November 29, 2006

Between The Covers

First published on April Fool's Day in 1876, this engaging and mysterious, dark fairy tale about a sea hunt for an imaginary "snark" has elicited so much analytical comment from so many different sources — mathematicians, mystics, lovers of literature, logic, wit and whimsy, artists, wordsmiths, scientists, clergymen — Victorian and contemporary — that it comes as no surprise that the guru of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Martin Gardner, now 92, whose book bibliography alone runs to over 100 items (then add his years at the helm of recreational mathematics at Scientific American), should come back to the game of trying to decode Carroll's meaning in this great nonsense poem.

And it seems only right that Gardner do so, one mathematician to another, for Lewis Carroll was, in so-called real life, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), professor of mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford (he reportedly refused at the university to answer letters addressed to LC).

This is a wonderful book, beautifully designed and with fascinating introductory material and back-page commentary, including excerpts from Henry Holiday's autobiography — Holiday was Carroll's illustrator for the Snark (John Tenniel did the Alice books). But, of course, the heart of this handsome edition, a companion to Gardner's Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (1999), is Gardner's accessible, informed glosses on each page, red letters set across from the black of the text.

It's amazing how many people around the globe have written to Gardner with their ideas about what Carroll intentionally (and unconsciously) meant by his rhyming quatrains. The subtitle, alone, "An Agony in Eight Fits," has generated a ton of suggestions. Just as amazing is Gardner's gracious acknowledgment of his correspondents, giving their speculations (some quite insistent), respectful breadth and play. At the very least he proves once again that there's sense in Lewis Carroll's nonsense, even if it cannot be definitively agreed upon, and that Carroll's children's tales are more for grownups.

For instance, what to make of the 10 (some say nine) crew mates whose names all begin with B — a Bellman (the Captain of the ship), a Boots, a maker of Bonnets, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Beaver, a Baker and a Butcher? And what of the eerie ending — with the Baker "softly and suddenly" vanishing away, just as he was trying to say a word, which got caught in the wind. And of that ominous last line, "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see" — another B.

Even Holiday's illustration of this scene, Gardner notes, is "a remarkable puzzle" showing, faintly, a "huge, almost transparent head of the Baker, abject terror on his features, as a gigantic beak (or is it a claw?) seizes his wrist and drags him into the ultimate darkness." Of course, what to make of the entire poem, an allegory, many say, as they offer Freudian, Marxist, biographical, historical, religious and Jungian explanations, not to mention literary analogues, such as Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," another strange voyage.

Does a Boojum lurk in every Snark, as death in life? Is the Snark a relative of Jabberwocky? And what did the little girl, Lewis Carroll's "second best child friend" after Alice Liddell, 8-year-old Gertrude Chataway, for whom The Hunting of the Snark was composed, think of the poem then, and years later, when she visited Carroll? The author himself, predictably, said he meant nothing at all.

In an elegantly written introduction, Adam Gopnik says that it's only fitting (no pun intended) that this "masterpiece" is once more "opened up," even if Gardner feels that some interpretations are over the top, for what is too critically "ambitious" when obscurity and dream logic rule the day? After all, the ship sets sail with a map that shows not "the least vestige of land."

As the Bellman remarks, "'Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes! / But we've got our brave Captain to thank' / (So the crew would protest) that he's bought us the best — / A perfect and absolute blank!'"

Indifferent to anachronism, Gopnik suggests that the Snark be regarded as surrealist, "like a Max Ernst collage." Gardner himself prefers to think of the eight fits as "existential," about being and nothingness, and the "agony" as an intuition by the Baker of the inevitability of death — no idle consideration in disease-ridden Victorian England when death struck early and often.

In any case, The Hunting of the Snark is a feast for the eyes, not to mention the intellect. It would make a nice holiday gift, especially for yourself.

The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll. Original Illustrations by Henry Holiday. Ed & with notes by Martin Gardner, Norton, 152 pp., illus., biblio, essays, $27.95.

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