An Animated Reading of “The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s Nonsense Poem That Somehow Manages to Make Sense

“I can explain all the poems that ever were in­ vented—and a good many that haven’t been invent­ed just yet.” —Hump­ty Dump­ty

“The Jab­ber­wocky,” Lewis Carroll’s clas­sic poem from Through the Look­ing Glass, and What Alice Found There—the sec­ond install­ment of the most famous­ly non­sen­si­cal adven­ture in lit­er­ary history—is “full of seem­ing­ly non­sen­si­cal words that some­how man­age to make sense,” says nar­ra­tor Jack Cut­more-Scott in the ani­mat­ed read­ing above from TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion. That word, non­sense, is asso­ci­at­ed with Carroll’s fan­ta­sy world more than any oth­er, but what does it mean for a sto­ry to be non­sense and be intel­li­gi­ble at the same time?

Car­roll, a math­e­mati­cian by train­ing, under­stood the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of non­sense, which “T.S. Eliot remind­ed us, is not an absence of sense but a par­o­dy of it,” as J. Patrick Lewis writes at The New York Times. “Some of the port­man­teau words Car­roll invented—chortle, bur­ble, frab­jous and others—are now ful­ly vest­ed mem­bers of the lex­i­con. And the verse’s struc­ture is a mir­ror, as Alice dis­cov­ered, of clas­si­cal Eng­lish poet­ry.” Car­roll com­posed the first four lines ten years before Through the Look­ing Glass, as a par­o­d­ic “Stan­za of Anglo-Sax­on Poet­ry” to amuse his fam­i­ly.

It may help, or not, to keep in mind that Car­roll is not only mock­ing Eng­lish poet­ic forms and con­ven­tions, but a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal form of Eng­lish that is most­ly unrec­og­niz­able to mod­ern read­ers, and cer­tain­ly to Alice. But the poem’s syn­tax and struc­ture are so famil­iar that we can eas­i­ly piece togeth­er a mon­ster-slay­ing nar­ra­tive in which, as Alice remarks, “some­body killed some­thing.”

The ever-hum­ble Hump­ty Dump­ty is hap­py to explain, as was Car­roll in his orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion, to which he attached a glos­sary very sim­i­lar to the egg’s def­i­n­i­tions and gave “the lit­er­al Eng­lish” of the first stan­za as:

“It was evening, and the smooth active bad­gers were scratch­ing and bor­ing holes in the hill side; all unhap­py were the par­rots, and the grave tur­tles squeaked out“.

There were prob­a­bly sun dials on the top of the hill, and the “boro­goves” were afraid that their nests would be under­mined. The hill was prob­a­bly full of the nests of “raths”, which ran out squeak­ing with fear on hear­ing the “toves” scratch­ing out­side. This is an obscure, but yet deeply affect­ing, rel­ic of ancient Poet­ry.

Does this help? It does explain the mood Car­roll is after, and he achieves it. The Jab­ber­wocky is fun­ny and play­ful and all the rest, but it is also deeply unset­tling in its obscure mys­ter­ies and fright­en­ing descrip­tions of its title char­ac­ter.

In John Tenniel’s famous illus­tra­tion of the beast, it appears as a scaly, leath­ery drag­on with a face some­where between a deep-sea fish and an over­grown sew­er rat. The ani­ma­tion by Sjaak Rood gives it a more clas­si­cal­ly drag­on-like appear­ance, in the crazed style of Ralph Stead­man, while the Ban­der­snatch looks like some­thing Paul Klee would have invent­ed. The choice of artis­tic influ­ences here shows Rood con­nect­ing deeply with the non­sense tra­di­tion in mod­ern art, one which also turns famil­iar forms into night­mar­ish beings that fill our heads with ideas.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

O Frab­jous Day! Neil Gaiman Recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jab­ber­wocky” from Mem­o­ry

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Orig­i­nal Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed Man­u­script for Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land (1864)

Lewis Carroll’s Pho­tographs of Alice Lid­dell, the Inspi­ra­tion for Alice in Won­der­land

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, Illus­trat­ed by Sal­vador Dalí in 1969, Final­ly Gets Reis­sued

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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