Queer and Queerer: Jabberwocky

This is the first part of a three part series that focusses on the oddities of art and literature. The first segment deals with an extravagant genre of literature. Read on to know more…  

Hey, diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport.
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

You may have heard this 16th century nursery rhyme. For years literary experts and historians have attempted to fathom the meaning of this verse.  Numerous theories came up involving (and not restricted to) Queen Elizabeth I, the flight from Eygpt, Egyptian Hathor worship and even corruption in ancient Greece. But at the end of the day, most scholars conclude that the poem actually may have no particular meaning at all. Welcome to the world of literary nonsense.

Childish fantasies of a nonsense realm

Believe it or not, nonsense literature is in fact a legitimate genre of writing. This art stems from the human desire to make sense of everything, even in places where probably none exists. But don’t get me wrong, nonsense literature still possesses its own semantics, phonetics and contextual meaning (paradox?).  This can be clearly discerned upon reading classic nonsense stories such as Alice In Wonderland (1865). The author Charles Lutwidge a.k.a Lewis Carroll is regarded as the knight in shining armour of nonsense tales. Alice In Wonderland, is often wrongly regarded a children’s tale, due to maddening content. But over time, it had been re-categorised as a work of nonsense- that even adults can derive joy from. Matter of fact, Queen Elizabeth and Oscar Wilde were some of the first readers of the book.Indeed, the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter cross the boundaries of the rational realm but there is always an unnerving logic to the plot. Through a cycle of frustration and understanding, readers whizz through pages of Alice before it hits them that half of what they read is mere balderdash. At one point of the story the Hatter asks Alice the infamous riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’. As you would expect a few lines later the Hatter admits that even he doesn’t have the slightest idea why. It’s anecdotes like these that entrance the reader.

Illustrators often have a hard time when it comes to nonsense lit.

But Lewis didn’t stop at that; he made nonsense literature a worldwide phenomenon with his follow up to AliceThrough The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).  In this, he goes a step ahead with the quintessential nonsense poem Jabberwocky. You can test the waters with the first stanza-

Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

At first glance I wonder, what in the world that man was smoking when he wrote this. At second glance…never mind.

Carroll here presents a tale in the form of verse, and the distinctive characteristic is the words of his own he added. The genius of it is that the placement and phonetics of the words are such that the layman may believe that they are simply out of his vocabulary. He also took the pains of annotating some of his creative privileges. For example with regards to ourgrabe he says ” ‘outgribing‘ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle”. And thus is the tale of how the word Jabberwocky made its way into the Oxford Dictionary to mean nonsense.

At the end of the day nonsense literature is simply what you infer of it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but once you do- you’re hooked. And therein grolls all its werpitude.

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