Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Deliberate nonsense claims, by definition, to be devoid of meaning. Although Carroll’s satirical annotation of the original version of the first stanza produces a painstaking word-by-word analysis, the result is calculatedly silly. Because the five enclosed stanzas constitute a story of sorts, however, it is perfectly reasonable to discuss the theme of the narrative. The tale offers a conventional account of a young man’s quest; like any knight errant—whether of Anglo-Norman romance or modern genre fantasy—he sets out, forearmed by the warnings of his worldly-wise father, to confront a draconian threat, which he despatches with casual ease before returning home to a hero’s welcome. The net effect of the rhythmically interpolated nonsense words is, however, to make the adventure seem utterly absurd.
The implicit meaninglessness and perverse interpretation of the poem’s neologisms are extremely contagious, overspilling the words to call into question both the conventionality of the knightly quest as a generic device and the formality of lyric poetry as a vehicle for conveying that kind of content. It is not surprising that Carroll went on to produce a much more elaborate and more carefully satirical account of a vaingloriously futile quest in the mock epic Hunting of the Snark, nor is it surprising that he should take the trouble to acknowledge the contribution of “Jabberwocky” to the longer poem’s inspiration by reusing several...
(The entire section is 654 words.)
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The Heroic Quest
Despite its seeming playfulness, “Jabberwocky” contains a very serious theme as old as literature itself (as seen in such ancient texts as The Odyssey and Beowulf). This theme is the heroic quest, in which a (usually) young male will strike out for parts unknown, encounter some horrific beast, and either triumph over this force of dark- ness or be consumed by it. The roots of the literary heroic quest reach as far back as Greek, Roman, and early Christian mythology, and examples include Jason and the Argonauts encountering all types of fantastical beasts in their quest for the golden fleece, Oedipus’ victory over the vicious Sphinx to rescue the city of Thebes, and David’s encounter with Goliath. The tradition of the heroic quest is prevalent in poetry as well as in drama and fiction, and this theme has long appealed to young boys (remember Jack, the Giant Killer?), who are expected to eventually strike out on their own and conquer their demons (personal or otherwise) in order to “prove” their manhood. Along with Carroll’s memorable fabrication of imaginative new words in “Jabberwocky,” the heroic quest recounted in the poem is a key reason why it remains one of the most popular (if not the most popular) examples of nonsense verse ever penned.
Indeed, once past the disorienting yet fanciful description of the opening stanza, the reader encounters a number of elements that are the heroic...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)