The Hunting of the Snark

The Hunting of the Snark

"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. [ [ Poem as presented by] Accessed 10 October 2008.] It describes "with infinite humor the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature". [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] 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 Butcher, a Baker, and a Beaver. 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).

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, previously enemies, become fast friends, the Barrister falls asleep and dreams of a court presided over by the Snark, 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. G. 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". [G. K. Chesterton, as quoted in: Martin Gardner, op.cit.]


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" ["Alice on the stage", The Theatre, 1887, as quoted in: Martin Gardner, op.cit.] .

: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" [Ch.24, as quoted in: "The Annotated Snark"] .

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 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". [Martin Gardner: "The Annotated Alice", Meridian, New York 1963] In the Barrister's dream (Fit 6), for example, 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 [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] 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 Gardner, Martin: "The Annotated Snark"] . The fact that his name is unknown to the other crew members (he forgets it) attests that some riddle is involved. It has 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" ). However, there is no evidence to suggest Dodgson ever intended The White Knight to represent himself; it is 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. 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.

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 did not know what the "unimaginable" [Dodgson in a letter to Holiday, as quoted in: "The Annotated Snark", op.cit.] something is, which is sought with symbols and with faith, hope, and care, then he really did not 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 [Shaw, Larry. "The Baker Murder Case", "Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser", September 1956.] . 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 illustrations

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 Gardner, Martin: "The Annotated Snark"] . 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.

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 Carroll and elements from the Alice series.

A number of books make references to the poem. Inspired by Carroll's poem, cite book |last=London |first=Charmain Kittredge |title="The Log of the Snark" |year=1915 |publisher="The Macmillan company"|url=|accessdate=2008-01-17|pages=ix]
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 "", 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, wherein the nickname replaced the unpronounceable proper name. It was introduced to the human children characters by an alien of yet another race, who was a fan of Earthly 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 Life, the Universe, and Everything" is simply "42", which number, as stated earlier, holds some unknown significance to Carroll.

In Larry Niven's known space universe, there is an alien species called Bandersnatch.

Episode 13 of the Japanese anime series "Ghost Hound" is titled "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." In this episode the main character, Tarou, meets a strange creature while searching for his sister's ghost in the "Unseen World". He asks the creature its name, to which it replies, "I am Snark".

In the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, a character named Tyrion Lannister jokes about being afraid of Snarks, obviously referring to them as imaginary monsters of childhood. The first instance occurs in the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, and other instances occur throughout the series.

Other influences

Judge Merrick Garland of United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit referred to the Bellman's Rule in his ruling in Parhat v. Gates, saying, "The government suggests that several of the assertions in the intelligence documents are reliable because they are made in at least three different documents... We are not persuaded. Lewis Carroll notwithstanding, the fact the government has 'said it thrice' does not make the allegation true. In fact we have no basis for concluding that there are independent sources for the documents' thrice-made assertions" [ [ Court cites nonsense poem in ruling for Gitmo detainee] . Bill Mears, CNN, June 30 2008] .

The Boojum tree, a bizarre kind of tree native to Baja California, was named after the Boojum in the poem.

ee also

*The Hunting of the Snark Musical, written by Mike Batt based on the original nonsense poem.
*Snark, a 1974 text game inspired by the poem.




*cite book|author=Lewis Carroll|title=The Hunting of the Snark, an Agony in Eight Fits |others= illustrations by Henry Holiday |publisher=The Macmillan Company|date=1898|url=|accessdate=2008-01-17


External links

* [ "The Hunting of the Snark" in plain text]
* [ "The Hunting of the Snark" in HTML with original illustrations]
* [ "The Hunting of the Snark" in BD form, with commentary for each stanza]
* [ A catalogue raisonné of illustrated Snarks]

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