August 23, 2010

The Jabberwocky

        Fantasy and poetry go well together for many reasons. For example, poetry is perfect for evoking a single image or scene with an intensity and wholeness that make it come alive, just as fantasy tries to make a strange universe seem whole enough to come alive. Poetry is also perfect for epics that need to be remembered and recited over generations. That's because poetry sticks in our brains better than prose.
        My family has a particular affinity for poetry, and in my youth my mother was always liable upon the slightest provocation to launch into a dramatic recitation of the "Jabberwocky." Much impressed, I soon memorized it for myself. I highly recommend the practice of keeping a few favorite poems in your head at all times. You never know when they might come in handy, and as long as you have them at the ready you need never be without entertainment. To get you started I offer here Lewis Carroll's famous "Jabberwocky." Allow yourself to enjoy the full range of melodrama: from the pathos of the poor borogoves and mome raths to the sinister description of the Jabberwock, Jubjub bird and Bandersnatch; from the suspense as our hero stands in uffish thought to the thrill-packed climax - snicker-snack! - and the frabjous jubilation of triumphant homecoming; and finally the melancholy of the raths still mome and still outgribing about it.


'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 though 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.

        One of the things about nonsense is that it must actually be quite carefully balanced with sense or it becomes not nonsense but simply meaningless sounds. In the "Jabberwocky" it's always quite clear what part of speech each word is, and which is doing what to whom. (If you don't know the explanation of Carroll's made-up words, look here.) The same thing applies when writing fantasy. The new imaginary creatures and concepts you add to your world must be carefully balanced with familiar things lest you add so many strange words and concepts that you tip over into meaningless sounds. In fantasy, as in nonsense, there must be a fine balance between the known and the unknown.

        [Pictures: Two illustrations for "Jabberwocky" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pen and ink (copied as wood engravings for printing), by Sir John Tenniel, first published 1871.]


Pax said...

Hooray! Thanks, Anne, I do love The Jabberwocky. Perhaps we should all meet at a coffee shop and "entertain" the other patrons?

Anonymous said...

The poem is not titled "The Jabberwocky"... it is just "Jabberwocky".

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Right you are!