The Hunting of the Snark

The Hunting of the Snark Cover

In typical Lewis Carroll fashion, Lewis Carroll’s poem about the Snark is quite hilarious and nonsensical. The full title, “The Hunting of the Snark: an Agony in Eight Fits,” is a very fitting one, as the plot and chapter distribution do resemble the randomness of agonizing fits. Plus, the number 42 shows up three times, though one time indirectly (and yes, this was more than 100 years before the Hitchhiker’s Guide was written).

A sensible analysis by me is out of the question, so I direct you with no further delay to the poem’s full text on Project Gutenberg. If you want a non-spoiler plot summary: a group of people embark on a journey to capture a Snark. If you DO want a good analysis of it, see The Annotated Snark by Martin Gardner.

The most lol passage:

There was one who was famed for the number of things
He forgot when he entered the ship:
His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings,
And the clothes he had bought for the trip.

He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,
With his name painted clearly on each:
But, since he omitted to mention the fact,
They were all left behind on the beach.

The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pair of boots—but the worst of it was,
He had wholly forgotten his name.

The Annotated Alice

The Annotated Alice

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (1999) is a prodigious compilation by Martin Gardner including both of Lewis Carroll’s main works (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), John Tenniel’s illustrations (both published and unpublished originals), and a wealth of insightful annotations explaining references, inside jokes, amusements, and a miscellany of other information. I find it a very useful work.

The explanation of Victorian references is very helpful as many words and phrases go totally over the modern American reader, myself humbly included. There are also references to other subjects, such as rowing, where the terms “feather” and “catch a crab” (in the sheep chapter of Through the Looking Glass) have their own meanings—without knowing these meanings, or without even knowing that they are referring to something, a reader is baffled yet amused by the nonsense. With these understandings, however, we see that it is quite a sophisticated passage causing some a great deal of amusement when Alice takes the phrase “catch a crab” literally.

Carroll’s works are also full of inside references, which Gardner explains. For example, during the Mad Tea Party the Hatter sings “Twinkle twinkle, little bat, / how I wonder what you’re at,” which seems at first to be merely a humorous variation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Gardner then points out that one of Carroll’s colleagues, a math teacher, was commonly called the Bat and often taught lessons that went above the heads of the students, hence up above the stars…

An amusement that also appears in the Mad Tea Party scene is the riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Gardner discusses the history of this question after it appears, how Lewis Carroll intended it to have no answer, and how many others have tried to answer it since.

The Definitive Edition even contains an omitted scene, “The Wasp in a Wig,” which takes place at the end of the White Knight chapter in Through the Looking Glass. This scene wasn’t found until 1974, over a hundred years after the original publication.

I ordered The Annotated Alice on May 21, 2010. Martin Gardner died on May 22, 2010 at the age of 95.

Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say

The subtitle of Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You is Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say. Dr. Mardy Grothe’s chiastic definition of chiasmus is clever, but someone beat him to the saying—or meaning—by saying what he meant and meaning what he said over a hundred years earlier, in 1865—Lewis Carroll.

Alice and the Mad Tea Party

Here is an excerpt from chapter VII, “A Mad Tea-party,” from Alice in Wonderland:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Here is chiasmus gone wrong! Of course not every rhetorical device can be used with any combination of words. A mixed metaphor, for instance, or simply a bad metaphor does not convey the point. Neither does poorly constructed chiasmus. For example, I’ll use a quotation I mentioned in the linked post. “He defined wit, and wit defined him” (in reference to Oscar Wilde) is witty. Clearly this would not have been the case with other words substituting wit: “He defined class, and class defined him” is not classy.

Anyhow, what Carroll wrote involved the reversal of words in a chiastic manner, but using phrases that don’t work. We may excuse Alice’s thinking that saying what you mean is the same as meaning what you say, as they really are the same (mostly); we’ll look instead at the three counterexamples.

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

First, the Hatter’s argument is a logical fallacy because he attacked the way Alice constructed her sentence, not her sentence itself. That is, Alice said “I X what I Y” is the same thing as “I Y what I X” only for one particular set of values for X and Y (mean and say). The Hatter says Alice is wrong because if what Alice says is right, then all statements “I X what I Y” and “I Y what I X” are true, and he can come up with a counterexample (X = see, Y = eat). Of course you normally see whatever you eat, but you don’t normally eat whatever you see.

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

At first it may appear that Carroll just lists three plain counterexamples, but it turns out the second and third have some kind of twist. The second one, by the March Hare, involves the word “like,” which is subjective. Thus, he confounds the issue because this statement may be true for one person and untrue for another.

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

This one is very ironic because of the context in which the Dormouse is speaking—he’s talking in his sleep. For him, “I breathe when I sleep” is indeed the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe.”

There, I’ve said what I mean and meant what I say.