Also an excellent movie by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. This movie stars Michael Palin and David Prowse (Darth Vader from Star Wars) makes an appearance as ... surprise! ... the black knight. And ... surprise! ... he doesn't speak a single line in the movie. Beware the Welsh accent, my son ...

...Hence the literal English of the passage is : "It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parots; and the grave turtles squeaked out."

There were probably sundials on the top of the hill, and the "borogoves" were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of "raths," which ran out, squeaking with fear, upon hearing the "toves" scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply-affecting, relic of ancient poetry.


Carroll's explanation, printed in 1855, cited by The Annotated Alice

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

`Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!'

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.

`And has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872.

See also: Jabberwocky: Carroll's pronunciation guide and Jabberwocky Translations.

Here is a possible explanation of the meaning of the poem:

Big Monster

An Abstraction of a Translation of Jabberwocky

It was summer
everything was in bloom
fruit got ripe
farmers did all right

"Watch the big monster, boy
It can kill you
Watch the hawk
and the big cat"

He armed himself
looked all over for the big monster
stopped in a strange place
rested and thought

And when he dropped his guard
the big monster, looking scary,
charged him through trees
making lots of noise

With accuracy and speed
he used his sword
killed the beast, cut off its head
and went home

"Did you get him?
You make me proud, son!
This is great! Yow!"
he exclaimed

It was summer
everything was in bloom
fruit got ripe
farmers did all right

I like this in particular because it demonstrates the fallacy of translating nonsense poems. Jabberwocky has been translated into several languages (see Jabberwocky Translations), but can a poem which has little or no explicit meaning be translated? When it is translated would it still feel the same to a native speaker of another language? The poem above for example has the same explicit meaning as Jabberwocky itself but certainly doesn't conjure up the same images, so is it a translation?

There is an in-depth discussion of this very idea in Douglas Hofstadter's book: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, where he discusses the very nature of meaning.

"It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!"

This line from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, clearly describes many people's reactions to the poem of the name Jabberwocky which is often regarded as a masterpiece in Lewis Carroll's immortal story. In the section of the adventures titled Through the Looking Glass where the poem is encountered, Alice travels into a mirror and discovers the poem written in a book. At first, the poem seems foreign to her - until she realises that since she is now inside a mirror, the writing must be in mirror-image, so by holding it up to a looking glass she could read the poem properly.

The poem read as following:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The nonsense poem is one very symbolic of Lewis Carrol's, who together with a penchant for little girls, was also a lover of linguistics. It centres around the figure of the fearful monster Jabberwock, and its heroic slaying.The actual Jabberwock was immortalised through Tenniel's expert illustration as a dragon-like creature.

Perhaps the main interest in this poem is in Carroll's imaginative use of language to give a sense of semantics to otherwise nonsense words. He often uses what is known in linguistics as portmanteaus, that is, a blend of words. Humpty Dumpty later meets up with Alice and gives meanings to these invented words. In the first verse, for instance, the word 'slithy' is explained as a blend of the words 'lithe' and 'slimey'. 'Mimsy', a word used to described Carroll's borogroves, was explained by Humpty to be a mixture of 'flimsy' and 'miserable'.

The greatness of the poem lies indeed here - in the way that Carroll made use of normal english verse, with sound sentence structure and the quatrained, rhymed verse with iambic meter to make it sound like an ordinary children's poem. Flickerings of semi-familar words as sprinkled throughout the poem further emphasise this aura of normality. The poem enables easy reading, because the words in themselves, being blends, appear familiar - yet reading it will leave one only half comprehending of the content and oddly so. Alice explained it best herself after she finished reading the poem:

"... Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are!"

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