words, he or she has no problem following the action of the work.
By the end of the poem the reader understands that the boy has been successful in his quest to slay the Jabberwock. He returns home to his father bearing the head of the beast. Carroll displays this graphically in lines 19 and 20; “He left it dead, and with its head/he went galumphing back” (Carroll, “Jabberwocky” 1699). “Galumphing” brings the image of the excited ride of victory the boy partakes in to get home and announce his success. The dictionary theorizes that Carroll created the word from combining “gallop” and “triumph,” (289).
The joyous outburst of the father conveys what a wonderful thing that the boy has done for the village. The reader is left with the understanding that the world for the humans has been changed by the single brave act of the boy. Due to the slaying of the Jabberwock the world has changed for the better within the village. One could attribute this to Alice, if one considers her as the village that her adventures have changed, making her a better person.
As mentioned above, the poem ends with the same verse that it began with. The reader still has no solid understanding of it, but does understand that there has been some action in the land where the Jabberwock once roamed. The repetition of the opening stanza at the end tells the reader that although a major change has happened to the boy and the others he lives with, the action has had no major effect on the world in general. After the boy has slain the monster; the toves, borogroves, and raths still go on as they had before. Once again this can be looked at in reference to Alice’s own life, while she is altered, the outside world who do not realize what she has been through remains unchanged.
The themes of the poem are similar to some other narrative poems written around the same time. The poem deals with mythical and mystical creatures. Like Tennyson and Keats, Carroll tells an epic fairy tale, only he does it in seven verses as opposed to several pages. The poem deals with courage, which closes relates to Alice. She must use courage during her own adventures and while she is not slaying the monster, she is faced with many challenges.
“Jabberwocky” shows that everyone can do amazing things. The original illustrator of the Alice books, John Tenniel includes a drawing of his idea of the Jabberwock beast showing the boy as being in a “David and Goliath” situation. He is capable of overcoming the odds and making his village safer to live in. Alice, in a similar way must overcome her fears and doubts by using her wits to get out of the scrapes she finds herself in. This is a potent theme that gives the reader knowledge that they can do things that may seem impossible.
“Jabberwocky” is a poem capable of being an asset to the Alice books, all the while able to stand-alone. Lewis Carroll writes the poem as an enrapturing narrative poem that combines clever word use, vivid imagery, and strong thematic views to create a highly enjoyable read. Carroll effectively uses these things to make an epic fairy tale story in only thirty lines. It creates an alternate reality in an alternate reality filled with heroes and villains, with good overcoming evil.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Random House, 2002.
Carroll, Lewis. “Jabberwocky.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. 2nd ed. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003.
Morehead, Albert, and Loy Morehead, eds. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Signet, 2001.