#AntarcticAlphabet: J is for Jabberwock

Jabberwock is the beast of change, of many words spat out into the trees, the jib-jab of uncertainty. Spells of shapeshifting are cast on the breeze and scribbled across the mackerel sky. She is slain by an unknown boy, the beamish boy, with his sword of the spoken truth, the real word laid on the mutable, untrustworthy world.

Taxonomy wins, forsooth. The dusty labels stay pinned on the reference butterflies.

Surely not. Carroll is the high priest of mischievous nonsense. Precise mathematician, he probably wished, prayed, for certainty, the rightness and wrongness of numbers, the definite solutions promised by equations. The safe harbour of narrative faith. All along, he knew in his vicar’s bones that words cannot play that game. The child’s story cannot lie. Alice spells out the radical news: words are given meaning by the mouths that shape them, the tongues speaking out to the listening ear. No language can be the unchanging truth; the storm-driven thrushes will adapt to their new home.

The boy Dodgson was born in 1832, the year young Darwin gazed at the mountains of the Land of Fire from the deck of the Beagle and filled pages with sketches of dead birds and notes on geology. The second, younger Charles, who played in the corn and made theatre with his sisters, grew up with the new knowledge, the precious insight that ‘species’ is mutable, the cataclysm of extinction or the tectonic grind of selection is part of creation, necessary to the story.


When the boy wrote the first words of Jabberwocky, the beaches of Antarctica were scattered with blubber and bone, the leavings of seals and whales massacred to meet the demand for corsets and night lights. Even today, the seas are empty compared to the life Cook and Darwin found. Humans are an evolutionary pressure, a dead end for the dodo though the jellyfish are doing well. Do not be misled by electric cars and penicillin: we too still face natural selection, maybe faster than ever in our managed habitats. We too  will gyre and dance in the wind, turn to something unguessed and un-designed.

No Latin label nor Anglo-Saxon decree, not even forgotten Yaghan, will give us immutable taxa. No text, on its own, is sacred: the Jabberwock is words, lots of words, made flesh.

Let us revel in the dream-nonsense, follow the chessboard even as we see its arbitrary ambitions, fill our heads with idea that will take us decades (maybe forever) to understand. The Jabberwocky lives. Shee lives in every new hypothesis, in the child singing to herself in the mud, in the dreamtime and the nightmare. The vorpal sword fades into the woods while the slithy toves dance around the sundial under the clouds.

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