Jabberwocky Demystification

Konstantinos Doxiadis

What always amazed me about Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is not that the poem is centred around nonsense words, but rather, that the nonsense words integrate into the rest of the poem in such a way that the reader feels no urge to inquire into their meanings. In my case, at least, after multiple re-readings over the years I realised that the role of the nonsense words themselves, or their ‘meanings,’ in the conventional sense, had never troubled me. (By ‘nonsense,’ I am referring strictly to words which are not defined in the dictionary.)

Thus, I decided to tinker around with the poem, and even set out to write my own nonsensical piece, with the hope of discovering why this was. Suffice to say, it was a disaster, both in process and result. However, I did learn about certain tactics that Carroll most likely did not employ. The main one was lexical substitution. Throughout my own attempt, I essentially did the following: 1. Sketched out the poem in my head (in terms of semantics) 2. Started verbalising the images, & 3. Introduced certain sonically appropriate nonsense words at instances where I deemed them fit. Reading over the result, it was quite clear that what I had written was not a genuine poem. Every nonsense word I had introduced rang false and forced to my ears; they were just placeholders for extant words I decided to replace, a puzzle for the reader to decipher. In other words, the nonsense was redundant, and past that, the poem itself stale.

‘Genuineness,’ in this sense, is something that has troubled me a lot over the past few months. Primarily arising from some verse translations I did from Greek to English, as well as multiple translated works that I read (again, mostly verse), I found myself always returning to the same thought, ‘Would someone ever write this poem in English?’ The answer was nearly always no. Of course, this is quite reasonable, considering not only the grammatical and syntactic peculiarities of different languages, but also the semantic undertones which accompany different linguistic systems, and how they affect the way we think. Someone expressing some thought/image in Japanese, for example, will find it very hard to replicate it in English, or Greek. Thus, the main issues that a translator must juggle with when carrying out their work is to what extent they want to retain the ‘artistic value’ of the piece, and to what extent they wish to remain faithful to the author’s original. Usually, a mixture of the two is the best way to go.

Now, following my failed attempt at a nonsense poem, I decided to try the opposite, namely, to ‘demystify’ the Jabberwocky, rewriting it without any nonsense words at all. However, I evidently hadn’t learned much from my previous failure, for my first port of call was simply to replace the nonsense words with either sonically similar, or semantically appropriate English. The result, unfortunately, was just a subpar poem about a knight who kills a peculiar beast. It seems, thus, that Carroll’s argot had some magical quality, wherein each word held more force than simple acoustic pleasure or semantic appropriateness. What this was, I had yet to pinpoint, but I was not done yet.

After some more struggling, I turned instead to the non-lexical elements of the poem, namely the atmosphere and tone, and the lovely, playful voice which seems to rise from the paper when reading it. I decided thus, to ‘translate’ the poem from verse to prose, and, remove the nonsense words in this new medium. Using words such as ‘mimsy’, ‘slithy’ or ‘mome’ as a foundation, alongside the creature’s names, e.g. ‘Bandersnatch’ and ‘Jubjub,’ I constructed a narrative with the playful undertone and security that childhood stories of chivalry possess. I.e. Regardless of the ferocity of the monsters, we all know that the hero will persevere and somehow win, and, by caricaturing the beasts, we have no sympathy for their demise; it is as though one was felling a dead tree. Carroll’s argot, was thus the basis for my prosaic piece, allowing the tone and atmosphere to be better simulated in this format than in my previous renditions in verse.

Anyway, enough explaining. Below, I have included my retelling of the Jabberwocky, which I hope is as fun to read as it was to write (which I assure you, was jurious).

It was four o’clock, a time when any reasonable person starts broiling things for dinner and sits on the porch with a flimsy paperback to enjoy the setting of the sun. But our hero is on another land, and of another time, where reason is certainly not the norm. Despite his peculiarities, our story starts in a surprisingly conventional manner, with said hero lying on the porch, paperback in lap. As he sat there, enjoying the waning sun, the hands of the large iron sundial cast their shadows on the grass, signalling another hour had gone by (since he had last checked, that is). Around them, grazed a small group of toves, peacefully munching on the blades of grass, making sure to keep them trimmed to a pleasing inch off the ground. Part badger, part lizard (some even say they see a bit of corkscrew in them), the toves are a curious breed indeed. They seem to flock to such contraptions (with a strong preference for those made of iron and steel), and, burrow their tunnels deep beneath. No one has yet understood whether they can actually read the time, but they stop their grazing to focus on the position of the shadow often enough, giving off a near-humanlike appearance of concentration. But even if they could read the time, it would not make much difference, seeing as they have a 20-hour sleeping cycle, and their daily routine varies from week to week.

They feast predominantly on cheese, practically drooling whenever they get a whiff of Roquefort or brie. Lithe and slimy as they are, they sniffle around the grass for hours on end, hoping for dairy titbits to arise. One might reasonably inquire as to the origin of all this cheese, for it seems quite ludicrous to expect toves to engage in dairy farming themselves, given their undeveloped mental faculties – BUT, do not forget, dear reader, here we are talking about a world of miracles and wonders, whose human inhabitants happen to believe in the strong fertilising qualities of (blue) cheese. And thus, the toves are fed, alongside raths and borogroves, whose peculiarities are similar in scale. The latter, are living reincarnations of the common kitchen mop, thin shabby-looking birds, whose feathers stick out in all directions. The former, are harder to classify in earthling terms. Perhaps ‘green pigs’ is the most accurate description (not very impressive, I know), although they are certainly more intellectually advanced than their fair-complexioned porky brethren (common ‘pink’ pigs). No one knows where the raths came from, but it must be somewhere quite far away, for they seem to have a constant obsession and urge for nomadism, resolutely heading North by North-West. Some rathologists put this systematic travelling down to uneasiness and adventure-seeking, but the general consensus the past decade is that raths originally came from old Sumebia (far off in the North by North-West), as that is too specific a direction for raths to be travelling in without some greater aim in mind. Truth be told, few would give them much attention if they didn’t bellow so loudly all time; a deep-throaty sound, usually accompanied by a deafening sneeze, which smoothly transitions to a piercing whistle, causing all in sonic range to grumble in misery.

Anyway, too much context. We have left our young hero (who shall remain unnamed), sitting on the porch, while the sun has nearly set. On this particular afternoon, he was settling down for the usual dinner of broiled raths and potatoes, when his father emerged, and began the daily bout of moaning, “Oh my son, it is horrible! There was another attack yesterday. It was that dratted Jabberwock, it huffed and puffed and took three of Mister Hodgson’s raths before anyone had time to react!” Our hero, being of a sturdy disposition, and not a particularly devoted rath-lover, paid his father little attention.

“They’re just animals, father,” his said, flipping through his book with a yawn. “Why do a few raths here and there matter anyway?”

His father’s cheeks turned a bright crimson, as they usually did following instantaneous frustration “It’s an attack on our freedom,” he retorted angrily.


“Yes, our freedom. We devote time and effort feeding and caring for the raths, with the prospect of feasting on them when the time comes,” he waved his hand at the dishes on the table, demonstrating his point.

Our hero, not being a big fan of rath meat, considered responding that this was not such a great disaster, but one look at his father’s angered face told him that this was neither the time nor the place.

“I see… you’re right,” he muttered, stifling another yawn.

“We humans must stand up for ourselves,” his father continued undeterred, “when something disrupts our natural order, it is our privilege, nay, our duty [some spittle flew out at this stage] to facilitate a return to normalcy.”

Our hero, being the hedonic dilettante that he was, returned to his paperback with a small shake of his head. He knew that, if he so wished, it would be easy to argue against his father, but, like all sons who have grown tired of arguing, decided to forsake his pride, for the sake of peace. The rest of the evening flowed smoothly enough, and the topic of the rath-abducting Jabberwock was left untouched. In fact, had his father not inquired into his novel, our story would likely end here, and would certainly not ever be transcribed, due to its uneventfulness. His father inquired, like so:

“What’s that book you’ve been reading lately? Any good?”

“It’s the story of the great Jack Wobber, the vigilante.” Our hero began, looking out across the lawn (the last toves were returning to their tunnels), “It outlines his conquests in Airys, and the effects of the liberation on the locals. I guess you would call it a historical novel, but in truth it describes the psychological implications enslavement, and consequently, freedom, can have on a people’s mentality. The most interesting thing is that Wobber had no official title or acclaim as a military man. In fact, before starting his conquest, he was a lowly employee in the bureaucratic mess that is the Airysian government, whiling away his days printing photocopies of manifestos that none would read. A redundant cog in the engine. One morning, following a Nabilat raid, he decided he had had enough, and, that the tenuous socio-political situation of the country was a prime opportunity for him to make a name for himself, establishing ‘Jack Wobber’ in the annals of posterity. Thus, rallying a group of lowly employees, they rode out on their horses [Any temporal inconsistencies in the story should be ignored, they are due to the wonky technological evolution of our wondrous land, not the laziness of the author] to meet the dreaded Nabilat. This part of the story remains quite vague, and each retelling has its own particularities, however, the general consensus seems to be this: Wobber entered the Nabilat leader’s lair alone - his comrades waiting outside, trembling in fear – to return only hours later, and exclaim ‘I have done it! We are free!’ before dropping dead from extreme elation.

After much questioning of the Nabilat sentries, Wobber’s comrades found out that, in a masterful display of political craftiness and diplomacy, Wobber has convinced the Nabilat leader that the Skruts were a much more lucrative people to attack than the Airysians, being easy pickings for a bandit of his status. Thus, with one fell swoop, Wobber had not only saved his people, but had also assured that the Skruts would not be invading Airys any time soon. A true victory for eastern liberal democracies!” our hero finished, flushed with pride.

His father had dozed off by this stage, his chest slowly rising and falling with the rhythm of the wind. “He never listens,” thought our hero, “If only I too could do something similar, liberate some peoples, and perhaps even add some fame and gravitas to my name. Not that I care much about that,” he added hastily, in order to retain the dignity of an altruist “Fame is just an unfortunate side-effect of heroism, and to wish for it would be terribly conceited…” After wracking his brain for some time, this way and that, he concluded that defeating the Jabberwock was the best solution, “It is an emblematic enemy of human freedom.” He said with a smile, and went up to bed, to dream of glorious vigilantes, who garnered honour and respect against their wishes.

Author’s note: In the original drafts, our hero and his father had a teary departure, with the former vowing to return unharmed. However, after considerable revisions to the tone and style of the piece (which in turn greatly affected the content), the sentimentalities felt hollow. In the original draft our hero’s father opposed the conquest, but, as our hero’s constitution has developed into that of a hardened altruist, willing to risk his life for the good of the land, it makes more sense for him to rise and ride forth without informing anyone, whispering under his breath that the beast will be his, and the people of his town safe from its preying. Now, let us continue with our story.

I woke at dawn, the sky still tainted with the moon’s blue hue, orange streaks climbing down the mountains. All was silent, bar the crickets, who had risen from their dens, their mating calls slowly pervading through the morning mist. I donned my clothes, leather leggings and a shirt, and with riding boots in hand, slowly exited the house, making for the stables. The thought of waking my father did cross my mind, I must admit, but it was nothing more than a fleeting whim. The old man would be better off without knowing, he would worry too much. Instead, I left a note in the kitchen saying that I went out to repair my saddle (which was indeed in a dire condition), and, would return by nightfall. Thus, taking my trusty stead from the stables, rode north for the Jabberwock, ready to fight for my people.

I rode hard and fast, covering as much ground as the horse could take, stopping only for a quick drink by the stream, and to give the animal a few minutes respite. The sun was nearing its peak by this point, which given my calculations, meant that the Jabberwock’s layer was a few hours’ worth of riding away. No one knew the exact location, I assume they would have done something if they did, but it was commonly believed the beast lived in the Krags, above the nest of the Jubjub birds [Authors note: some large, squawky, animals, that live off the bushy undergrowth) and the Bandersnatch den [small lion-like creatures, that scramble up trees and steal eggs from birds’ nests].

By the time I reached the Krags the sky had turned a mellow yellow, and I decided to take a second, longer, break to recuperate both physically and mentally. Lying down beneath a large Tum-tum tree, the only shelter in the otherwise grassy plain, I let out a sigh of relief, feeling the pain in my stinging buttocks recede (as I mentioned previously, my saddle was faulty, and the straps had broken off completely early on in the ride). I finished off my meagre lunch, some roth jerky and an apple, and gave the horse some oats and water, a reward for its diligent running. Soft notes and melodies melted into the air, rising from the tree’s limbs. You see, we call it the ‘Tum-tum’ tree due to its musical properties. It is said, that if you fashion an instrument from its wood, the sound will be twice as beautiful as that of any other material, and, when the wind strikes the intricate patterns that its branches form, it is as though nature itself is singing.

The horse whinnied in appreciation, and lay its head beneath its feet, taking the opportunity for a quick snooze. I too, rested my back against the tree’s trunk, and closed my eyes to enjoy the sounds, but, before I had even had the chance to let the music transport me, a gruff huffing and puffing broke through my serenity.

I jumped to my feet, drawing my vorpal blade, mauve and honed, from its sheath. The huffing grew louder, and its source, nearer, and with it could now be heard the sounds of branches snapping, and smaller creatures, scuttling into bushes for shelter. The origin seemed to be the tulgey wood in the distance, at the foot of the Krags, and surely enough, a flock of birds flew out of it towards me, stricken with fear.

“It must be the Jabberwock,” I thought to myself, and rushed towards the kerfuffle. Surely enough, as I reached the greenery I saw the beast itself emerge, running out onto the plain. Its mouth was open in a cackle, and its deep-crimson eyes shining with the tinge of madness. As it puffed and huffed, I felt the energy in my arms ebb away, all thoughts of heroism far from my mind.

”Shit.” I thought. “I need to run.” But the momentary lapse of bravery subsided, and I forced myself to think straight. It was already too late. It was fight or be eaten, and I would damn well do my best to avoid the latter. Raising my blade, and letting out a gut-wrenching cry, I charged forward reinvigorated, ready to meet the beast head-on.

From here onwards, I cannot recall exactly what happened. It seems like the monster was more surprised than me, and as my hands took a life of their own, hacking and slashing for all they were worth, it stood there dumbly, gazing at my face, its red eyes now white with shock. It took another minute of slashing before I realised it was dead, my sword and torso covered in its blood. I must have lopped its head off in the very beginning, and continued waving my steel in the air, taken away with battle-rage.

“Oh…” I let out, and “Oh…” once more, louder this time. Then came the laughter, starting as a chuckle, and growing into a side-splitting guffaw. The beast was dead! Its head at my feet. Lifting it up from the horns, a trophy of my mastery, I jumped back on my horse, which had witnessed the events from afar, and rode home, cackling along the way.

My father was on the porch, laying the table for what seemed to be another night of raths and potatoes, broiled and baked respectively. It took him some time to process the Jabberwock’s head, hanging from my grasp, and when he did he dropped his tray in shock.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

It was four o’clock, a time at which any reasonable person starts broiling things for dinner and sits on the porch with a flimsy paperback to enjoy the setting of the sun. But I was no reasonable person. I was the hero who slayed the Jabberwock, the young farmer’s boy who took it upon himself to rid the land of this monster, and, save the rath population from inadvertent consumption. And as I sat there, basking in the glory of my achievements, the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe, and all mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.

Konstantinos Doxiadis

I’m a recent philosophy graduate from the University of Cambridge interested in philosophy of language and formal logic, with an emphasis on the relation between formal and natural languages. When not writing about philosophy or logic (which I suspect will be quite often!), I will be focusing on prose and verse, where my main aim is to investigate the malleability of voice in narrative, and what effects this has on literary works.

Issue 3
Back to Issue
Also in this thread
This thread has no other posts