Lewis Carroll wrote fewer books than prolific children’s authors like Dr. Seuss and C.S. Lewis. However, the handful of books he did write were enough to cement him as a beloved and esteemed author. They also helped acquaint the world with his penchant for nonsense writing.
Lewis Carroll used nonsense language to add levity, fun, and humor. He wanted to show the reader how absurd the world could be and to keep his (usually) young readers interested and entertained. He also used nonsense writing to creatively make fun of politics and English society.
Keep reading to learn more about Carroll’s invented, absurd, and nonsensical language. You might learn something interciting! (You’ll get that joke later.)
One of the most prominent examples of Carroll’s use of nonsense language is in his poem “Jabberwocky,” included in Through the Looking Glass. At first glance, “Jabberwocky” appears very structured and strictly adherent to the rules of poetry.
As Poem Analysis explains, “‘Jabberwocky’ is a seven stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. It is structured by a consistent rhyme scheme that follows a pattern of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds as Carroll saw fit.”
However, the structure and consistency of the poem’s form are entirely at odds with its actual words. There’s nothing consistent or structured about them. They’re complete and utter nonsense. Let’s examine the first quatrain:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Other than a few articles and conjunctions, there are almost no English words in any of those lines. The unsuspecting reader has no idea what words like brillig, slithy, mimsy, and borogoves mean.
It doesn’t make it any less fun to read, though.
That is the beauty and genius of the poem. It’s a 28-line poem full of nonsense, and the readers love it anyway. Furthermore, to some extent, they even know what is happening.
Essentially, a father tells his son to beware of some kind of monster. The son slays the monster and returns home to his father, who is understandably proud of him. We don’t even need to understand the actual words to know what is happening. We can figure it out from context clues and tone.
And that is the point Carroll is trying to make. Language is fluid; language is fun; language is whatever a person wants and needs it to be in the moment.
However, there is also sense in Carroll’s nonsense. In his article “Satire in the Alice Books,” writer Charles Matthews explains, “[Carroll’s] nonsense is as carefully structured as any of the sensible works with which it is contemporary, and it follows in many ways a more rigid decorum than, for example, the novels of Dickens.”
He goes on to explain that Carroll’s works are full of two types of nonsense: logistical and linguistic. Linguistic nonsense is what we’ve discussed above – the nonsensical words of “Jabberwocky,” for example.
Logical nonsense is situational nonsense, such as the unbirthday party, a tea party where Alice’s cup is always empty, and card guards painting white roses red.
Carroll used both types of nonsense to sensibly poke fun at the world around him.
Today, many scholars argue that Carroll’s most famous work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a clever political allegory for the reign of Queen Victoria, the War of the Roses, or British colonization.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying that Carroll used his words to heavily satirize politics and the flawed nature of the justice system. After all, a mad queen wants to chop off everyone’s heads and believes in “sentence first – verdict afterwards.”
In “The Carpenter and the Walrus,” he further pokes fun at the monarchy by having the Walrus “talk of many things.” In that same stanza, he compares the discussion of kings (which most people might find important and serious) to the discussion of cabbages and whether pigs have wings. The whole stanza reads:
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
Furthermore, many of the characters in Wonderland – especially those with titles like the Duchess and the Queen – are uncouth and starkly mad.
Putting nonsense words in these characters’ mouths and having them behave illogically and nonsensically makes them seem even more absurd. They appear overblown, self-important, and irrational. It’s not hard to imagine that as a comment on Carroll’s opinion of the monarchy.
Lewis Carroll loved children; he was often at his most comfortable around them. Some sources claim he lost his perpetual stutter when speaking strictly to kids.
He even came up with his Alice stories to entertain his friend’s young daughters. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the primary goals of Carroll’s work was to entertain children. And for good or ill, children love nonsense. That’s why books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss are so popular.
As adults, we try to find layers of meaning in everything we read, but kids simply enjoy what’s in front of them.
Even Carroll himself said that he didn’t have any intentionally hidden meanings in his nonsense, claiming instead, “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, 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 means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m glad to accept as the meaning of the book.”
Perhaps, then, Carroll really was just seeking to entertain. And by creating tons of fun portmanteau words like frabjous, bandersnatch, chortle, and frumious, he did just that.
There are several possible reasons why Carroll used nonsense in his writing, or maybe he only did it to have fun with the people he most enjoyed.
Kids have wonderful imaginations, and they love stringing together words. I’ve often had to ask my nieces and nephews what they were talking about. And they’d roll their eyes as they explained sweems (sweet dreams), youbreak (Youtube break), and paneggs (pancakes and eggs) to me.
So, who knows? To kids, maybe Carroll’s nonsense made perfect sense, no deeper explanations needed.
- Dictionary.com: The Frabjous Words Invented By Lewis Carroll
- Goodreads: Quotes By Lewis Carroll
- The Stuttering Foundation: Lewis Carroll Suffered From Stuttering
- Poetry Foundation: The Walrus and the Carpenter
- Poetry Foundation: Jabberwocky
- Poem Analysis: Jabberwocky Lewis Carroll
- Jstor: Satire in the Alice Books
- Carleton College English Department: Victorian Interpretations of Alice in Wonderland