Jabberwocky Analysis

  • Carroll uses neologisms, portmanteaus, and nonsense words to create a unique linguistic landscape that evokes vibrant imagery and musicality.
  • The first stanza of "Jabberwocky" was published separately from the rest of the poem. In the original version, Carroll included footnotes with the etymologies of obscure and invented words, like "brillig" (the time of day when people begin broiling and grilling food for dinner).
  • Carroll alludes to "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Humpty Dumpty explains that "toves" are "something like badgers" and then suggests that the words Carroll invented are in fact portmanteaus.


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Last Updated on February 16, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749

The original version of the first stanza is a humorous pastiche of scholarly versions of Old English poems such as Beowulf (sixth century). Carroll’s notes are an exercise in etymological slapstick, according to which “bryllyg” is derived from the verb “to bryl or broil” and thus refers to the time of broiling dinner, or the late afternoon. “Slythy” is a compound of slimy and lithe, meaning “smooth and active”; “tove” is a species of badger with horns like a stag, which lived chiefly on cheese. “Gyre” is derived from “giaour”—here said to mean “dog,” although it actually means “infidel” and had acquired more sinister implications by way of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour”—and means “to scratch like a dog.”

“Gymble” means “to screw holes” and is the alleged origin of “gimblet” (gimlet); “wabe” is derived from the verb “to swab or soak” and refers, by casually mysterious means, to the side of a hill; “mimsy” means unhappy, and thus provides the root, via “mimserable,” of “miserable.” “Borogove” is an extinct species of parrot, which was wingless, possessed of an upturned beak, nested under sundials and lived on veal; “mome”—from which evolved “solemome,” “solemone,” and ultimately “solemn”—means “grave.” “Rath” is a species of land turtle that had a mouth like a shark, walked on its knees, and lived on swallows and oysters; “outgrabe,” the past tense of the verb “to outgribe,” is related to several words, including “grike,” “shrike,” “shriek,” and “creak,” and thus means “squeaked.”

Some of these meanings are retained when the version of the stanza used in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is explained in chapter 6 by Humpty Dumpty, although he claims that toves are only “something like badgers,” also having affinities with lizards and corkscrews. According to Humpty Dumpty it is they, rather than borogoves, that nest under sundials, although their propensity for cheese is retained. He scrupulously gives the correct meaning of “gyre,” which is “to go round and round like a gyroscope,” but claims that a rath is a green pig. It is, however, Alice who suggests—sarcastically, although Humpty Dumpty endorses the conclusion—that a wabe must be a grass plot around a sundial. Gyre is not the only word used in the stanza that had a real meaning, but it seems unlikely that Carroll expected his readers to know—even if he knew himself—that “slithy” was a variant of an obsolete term meaning “slovenly,” that “gimble” is a variant of “gimbal,” that “mome” had several obsolete meanings, or that “rath” is an Irish word for a fortified enclosure.

The invented words distributed in a slightly more economical fashion through the five enclosed stanzas mostly went unannotated by Carroll, although he did comment further on some of the eight that he used again in The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (1876). In a preface to the later poem he explains that “frumious” is a slurred compound of “fuming” and “furious,” while a letter written in 1877 declares that “uffish” is “a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish.” Another letter, replying to some Boston schoolgirls who wanted to call a magazine The Jabberwock, obligingly deciphered this term as a compound of “jabber” and the allegedly Anglo-Saxon “wocer” or “wocor,” meaning “offspring” or “fruit,” thus making the whole “the result of much excited discussion.”

In response to queries regarding the meanings of “vorpal” and “tulgey,” however, he confessed his ignorance. Although no evidence survives of his derivation of “frabjous” the example of frumious suggests that it might be an amalgam of “rejoice” and “fabulous,” and the Oxford English Dictionary speculates, similarly, that “galumph” is an amalgam of “gallop” and “triumphant.”

Many of the words deployed for the first time in these verses have entered common usage, “chortle” being the most popular. Paradoxically, the real words used in the enclosed stanzas seem to have fallen out of fashion despite their citation; few people nowadays refer to a “burbling brook,” describe happy expressions as “beamish,” or employ “whiffling” in any of its actual or metaphorical senses. Humpty Dumpty’s explanations have, however, inspired one further term; his judgment that the formation of “slithy” by packing two meanings into a single word is “like a portmanteau” originated the useful concept of a portmanteau word. There is no firmer evidence than this poem of the potential that well-crafted nonsense has to enrich both thought and oratory.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 174

“Jabberwocky,” possibly the most famous of all nonsense poems, consists of seven stanzas, each of four lines, each line having eight syllables. The orthodox form and the fixed rhythm provide a framework whose rigidity further emphasizes the nonsensical quality of each individual line. Because the final stanza is an exact repetition of the first, these two units, unrelated in content to the remainder, perform a parenthetical function. The five stanzas thus bracketed contain a consecutive narrative in which a young man, having received a series of warnings, rides away to find and kill the monstrous Jabberwock and then returns to his delighted father.

When the first stanza appeared separately it was represented as a “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” and all the unfamiliar words were footnoted as if they were medieval terms whose meanings had been rendered obsolete or lost. In the interests of maintaining this parodic imposture, three of the key words were rendered “bryllyg,” “slythy,” and “gymble,” but Carroll reverted to more orthodox spellings when he introduced the lines into a different context.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202

Universal Appeal

Surely one of the most appealing factors in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is the sheer timelessness of the poem’s setting. The boy’s encounter with the mysterious Jabberwock beast has no specific reference point in history. This factor boosts the poem’s universal appeal, for “Jabberwocky” is capable of captivating readers of any era—Elizabethan, Victorian, Industrial, Computer, or otherwise. Although the poem was written and published at the height of Victorian England, no special knowledge of that era is required in order to understand and enjoy the poem. Similarly, a reasonable facsimile of “Jabberwocky” could have been penned in any number of historical eras, given that the poem contains no noticeable references to Carroll, his life, or his times. A Roman scribe in Pompeii named Barnacus Frabjus could have written a “Jabberwocky” -like poem (and indeed, his readership, given its receptivity to the wildly fantastical creatures embedded in its mythology, would have eaten the thing up), as could have some beatnik bard given to opium-induced excursions on the page circa 1960. The point is, “Jabberwocky” transcends notions of time and history, and in having done so, the poem continues to increase its readership yearly by the thousands, if not millions.

Victorian England

Clearly, Carroll wanted his poem’s narrative element (i.e., the boy’s search for and encounter with the Jabberwock) to echo such mythological battles as Hercules’ struggle with the Hydra, a ferocious beast with seven dragonlike heads. Carroll’s main concern in the poem is the eternal battle between good and evil, and for many (if not most) readers, interpreting the poem on this level is enough. However, if readers look beneath the poem’s surface, “Jabberwocky”can be interpreted in terms of the time in which it was written. Published as part of Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872), the much anticipated sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), “Jabberwocky” made its debut at the height of the Victorian Era (1834–1901), when England was undergoing tremendous expansion in terms of power, wealth, and cultural influence. In large measure, England called the shots around the world at that time, and for other countries, such as war-beaten France, envy with regard to England’s global superiority must have been running high. Indeed, in 1872, England was enjoying a renaissance the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Elizabethan times.

The Threat of Germany

However, “barbarians” were rapping at the gates, so to speak. To the English, the Prussians (Germanic peoples) had long been viewed as a worrisome threat to the “civilized” world, and in January 1871, less than a year before “Jabberwocky” was published, Germany became newly unified under the Imperial Proclamation, potentially tipping the balance of power in Europe and creating a sense of insecurity within Britain. To “defenders of the realm” like Carroll, the strengthening of Germany and its “barbaric” peoples would have, at the very least, created a certain uneasiness. This tangible fear at the time opens up an interesting potential subtext to the seemingly innocent “Jabberwocky.” Could the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch (notice how these names have a certain Germanic ring to them linguistically), all of which are portrayed as bestial, savage creatures in the poem, be the Germanic “barbarians” in disguise? Could the poem’s hero (the boy out to prove his manhood) be a symbol of a Britain that needs to go out and tame the Jabberwock of a rising Germany? In light of the time’s political environment, Carroll may have been subconsciously expressing a fear that many Britons would have felt in 1872.

It’s important to emphasize, however, that interpretations such as the German and African connections to “Jabberwocky” discussed above may be thought-provoking but ultimately tenuous. Carroll, after all, was not the most politically active member of Victorian society, so viewing “Jabberwocky” in terms of the geopolitical machinations of the day may be reading too much into the poem. For instance, it has been well-documented that the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” was written in 1855, at a time when Germany wasn’t seen by the English as such a big threat. Still, it may be naive and presumptuous to think that England’s global chess game of colonialism in the Victorian era had no effect on Carroll, consciously or subconsciously. Concern was mounting in England over Germany in 1872, and ironically in the case of Carroll, such concern may have been warranted. As noted by author Anne Clark in Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Dr. Robert Scott, co-author of the Greek Lexicon, “wrote an excellent German translation” of “Jabberwocky” in February 1872, soon after the poem’s initial appearance in Through the Looking-Glass around Christmas, 1871. Moreover, as Clark reports in her book, Scott claimed that his translation was the original and that Carroll’s poem was the translation! Even then, it seems, England and Germany were girding themselves for a struggle—if not for control of Europe, then at least for control of the authorship of “Jabberwocky.”

Colonial Africa

Germany wasn’t the only source of concern for England in the 1870s, however. Along with other European states, Britain was deeply immersed in a chess game for control of strategic parts of Africa, and it wouldn’t be long before the British and Afrikaners of Dutch descendency would battle over tracts of Africa in the first Boer War of 1880–81. Africa, interestingly enough, was a source of great wonderment for Britons around the time “Jabberwocky” was published, with new species of flora and fauna being discovered every year. British explorer Henry Morgan Stanley’s highly publicized search for Dr. David Livingstone in the jungles of Africa was very much in the public imagination at the time. Stanley found Livingstone in 1871, the same year in which “Jabberwocky” first appeared in print, though the official publication date for Through the Looking-Glass is 1872. This popular fascination with the dark secrets of Africa may have influenced the verbal choices made by Carroll in “Jabberwocky.” The Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch, the Tumtum tree—are these descriptive, tonally captivating names all that different from the names of real-life African species, such as the bongo and the tsetse fly, being discovered at the time?

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

This African connection also seems relevant to the poem’s theme of the heroic quest in the sense that the hero (in this case the boy searching for the Jabberwock) had to journey often to the darkest, farthest reaches of the known world to slay the dreaded incarnation of evil, whatever it may be. And during Carroll’s lifetime, no place in the known world was viewed as darker, more mysterious, and more potentially life-threatening than Africa. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before the theme of the journey into the center of evil and depravity, as set in Africa, would be captured unforgettably by novelist Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness (1899), which chronicles the journey of a character named Marlow down the Congo River in search of a madman named Kurtz, who has attained godhood status among certain tribespeople in the jungle. Kurtz and the Jabberwock are agents of evil and chaos whom Marlow and Carroll (in the guise of the boy) are trying to neutralize and thus control.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Any song that tells a story is a ballad. Originally intended for singing, ballads became “poetry” when the English poet Sir Walter Scott began collecting them to write down so they would not be forgotten. This is a typical form for stories about knights, which “Jabberwocky” purports to be, although it is considered a literary ballad, to be read rather than sung.

The ballad-stanza is usually four lines rhymed abcb, in which the lines have a syllable pattern of 8, 6, 8, 6. Note how the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas of the poem follow this rhyme scheme, with the others rhyming abab.

Carroll also plays with the syllable pattern, with each of the first three lines of a stanza having eight syllables and the last line six, except in the third stanza, where it might be said that the third line “borrows” a syllable from the last line. The effect of the 8, 8, 8, 6 pattern is that the shortest last line gives a sense of separateness to each of the actions described in the stanza, whereas the typical ballad syllable pattern creates a sense of anticipation that carries through each stanza to the end of the ballad.

A further structural characteristic of “Jabberwocky” is the use of what Humpty Dumpty in his explication calls “portmanteau” words, which are two words “packed up into one.” Examples of these are “slithy” and “mimsy” from the first four stanzas. The sound of words, rather than meaning, is thus accentuated.

Sound is a major structural concern of the poem, strongly established by the use of alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. “Callooh! Callay!” in line 23 is an example of the consonant sounds characteristic of alliteration: the hard “c” is initial alliteration between the two words, and the repeated “l” sound is internal alliteration. “Jaws” and “claws” in line 6 exemplify the vowel sounds of assonance. Onomatopoeia occurs with the word “snicker-snack” in line 18 to describe the sound of the “vorpal blade.” The utilization of sound in these ways centers attention on the musical quality of the words, an emphasis particularly well-suited to the ballad form. Further underplay of the content meaning of the words through the consistent use of portmanteaus, as well as use of words completely made up, also enhances the musicality of the poem.

Finally, the poem as a whole may be seen as an allegory, in which the characters and the story have meaning as concepts and acts on another level.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

  • 1871: At the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany becomes newly unified under the Imperial Proclamation. King Wilhelm I of Prussia is crowned emperor of Germany, establishing the Second Reich. Germany’s sudden emergence as a national power is perceived in Britain as a potential threat to that country’s political and economic interests.

    1945: The Third Reich established under Adolf Hitler is crushed by the Allied Forces in World War II. Soon Germany is cleaved into two parts, with communist Russia dominating East Germany and Western democracies overseeing West Germany. This partition creates the so-called Cold War, which will last over forty years.

    1990: Forty-five years after the end of World War II, the two Germanies are finally reunited into one country. Under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Germany establishes itself as a global economic power.

1903: Just five years after Lewis Carroll’s death, the first of many film versions of Alice in Wonderland is made by English film producer Cecil Hepworth. Primitive by today’s standards, the ten-minute-long film is later preserved by The British Film Institute, though the film has noticeably faded in parts.1999: A lavish new version of Alice in Wonderland (with segments from Through the Looking-Glass) airs on television. The production features many stars and remarkable special effects, with Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat and Ben Kingsley as the Caterpillar. The technique of “morphing” is used to great effect in the scenes involving Alice’s shifts in size.

Media Adaptations

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In 1966, a television production called Alice Through the Looking Glass was aired. Those in the cast included the Smothers Brothers as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty, and Jack Palance as the Jabberwock.

Jan Svankmajer has long been considered one of the world’s most original and clever animators. His amusing (and somewhat disturbing) take on “Jabberwocky” was made in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), released in 1971, and runs thirteen minutes.

Donovan, a British pop star who had several hits in the 1960s, has song versions of both “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” on his album H. M. S. Donovan. The album was originally released in 1971 on the Dawn Records label and was re-released in 1998 on Beat Goes On Records.

Another musical version of “Jabberwocky” appears on Marianne Faithfull’s 1965 album Come My Way, released on the Decca label.

A videocassette entitled The Hunting of the Snark [and] Jabberwocky was released in 1999 by First Run Features. Although sections of “Snark” have been omitted, “Jabberwocky” has been included in its entirety.

A CD-Rom entitled Lewis Carroll—Selected Writings with Illustrations and Readings has been released by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. It contains Through the Looking-Glass and other major works by Carroll, as well as biographical material and readings by Sir John Gielgud in full CD-audio.

The Lewis Carroll Society of North America maintains the Lewis Carroll Home Page at http://www.lewiscarroll.org with links to other interesting sites.

One of the links for lovers of “Jabberwocky” is the site www.jabberwocky.com, which has all kinds of interesting items related to Carroll’s poem.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Alkalay-Gut, Karen, “Carroll’s JABBERWOCKY,” in The Explicator, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 27–31.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Lewis Carroll, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Brown, Lesley, ed., The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, 1993.

Ciardi, John, ed., How Does a Poem Mean?, Houghton Mifflin, 1960; revised and enlarged by John Ciardi and Miller Williams, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Clark, Anne, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, Schocken Books, 1979.

Empson, William, “‘Alice in Wonderland,’” in Some Versions of Pastoral, New Directions, 1935, pp. 253–94.

Goldfarb, Nancy, “Carroll’s JABBERWOCKY,” in The Explicator, Vol. 57, No. 2, Winter, 1999, pp. 86–88.

Holmes, Roger W., “The Philosopher’s ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” in Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865–1971, edited by Robert Phillips, Vanguard, 1971, pp. 159–74.

Holquist, Michael, “What Is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism,” in Alice In Wonderland, A Norton Critical Edition, 2d ed., edited by Donald Gray, W. W. Norton & Company, 1971, p. 390.

Hudson, Derek, Lewis Carroll, Greenwood Press, 1972.

Kelly, Richard, Lewis Carroll: Revised Edition, Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Oates, Joyce Carol, “First Loves: From ‘Jabberwocky’ to ‘After Apple-Picking,’” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 28, Issue 6, p. 9.

Sewell, Elizabeth, “The Balance of Brillig,” in Alice in Wonderland, Norton Critical Edition, 2d ed., edited by Donald Gray, W. W. Norton & Company, 1971, p. 387.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer, “Logic and Language in ‘Through the Looking-Glass,’” in Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865–1971, Vanguard, 1971, pp. 267–78.

Wilson, Edmund, “C. L. Dodgson: The Poet Logician,” in Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865–1971, edited by Robert Phillips, Vanguard, 1971, pp. 198–206.

For Further Reading
Cooke, John D., and Lionel Stevenson, English Literature of the Victorian Period, Russell & Russell, 1949. This is a comprehensive overview of the Victorian era’s politics, science, religion, and culture. It explores the era’s top English poets and fiction writers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Carroll himself. The section on “Literature for Children” is somewhat threadbare, but overall, the book is a valuable resource.

Green, Roger Lancelyn, ed., The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Cassell, 1953. In 1854, Carroll began keeping a diary, which by the end of his life filled the equivalent of thirteen volumes. Nine of these thirteen volumes have been collected in Green’s book, and they offer a probing look into the private life of Carroll.

Guiliano, Edward, ed., Lewis Carroll Observed, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1976. This is one of the most fascinating books about Carroll, his art, and his life. Edited by Guiliano for the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, the book contains unpublished photographs, drawings, and poems by Carroll as well as several essays about his varied artistic endeavors.

Guiliano, Edward, ed., Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1982. Guiliano does another fine job of pulling together fascinating material on Carroll and his art in this book. Among the many excellent essays in this collection are ones that explore Carroll’s influence on the Surrealists and James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and the importance of illustrator Sir John Tenniel in the success of the Alice books.

Tucker, Herbert F., ed., A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Offering a huge collection of essays, this book covers all aspects of Victorian society, from politics and economics to theology and literature. Of particular interest is Claudia Nelson’s essay “Growing Up: Childhood,” which examines the Victorians’ obsession with childhood and the booming market in literature for children during that era.

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