Nonsense and Non-fiction: Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky

Making sense of it all …

When it comes to categorizing writing, people oftentimes like to sort them into two categories: fiction and non-fiction. “Fiction means fake, and non-fiction means not-fake,” my third grade teacher would always remind us after our readings. However, as we have learned, these terms are not so black and white. There can be both fictional and non-fictional elements in a single piece. Sometimes the specific actions are fictional in that they did not really happen, and yet there could still be a non-fictional aspect to them in that they were based off of real events that happened to the author, only these events were perhaps exaggerated or altered to make a better story.

When you bring poetry into the mix, the issue expands further. It is a commonly accepted notion that poetry is neither fiction nor non-fiction; rather, it is a category on its own that can contain fictional and non-fictional elements. I would like to push back slightly on that notion and argue that poetry is simply a matter of convention. Unlike prose writing where the words go from margin to margin, poetry has less stricter forms and more freedom with the arrangement of things, including white spaces and structural appearance. I have heard arguments that all poetry must be fiction, yet this cannot be true because many poems are autobiographical and deal with real events that someone experienced. The greater message here is that it is difficult and a bit futile to assign a label to a piece of writing, because I think that all writing contains some degree of truth, whether that truth applies to the reader, the author, or the speaker and other characters. What makes writing engaging is incorporating that element of reality, even if the reality is hidden by a thick layer of nonsense and absurdity.

This brings me to perhaps the greatest nonsense poem in the English-speaking world, The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, which was included in his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. While the majority of the poem is fiction in that it is made up, it still succeeds in incorporating non-fictional elements that bring the reader to reality. Carroll’s is famous for his fantastical and whimsical writing, his ability to fashion made-up worlds that are so absurd yet so real to the reader. Indeed, there is a layer of complexity in Carroll’s work that appeals to all ages. Although the rhyming, nonsense words like “galumphing” (20), and made-up creatures like the “Jubjub bird” (7) and the“Bandersnatch” (8) make the poem feel like a children’s book your parents would read to you as a kid, there is much more beneath the surface. Carroll blends fiction and reality to make a sophisticated point about the real world, about facing one’s demons and taking the hero’s journey.

Upon reading the first stanza of the poem, the reader might feel as though he or she is reading another language:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

  And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll uses language as his chief means of conveying the feeling of being in a different, completely nonsensical world. From the very beginning, he is trying to give the reader the impression that he is trying to say something serious; the structure of the lines in the opening stanza feel like traditional, non-fictional poetry, yet the several nonsense words are unusual to us. In making up words and creating portmanteaus using actual words (e.g. slithy = slimy + lithe), Carroll succeeds in creating a fantastical world that almost feels like our own. Through his fictional elements, we are able to find a sense of non-fictional reality.

The Jabberwocky is an absurd poem that mirrors the absurdity of the world we live in, filled with unknowns and uncertainty. Each one of our lives mirrors the life of the son in the poem, who comes face to face with something he fears and, in the end, vanquishes it. The non-fictional world is full of Jabberwocks and the “vorpal blades” (18) we need to slay them. The fantastical aspects of the poem that makes it feel like fiction serves the purpose of revealing the very real human curiosity and fear of the real world.

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