“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.


“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



A poem by my friend, Josh Leland.  You can read more of his skilled poetry at his site.

In my living room there is a fan with three lights
And a small piece of porcelain hangs from a chain in the middle,
Swaying slightly, glossy blue and white.
I poke it with my finger, and under it we stand–
My son in my arms, head tilted back,
Eagerly reaching with delicate hands.
He cannot yet speak,
But he makes this particular noise when he sees
That dangling beauty, always so just out of reach;
He points and he smiles, with a hoarse sort of groaning,
A joyful wheezing mixed with parts mourning.
Tonight, I carried him into the backyard with me
And under the sky we stood,
And I could tell from his wide-eyed solemnity
That he knew somehow that the evening was good–
The cold, the stars, the hard, crunching ground,
The long stretching silence of the woods all around.
Since we had not speech
We softly moaned together there,
Howling hoarsely at the faraway stars
That almost eluded our desperate reach.
He will not remember (though I cannot forget)
Those few brief moments that we shared
Casting grasping silhouettes.

Wendell Berry: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.

Want more of everything made.

Be afraid to know you neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery any more.

Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something they will call you.

When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.

Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace the flag.

Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot understand.

Praise ignorance,

for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.

Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion–put your ear close,

and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.

Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap for power,

please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.

Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions

of your mind, lose it.

Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

The Danger of Theology Unapplied

by Wendell Berry

Having written some pages in favor of Jesus,
I receive a solemn communication crediting me
with the possession of a “theology” by which
I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong
forever or forever right. Have I gauged exactly
enough the weights of sins? Have I found
too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or
the other way around? Have I found too much
pleasure, too much beauty and goodness, in this
our unreturning world? O Lord, please forgive
any smidgen of such distinctions I may
have still in my mind. I meant to leave them
all behind a long time ago. If I’m a theologian
I am one to the extent I have learned to duck
when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,
dropping their loads of whitewash at random
on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.
Look down, look down, and save your soul
by honester dirt, that receives with a lordly
indifference this off-fall of the air. Christmas
night and Easter morning are this soil’s only laws.
The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
of those most surely saved, God’s own only true
interpretation of the Scripture: these would be
causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
how we have hated one another, how vilified
and hurt and killed one another, bloodying
the world, by means of such questions, wrongly
asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
year after year — such is my belief — in Hell.

Due to a dear friend’s recent recommendation, I have begun reading some of the works of Wendell Berry and, thus far, I have been far from disappointed.  This particular poem addresses an all-too-common danger among American Christians – believing doctrines that are never lived out, theology that does not come out the fingertips.