The Hunting of the Snark

From Academic Kids

Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits) is a comic poem about a group of adventurers hunting a legendary beast. It borrows occasionally from Carroll's short poem "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking Glass, (especially the latter's creatures and portmanteau words), but it is a stand-alone work, first published in 1876 by Macmillan. The Illustrations were by Henry Holiday.

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The Bellman carrying the Banker "by a finger entwined in his hair"

Cast of characters

The group is led by a Bellman, and consists otherwise of a Boots, a Bonnet-maker, a Barrister, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Butcher who can only kill beavers, a Baker, a Broker, and a Beaver. Care was also landed with the crew (as indicated in the first stanza). Hope, necessary for the pursuit of the elusive snark, also came along. The Boots is the only character who is not shown in any illustration, and is thus the most mysterious member of the crew (see below). 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.

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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.


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"):

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 indeed in mind a young audience when he wrote the book. The poem has no young protagonists. It 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 definitely 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.


In composing the poem Carroll started from its last line. This is how he explained it 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."

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.

Jabberwocky connection

In the preface to the Snark, Carrol 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 other nonsense words in the Hunting of the Snark first appeared in his poem Jabberwocky. They 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."


Various theories have tried to elucidate the text or parts thereof. We list below some of them.

Lewis Carroll is the Baker

This is by far the most serious of them all. The text has a number of hints at this fact. The fact that his name is unknown to the other crew members (he forgets it) attests that some riddle is involved. 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). Lewis Carrol 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.

As already stated, the hunting of the Snark is unique among Lewis Carroll's work in its length and its dark nature. This also fits with an attempt to find a hidden personal message withing 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!"

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. 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 3 pairs of boots one over the other (Fit the first, and this also appears clearly in the illustrations).

The Boojum was only dangerous to the Baker

"But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day"
"But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day"

There are 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!'

Hinting that the Baker might be vulnerable to Boojums since he is "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 himself implies (see above), the domain of the Snark might well have been the same place where the Jabberwocky met with his end. Yet it is well know 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 Jabberwocky, 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 incosistent 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 island known to be populated with snarks.

Two well-known replies suggest the following: (1) Perhaps the nephew in Jabberwocky was not beamish until after vaquishing 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.)

The illustrations

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"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. 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 is physical).

Impact on science

The word "snark" has since been used in graph theory, as has "boojum", and was also used, some say chillingly aptly, as the name of the SM-62 Snark nuclear cruise missile. The term "boojum" has also been used in physics to describe a phenomenon originally found in superfluid helium-3, and also in liquid crystals, and for the boojum tree.

Impact on literature

The characters of Snark have appeared in other works. For example, the Bellman and The Hunting of the Snark are referenced in Jasper Fforde's The Well Of Lost Plots, his third Thursday Next book.

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.

External links




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