John Shaw, '02
West Chester University

Some Influences on The Hunting of the Snark

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is considered to be "perhaps the most quoted author in the English language after Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible" (Bloom, intro.). This distinction is not misplaced, for with the genius that went into such works as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Dodgson created a name for himself that will be remembered for a long time. Dodgson's work with the nonsense was revolutionary for its time, especially in The Hunting of the Snark. A better understanding of The Hunting of the Snark is gained by taking a closer look at Dodgson's life to see what really influenced him to write this piece.

Charles, who is better known by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, which he "invented by Latinizing and reversing his first two names" (Hinde, 28), was born on January 27, 1832, as the first son of an eventual family of eleven to a "learned but poor Anglican clergyman" (Hinde, 11). When Charles was eleven, his father was given a "much richer living in a parish in Croft, a small town in North Yorkshire" (Hinde, 12). It was then that the elder Dodgson was able to send his first-born son, who "in his opinion was a 'steady, likely-to-do-good man, who in the long run may win the race'" (Hinde, 11) to Richmond boarding school. Dodgson excelled at school especially in the area of mathematics and was considered by his headmaster to "possess... a very uncommon share of genius" (Hinde, 13), but because he was "a gentle, nervous boy, with a chronic stutter" (Hinde, 13) he also suffered teasing and bullying. He always seemed able to create humor from hard situations, however, and "it was during his schooldays that he began to devise ways to amuse his brothers and sisters; indeed entertaining them undoubtedly satisfied that part of his nature which was later satisfied by entertaining his little girl friends" (Hinde, 13) and anyone else who would read his works.

"In 1850 Dodgson matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, the school that his father had attended" (Hinde, 23) and wished for him to go. It was there that Dodgson would eventually graduate with a first-class mathematics degree and "spend the rest of his life, unmarried, as a deacon and mathematics don" (Hinde, 23). During his time as a student at Christ Church, Dodgson excelled in his schooling, and his ability in mathematics was great. Its influence is seen in all of his literary works. His ability to create an nonsensical place that somehow makes sense is a direct result of many long hours figuring out mathematical problems that to most would be considered nonsense. Dodgson did actually write several mathematical textbooks prior, but it was Alice and the later Through the Looking-Glass that brought him fame. "It was during his time as a student that two very significant things happened that greatly influenced his life; one was the arrival of Henry Liddell as Dean at Christ Church, the father of the famed Alice that he used as muse in his books, and two, he took up photography" (Hinde, 24). Both of these influenced Dodgson greatly in his writing. Dodgson's relationship with Alice Liddell and other little girls became the passion and joy of his life, and his literary works are a direct result of his want to understand and entertain them. Photography also greatly interested Dodgson, and he became very talented at creating highly artistic pictures using the camera. His ability to take a piece of a scene using his camera and have it be appreciated by future viewers and even critics earned him the distinction of being one of the first to create art using the camera. Photography influenced Dodgson's literary ability in that it gave him training in being able to create whole other worlds that can be appreciated by future readers. All in all, Dodgson's love for children, and his ability in mathematics and photography are three major influences his writing and are seen in "his third and final literary masterpiece" (Guiliano, 103) The Hunting of a Snark.

As was evident in earlier days of Dodgson’s life, he seemed to attempt to entertain children in most all that he did, and The Hunting of a Snark was no exception. The poem is written with such nonsense that only the minds and imagination of a child could pretend to understand what is meant. The entire alter universe that Dodgson creates in this poem is just plain silly in parts:

Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes

A thing, as the Bellman remarked,

That frequently happens in tropical climes,

When a vessel is, so to speak, "snarked." (Carroll, 21)

Later, himself "unable to comprehend the nonsense [in this stanza], Dodgson invented a ludicrous explanation [for this stanza] in the preface he wrote to the Snark" (Guiliano, 110). The truth is, there is similar nonsense throughout this poem, which suggests that Dodgson looked first to entertain children in his works. The very prevalent use of the letter B, the very strange characters that are amassed for the journey, even the reason for the journey are so nonsensical that Dodgson himself reported "I don't know!" (Hinde, 99) when asked for his meaning in this poem. He later "did agree it could be an allegory of the search for happiness," (Hinde, 99) but he would not limit its meaning to that. This poem is not only enjoyed by children, for the wit and humor that accompany the nonsense are wonderful, but there is a theme in all Dodgson's works that suggest that they are partially at least written for children.

Dodgson’s study of mathematics is another apparent influence on The Hunting of the Snark. Numbers are obviously an essential element of this work. The poem is separated into eight fits and there is importance given to numbers throughout:

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:

That alone should encourage the crew.

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:

What I tell you three times is true." (Carroll, 14)

Also, Dodgson’s love for mathematical puzzles is revealed in the lines: "Taking Three as the subject to reason about—

A convenient number to state—

We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out

By One Thousand diminished by Eight.

The result we proceed to divide, as you see,

By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two:

Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be

Exactly perfectly true." (Carroll, 37-38)

Dodgson loved numbers, and his abilities with numbers gave him far more than figuring out math puzzles. This work is unique from all of his others in that the alter world that he creates totally exists without the aid of any of the Victorian influences that were a part of his other works. The nonsense that Dodgson creates in this poem actually works toward order when the last words are read. This ability is undeniably influenced by Dodgson’s constant study of mathematics. The skill and intelligence it takes to take abstract groupings of numbers that most would see as nonsense and place them in some particular order so that they themselves make some semblance of order is what was required to create such an orderly and understandable story out of such abstract ideas.

Dodgson’s love for and study of photography is another influence on him in the writing of The Hunting of the Snark. The creation of such colorful and creative characters is one example of photography’s influence. His ability to see something special in a scene, and be able to capture it on camera so that future viewers could also see what he had seen was a direct influence on his ability to create colorful and nonsensical characters and even themes in the Snark and not have them seem just plain dumb, but rather special, and complete somehow:

"This was charming, no doubt: but they shortly found out

That the Captain they trusted so well

Had only one notion for crossing the ocean,

And that was to tingle his bell." (Carroll, 20)

Lines like the one above are, by themselves complete nonsense, but when added to the entire picture of the story, they add wit, charm, and humor. His study in photography also gave Dodgson skills of compositions and the ability to frame or reduce an entire idea or scene and all of its intricacies into a one picture. The completely nonsensical idea’s, characters, and themes in this work all contribute to make order and sense, and this is a direct result of Dodgson’s ability in photography.

Charles Dodgson was a brilliant man and his life testifies to it. The incredible thoughts that are behind such works as Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, and The Hunting of a Snark have been and can be looked at on so many levels. It is seen throughout his life that he had a great desire to entertain, especially children. This, and other influences such as mathematics and photography are what contributed in make the man and are seen in his works. His poem The Hunting of a Snark brings alive for the reader an alter world of nonsense where a Snark is the reason for existence. This poem flows so well and is so simple, yet if looked at correctly, it is so profound. "The Hunting of the Snark is, as Michael Holquist has justly pointed out, the most nonsensical nonsense that Dodgson created, and it best exemplifies what his career and all his books sought to do: achieve pure order" (Guiliano, 110). Perhaps this order was only for himself as a way of escape, or perhaps it was an order only understood by children. Only Dodgson knew. One thing is for certain: Dodgson did fulfill his father’s prophecy, and in the end won the race.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views of Lewis Carroll. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

---. Introduction. Modern Critical Views.

Guiliano, Edward. "Lewis Carroll, Laughter and Despair, and The Hunting of the Snark." Bloom,103-110.

Hinde, Thomas. Selected and introduced. Looking-Glass Letters. by Lewis Carroll. New York: Rizzoli, 1992.

Carroll, Lewis. The Hunting of the Snark: and other Nonsense Verse. New York: The Peter Pauper Press, 1952.