Have you ever gimbled in a wade with slithy toves? Did you ever see the mome raths outgrabe? No? Then you probably missed out on a few treats!
Have you ever tried to read mirror writing? Most of us do at some time in our young lives – and where did that idea come from?
Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, is the inspiration behind all these activities and many more. Inspired by his love of words and joy in transmuting them, he played with and distorted ‘real’ words and invented many more. Words are the tools of our trade as writers but most of us follow meekly along the dictionary entries, using the words as important people said they were intended to be used. It takes a brave genius to upturn all those ponderous tomes and experiment, not just with the words but their sounds, meanings and music.
One of Carroll’s touches of genius is that many of his non-sense words sound worryingly similar to ‘real’ words and we try to bend his pictures to our own expectations – usually without much success.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/All mimsy were the borogroves,/And the mome raths outgrabe.
The only word in there – apart from the boring ones – that is anywhere near a ‘real’ word is gyre: to “twist and turn in a widening gyre” as Yeats put it, which is probably the phrase most of us think of when we hear the word, well those of us who are not falconers.
The beauty of Carroll’s inventions is that they don’t need to make sense in the OED way of looking at things. The rhythms and sounds create their own sense and become lodged in our consciousness forever. “Curiouser and curiouser” says Alice in one of her early Wonderland adventures. How often have you said that when you’ve lost a sock in the wash?
“The time has come, the Walrus said/To talk of other things/Of shoes and ships and ceiling wax/Of cabbages and kings/And why the sea is boiling hot/And whether pigs have wings
Alice herself says of Jabberwocky “It seems very pretty ..but it’s rather hard to understand! Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!” Most of us know exactly how she feels. Even the title of the poem is a play with words – jabber means gabble or gibberish but Carroll has to add ‘wocky’ for fun.
As a mathematician, Carroll plays with rhythms and words very easily but in Looking Glass, Alice and Humpty Dumpty have a long discussion on words. “They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with but not verbs …” says HD , anticipating remarks Virginia Woolf will make several years later.
We read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as children and to our own children and tend to write it off as a ‘children’s story’ but if you read it again as an adult – especially as an adult with a keen interest in words – it becomes a whole lot more.