This article is about the poem by Lewis Carroll. For the musical based on that poem, see The Hunting of the Snark (musical). For other uses of the term "Snark", see Snark (disambiguation).

The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits) is usually thought of as a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in 1874, when he was 42 years old.[1] It describes "with infinite humour the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature".[2] The poem 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[3] gatherings of information about the poem and its meaning is The Annotated Snark by Martin Gardner.

The crew

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 in the original, a fact that has led to much speculation (see below).

Plot summary

File:Lewis Carroll - Henry Holiday - Hunting of the Snark - Plate 1.jpg
After crossing the sea guided by the Bellman's map of the Ocean—a blank sheet of paper—the hunting party arrive in a strange land. The Baker recalls that his uncle once warned him that, though catching Snarks is all well and good, you must be careful; for, if your Snark is a Boojum, then you will softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again. With this in mind, they split up to hunt. Along the way, the Butcher and Beaver, previously enemies, become fast friends, the Barrister falls asleep and dreams of a court trial defended by the Snark, and the Banker loses his sanity after being attacked by a frumious Bandersnatch. At the end, the Baker calls out that he has found a Snark; but when the others arrive he has mysteriously disappeared,[4] 'For the Snark was a Boojum, you see'.

Recurring theme

Even more than in most nonsense poetry, inadequacy of language, meaning, and symbol is a recurring theme in Snark. Examples include the blank map, the Bellman's contradictory navigational orders, the Baker's name-loss and failure to settle on one replacement-name, his failing to mention his luggage, his attempt to communicate in the wrong languages, the Banker's absurd offer to protect the Beaver from being butchered by insuring it against fire and hail, the Butcher's self-nullifying arithmetical manipulations, the Court officers' unwillingness to fulfil their lawful obligations, the Banker's ridiculous attempt to bribe a predatory beast with money, and his subsequent aphasia.[5]


The poem has some aspects characteristic of much of Carroll's poetry: it utilizes technically adept meter and rhyme, grammatically correct phrasing, logical chains of events—and largely nonsensical content, frequently employing made-up words such as "Snark". It is by far his longest poem; unlike Alice, which is prose with occasional poems within the text, the Snark rhymes from start to end. The poem is divided into eight sections or "fits" (a pun on the archaic fitt meaning a part of a song, and fit meaning a seizure or convulsion):

The Landing
The Bellman's Speech
The Baker's Tale
The Hunting
The Beaver's Lesson
The Barrister's Dream
The Banker's Fate
The Vanishing

Intended audience

It is disputed whether Carroll had a young audience in mind when he wrote the Snark. The ballad, like almost all of the poems in the Alice books, has no young protagonists, is rather dark, and does not end happily. In addition to the disappearance of the Baker, the Banker's loss of sanity is described in detail. Similarly, Henry Holiday's illustrations for the original edition are caricatures with disproportionate heads and unpleasant features, very different from Tenniel's illustrations of Alice.

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 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.[6]


In the course of his career, Lewis Carroll developed an elegant and morally impeccable technique to fend off demands asking him to explain his work. However it is phrased, his answer is always the same: I don't know. This was the truth, although not in the sense that children and reviewers understood it: Carroll would not explain the meaning of his books because "a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant".[7] Gardner gives half a dozen examples. Here is how Carroll "explained" the Snark in 1887: I was walking on a hillside,[8] alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse – one solitary line – For the Snark was a Boojum, you see. I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.[9]

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.


In the preface to the Snark, Carroll, making fun of his recycling for the third time the first stanza of "Jabberwocky", remarks that "this poem is to some extent connected with the lay of the Jabberwock", and goes on to explain how to pronounce borogoves and slithy toves (words which do not appear in the text of the Snark). Eight nonsense words from the "Jabberwocky" that do appear are bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which appeared as mimsy in "Jabberwocky"), outgrabe and uffish. In a letter to a friend, Carroll described the domain of the Snark as "an island frequented by the Jubjub and the Bandersnatch—no doubt the very island where the Jabberwock was slain".

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:

"Once upon a time there was a Boojum -" the Professor began, but stopped suddenly. "I forget the rest of the Fable," he said. "And there was a lesson to be learned from it. I'm afraid I forget that, too".[10]

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".[11] In the Barrister's dream (Fit 6), for example, the Snark not only serves as 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[12] 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.

The Bellman's rule-of-three

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.


A mistake in some electronic versions of the text on the internet is the substitution, or mirroring, of the second letter b in the word bribe, turning it into bride in fit 5, stanza 22:

But it knows any friend it has met once before:
It never will look at a bribe:
And in charity-meetings it stands at the door,
And collects—though it does not subscribe.

The illustrations

A related debate is to what extent Holiday's illustrations should be considered when analyzing the poem. Oliver Sturm, who translated Carroll's ballad into German, assumes: "Carroll's productivity seems to have been strongly determined by the rhythm of the illustrations delivered [by Holiday]."[13] 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 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.[14] 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 a Pre-Raphaelite illustrator,[15] Holiday took reference to earlier artists and earlier styles, where allegorical figures (often women) depicted abstract concepts like care, hope, religion, liberty etc.[16]

It has been 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. However, a shadowy figure making bonnets can be seen on the ship in the second illustration.[17]

File:Snark Hope.jpg
File:Snark Care.jpg

A 1941 edition was illustrated by Mervyn Peake.

Impact on literature

The Hunting of the Snark has inspired several works based on the poem. Michael Ende translated the poem into German, and wrote the opera based on it. The opera was first performed in the Prinzregenten theater in Munich on January 16, 1988. In the mid-1980s, Mike Batt produced a concept album and later a stage show based on the poem. A 1986 musical entitled Boojum! is loosely based on the poem. The musical was written by Martin Wesley-Smith and Peter Wesley-Smith. It also includes a pseudo-biography of Lewis Carroll and elements from the Alice series.

A number of books make references to the poem. Inspired by Carroll's poem, [18] 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. When Gillian Baskin, the captain pro tem of the Streaker, orders a counterattack against her pursuers, her officers protest that their ship is "only a snark." Gillian Baskin retorts, "This snark has grown into a boojum!" 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 seven foreign languages.

Gerald Durrell used quotes from the poem as epigraphs to the chapters of his book "Two in the bush".

"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 Hitchhiker's 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 the "ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" is simply "42", the number which, as stated below, holds some unknown significance to Carroll.

In Larry Niven's known space universe, there is an alien species called Bandersnatch.

In John Brunner's SF novel Stand on Zanzibar the phrase "I tell you three times" is used to force the semi-sentient computer Shalmaneser to accept information it claims is inconsistent with the real world. The character using it remarks "Someone around here must have had a sense of humor".

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, Tarō, 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, 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.

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen proposed an explanation in a text supplement in its second volume; in their version of events, the portal into which Alice Liddell first falls is the subject of an expedition carried out by the crew members in company of a lacemaker named "Miss Beever" and led by "The Reverend Dr. Eric Bellman". After disappearing into the hole, like Liddell they are found near a river bank months later, naked and suffering from exposure; unlike Liddell they are all hopelessly insane, and the Banker has become a photographic negative. When visited by Wilhemina Murray years later, in an asylum, Bellman refuses to explain the fate of the missing Baker other than mentioning that "... the last word he said was 'Boo'".

Other influences

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".[19]

Justice Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States, in Medellin v. Texas, 128 S. Ct. 1346, 1381–82 wrote in dissent: "[I]t would be unrealistic to expect state parties to multilateral instruments like the VCCR to agree on explicit language specifying a treaty's domestic effect ... the absence or presence of language in a treaty about a provision's self-execution proves nothing at all. At best the Court is hunting the snark. At worst ..."

N. David Mermin named a phenomenon in superfluidity after the Boojum.[20][21]

The game Half-Life features a small, insect-like alien called the Snark as a weapon.

The Boojum tree, a bizarre kind of tree native to Baja California, was named after the Boojum in the poem.

There is a Snark [22] as well as a JubJub Island and a Boojum Rock in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean.

In 1975 Arne Nordheim, a composer from Norway, composed The Hunting of The Snark for trombone. The Return of The Snark for trombone and tape recorder was composed in 1987.[23] In 2009, the jazz collective NYNDK produced The Hunting of the Snark[24] which includes a variation on Nordheim's composition. And in 2010, Bajka's In Wonderland was produced with eleven songs, among them one song for every "Fit" in Carroll's poem.

The British prog-rock band Henry Cow's Tim Hodgkinson wrote a song "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King", featured on their first album, Legend. This song is the only cut on the album with discernible lyrics, and contains the line "That the Snark was a Boojum all can tell". Within the context of the whole lyric, and given the band's confrontational Marxist leanings at the time, this line would appear to be using the Snark/Boojum bait-and-switch as a metaphor for capitalism's failure; promising the fulfillment of human potential, but producing annihilation.

The Northrop SM-62 Snark was a United States cruise missile named after the Snark.


Various theories have tried to elucidate the text or parts thereof.

Richard Kelly theorizes that The Hunting of the Snark was "Carroll's comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos, with the comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation".[25]

Could the Baker be Carroll himself?

The text has a number of hints that suggest that Carroll intended for the character of the Baker to represent himself.[14] 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 also suggests taking 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 saying anything about the identity of the Baker, the conclusion is safe that the number 42 seems to have had some sort of special significance for Carroll.

Hidden meanings?

As already stated, The Hunting of the Snark is unusual among Lewis Carroll's poems for its length and its dark nature. This also fits with an attempt to find a hidden personal message within its pages. Many believe that this hidden message should be in the repeating stanza:

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.

No convincing theory yet explains it. In Holiday's illustrations, 'Hope' and 'Care' were depicted as beautiful feminine personifications, the former holding a large gardening-fork. In correspondence with Carroll, Holiday said that he had intended to add a third meaning to the double-meaning of 'with' in the second line of the stanza – as an action (with forks), as an emotion (with a feeling of hope) and as a description (in company with the personification of hope). Carroll later suggested that Holiday design, for a new edition of the book, a front cover depicting Hope, surrounded by "a border of interlaced forks", and a back cover depicting Care surrounded by "a shower of thimbles".[26] This idea was not carried out, as the book was not re-issued. Notably, the implication of this image would add a moral message to the story; though it starts with Fork and Hope, symbolising a courageous forward movement in the explorers, it would end with Thimbles and Care, implying that, having learned from the tragedies suffered in the poem, the explorers would become more careful in their ordinary lives.

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, it follows that if the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson said he did not know what the unimaginable[27] something is, then he really did not know.

The murderer was Boots?

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:

"It's a Snark!" was the sound that first came to their ears,
And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
Then the ominous words "It's a Boo-"
Then, silence.

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.[28] 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".

See also


"Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, an Opera for Children" presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, in 1972; the Mannes School of Music, NYC, 1972, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1973 and the Jamaica Arts Center, Jamaica, New York, 1976. It will open in a new production with a revised score in February 2010, at the Full Circle Theater in Shepherdstown, WV, where it will be preceded by a new Oratorio, "The Walrus and the Carpenter."

Music composed by Edwin Roberts. Libretto by Bill Tchakirides. Choreography for original production by Claire Henry. Original producer, Berta Walker.

  1. Poem as presented by Accessed 10 October 2008.
  2. Sidney Williams and Falconer Madan: Handbook of the Literature of the Rev. C.L. Dodgson, as quoted in Martin Gardner: The Annotated Snark, Penguin Books, 1974
  3. 1981 Edition published by William Kaufmann, ISBN 0-913232-36-X
  4. See the Hidden face in Henry Holiday's illustration to the final chapter The Vanishing.
  5. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark, by Martin Gardner
  6. G. K. Chesterton, as quoted in: Martin Gardner, op.cit.
  7. Letter to "The Lowrie Children", 1896 or 1897 (Hatch 1933, Letters, p. 243)
  8. near Guildford on July 18th, 1874
  9. Alice on the stage, The Theatre, 1887, as quoted in: Martin Gardner, op.cit.
  10. Ch.24, as quoted in: The Annotated Snark
  11. Martin Gardner: The Annotated Alice, Meridian, New York 1963
  12. Edward Guiliano: Lewis Carroll, Laughter and Despair, and the Hunting of the Snark, in Lewis Carroll, ed. by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, New York 1987
  13. Lewis Carrol / de:Oliver Sturm: The Hunting of the Snark / Die Jagd nach dem Schnatz, 1996, p. 90, ISBN 978-3-15-009433-4
  14. 14.0 14.1 Gardner, Martin: The Annotated Snark
  15. Gregory R. Suriano: The Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators, ISBN 1-58456-021-5p. 34, 39, 255-257
  16. Example: Satirical Print, British Museum registration number 1868,0808.3286 depicting "religion" and "liberty" (by an anonymous artist, 1674)
  18. London, Charmain Kittredge (1915). The Log of the Snark. "The Macmillan company". pp. ix. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  19. Court cites nonsense poem in ruling for Gitmo detainee. Bill Mears, CNN, June 30, 2008
  20. "E pluribus boojum: the physicist as neologist", Physics Today, Vol. 34, April 1981, pp. 46–53.
  21. N. David Mermin (1990). Boojums all the way through: communicating science in a prosaic age. Cambridge University Press. p. xii. ISBN 0-521-38880-5. 
  22. Snark Island
  25. Kelly, Richard. "Poetry: Approaching the Void". Lewis Carroll. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co. pp. 66–7. ISBN 978-0-8057-6988-9 Check |isbn= value: checksum (help). 
  26. Dodgson in a letter to Holiday, as quoted in: The Annotated Snark, op.cit.
  27. Dodgson in a letter to Holiday, as quoted in: The Annotated Snark, op.cit.
  28. Shaw, Larry. "The Baker Murder Case", Inside and Science Fiction Advertiser, September 1956.



External links

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