"The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits)" is a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in 1874, when he was 42 years old. It describes "with infinite humor the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature". It borrows occasionally from Carroll's short poem "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking-Glass (especially the poem's creatures and portmanteau words), but it is a stand-alone work, first published in 1876 by Macmillan. The illustrations were by Henry Holiday.
In common with other Carroll works, the meaning of his poems has been queried and analysed in depth. One of the most comprehensive gatherings of information about the poem and its meaning is The Annotated Snark by Martin Gardner.
The crew consists of ten members, whose descriptions all begin with the letter B: a Bellman (the leader), a Boots, a Bonnet-maker, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-marker, a Banker, a Butcher, a Baker, and a Beaver. The Boots is the only character who is not shown in any illustration, a fact that has led to a lot of tongue-in-cheek speculation (see below).
However, Carroll may have thought the book was suitable for some children. Gertrude Chataway (1866–1951) was the most important child friend in the life of the author, after Alice Liddell. It was Gertrude who inspired The Hunting of the Snark, and the book is dedicated to her. Carroll first became friends with Gertrude in 1875, when she was aged nine, while on holiday at the English seaside. The Snark was published a year later. Upon the printing of the book, Carroll sent eighty signed copies to his favorite child friends. In a typical fashion, he signed them with short poems, many of them masterful acrostics of the child's name.
The relevance of what reviewers take to be Carroll's intentions in this matter has of course always been questioned. G. K. Chesterton had to say about it: "It is not children who ought to read the words of Lewis Carroll, they are far better employed making mud-pies".
The Boojum, as Gardner notes, will pop up some twenty years later (1893) in a surprising passage of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded that sharply contradicts all the previous evasions and outright denials in Carroll's letters:
While it is hardly surprising that a writer reuses some of his own inventions now and then, it is noteworthy that the themes of Carroll's poems ("Jabberwocky", "The Mouse's Tale", "The Pig-Tale", "The Mad Gardener's Song") run through all of his major works like, to borrow Gardner's expression, "demented fugues". In the Barrister's dream (Fit 6), for example, the Snark not only serves as judge and jury (like Fury in regard to the Mouse in Alice) but acts as the counsel for the defense as well, besides finding the verdict and passing the sentence.
Some literary critics feel that the Snark is within the nonsense tradition of Thomas Hood and, especially, W.S. Gilbert, the librettist of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan team. Edward Guiliano even believes that a case can be made for a direct influence of Gilbert's Bab Ballads on the Snark, based on the fact that Carroll was well acquainted with the comic writing and the theatre of his age. Others see signs of an influence running the other way. Gardner points to the similarities between the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Trial by Jury, another spoof on English courts, and the trial in the Barrister's dream (Fit 6):
Either way, the evidence, while interesting, is hardly conclusive.
Various theories have tried to elucidate the text or parts thereof.
The text has a number of hints that suggest that Carroll intended for the character of the Baker to represent himself . The fact that his name is unknown to the other crew members (he forgets it) attests that some riddle is involved. It has been claimed that the Baker's character as described in Fit the First matches other descriptions of Carroll of himself (e.g. the White Knight in Through the Looking-Glass ). However, there is no evidence to suggest Dodgson ever intended The White Knight to represent himself; it is simply an assumption that has been made often enough to gain acceptance as a fact. Lewis Carroll was 42 when he wrote the poem. The Baker is around the same age, as the phrase "I skip forty years" in Fit the Third: The Baker's Tale discloses. And finally, the Baker had "forty-two boxes, all carefully packed, With his name painted clearly on each" (Fit the First), which he left on the beach, presumably his previous life. Martin Gardner asks us also to take note of Rule 42 of the Code in the preface (No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm), Rule 42 in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (All persons more than a mile high to leave the court), and the fact that Carroll referred to his age as 42 when he was still in his thirties. So while the evidence does not allow us to say anything about the identity of the Baker, we can safely conclude that the number 42 seems to have had some sort of special significance for Carroll.
Another rule that has given rise to widespread speculation is the Bellman's rule-of-three: What I tell you three times is true. It runs as an underground current through the whole poem, breaking the surface only sporadically, as in Fit 1, Stanza 2, or Fit 5, Stanza 9.
Gardner mentions, among other examples of conjecture, Chaos, Co-ordinated, a science fiction story by John MacDougal, and cites Norbert Wiener as saying in his book Cybernetics that the human brain, just like a computing machine, probably works on a variant of the famous principle expounded by Lewis Carroll. Gardner also notes another example of the Bellman's rule: Carroll's constantly reiterated reply "I don't know", when asked to explain what he had in mind with the Snark.
No convincing theory yet explains it. Lewis Carroll once wrote: "Periodically I have received courteous letters from strangers begging to know whether The Hunting of the Snark is an allegory, or contains some hidden moral, or is a political satire: and for all such questions I have but one answer, I don't know!". According to Gardner, there are more than three such denials on record. By the Bellman's rule-of-three, we therefore must conclude that if the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson said he did not know what the unimaginable something is, which is sought with symbols and with faith, hope, and care, then he really did not know.
Apparently, as the poem states, the Snark was a Boojum. However, the following describes the Baker's last words, when the others see him leaping and cheering on a nearby hilltop:
The others disagree whether they heard the syllable "-jum" after this. Thus, a rival school of interpretation of the poem suggests that in fact there was no Boojum, but that the Boots betrayed them all and murdered the Baker, and that this was what the latter was trying to say when he died . It is worth mentioning that the Boots is the most mysterious of the crew members. He is alluded to very shortly in Fit the First and Fit the Fourth and nowhere else, and is the only one of the crew members which does not appear in any of the original illustrations. It is also reasonable to assume the Boots ("shoeshine" in contemporary English) would have a particular grudge against the Baker, as he was wearing three pairs of boots one over the other (Fit the first, and this also appears clearly in the illustrations). However, at the end of the poem Lewis Carroll- the impartial narrator- writes "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see".
A related debate is to what extent Holiday's illustrations should be considered when analyzing the poem. Opponents claim that they deviate from the text in a number of places (for example, the Baker is supposed to have whiskers and hair, Fit the Fourth, but in the illustrations he is bald) and hence should be discounted. Others claim they were prepared with great cooperation from Carroll, and that the correspondence of letters can tell us his opinion of each. Thus it would seem that Lewis Carroll did not intend care and hope from the repeating stanza to stand for two women, but was quite pleased with the interpretation after the fact . Contrariwise, Carroll suppressed an illustration of the Boojum itself, since he wanted the monster to remain undescribed (none of its features described in Fit the third are physical).
As an alternate theory, some have suggested that the character identified as "Care" below is really the ship's figurehead (as shown in the first illustration), and that "Hope" is actually the Boots. Andrew Lang, who reviewed the book in 1876, suggested that "Hope" might be the Bonnet-maker. But this is clearly incorrect, since a shadowy figure making bonnets can be seen on the ship in the second illustration.
A number of books make references to the poem. Inspired by Carroll's poem, Jack London named his Yacht the Snark, and he described his voyage across the Pacific Ocean in the book titled The Cruise of the Snark (1911). In Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night, the protagonist discovers an alien ship visiting the solar system and calls it "Snark" as he tries to track its movements. In Vonda McIntyre's novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, she reveals that the use of protomatter in the Genesis Device was made possible due to the discovery of sub-elementary particles, which were named by whimsical scientists as "snarks" and "boojums". In the "Uplift" series of books by David Brin, the human and dolphin heroes are travelling aboard the Streaker, a Snarkhunter class exploration ship. Other references to The Hunting of the Snark may be found elsewhere in these books. Characters in The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies, often refer to the poem, and wonder whether the end of their quest to put on an opera will reveal a Snark or a Boojum. The Bellman and The Hunting of the Snark are referenced in Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots, his third Thursday Next book. In this novel the Term boojum refers to the annihilation of a character from the Book World. China Miéville's The Scar features a ship called the Castor (Latin for beaver), crewed by characters whose names reference the characters of Snark: for example Tinntinnabulum, meaning a tinkling of bells, as in the Bellman). There are numerous references to The Hunting of the Snark in the works of Robert Heinlein, particularly in The Number of the Beast. Stefano Benni, an Italian satirical writer and journalist, has a character named boojum and a map of the Boojum brothers in his book Terra! (1983), translated into around 7 foreign languages.
"Snarks" is the popular nickname for the alien Zn'rx, introduced in the pages the of the Marvel Comics title Power Pack, wherein the nickname replaced the unpronounceable proper name. It was introduced to the human children characters by an alien of yet another race, who was a fan of Earthly literature.
Douglas Adams divided the radio series of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy into "fits", after a suggestion by Geoffrey Perkins, inspired by the Hunting of the Snark. Additionally, in the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy it is stated that the "Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything" is simply "42", which number, as stated earlier, holds some unknown significance to Carroll.
Episode 13 of the Japanese anime series Ghost Hound is titled "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." In this episode the main character, Tarou, meets a strange creature while searching for his sister's ghost in the "Unseen World". He asks the creature its name, to which it replies, "I am Snark".
In the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, a character named Tyrion Lannister jokes about being afraid of Snarks, obviously referring to them as imaginary monsters of childhood. The first instance occurs in the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, and other instances occur throughout the series.
Judge Merrick Garland of United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit referred to the Bellman's Rule in his ruling in Parhat v. Gates, saying, "The government suggests that several of the assertions in the intelligence documents are reliable because they are made in at least three different documents... We are not persuaded. Lewis Carroll notwithstanding, the fact the government has 'said it thrice' does not make the allegation true. In fact we have no basis for concluding that there are independent sources for the documents' thrice-made assertions.
The Boojum tree, a bizarre kind of tree native to Baja California, was named after the Boojum in the poem.