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The Hunting of the Snark

The Hunting of the Snark

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Image:Hunting of the Snark Landing.jpg
The Bellman supporting the Banker "by a finger entwined in his hair"

"The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits)" is a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in 1874, when he was 42 years old. It describes "with infinite humor the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature".[1] It borrows occasionally from Carroll's short poem "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking Glass (especially the poem's creatures and portmanteau words), but it is a stand-alone work, first published in 1876 by Macmillan. The illustrations were by Henry Holiday.

In common with other Carroll works, the meaning of his poems has been queried and analysed in depth. One of the most comprehensive gatherings of information about the poem and its meaning is The Annotated Snark by Martin Gardner.


The crew

The crew consists of ten members, whose descriptions all begin with the letter B: a Bellman (the leader), a Boots, a Bonnet-maker, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Beaver, a Baker, and a Butcher. The Boots is the only character who is not shown in any illustration, a fact that has led to a lot of tongue-in-cheek speculation (see below).

Image:Snark Bellman.jpg
Image:Snark Boots.jpg
Image:Snark Bonnet Maker.jpg
Bonnet Maker
Image:Snark Barrister.jpg
Image:Snark Broker.jpg
Image:Snark Billiard Marker.jpg
Image:Snark Banker.jpg
Image:Snark Butcher.jpg
Image:Snark Baker.jpg
Image:Snark Beaver.jpg

Plot summary

After crossing the sea guided by the Bellman's map of the Ocean — a blank sheet of paper — the hunting party arrive in a strange land. The Baker recalls that his uncle once warned him that, though catching Snarks was all well and good, you must be careful; for, if your Snark is a Boojum, then "you will softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again." With this in mind, they split up to hunt. Along the way, the Butcher and Beaver become fast friends, the Barrister falls asleep, and the Banker loses his sanity after being attacked by a frumious Bandersnatch. At the end, the Baker calls out that he has found a snark; but when the others arrive he has mysteriously disappeared, 'For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.'


The poem has some aspects characteristic of much of Carroll's poetry: it utilizes technically adept meter and rhyme, grammatically correct phrasing, logical chains of events — and largely nonsensical content, frequently employing made-up words such as "Snark". It is by far his longest poem — unlike Alice which is prose with occasional poems within the text, the Snark rhymes from start to end. The poem is divided into eight sections or "fits" (a pun on the archaic word "fitt" meaning a part of a song, and "fit" meaning a convulsion):

The Landing
The Bellman's Speech
The Baker's Tale
The Hunting
The Beaver's Lesson
The Barrister's Dream
The Banker's Fate
The Vanishing

Intended audience

It is disputed whether Carroll had a young audience in mind when he wrote the Snark. The ballad, like almost all of the poems in the "Alice" books, has no young protagonists, is rather dark, and does not end happily. In addition to the disappearance of the Baker, the Banker loses his sanity, an event that is described in detail. Similarly, Henry Holiday's illustrations for the original edition are caricatures with disproportionate heads and unpleasant features, very different from Tenniel's illustrations of Alice.

However, Carroll may have thought the book was suitable for some children. Gertrude Chataway (1866–1951) was the most important child friend in the life of the author, after Alice Liddell. It was Gertrude who inspired The Hunting of the Snark, and the book is dedicated to her. Carroll first became friends with Gertrude in 1875, when she was aged nine, while on holiday at the English seaside. The Snark was published a year later. Upon the printing of the book, Carroll sent eighty signed copies to his favorite child friends. In a typical fashion, he signed them with short poems, many of them masterful acrostics of the child's name.

The relevance of what reviewers take to be Carroll's intentions in this matter has of course always been questioned. This is what Gilbert K. Chesterton had to say about it: "It is not children who ought to read the words of Lewis Carroll, they are far better employed making mud-pies".[2]


In the course of his career, Lewis Carroll developed an elegant and morally impeccable technique to fend off demands asking him to explain his work. However it is phrased, his answer is always the same: I don't know. This was the truth, although not in the sense that children and reviewers understood it. Gardner gives us half a dozen examples. Here is how Carroll "explained" the Snark in 1887: "I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse — one solitary line — 'For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.' I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza."[3]

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.


In the preface to the Snark, Carroll, making fun of his recycling for the third time the first stanza of Jabberwocky, remarks that "... this poem is to some extent connected with the lay of the Jabberwock..." and goes on to explain how to pronounce borogoves and slithy toves (words which do not appear in the text of the Snark). Eight nonsense words from the Jabberwocky that do appear are: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which appeared as mimsy in Jabberwocky), outgrabe and uffish. In a letter to a friend, Carroll described the domain of the Snark as "an island frequented by the Jubjub and the Bandersnatch — no doubt the very island where the Jabberwock was slain."

The Boojum, as Gardner notes, will pop up some twenty years later (1893) in a surprising passage of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded that sharply contradicts all the previous evasions and outright denials in Carroll's letters:

"Once upon a time there was a Boojum -" the Professor began, but stopped suddenly. "I forget the rest of the Fable," he said. "And there was a lesson to be learned from it. I'm afraid I forget that, too."[4]

While it is hardly surprising that a writer reuses some of his own inventions now and then, it is noteworthy that the themes of Carroll's great poems (Jabberwocky, The Mouse's Tale, The Pig-Tale, The Mad Gardener's Song) run through all of his major works like, to borrow Gardner's expression, demented fugues.[5] In the Barrister's dream (Fit 6) e.g., the Snark not only serves as judge and jury (like Fury in regard to the Mouse in Alice) but acts as the counsel for the defense as well, besides finding the verdict and passing the sentence.


Some literary critics feel that the Snark is within the nonsense tradition of Thomas Hood and, especially, W.S. Gilbert, the librettist of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan team. Edward Guiliano[6] even believes that a case can be made for a direct influence of Gilbert's Bab Ballads on the Snark, based on the fact that Carroll was well acquainted with the comic writing and the theatre of his age. Others see signs of an influence running the other way. Gardner points to the similarities between the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Trial by Jury, another spoof on English courts, and the trial in the Barrister's dream (Fit 6):

Though all my law is fudge,
Yet I'll never, never budge,
But I'll live and die a judge (Gilbert)
"You must know - " said the Judge: but the Snark exclaimed, "Fudge!" (Carroll)

Either way, the evidence, while interesting, is hardly conclusive.


Various theories have tried to elucidate the text or parts thereof.

Could the Baker be Carroll himself?

The text has a number of hints that suggest that Carroll intended for the character of the Baker to represent himself [7]. The fact that his name is unknown to the other crew members (he forgets it) attests that some riddle is involved. It's been claimed that the Baker's character as described in Fit the First matches other descriptions of Carroll of himself (e.g. the White Knight in Through the Looking-Glass ).But the problem with this is there is no evidence to suggest Dodgson ever intended The White Knight to represent himself; it's simply an assumption that has been made often enough to gain acceptance as a fact. Lewis Carroll was 42 when he wrote the poem. The Baker is around the same age, as the phrase "I skip forty years" in Fit the Third: The Baker's Tale discloses. And finally, the Baker had "forty-two boxes, all carefully packed, With his name painted clearly on each" (Fit the First), which he left on the beach, presumably his previous life. But Martin Gardner asks us also to take note of Rule 42 of the Code (!) in the preface (No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm), Rule 42 in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (All persons more than a mile high to leave the court), and the fact that Carroll referred to his age as 42 when he was still in his thirties (!). So while the evidence does not allow us to say anything about the identity of the Baker, we can safely conclude that the number 42 seems to have had some sort of special significance for Carroll.

The Bellman's rule-of-three

Another rule that has given rise to widespread speculation is the Bellman's rule-of-three: What I tell you three times is true. It runs as an underground current through the whole poem, breaking the surface only sporadically, as in Fit 1, Stanza 2, or Fit 5, Stanza 9. Gardner mentions, among other examples of conjecture, Chaos, Co-ordinated, a science fiction story by John MacDougal, and cites Norbert Wiener as saying in his book Cybernetics that the human brain, just like a computing machine, probably works on a variant of the famous principle expounded by Lewis Carroll. Gardner also notes another example of the Bellman's rule: Carroll's constantly reiterated reply "I don't know", when asked to explain what he had in mind with the Snark.

Hidden meanings?

As already stated, the Hunting of the Snark is unusual among Lewis Carroll's poems for its length and its dark nature. This also fits with an attempt to find a hidden personal message within its pages. Many believe that this hidden message should be in the repeating stanza

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

But no convincing theory yet explains it. Lewis Carroll once wrote: "Periodically I have received courteous letters from strangers begging to know whether The Hunting of the Snark is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, I don't know!" According to Gardner, there are more than three such denials on record. By the Bellman's rule-of-three, we therefore must conclude that if the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson said he didn't know what the unimaginable[8] something is, which is sought with symbols and with faith, hope, and care, then he really didn't know.

The murderer was Boots?

Apparently, as the poem states, the Snark was a Boojum. However, the following describes the Baker's last words, when the others see him leaping and cheering on a nearby hilltop:

"It's a Snark!" was the sound that first came to their ears,
And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
Then the ominous words "It's a Boo-"
Then, silence.

The others disagree whether they heard the syllable "-jum" after this. Thus, a rival school of interpretation of the poem suggests that in fact there was no Boojum, but that the Boots betrayed them all and murdered the Baker, and that this was what the latter was trying to say when he died [9]. It is worth mentioning that the Boots is the most mysterious of the crew members. He is alluded to very shortly in Fit the First and Fit the Fourth and nowhere else, and is the only one of the crew members which does not appear in any of the original illustrations. It is also reasonable to assume the Boots (shoeshine in contemporary English) would have a particular grudge against the Baker, as he was wearing three pairs of boots one over the other (Fit the first, and this also appears clearly in the illustrations). However, at the end of the poem Lewis Carroll- the impartial narrator- writes "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see".

The Boojum was only dangerous to the Baker

Template:Original research Template:Unreferencedsection

Image:Snark Baker Illustration.jpg
"But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day"

There is a number of clues for this theory throughout the text. It is never stated explicitly that a Boojum might be dangerous to other crew members. When the Baker's uncle warns him about Boojums he says

" 'But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!'

A hint that the Baker might be more vulnerable than the other crew members to Boojums is the repeated use of the word "beamish", an uncommon word which also appears in "Jabberwocky". On hearing this the Bellman is surprised and complains that the Baker should have mentioned this fact before. One would hardly suppose that the Bellman was unaware about an inherent danger in Snarks, or that he expected his crew members to enlighten him on such issues. Thus one must conclude that the Bellman did not know a fact specific to the Baker. Finally, and most revealingly, the Bellman's reply is

"We should all of us grieve, as you well may believe,
If you never were met with again—

Which clearly implies that the danger to the Baker is greater than to other crew members.

Contrariwise, the Bellman's speech ends with

"For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,
Yet, I feel it my duty to say,
Some are Boojums—"

So the Bellman was definitely aware that Boojums pose some danger — perhaps the danger to beamish people is simply larger than to others.

A frequent criticism of this theory is that it may not cohere with several other facts implied by this poem and "Jabberwocky". As Lewis Carroll implied (see above), the domain of the Snark might well have been the same place where the Jabberwock met with his end. Yet it is well known that the heroic nephew in "Jabberwocky", who felled the manxome beast, was himself beamish ("Come to my arms, my beamish boy"), and so ventured into the domain of the Snark to hunt the Jabberwock, on the advice of an uncle knowledgeable about that locale and about beamishness. Yet for his uncle to advise him to do so would be wildly inconsistent with the protectiveness evinced by typical uncles toward their beamish nephews in Carroll's poems; knowing this, Carroll would have realized the Jabberwock story could not have taken place on an island known to be populated with Snarks.

Three well-known replies suggest the following: (1) Perhaps the nephew in "Jabberwocky" was not beamish until after vanquishing the Jabberwock. Indeed, perhaps "beamish" means "Jabberwock-slaying". Then, the nephew was in no danger until he was ready to leave the island: an acceptable risk. (Note that this interpretation allows the nephew to be the Baker himself.) (2) The Snark did not move in until the Jabberwock was killed. (Perhaps Jabberwocks and Snarks are natural enemies.) (3) Perhaps, in killing the Jabberwock, the nephew character in "Jabberwocky" (if one is to consider him the same man as the Baker) made himself incredibly more susceptible to Boojums than the other crew members; i.e., "beamish". Hence the exclamatory and rather violent reaction of the Bellman; perhaps he had vaguely heard of the one who killed the Jabberwock, and was surprised and alarmed that he had, as one of his crew, such a famous person who was so vulnerable to Boojums.

This is simply a theory; nothing in the poem specifically states that the Baker is in danger because he is, so-called, beamish. This theory and its sub-theories allows for the possibility that Boojums are especially dangerous for more mundane reasons (perhaps they are more fierce than other Snarks), so that the Bellman could have been far more aware of the danger that Boojums pose without specifically referring to the Baker.

The illustrations

"To pursue it with forks and hope"
"To pursue it with forks and hope"

A related debate is to what extent Holiday's illustrations should be considered when analyzing the poem. Opponents claim that they deviate from the text in a number of places (for example, the Baker is supposed to have whiskers and hair, Fit the Fourth, but in the illustrations he is bald) and hence should be discounted. Others claim they were prepared with great cooperation from Carroll, and that the correspondence of letters can tell us his opinion of each. Thus it would seem that Lewis Carroll did not intend care and hope from the repeating stanza to stand for two women, but was quite pleased with the interpretation after the fact [7]. Contrariwise, Carroll suppressed an illustration of the Boojum itself, since he wanted the monster to remain undescribed (none of its features described in Fit the third are physical).

As an alternate theory, some have suggested that the character identified as "Care" below is really the ship's figurehead (as shown in the first illustration), and that "Hope" is actually the Boots. Andrew Lang, who reviewed the book in 1876, suggested that "Hope" might be the Bonnet-maker. But this is clearly incorrect, since a shadowy figure making bonnets can be seen on the ship in the second illustration.

Image:Snark Hope.jpg
Image:Snark Care.jpg

Impact on literature

The Hunting of the Snark has inspired several works based on the poem. Michael Ende translated the poem into German, and wrote the opera based on it. The opera was first performed in the Prinzregenten theater in Munich on January 16, 1988. In the mid-1980s, Mike Batt produced a concept album and later a stage show based on the poem. A 1986 musical entitled Boojum! is loosely based on the poem. The musical was written by Martin Wesley-Smith and Peter Wesley-Smith. It also includes a pseudo-biography of Lewis Carrol and elements from the Alice series.

A number of books make references to the poem. Inspired by Carroll's poem, [10] Jack London named his Yacht the Snark, and he described his voyage across the Pacific Ocean in the book titled The Cruise of the Snark (1911). In Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night, the protagonist discovers an alien ship visiting the solar system and calls it Snark as he tries to track its movements. In Vonda McIntyre's novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, she reveals that the use of protomatter in the Genesis Device was made possible due to the discovery of sub-elementary particles, which were named by whimsical scientists as "snarks" and "boojums". In the "Uplift" series of books by David Brin, the human and dolphin heroes are travelling aboard the Streaker, a Snarkhunter class exploration ship. Other references to the Hunting of the Snark may be found elsewhere in these books. Characters in The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies, often refer to the poem, and wonder whether the end of their quest to put on an opera will reveal a Snark or a Boojum. The Bellman and The Hunting of the Snark are referenced in Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots, his third Thursday Next book. In this novel the Term boojum refers to the annihilation of a character from the Book World. China Miéville's The Scar features a ship called the Castor (Latin for beaver), crewed by characters whose names reference the characters of Snark: for example Tinntinnabulum, meaning a tinkling of bells, as in the Bellman). There are numerous references to The Hunting of the Snark in the works of Robert Heinlein, particularly in The Number of the Beast. Stefano Benni, an Italian satirical writer and journalist, has a character named boojum and a map of the Boojum brothers in his book Terra! (1983), translated into around 7 foreign languages.

"Snarks" is the popular nickname for the alien Zn'rx, introduced in the pages the of the Marvel Comics title Power Pack. The nickname stands in for the unpronounceable proper name. It was introduced to the human children characters by an alien of yet another race, who was a fan of Earth literature.

Douglas Adams divided the radio series of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy into "fits", after a suggestion by Geoffrey Perkins, inspired by the Hunting of the Snark. Additionally in the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy it is stated that the answer to the meaning of life and all things in the universe is simply "42" which, as stated earlier, holds some significance to Carroll

See also


  1. Sidney Williams and Falconer Madan: Handbook of the Literature of the Rev. C.L. Dodgson, as quoted in Martin Gardner: The Annotated Snark, Penguin Books, 1974
  2. G.K. Chesterton, as quoted in: Martin Gardner, op.cit.
  3. Alice on the stage, The Theatre, 1887, as quoted in: Martin Gardner, op.cit.
  4. Ch.24, as quoted in: The Annotated Snark
  5. Martin Gardner: The Annotated Alice, Meridian, New York 1963
  6. Edward Guiliano: Lewis Carroll, Laughter and Despair, and the Hunting of the Snark, in Lewis Carroll, ed. by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, New York 1987
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gardner, Martin: The Annotated Snark
  8. Dodgson in a letter to Holiday, as quoted in: The Annotated Snark, op.cit.
  9. Shaw, Larry. "The Baker Murder Case", Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser, September 1956.
  10. Template:Cite book



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