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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Jabberwocky

"Jabberwocky" is a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. It is useful for so many reasons. It of course is part of the larger fantastical work, Alice in Wonderland. By itself it is a grand poem filled with so many illusions, words, and lessons. HEAR IT. More versions can be found at LibriVox.

As a poem, I like "Jabberwocky" for its portmanteaus, combination of two or more words to create a new word. It is a simple exercise in vocabulary acquisition and comprehension.

JABBERWOCKY

`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 hast 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.

For my lesson, I ask the students to collect the words they don't recognize and to begin considering what two words are used to create the word they are looking at in the poem. As Carroll suggested in his annotated version these new words were concocted from existing words to create his own vocabulary. Some words like, "whiffling," "burbled," "galumphing," and "chortled," to name a few have become accepted words in our language.

Once we get through the language we come to understand that this poem is rather sad. As Alice says after reading it:
`It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, `but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) `Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate--'
Exactly!! Who kills whom or what. My interpretation is that a young boy goes into the woods with his "vorpal" sword and slays the Jabberwock. I see this as a terrible mistake. The Jabberwock is a young sick baby and seems harmless: "it came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came!" I see and hear a sniffling baby with a head cold. Babies "burble," sick infants "whiffle." I think the mere size scares everyone and I'm not sure a child should be killing another child. I'm not sure I like the message being given here. When we encounter the unknown we don't want to kill it, we want to learn more about it. Certainly he was told this lesson by the elder who speaks to the "beamish boy." Is the elder right? Is this perhaps a poem that suggests we should not trust the elders? One interpretation of Alice in Wonderland does suggest this on occasion and action.

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