The Snow Queen

snow queen book
The “Amoco” Giveaway

Weird but true: my relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” started with a gas station. A small children’s book edition of the tale was given out as part of a promo at Amoco gas stations in 1989. This is the first time I’d ever read the story and it started a lifelong love affair.

First published in 1844, “The Snow Queen” is one of the unique fairy tales that Hans Christian Andersen penned himself. Unlike the Grimm Brothers who collected traditional folktales told in their country, Andersen most often wrote brand-new, original stories in the same vein. Many of the most famous fairy tales today, such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” we owe to Andersen’s brilliant imagination as they have no antecedent in traditional folklore.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Told in seven parts, the story of “The Snow Queen” begins with two children, Kai and Gerda, who are neighbors in their small town. Their houses are connected by a small garden between and they love to play and tend roses there together. One winter’s day a piece of enchanted mirror flies into Kai’s eye and it distorts his vision so that everything beautiful in the world appears to him as ugly. He turns his back on his friendship with Gerda and becomes mean and cruel. While playing with a gang of rough-and-tumble neighborhood boys he unknowingly hitches his sled onto the sleigh of the evil Snow Queen and she drives him off to her wintery palace. Gerda sets out after them, resolute in her desire to free Kai from the Snow Queen’s icy clutches. She travels far and wide on her quest, meeting princesses, ravens and robbers along the way. Finally, standing within the frozen halls of the Snow Queen’s polar palace, Gerda discovers that the power of love is the only thing that can destroy the Snow Queen’s formidable hold over Kai.

Over the years Andersen’s story has been adapted for nearly every art form – theater, music, film and opera to name a few. As part of my fairy tale year I explored many of the most significant adaptations throughout the month of March and wanted to share a few of my favorites here.

The 1957 Russian animated film was the first movie adaptation of the story. I watched the 1990’s English dub for the first time last month and I was impressed at the level of artistry on display. It’s not surprising to discover that master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki credits it as one of his inspirations for working in the field. The film adheres very closely to Andersen’s original storyline and I can’t help but wish that Disney’s Frozen had similarly stayed true to its original source material. Frozen has been acclaimed for its supposed feminist stance but Andersen’s original is even more so in the fact that the story involves a girl saving a boy.

4421670Joan Vinge’s 1980 novel adapts the tale for adult science fiction readers and was one of the first in the genre to include a cast of almost-exclusively female main characters. In the book Gerda and Kai are transformed into the characters Moon and Sparks, two lovers literally separated by time and space by the all-powerful Arienrhod, the Snow Queen who rules their planet. In her quest to reunite with Sparks Moon must uncover and confront numerous secret political machinations. She holds not only Sparks’s fate in her hands but that of their entire world. Andersen’s tale works well in this retelling as an epic journey across an alien landscape. Vinge’s novel starts out a bit verbose and flowery but soon becomes action-filled and tightly-paced. It’s shocking that such a vast and sprawling yarn can fit into less than five hundred pages and demonstrates Vinge’s masterful storytelling.

The 2002 film Snow Queen is the sweet, modern take on the tale you would expect from a Hallmark production. On my first viewing I appreciated the development of the relationship between Gerda and Kai in the first half, but this time around I found the second half more intriguing. Screenwriter Simon Moore (The 10th Kingdom) cleverly ties the main parts of Gerda’s journey to save Kai into the revolving seasons – in this version Gerda meets the Snow Queen’s three sisters who rule each of the other seasons respectively. From each she learns a different aspect of maturation: the Spring Witch wants to keep Gerda an eternal child; the Summer Princess possesses an adolescent preoccupation with choosing a mate; and finally, the Autumn Robber teaches Gerda the strength and courage she’ll need as an adult. This helps develop Gerda’s character and amplifies the importance of her relationship with Kai. Gerda and Kai’s eventual return home at the end is deservedly emotional and richly satisfying.

Tiffany Amber Knight as the Snow Queen

Composer Paul K. Joyce’s lyrical 2003 concert oratorio The Snow Queen was adapted for film by the BBC in 2005 with mixed results. I purchased the CD of the score when it was released prior to the film and was enchanted and moved by Joyce’s music. James Andrew Hall was responsible for the film adaptation and most of what’s wrong with it resides in his teleplay. Many of the most moving musical passages in the score are either eliminated (“The Mirror and Its Fragments”) or marred by dialogue (Kai’s rescue by Gerda during “The Snow Queen’s Palace”). Luckily the best song, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” is retained and filmed adequately if not profoundly. Much was made at the time of the CGI special effects. They do give a “moving storybook” feel to the film but more often than not they seem to hinder the action rather than enhance it. Tiffany Amber Knight, however, is dazzling in her glorious CGI raiment as the Snow Queen.

My favorite adaptation of the tale also premiered in 2005 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It’s a folk musical version created by Michael Peter Smith. As a birthday present my partner bought us tickets to see the recent Park Square Theatre production in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I was enchanted by how beautifully it captured the spirit of the story. A talented ensemble of actor/musicians, haunting music and gorgeous physical design brought the tale to life and I felt like a child again, discovering the story for the first time. It was a truly moving experience that brought tears to my eyes several times.

“The Snow Queen” at Park Square Theatre

Emily Gunyou Halaas brought a warm presence to her multiple roles including the Narrator and Mother. I especially enjoyed the lovely lullaby she sang as the Finn Woman to Gerda right before the climactic scene in the Snow Queen’s castle. Similarly, Caroline Amos and Silas Sellnow were perfect as Gerda and Kai and Sara Ochs provided a memorable turn as the Sami Woman who led the hilariously punny “Fish Song”.

It’s unfortunate that no official recording has been made of the show since the score is absolutely beautiful. Luckily I was able to find a YouTube video of one of my favorite songs, a duet between Kai and the Snow Queen. It’s a great way to close out my fairy tale month of March:

The Problem of the Beast

Like every fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” has had to metamorphose throughout the centuries to remain relevant to each succeeding generation. Unlike other popular tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, however, “Beauty and the Beast” has seen a profound shift in the character that is the focal point of the story. Beauty, the central character in the original versions, takes the backseat to the Beast in later retellings. In some cases this also heavily changes the moral of the tale, undermining its ultimate effectiveness.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s tale (1756) was heavily inspired by Madame de Villeneuve’s original tale published in 1740. Villeneuve’s version is mainly concerned with sustainment of the period’s social class system: Beauty’s sisters are condemned for aspiring to an upper class into which they were not born, and in Villeneuve’s lengthy epilogue it is revealed that Beauty is not a common merchant’s daughter, but a royal fairy changeling – a proper bride for any enchanted Prince.

Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle

In contrast, Beaumont’s version does not concern itself with social castes. Instead, her version focuses on the complications of arranged marriages. In Beaumont’s time, and for many centuries to come, it was standard practice for young women of a certain social status to be married off to wealthy, socially-acceptable mates that, more often than not, were complete strangers to them. Beaumont’s text is sensitive to this issue and its primary objective is to assuage the fears of young women who find themselves in the predicament and offer them hope that eventual romantic love can be a possibility in such a situation. Folklorists have dubbed “Beauty and the Beast” the first “psychological” fairy tale, and the main reason for this is Beauty’s journey in Beaumont’s tale. She holds the primary power in the story. It is only through her own inward transformation that the Beast’s outward transformation can occur. The modern era has seen the claim that the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is an example of Stockholm syndrome, but this argument completely overlooks the historical background of the original tale and the topic of arranged marriages that it makes its central focus.

Because of the eventual denunciation of the practice of arranged marriages in most Western cultures, modern interpretations of the fairy tale have had to work around this issue to varying levels of success. The primary way to do this has been to shift the main spotlight away from Beauty and transfer it to the Beast.

At the end of Beaumont’s  story, the Beast of the fairy tale’s title is transformed into a handsome prince:

“A wicked fairy had condemned me to remain under that shape,” the Prince explains to Beauty in the original English translation, “until a beautiful virgin should consent to marry me.” No other reason is given for this strange punishment besides the apparent “wickedness” of the fairy mentioned.

tumblr_inline_ny50r2ssIT1sacq5r_540This lack of explanation has proved a creative asset to future retellings of the tale, the most obvious of these being the 1991 Disney Studios film. The enchanted Prince in their version is punished with his beastly visage for turning away an old beggar woman seeking shelter from a storm. It is when he refuses her because of her ugly appearance that she reveals her true self and punishes him to life as a Beast. This provides a powerful, direct link to the story’s theme of looking beyond appearances to find beauty within that most other versions don’t include. However, this strength is undermined by a necessary shift in the Beast’s character because of it.

In both the original Villeneuve and Beaumont versions of the story the Beast acts as the perfect gentleman towards Beauty. He shows her kindness and consideration and provides her anything she desires. She truly is mistress of his castle, her slightest whims becoming the Beast’s command. After dinner every night he asks for her hand in marriage and she politely refuses. He assents to this and never forces her into wedlock or indeed to do anything that displeases her. The only real impediment to a possible relationship with Beauty is the Beast’s alarming exterior.

In contrast, the Disney film makes the Beast/Prince “spoiled, selfish and unkind.” He has a quick and raging temper that is often unleashed upon Belle, the film’s Beauty. Instead of any kind of personal transformation of her own, Belle’s role in the story is changed to that of a “domesticator” of this unruly Beast. This unfortunately reduces the importance of Beauty’s role in the story, making her mostly a mother figure, and works to subvert the original theme of the fairy tale. Instead of the possibility of beauty already lurking behind a beastly exterior, the theme of this version is that beauty can only be found in a Beast if his savage nature is tamed.

Jean Cocteau attempts something similar in his 1946 film and ends up crafting something much more interesting in the process. Instead of a nasty temper, the main problem of Cocteau’s Beast concerns his actual beastliness. He is a full-fledged animal/human hybrid, trying to reconcile these two opposite natures within himself. When dining with Beauty he appears the perfect gentleman – well-dressed and conversant, if admitting that he’s no wit. At night, however, he succumbs to his feral side, hunting animals in the forests outside his castle and startling Beauty several times in her bedchamber after his midnight romps. There is no concrete resolution to this Beast’s dilemma – he does transform into a handsome prince, but he looks exactly like Avenant (a character Disney drew from for their brutish Gaston), a handsome but roguish would-be suitor of Beauty whom she has refused. This physical similarity to Avenant at first throws Beauty off. When asked by the Prince if she is displeased by his resemblance to Avenant, Beauty responds first with “Yes” and then a smiling “No.”

Jean Marais as the Prince and Josette Day as Beauty

The Prince tells Beauty at the film’s conclusion: “Love can make a Beast of a man. It can also make an ugly man handsome.” This intentional blurring of the morality of the tale runs deeper than Disney’s take and provides a more satisfying modern sensibility to the story: Beauty comes to discover that she can be alternately attracted to and repulsed by a potential domestic partner – she can enjoy both the beast in the man and the man in the beast.

The duel for the main spotlight between contemporary Beauties and Beasts comes to its most happy medium in the 1987 television series created by Ron Koslow. The setting for this version is updated to twentieth century New York City. The Beast, named Vincent, dwells in the tunnels below the city with an entire community of people who have found themselves cast off from the cruel and unforgiving World Above. His Beauty, Catherine Chandler, works as an Assistant District Attorney and through this comes face-to-face with the evils of her metropolitan society. With Vincent’s help she often thwarts them.

Ron Perlman as Vincent and Linda Hamilton as Catherine

Similar to Beaumont’s original envisioning of the Beast, Vincent is a thoughtful and compassionate humanitarian. He is the embodiment of a fully developed, spiritual human being, reading classical literature in his spare time and reciting poetry at the drop of a hat. However, as with Cocteau’s Beast, Vincent also battles the animal side of his nature throughout the run of the show. There is no ultimate transformation for him, though – Vincent’s intangible and unexplained existence as a man/beast is permanent and something both he and Catherine must learn to cope with as the series progresses. But unlike previous Beauties, Catherine has an even footing with her mate: she is not his captor and moves independently between his realm and her own. For the first time since Beaumont, then, the ultimate decision of whether Beauty and the Beast can be a pair is placed once again in Beauty’s hands.

These unique twists provide an even balance between the two characters, resulting in a satisfying drama and romance, one that was unfortunately cut short due to actress Linda Hamilton leaving the show. Perhaps if the show had lasted even a season or two longer we might have a contemporary “Beauty and the Beast” that actually outshines its already impressive origins.

Lineage of Beauty

I remember my excitement when I came across a copy of Jack Zipes’s Beauties, Beasts and Enchantment at a used book store. I had been looking for a decently priced copy for ages – the book is still in print but rather expensive. I quickly bought it and brought it home. The reason for my excitement was primarily because it contains the only complete English translation of Madame de Villeneuve’s version of “Beauty and the Beast”.

The most widely-known version of the tale today is Madame de Beaumont’s, first published in her Magasin des enfans in 1756, but her version would not exist were it not for Madame de Villeneuve’s, which was published in 1740.

Beauty and the Beast Happy Ending HJ Ford
Illustration by H.J. Ford

Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” takes up an entire seventy-six pages of Zipes’s book. In comparison, Beaumont’s takes up a mere twelve. I remember beginning to read the Villeneuve after my purchase but soon set it down after being distracted by other books. This month I sat down to read it again and realized why I had put it aside – while Villeneuve’s version does contain the familiar set pieces of the tale it’s also long-winded and includes an extremely complicated epilogue detailing the family histories of both Beauty and the Beast. It’s readily apparent why Beaumont’s edited and simplified version won out as the standard for the tale.

This isn’t to say that Villeneuve’s version is without its charms, however. The best part of her narrative details how Beauty spends her days in the Beast’s castle – a point left out of most versions of the story, including Beaumont’s. Villeneuve fills the Beast’s castle with endless entertainments for Beauty; musical galleries, exhaustive libraries, teleporting aviaries, a friendly troop of Capuchin monkeys clad in courtly dress, and even a magical picture show eerily reminiscent of modern television.

All of this whimsy in Villeneuve’s narrative is dashed away, though, once the Beast is transformed. Villeneuve dedicates the concluding thirty-six pages of her story to the royal backgrounds of both Beauty and the Beast. This is a distracting end to her tale, especially since its main purpose seems only to assure the reader that Beauty is not marrying above her station – she is, in fact, half-royal and half-fairy.

Intriguingly, Tanith Lee is the only reteller of this tale I’m aware of that has made use of this ancestral aspect of Villeneuve’s version and actually improved upon it.

Red As Blood Tanith Lee CoverIn her short story collection of fairy tale retellings Red As Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, Lee sets her “Beauty and the Beast” in a science-fictional future. Her Beauty, named Estar, feels set apart from her adopted family, being the one naturally born daughter aside two incubator-born children. Her family is loving and nurturing but Estar feels out of place.

The main trajectory of the plot begins when Estar is summoned to live with a being of the alien race that’s overtaken the Earth. Throughout the course of Lee’s story Estar feels alternately repelled and drawn in by this alien. In the end Lee reveals that Estar is actually half-alien, which is why she feels an unexplained kinship with her new companion.

This is the idea that harkens back to Villeneuve’s concept of Beauty’s disguised lineage. By making this an integral part of Beauty’s maturation and personal identification it provides a new aspect to this concept that gives it a contemporary importance missing from Villeneuve’s concern about hierarchy. Instead of merely being a matter of social status, Beauty’s unrevealed background is connected to her very own being and existence. This makes for a much more profound and satisfying resolution to the tale than Villeneuve was able to conjure.

Year of the Fairy Tale

I love fairy tales; so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to dedicate my 2016 reading and viewing year to them. Each month I plan on immersing myself in a different fairy tale: reading various fictional retellings, viewing film adaptations and perhaps even delving into some scholarly literary criticism. I’ve included the full list of fairy tales I plan to read throughout the year at the bottom of this post.

Rumpelstiltskin HJ Ford
Illustration by H.J. Ford

January I devoted to “Rumpelstiltskin”. It seemed a good place to start – a simple tale devoted to the power of truth and names. I quickly consumed Jonathan Carroll’s 1988 novel Sleeping in Flame, a modern sequel to the story. I loved it right up until the end when things seemed tied up much too neatly and then Carroll threw a wrench in the works and turned everything unsatisfactorily upside down. I still gave it three stars for the fantastic buildup and would’ve added more had the payoff been better.

The Surlalune Fairy Tale Web Site (which I absolutely love, by the way, and frequently visit) recommended the book Possession by A.S. Byatt as a “Rumpelstiltskin” retelling. It’s not an easy read and took up what was left of the reading month for me. I enjoyed it, but I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what exactly was the connection to “Rumpelstiltskin”.

Curiously, there have been no exemplary film adaptations of “Rumpel”. The musical Cannon Movie Tale comes the closest, so I watched it, but it’s rather dull and the songs aren’t as memorable as other installments in that series. Similarly, Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre dedicated an episode to retelling the tale but it, too, is one of that series’ lesser efforts.

I didn’t get around to viewing some other movies on my list, one being the 1995 horror film Rumpelstiltskin, though I’ve heard it’s dreadful. Intriguingly, Terminator 2 shares some story similarities with the fairy tale, but I didn’t get the opportunity to re-watch that either.

February soon commenced and I promptly put aside the rough German earthiness of “Rumpelstiltskin” and ensconced myself in the heady, perfume-scented French fairy tale world of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s perhaps my favorite fairy tale, so it was difficult to choose between the many various retellings in existence.

Beauty and the Beast Walter Crane
Illustration by Walter Crane

I started out reading Jerry Griswold’s The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast. I thought this would be a piece of literary criticism similar in scope and style to Betsy Hearne’s excellent Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale, but it’s actually very different. It includes many texts of various early versions of the story, along with modern short story interpretations. Griswold dabbles a bit with explication in the last two sections of the book, the first analyzing the various illustrations the tale has inspired through the years and the second providing an interesting queer perspective on the Cocteau and Disney films. I wish there had been more of this type of folkloric study in the book, but all things considered it is an excellent resource for new researchers of the tale.

I next went on to read Tanith Lee’s mesmerizing collection of short stories Red As Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. I plan on writing a separate entry on that volume, so I’ll step away from it for now.Beauty Robin McKinley Cover

I’m finishing out the month reading my favorite “Beauty and the Beast” retelling of them all – Robin McKinley’s Beauty. It’s been the ultimate comfort read for me ever since I read it during a flu spell in middle school. Picking it up again always feels like going home. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so. You’ll never forget it.

I’m also in the process of watching many film versions of “Beauty and the Beast”, but this entry is getting rather long, so I think I’ll save my thoughts on those for another time, too.

Fairy tales are so amazingly malleable – it’s truly a delight to revel in all these various new interpretations of them. I’m liking this year already.


  • JANUARY – Rumpelstiltskin
  • FEBRUARY – Beauty and the Beast
  • MARCH – The Snow Queen
  • APRIL – Sleeping Beauty
  • MAY – The Twelve Dancing Princesses
  • JUNE – The Little Mermaid
  • JULY – Rapunzel
  • AUGUST – Red Riding Hood
  • SEPTEMBER – Snow White
  • OCTOBER – Bluebeard
  • NOVEMBER – Hansel and Gretel
  • DECEMBER – Cinderella

Of Puns and Portmanteaux

Note: This is an essay I presented for my History of the English Language class in April of 2003.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.” (Carroll 113)

This quote from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There seems to perfectly summarize Lewis Carroll’s outlook on his relationship with language. Throughout his entire life he bent it to his will – reshaping, reinventing and ultimately mastering it. The legacy he left behind is one that every generation since has experienced, even if they don’t realize it. Carroll’s nonsense language has entered the standard English language, and been effected by it in ways most people would not even recognize, either by popular cultural phrases or even just words.

This paper will explore the Alice books and more specifically the poem “Jabberwocky” as its prime examples of Carroll’s tinkering with the English language. Carroll plays with language throughout all of his literary works, such as The Hunting of the Snark and Sylvie and Bruno, but the Alice books are his most well-known, and that is why I have chosen them to research.

Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. It comes as a surprise that the writer of such elaborately imaginative and vigorously nonsensical works should be “a fastidious, reserved, and deeply religious Victorian mathematics don” (Cohen xix). But the key to the heart of Dodgson lies within his childhood, and the “happy summer days” (Wonderland Carroll 177) of his youth.

Dodgson was born on January 27, 1832, and grew up in the parsonage of Daresbury in Cheshire. He had numerous siblings. Dodgson would put together little books, magazines, and periodicals for his brothers and sisters that were full of nonsense and wordplay. They were meant to entertain and delight. These were the precursors to Dodgson’s later writing, such as the Alice books. Morton N. Cohen’s biography of Dodgson explains:

“Ever in the company of children as he grew, he became accustomed not only to
their presence but also to their childish ways. He noticed how their minds and
hearts were moved naturally, spontaneously. In time, perhaps through a
combination of biological, spirtitual and psychological forces, this interest
developed into a need, an essential component of his own happiness” (106).

The memories of his childhood were an everlasting fount of inspiration for Dodgson to draw from. This fountain of inspiration never seemed to stop flowing, and it always remained a vital part of his written works. There is a sense in many of his later works of a kind of sadness and detachment from his early years, and a yearning to return to their innocence and wonder.

It should, in fact, be no surprise that the man who inspired the games and play of children the world over held a special place in his heart for that amazing entity that is a child’s imagination. He encapsulated in his writing the wild, unfaltering attitudes of childhood, and by doing so was able to retain the purity and sense of wonder adults so often lose as they mature. He discovered his own fountain of youth.

Looking back it could be viewed that Dodgson lived a very solitary, lonely existence. He spent all of his adult life at Christ Church, Oxford, teaching and writing. He never married. But his life was full of people. He had many comrades and acquaintances at the university, and many “child-friends” whom he befriended. He wrote an endless amount of letters, and kept them all, filing them away neatly and orderly: “He was a systematic record-keeper, and in fact devised a Register of Letters Received and Sent, with a précis of each alongside its date and entry number…That Letter Register has not survived, but we know that the last number recorded there was 98, 721” (Selected Letters ed. Cohen viii). It is obvious that Dodgson was anything but a hermit and anti-social.

Having said this, though, it must be stated that Dodgson had a difficult time communicating with others. He had an embarrassing stutter, which often made him self-conscious about speaking. When he was around children, however, this impediment magically disappeared. He seemed to be able to communicate with them best, probably because he lived half in their world, and half in an adult’s.

The most famous of Dodgson’s many “child-friends” were the Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. They were the daughters of the then dean of Christ Church, Henry George Liddell. It was for the middle sister, Alice, that Carroll wrote his Alice books. The first germination of the story took place on a sunny early July day, when Dodgson took the Liddell sisters out boating on the Thames with his friend Duckworth. The little girls demanded a story from Dodgson, and he was quick to comply. Thus, Alice’s adventures were born.

If it weren’t for Alice, however, the story would never have been written down. She kept pestering Dodgson to write down the story for her, which he did eventually, albeit much later. She received her own hand-written and illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground “as an early Christmas present on November 26, 1864” (Bjork 75). Dodgson later expanded the story and finally published it under the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There would follow some years later.

Dodgson’s own pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, is an example of how he played with language. Lewis Carroll is “a Latinized reversal of his first two names, Charles Lutwidge” (Cohen 72). After the success of the Alice books, he became very sensitive about the use of his nom-de-plume: “He returned unopened letters that arrived at Christ Church addressed to Lewis Carroll; he sought, unsuccessfully, to have Bodley’s Librarian delete from the catalogue cross-references to his two names; he wrote third-person letters objecting to correspondents making the connection” (Cohen 191).

He made sure to specify in his life that Carroll was the nonsense writer, and Dodgson the orderly mathematician. It almost seemed as if he led two very different lives. Since Dodgson made this distinction himself, I will refer to him as Carroll throughout the rest of this paper, for in his eyes it was Carroll responsible for writing the Alice books and “Jabberwocky,” and not Dodgson.

Wordplay is predominant throughout both the Alice books. Just as Carroll writes about cards, croquet, and chess games in the Alice books, language and conversation are displayed as games that can have endless variations and rules. Elementary puns and riddles with no answers are sprinkled throughout the Wonderland landscape, almost as real and tangible as the crazy characters Alice meets during her adventures. As Kathleen Blake explains in her book Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll, “…the Alice books are famously nondidactic and playful. Games abound in them, at various levels: there are the jokes and riddles, aimed as much at the reader as at Alice…The creatures share a mania for play, from the caucus-race on. Humpty Dumpty treats conversation itself as a game” (12).

Alice’s own speech is often reprimanded throughout the books, making the divisions and rules of language less certain and more malleable. Donald Rackin explains in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning that “The Caterpillar plays a similar role to Humpty Dumpty’s in Through the Looking-Glass:…he is just as rude in his disparagement of Alice’s linguistic habits, demonstrating by his actions that the above-ground conventions of etiquette in social intercourse are meaningless in Wonderland” (45).

There are various satires of poems and songs famous in Carroll’s day littered throughout the texts of both Alice books. Carroll keeps the conventions and schemes of the original works, but fills them with silly words and ideas that would make the poem amusing for the children who know the originals. Most of these poems are no longer read today, so the effect on today’s children is very different than it would have been on children in Carroll’s day. But there is one example that still stands up to the test of time: the Mad Hatter’s recitation of “Twinkle, Twinkle” at the infamous mad tea-party. Instead of the simple poem we are all familiar with, the Hatter launches into:

“‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
…Up above the world you fly
Like a tea-tray in the sky.” (Wonderland Carroll 95-96)

Carroll thus utilizes another way of playing with language, poking fun at the literary world of his day.

It could be argued that “Jabberwocky” is Carroll’s opus, his most brilliant use of nonsense intertwined in language and wordplay. Alice herself sums it up best in Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are'” (Carroll 20-21). As Richard Kelly states in his book Lewis Carroll, “the central interest in ‘Jabberwocky’ is not in its story line but in its language. Our unfamiliarity with ‘slithy toves,’ ‘borogoves,’ and ‘Bandersnatch’ makes the poem fun. The words conjure up associations in our minds that provide a ‘feeling’ for their meanings” (67).

Martin Gardner notes in his wonderful Annotated Alice that “The opening stanza of “Jabberwocky” first appeared in Mischmasch, the last of a series of private little ‘periodicals’ that young Carroll wrote, illustrated and hand-lettered for the amusement of his brothers and sisters” (148). The fact that the fragment appeared “under the heading of ‘Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry'” (148) hints that Carroll had the history of the English language in his head as he wrote the piece, and wanted to intimate at how poetry in the very early days of English might have sounded. “Jabberwocky” is his supreme guess.

Cohen explains in his biography of Carroll that “Early in 1888 Charles [Carroll] engaged in a correspondence with the editors of the school magazine of the Latin School for Girls in Boston. He wrote them…in the third person permitting them…to name their magazine Jabberwock” (443). In the same letter Carroll explained the definition of his created word: “the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit.’ Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion,’ this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion'” (Selected Letters ed. Cohen 173).

Humpty Dumpty is the one who deciphers the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass. His confident claim “‘I can explain all the poems that ever were invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet'” (Carroll 115) seems not far off the mark.

At the heart of the wordplay in “Jabberwocky” is the idea of the portmanteau word, a concept Carroll created himself. Gardner states that “Portmaneau word will be found in many modern dictionaries. It has become a common phrase for words that are packed, like a suitcase, with more than one meaning” (215). Our textbook, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal agrees that the “term…has since achieved some currency in linguistic studies” (131).

Many other literary figures were influenced by Carroll’s wordplay, and most specifically his idea of the portmanteau word. James Joyce is the most obvious of these with his Finnegans Wake, which “contains them [portmanteau words] by the tens of thousands” (Gardner 215).

To fully appreciate and expound Carroll’s brilliancy with portmanteau words, the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” will be looked at here. The first stanza reads:

“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.” (Looking-Glass Carroll 19)

After Alice recites the first verse of the poem for Humpty Dumpty, he goes on to explain: “”Brillig’ means four o’clock in the afternoon – the time when you start broiling things for dinner'” (115).

‘Slithy’ is the first example of a portmanteau word in the poem. Humpty Dumpty claims that the word “‘means ‘lithe and slimy’…there are two meanings packed up into one word” (115).

The rest of the words in the first stanza are defined as nonsense words by Humpty Dumpty. The last portmanteau contained within it is ‘mimsy,’ which is a cross between ‘flimsy’ and ‘miserable’ (Looking-Glass Carroll 116-117).

In the original printing of the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” in Mischmasch, Carroll provides a few different definitions for some of the nonsense words, but he summarizes the first verse as meaning: “‘It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hillside: all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out'” (Carroll ed. Gray 248).

Many of the nonsense words that appear in “Jabberwocky” can also be found in Carroll’s later writing. Richard Kelly states that “eight of them reappear in The Hunting of the Snark” (68). The ones that do are ‘mimsy,’ outgrabe,’ ‘Jubjub,’ frumious,’ ‘Bandersnatch,’ ‘uffish,’ ‘galumphing,’ and ‘beamish,’ although they are all used in slightly different ways, albeit retaining the same definitions.

Many of them are now also included in the dictionary, thus displaying Carroll’s influence over the English language. ‘Slithy,’ ‘gyre,’ ‘gimble,’ ‘mimsy,’ ‘galumphing,’ and ‘chortled’ have all made their way into the book of our language (Gardner 152-154). Only a few of them are specifically attributed to Carroll, but all owe their fame and occasional
usage to him.

Carroll’s influence on the language can also be seen in how many phrases from the Alice books have become popular cultural phrases in England and the world. A few examples of these are “much of a muchness” (Wonderland Carroll 101) “meaning that two or more things are very much alike” (Gardner 77), “‘If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that'” (Looking-Glass Carroll 37) “in reference to rapidly changing political situations” (Gardner165), and of course, the Cheshire Cat’s “we’re all mad here” (Wonderland Carroll 84).

Lewis Carroll’s effect on the English language is one not normally delved into and studied, but its impact is most profound. Through his love of play and words, Carroll brought to his language a sense of joyfulness and childlike amusement. Many of his nonsense words have entered the English lexicon, and just as many, if not more, of his whimsical phrases have been on display in our growing culture, ever since the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is possible that the secret of Carroll’s mastery over words may be found later in that same conversation quoted at the start of this paper between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

“…Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly
verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much
pleased. ‘I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always
pay it extra.'” (Looking-Glass Carroll 113-114)

Works Cited

Bjork, Christina. The Other Alice: The Story of Alice Liddell and Alice in Wonderland. New York: R & S Books, 1993.

Blake, Kathleen. Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Carroll, Lewis, and Donald J. Gray, ed. Alice in Wonderland. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Carroll, Lewis, and Martin Gardner (notes). The Annotated Alice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Carroll, Lewis, and Morton N. Cohen, ed. The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll. Random House, 1978.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. London: Macmillan, 1995.

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kelly, Richard. Lewis Carroll. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1977.

Rackin, Donald. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning. New York: Macmillan, 1991.