”He had wholly forgotten his name...
THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK is a nonsense poem over which a sensitive soul might well go mad. The time was 1874. Carroll had already written the two masterpieces immortalizing his child-friend, Alice Liddell, when he set about writing this extraordinary, semi-autobiographical poem about a journey of annihilation.
The poem tells of ten incongruous characters who board a ship to go hunting an unexplained creature called a “Snark”: Boots, Beaver, the Bellman, the Barrister, the Bonnet-maker, the Broker, the Billiard-marker, the Butcher, Banker and Baker. There is evidence to suggest that the author himself is Baker.
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.
Very soon the crew discover that the captain they trusted so well is really quite a muddier who gets the bowsprit mixed up with the rudder. After months at sea, guided by the Bellman’s (blank) map, they land and set off in an uncharted wilderness of chasms and crags in search of the Snark, discussing along the way what the creature might turn out to be — we discover that Snarks have no taste, get up late, breakfast at five o’clock in the afternoon, are slow at taking a jest and dislike puns. They are ambitious and have a partiality for bathing machines . . . and, of course, some Snarks turn out to be Boojums!
The Baker warns them that he has a terrible fear of “softly and suddenly vanishing away”. Each crew-member prepares his own particular “fool-proof” method for capturing the Snark. Towards the end of the poem, a Bandersnatch swoops down and grabs the Banker, who cries out in despair and is left behind, blubbering insanely. The others continue with growing trepidation.
Finally, the Baker is sighted on top of a distant crag calling to the rest of the crew that he has sighted the creature:
Erect and sublime, for one moment of time
In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm
While they waited and listened in awe
But as he leapt into the void after the Snark they heard the ominous cry, “It’s a Boo- ”
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away —
For the Snark was a. Boojum, you see.
Throughout the remainder of Carroll’s life, he was plagued by questions from readers about the meaning of the poem . . . and he constantly denied that it meant anything at all: “It’s just nonsense”. There are an enormous number of scholars, philosophers and psychologists, however, who think it means a great deal more than Carroll was ever prepared to admit, and books about the SNARK abound with a variety of (often amusing) interpretations. Carroll himself admits that “words mean more than we mean to express when we use them: so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant …” and this tantalizing suggestion has invited a wealth of questions, not only about the SNARK but about the man who wrote it. Such questions form the basis of our show.
The Baker is Man himself, on the Brink, erect, sublime, wagging his head like an idiot, cackling with laughter and glee . . . Perhaps the Bomb will prove to be not a Boojum but only a harmless variety of Snark. The human race will continue to creep onward and upward, stretching out its hands, as H. G. Wells liked to say, to the stars. Take comfort from such happy thoughts, you who can. The Boojum remains. Like T. S. Eliot’s eternal Footman, it snickers at the coattails of every member of humanity’s motley crew.
Extract from the Introduction by Martin Gardiner: The Annotated Snark. Penguin Books, 1962.