Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ – a Literary Tribute

John Tenniel's 'Jabberwocky'
John Tenniel’s ‘Jabberwocky’


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogroves

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 borogroves

And the mome raths outgrabe


Considered one of the greatest ‘nonsense’ poems written in the English language, Jabberwocky is contained within Lewis Carroll’s 1871 work Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, a sequel to the perhaps more jovial Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865). As evident above, the poem contains a wide range of unintelligible vocabulary and complicated yet aesthetically pleasing sentence structure. Nonetheless, despite the abnormal and exotic lexicon, Carroll is able to conjure and mould imagery in the imagination to the extent that the reader can more or less guess what the poem is concerned with at any particular moment. Jabberwocky’s nonsensical language is in parallel with its introduction in the novel within which it is contained. Heroin Alice, a polite, well-mannered and logically-reasoned mid-Victorian period girl, probably around the age of 11 or 12, reads Jabberwocky in a book written in ‘mirror-writing’ – that is to say, she has to hold the text to a mirror and read the reflection in order to understand what there is to understand about the poem. The work describes an unnamed protagonist’s search for, and confrontation with, a mystically dark creature, the ‘Jabberwock’. [Alice in fact has a little help in deciphering the text, from the ever-wise Humpty Dumpty].


Many of the unintelligible words used by Carroll in Jabberwocky have subsequently filtered into reasonably common, or official, use due to his work’s success. ‘Chortled’, for instance, now in the Oxford English Dictionary, is a portmanteau – a combination of two words and their meanings – of ‘chuckled’ and ‘snorted’, conjuring the image of perhaps a bubbly and amiable old man laughing within the constraints of his health. This could be insinuated given that ‘chortled’ is used to describe the behaviour of the father (or father figure) of the protagonist in Jabberwocky. Others, such as ‘tulgey’, are thought to have been drawn from other languages. ‘Tulgey’ could stem from the Cornish word ‘tulgu’, meaning darkness, which in turn fits the imagery of the wood in which the battle between the protagonist and the ‘Jabberwock’ takes place. Many of the other made up words employed by Carroll invoke connotations that form a sceptical meaning, such as ‘galumphing’ – perhaps a speedy but ungraceful gallop – and ‘gyre and gimble’ – perhaps an alternative way of saying ‘rotate and bore’ or something similar.

What is interesting about the way that Carroll has constructed Jabberwocky, despite common opinion, is that the poem in fact relies on notions of accepted rhyming schemes, syntax and word order. This suggests in fact that Jabberwocky is not actually a non-sense poem, more of a twist and reinterpretation of the general notions of literary and poetic sense. As mentioned, despite the original and undefined vocabulary, it is generally – admittedly with help from rather striking illustrations by John Tenniel – easy to discern roughly what the lexicon means. This is the beauty of Carroll’s work; that, as with the properties of a dream – and it is within a dream that Alice has her incredible adventures – he has created a poem that is simultaneously both linguistically rational and irrational. While some of his other poems, including The Walrus and the Carpenter – also in Through the Looking Glass – and You Are Old, Father William play around with literary devices, none achieve quite what is reached with Jabberwocky.


The vague but strong imagery in Carroll’s poem was brought to life by John Tenniel, an artist and cartoonist known for his political and cultural illustrations. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his contribution to the legacy of the period’s social and literary spheres. Tenniel was apparently reluctant and apprehensive to illustrate Carroll’s work, given the latter’s reputation for using absurdist themes and nonsensical description. Still, the work Tenniel produced to accompany not only Jabberwocky but the majority of Carroll’s literature has defined their interpretation. The depiction of the Jabberwock (above, top), as a dragon-like creature with leathery wings, a tail, claw-like hands and feet and the head of what looks like a banshee, is fascinatingly vivid and spectacular. Analysts suspect this reflects the Victorian’s obsession with natural history, as Tenniel seems to have amalgamated the various discoveries of the time, including both research on Jurassic creatures as well as semi-religious ideas, to form an image of Carroll’s ‘manxome foe’.

John Tenniel's 'Alice and Humpty Dumpty'
John Tenniel’s ‘Alice and Humpty Dumpty’

Tenniel also manages to juxtapose innocence and evil in clever and manipulative ways, such as in his depiction of Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty, in which the nursery rhyme character explains some of the meanings of Carroll’s neologisms in Jabberwocky. In this particular case, there are multiple literary devices at play, even in Tenniel image, mainly because Humpty Dumpty himself, in general, is not considered a particularly intellectual being, and yet he has the ability to decipher what to Alice is a nonsense text. This adds to the absurdism and nightmarish themes already filtering through in Alice’s experience ‘through the looking glass’. Humpty’s frown, granted to him by Tenniel, develops this idea, by widening the former’s emotional range and suggesting an impatience or exasperation about the character. Combined with the discussion on Jabberwocky, the episode is a strange one, and confuses, sometimes terrifies, both adults and children.


For all Carroll’s mysteries, including the suspicion that he wrote much of the two ‘Alice’ texts whilst high on opium, Jabberwocky is perhaps one of the greatest. How on earth he managed to formulate such poetic verse without using many accepted words in beyond many readers. The impact of the poem has been widespread, and not just in the world of literature. Carroll’s theme have permeated other spheres, including hospitality – an Alice in Wonderland themed cocktail bar, Callooh, Callay!, popped up in Shoreditch, immediate East London a few years, displaying the depth of not just Carroll’s, but Jabberwocky’s influence.



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