Wednesday, June 28, 2017

I Blame Lewis Carroll

Nightmare fuel for young Victorians
It cannot be denied that my love for the weird and the numinous permeates all my work and recently I have been pondering the trigger that started it all. Admittedly, my personality leans strongly in that direction, but as I reviewed my childhood, one memory that stands out is one day finding in the library a book of nonsense poems. Most of them made little sense and had very little impact until I came across Lewis Carrolls' The Hunting of the Snark. I suspect I could not have been older than 10 years at the time.

I had been familiar with Carroll because I have always adored his Alice stories having read them multiple times as a child and even today in adulthood. Though I found the 1951 Disney movie to be charming in its own right, I always found it disappointing as it never captured the sheer magic of Carroll's actual work. So when I discovered The Hunting of the Snark written by one of my favorite authors, I dove in with great joy and a lot of eager expectation.

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
   As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
   By a finger entwined in his hair.

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
   That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
   What I tell you three times is true."

In the tale, I found wonder, humor, magic, but unlike the Alice stories, my childish mind also found sheer terror, especially when my imagination was fired by the famous illustrations by Henry Holiday.

The opening of this nonsense poem introduces us to a crew of ten members (whose names all start with the letter 'B'): a Bellman, a "Boots", a Bonnetmaker, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Butcher, a Beaver, and a Baker. In their quest , the crew lands on an uncharted island to hunt for the Snark in a manner most unique:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
   They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
   They charmed it with smiles and soap.

However, there is one small complication. The Baker reveals that he received a prophecy before the trip that if he encounters the Snark, but discovers it is actually a different creature called a Boojum, his fate will be terrifying.

"'But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
   If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
   And never be met with again!'

This illustration still freaks me out.
I'll leave you with three guesses as to how the poem ends.

The result to my young mind was to create a world where the laws of logic don't work or else work in a manner of ironic absolutes. Nightmare fuel to say the least, and the poem created in me a fascination for the mystifying and the sheer wonder of what some philosophers call the mysterium tremendum. It is, thanks to Lewis Carroll, that I am best known for the quote, "The world is not safe, nor is it necessarily sane."

But the valley grew narrow and narrower still,
   And the evening got darker and colder,
Till (merely from nervousness, not from good will)
   They marched along shoulder to shoulder.

Then a scream, shrill and high, rent the shuddering sky,
   And they knew that some danger was near:
The Beaver turned pale to the tip of its tail,
   And even the Butcher felt queer.

Yet even then, like Carroll's intriguing worlds of nonsense and fantasy, I cannot deny that life contains a sense of beauty and the shadow of something greater than our existence. Nonsense it may appear to be, but not nihilistic. 

You can read Carroll's entire poem here, but to read it with its original illustrations, I would encourage you to read the entire work here.


  1. As a child, you felt the nightmare. But it still may take some time, until adults understand it. Lewis Carroll's and Henry Holiday's tragedy is about the nightmares into which humans sent and keep sending each other in a long history of conflicts where, in the end, too many victims finally met the Boojum. Here is The Hunting of the Snark with Carroll's Easter Greeting and the dedication to Gertrude Chataway:

  2. Could the Baker's uncle be a relative of an anthropomorphic alien?.