Hunting the Snark with Pen and Ink
By Mahendra Singh
One afternoon a Christ Church mathematics tutor was taking a stroll when a curious and unexpected thought came to him, a random line of Nonsense verse that suddenly flashed through his mind:
“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
The day was July 18, 1874, and it had been nine years since the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, had written Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and three years since he had written Through the Looking Glass. Both books had been enormously popular, not only with children but also with the many adults who relished the sophisticated paradoxes and clever games of language, mathematics and logic with which the author had filled Alice’s dream-like world. This style of literature was called Nonsense and Carroll was universally acknowledged to be its undisputed master.
He had written some poetry before that fateful morning (his Jabberwocky is a high point of Through the Looking Glass) but the verses which grew out of that single line were entirely different; they would become The Hunting of the Snark, the finest Nonsense poem ever written and an epic masterpiece which would fascinate readers and stir up more controversies and conflicting theories than anything else he ever wrote.
Carroll worked for two more years to finish the poem; he couldn’t stop himself from cramming more and more references into it, references to just about everything under the Victorian sun: English banking practices and naval history, sea-side bathing, life insurance policies, Shakespeare, music hall jokes and even billiards-playing. There were personal and professional references also : the Baker’s boxes numbering 42, which was Carroll’s age at the time; the Bellman’s Rule of Three and the Beaver’s Lesson which both seem to poke fun at Carroll’s own profession of teaching mathematics to less than willing students. There were hints at contemporary events and culture : the Banker’s Fate is an obvious parody of a Victorian minstrel show while the Barrister’s Dream might refer to the trial of the Tichbourne Claimant (a notorious Australian swindler) or even the popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Trial by Jury.
There was much in common with the Alice books; Carroll himself admitted that the Snark could be found on the same island where the Jabberwock had been slain. The Snark and the Alice books were equally populated by Bandersnatches and Jubjub birds and more importantly, the inhabitants all spoke the oddest sort of English full of ingenious portmanteau words (further explained in Carroll’s Preface) such as beamish, frumious, galumphing and mimsy. Carroll labored hard to expand and improve upon Alice’s Nonsense universe with even more impossible beasts and characters, all of them launched into galloping rhymes to chase after the Snark, faster and faster till the sudden, grim end.
And this is where Carroll departed from the Alice books, for although they also involved a quest, the hunt for the Snark was far darker. Perhaps the lunacy of the Mad Hatter’s Party had finally taken over Carroll’s Nonsense world, for it’s clear that the Snark’s hunters (most of them characters taken from everyday Victorian life) were not quite right in the head. Unable to count properly, going backwards with blank maps, chasing a mass delusion whilst armed with bits of paper, soap and eating utensils, things would only get worse and worse for them until one went utterly mad and another literally vanished away.
It was pretty strong stuff coming from a children’s author such as Lewis Carroll, so much so that some critics still think the poem is best kept out of the hands of young people. But we know for a fact that Carroll did intend the poem to be read by both adults and children. In fact, the Snark was dedicated to a child, Gertrude Chataway; her name forms not only the first letter of each line but also the first word of each stanza of the dedicatory poem at the beginning of the book.
Carroll had a higher opinion of children’s intelligence and curiosity than certain critics and he was confident that although some young people might not be interested in make-believe such as Snarks and Boojums and Bandersnatches, many others would be. He knew they would quickly understand that this was a kind of game of words and ideas with some very ingenious rules, complicated enough to challenge adults yet enjoyable enough to satisfy a curious child’s sense of fun.
Certain critics also get quite worked up about the Snark’s ultimate meaning. Naturally, most poems and books have some sort of meaning and the Snark is no different. The odd thing is that no one has ever quite figured out what it is (which may be part of the game, when one thinks about it). Curiouser and curiouser, we also know that whenever Carroll was asked what the poem meant, he always replied that he did not know. But as we’ve seen, the poem is full of all sorts of references to very real ideas, things and events and many readers have been tempted to solve the puzzle themselves by using these hints.
Some people believe that the poem is a satire on capitalism and its quest for wealth. Some think it is a self-portrait of Carroll himself. Others think it is about Christianity or philosophies such as Existentialism and Idealism. There are some who even think it’s all about the colonization of Australia or Arctic exploration or even tuberculosis!
In any case, these controversies will go on forever, the Snark is that kind of story, so complicated and so full of riddles that just about any theory might fit to some degree. We should note that Carroll did admit in a letter to some children that he thought the meaning which seemed to fit the poem most beautifully was that it was an allegory of mankind’s search for happiness.
Which finally brings us to this particular version of the Snark. It is a version illustrated with the techniques of Surrealism, a style of making art and literature which began in the aftermath of World War I at a time when many people were convinced that human nature itself must change if we were ever to be happy again after such an immense slaughter. The Surrealists hoped that by using the images and ideas of our dreams and our unconscious world to make art, the people who saw and read their work would themselves wake up something dreamlike inside themselves. They might then change the way they lived and worked and thought, they might learn to sleepwalk with their eyes wide open, so to speak, and then the world around them would slowly turn into a dream itself — a happy dream, hopefully!
The Surrealists thought very highly of Lewis Carroll and in particular his Snark, for it is a very Surrealist poem in the way it rearranges and distorts the real world according to half-hidden rules that seem based on the logic of dreams. And so I thought it best to use the techniques of Surrealism to illustrate my Snark, in particular the visual puns and riddles of such artists as Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, Alberto Savinio and Salvador Dalí.
But even the considerable resources of Surrealism were not sufficient to flesh out this Snark. I had to rummage through the entire history of art to explain certain verses, all the way from the Classical Rome of the Laocoön to the Late Medieval Flemish nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch and even the drawings of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Holiday, the original illustrator of the Snark. Our modern pop culture also proved useful. Look carefully and you’ll spot references to the Fab Four and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and even to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Some of the puns and puzzles that I used to expand and explain the verses are based on pertinent places and things and even foreign languages; I have to admit that the coincidence of the word “bander” in Bandersnatch also meaning “monkey” in Hindi was just too juicy to ignore!
In short, I’ve enjoyed making my little jokes and puzzles, just as much as Lewis Carroll enjoyed making his. I’ve tried not to cheat—each drawing should make some sort of sense of the verse it explains or at least, make Nonsense! And equally important, perhaps my readers, in particular the younger ones, will be intrigued enough by what they glimpse here to further pursue on their own that immense cultural heritage which silently — and so faithfully — awaits them.