“Jabberwocky” & the Value of Nonsense

`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, has 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.

Reflection:

“Jabberwocky” finds its original home in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.  During an early scene in this sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Alice discovers a book written in a sort of backwards type, forcing her to use a mirror to read it.  Of course, even with the mirror, the verses make little sense to her.

Though largely nonsensical, “Jabberwocky” still manages to delight the imagination through Carroll’s playful and strangely vivid language.

Only a few nights ago, I read this poem to my own children for the first time.  I must admit that I only read it to take their minds off my previous reading of Shel Silverstein’sThe Giving Tree.  That, by the way, is a horrid idea of a bedtime story; way too emotionally charged.  Word to the wise.  So, I quickly picked up a book of poems in desperate attempt to undo my moment of terrible fathering and began reading “Jabberwocky” to stop the crying and painful questions about stumps and seemingly thoughtless boys.

I had them at “slithy toves.”

As the poem progressed, my kids laughed at the silliness of the words, but I could see their minds trying to grasp what was going on.  What is a Jabberwocky?  Is it dangerous?  Was it like a dragon?  Should the “son” have killed it?  Should the father have celebrated this?  They are used to stories about knights and dragons that need slaying, but they also know that sometimes dragons are Eustace in the midst of repenting.

Though only a small part of a larger story, it is easy to see how “Jabberwocky” took on a life of its own, outside of Through the Looking Glass.  I have seen it enjoyed by little ones, high school students, groups of teachers, and other folks of varying ages and backgrounds.  I have witnessed its usefulness in teaching parts of speech and their function (An excellent idea!  What does “mimsy” mean?  Is it a noun or an adjective?), to start a debate (Should the boy have killed the Jabberwock?), to stir the imagination (Could you draw a Jabberwock?  What would it look like?), to cause a laugh (He said “frumious”), and to delight.

Sometimes a little nonsense goes a long way.

My post, reprinted from The CiRCE Institute