Monday, January 27, 2014

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll

by Wendy Murray

Today is the birthday of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- better known as Lewis Carroll -- born on January 27, 1832. He is best known for his classic fantasy novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (late 1871).

A writer, logician, photographer, mathematician and Anglican, Dodgson was mentored in his writing by his friend and fellow fantasy-writer, the esteemed George MacDonald (who strongly influenced C. S. Lewis), who read Dodgson's unfinished manuscript of the first book and encouraged him to try and get it published. In 1865 MacMillan released Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under Dodgson's pen name Lewis Carroll.
Charles Dodgson,
 a.k.a. Lewis Carroll

Often overlooked in the 'Alice' corpus is Carroll's classic "nonsense poem," Jabberwocky, which is found in Through the Looking-Glass. In the story Alice has found herself in a backward world on the other side of a looking glass when she finds a book written with illegible symbols. (Go here to see a creative rendition of this.) She realizes that, to read it, she must see it through the reflection of a mirror (being on the other side of a looking glass). When she does so, she ends up as confounded as before:

’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.

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Despite the mysterious word choice, Alice intuits that the poem tells an exciting story with adventure and suspense. She concludes:

'It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!'  . . . 'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate.'

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