Thursday, December 14, 2006

Jam and Judicious Advice

[not an entry for any challenge; just a review]

The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: The Definitive Edition

Lewis Carroll (pseudonym for Charles Dodgson; see Wikipedia entry for biographical details); Martin Gardner, Editor; Hunter Holliday, Illustrator; Adam Gopnik, Introduction.

Copyright: The poem itself is in public domain , but the Definitive Edition from W.W. Norton is copyright 2006. Apparently, it has an extensive publishing history in that the original Annotated Snark was published in 1962, with used copies still circulating. There have been several editions in between that first one and the 2006 version. (cover image shown borrowed from

Length: 192 pages

Genre: Poetry

Summary: This splendidly fun poem, originally published in 1876, tells of an odd assemblage (a Bellman, a Barrister, a Baker, a Butcher, and a half dozen others) who set forth on a quest to capture that mysterious creature known as the Snark. The ship they sail in has problems as outlined in Carroll's Preface but the crew is inordinately proud of their map (a perfect and absolute blank).

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes! But we've got our brave Captain to thank:" (So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best -- A perfect and absolute blank!"

They are aware of the distinguishing characteristics of the Snark (five, to be specific) but they are warned against encountering the Snark which is also a Boojum. The Definitive Edition amplifies the text with insights into some of the historical background, published commentary such as the one by Hunter Holliday, the illustrator, and elucidates on the riddles and allegorical interpretations. I learned an inordinate amount from this book. Carroll’s contemporaries saw it as a statement about business and material wealth, a satire on legal proceedings over a missing heir and control of a wealthy estate, even as a jab at Arctic expeditions of the period. Later interpretations associated the text with commentary on unsound business practices, economic slumps, even universal existential anxiety. You can link Carroll’s Snark to just about anything you like, including copyright (see Fit the Fourth, The Hunting, in which the Barrister assures the Beaver that his lace-making activities constitute infringement). Did you know that some benighted creator occupied himself by making this into a musical which was performed in the West End? (Proof)

Extract: To me, the most memorable quatrain of this poem is:

"They roused him with muffins, they roused him with ice; They roused him with mustard and cress; They roused him with jam and judicious advice; They set him *conundrums* to guess."

I can summon up that bit at a moment's notice with particular emphasis on the word "conundrums"; it just makes it for me. Of course, when you look over your glasses and quote this either to your offspring or to your business colleagues, they just give you a look. One has suspicions that they are vague as to the meaning. No one has ever capped my quotation, the way Harriet Vane and Lord Peter do with one another's quotations. It's too discouraging, and demonstrates how low Western Civilization has fallen.

Also Relevant: When the world around you seems to have fallen into madness or when even a fun reading challenge feels like work, the best possible thing to do is to find something light-hearted that will induce a smile or a chuckle. Assign what allegorical meanings you may choose to the various figures in this epic (and people have, as in this 36-page PDF file), the fact remains that it is a splendid bit of nonsense. It's made for declaiming aloud and I defy even the very worst reader to screw up the rhythm.

I'm giving this book as a Christmas gift to my father; he introduced me to it at some early age.