Analysis of Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

~Lewis Carroll

 

Fairy Tale Lite: Sometimes Less is More

by Michael Ball

Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is often considered to be one the most recognizable and most quoted works of nonsense verse in the English language.  The first stanza of the poem first appeared in Mischmasch, a periodical that Carroll wrote and illustrated himself for the amusement of his family.  The entire poem was featured as a part of his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.  I first encountered “Jabberwocky” when reading Through the Looking-Glass in 7th grade and it struck me as wonderfully odd, even more so than the rest of the book.  In reading it now, however, I’ve realized that it isn’t just nonsense verse.  It is also an excellent representation of the classic fairy tale, boiled down to its barest essentials.

What are the components that make up a classic fairy tale?  Reduced to the simplest terms, all that a fairy tale requires is a Hero, a Quest with dangers to overcome and an Evil to be destroyed.  And most importantly, it must take place in a strange land where magic is possible.  With the opening stanza, Carroll establishes the needed other-worldly scene with “the slithy toves” that “gyre and gimble in the wabe” (1.1.1-2).  It serves as his “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away;” that mandatory fairy tale preface that lets the reader know he isn’t in Kansas anymore.

In the next stanza, the father acts as the quest-giver, telling his son, “Beware the Jabberwock” (1.2.5) and warning him of other dangers that may be encountered in the forms of the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch.  The Jabberwock with “the jaws that bite, the claws that catch” (1.2.6) is the Evil that must be destroyed to complete the quest.  By accepting the quest, the un-named young man in the verse assumes the mantle of the hero.  The lack of a name is not unusual in fairy tale heroes.  There have been many that were nameless or only referred to with a descriptive archetype; such as the Huntsman, the Knight, or the Man with No Name.

The last piece needed to complete the fairy tale requirements is magic.  This is supplied in small part by the strange monsters “with eyes of flame” populating the “tulgey wood” (1.4.14-15).  However, the weapon wielded by the hero is the main source of magic in this story.  Only an enchanted blade can kill a monster in four strokes, “One, two! One, two! And through and through, the vorpal blade went snicker-snack” (1.5.17-18).  His quest complete, the hero returns home with his trophy to glory and celebration, “O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay” (1.6.23)

As I’ve shown, Jabberwocky passes the fairy tale test, having all of the necessary archetypes.  It tells the story with a minimalist economy, leaving off the frills and window dressing, but it still achieves a surprising depth using just the bare framework of a man, his quest and a monster to kill.  Whether or not Carroll intended for it to be interpreted this way is open for debate.  I find it interesting that in later works and when asked directly in interviews, Carroll provided plausible definitions for his supposed nonsense words in Jabberwocky, leading one to think that he was hiding a story behind the Tumtum trees as he amused us with his whimsy.

Works Cited

Negri, Paul.  “Lewis Carroll – Jabberwocky.”  English Victorian poetry:  an anthology.  Mineola,
N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1999.  160-161.  Print.

 

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One Response to “Analysis of Jabberwocky”

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