Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (Annotations by Martin Gardner)

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits
Annotations by Martin Gardner
Original publication 1876
This edition by W. W, Norton, 2006
Annotations © Martin Gardner 1962, 1974, 1981, 2006
Introduction © Adam Gopnick 2006
“The Listing of the Snark” © Selwyn H. Goodacre 2006
ISBN 978-0-393-06242-7

Lewis Carroll’s  original publication of The Hunting of he Snark was, in its own way something of a literary event, coming as it did a mere decade after the Alice books.  It is both much, much shorter [the text fits easily 31 pages (including Carroll’s introduction and original illustrations by Henry Hamilton)—which is the length of the other edition I have] and both a much more obscure and a much weirder tale than the Alice tales (which are themselves fairly strange.  As Carroll himself relates, as he was out walking one day the line “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” came into his mind.  He recognized it as the end to something, and eventually set about writing the beginning and the middle.

The text itself can easily be read in less than an hour.  But reading and digesting the annotations (and other material) in this most recent English version will take much longer, and may—but only may—serve to make the text less obscure.  Carroll invents a number of words (beginning with Snark and Boojum) and a number of expressions (“What I tell you three times is true") that enrich the English language.  But as for what the text means…well, I suspect no one knows--or ever will know. 

Gardner’s annotations don’t really do much to unravel the mystery of the meaning of the poem, but they do help understand some of the references that are obscure to us (for example, the famous Tichborne claimant case which likely formed the basis of “Fit the Sixth” (about which you may find more than you ever wanted to know here: 
I do have a favorite from among the annotations, which is the sad fate of John Colenso, an English mathematician, theologian, and social activist.  Gardner describes it this way (beginning on p. 52):

In 1846 he was appointed Bishop of Natal, a South African province where the native Zulus badgered him with embarrassing questions about the Old Testament.  The more Colenso pondered his answers the more he convinced himself that Christianity was lost if it continue to insist on the Bible’s historical accuracy.  He expressed these heretical views in a series of books, using arithmetical arguments to prove the nonsense of various Old Testament tales…Such opinions seem mild today*, but at the time they touched off a tempest that rocked the English church.  Colenso was savagely denounced, socially ostracized, and finally excommunicated, though the courts decided in his favor and he was later reinstated at Natal.

This edition, which contains Gardner’s last reworking of the annotations, is sadly out of print.  It is, I am more than pleased to say, widely available from used booksellers, generally from around $10.  If you feel a Snark hunt in your future, Lewis Carroll’s magnificent poem can lead you to it, and Gardner’s masterful annotations will help you have some vestiges of ideas about what it all might mean. 

*Perhaps less mild than Gardner thinks.

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