t. 89, David Elliot – Snark: Being a true history

t. 88, SMITH, ANNA on SNARK otago609267

Snark: Being a true history of the expedition that discovered
the Snark and the Jabberwock
 … and its tragic aftermath
by David Elliot after Lewis Carroll.

Dunedin: OUP (2016).
RRP: $59.95. JHb, full colour, 208pp,
ISBN: 9781877578946.

                                                                                 Reviewed by Anna Smith.


Having it every which way, the publishers of David Elliot’s inventive new take on Lewis Carroll advertise it as a ‘charming book for grown-up children of all ages.’ While certainly true of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, how well does Elliot’s Snark fit the claim?

By way of a framing preface we read that an unnamed narrator has discovered a hidden diary written by one Boots and featuring the account of a quest that turned horribly wrong. Somewhat in the vein of Treasure Island’s young hero Hawkins, or Charles Dickens’ Pip, Boots explains in the diary how he came to take to sea with a group of misfits in search of the Snark, a beast known to be tasty when cooked.  The narrator conjectures that these notes and drawings must be the original inspiration behind Carroll’s account of the Jabberwock in Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and his later long poem, The Hunting of the Snark (1876).

What Elliot has provided the reader with is a clever context for re-reading some seriously good Lewis Carroll. In providing an imaginary prequel and sequel to Carroll’s most daring verbal plays that combines both of them in an inter-linked narrative, Snark pays tribute to the canonical Carroll while daring to go beyond him. Here is a fan fic letting-rip of what might have been that sits comfortably in the tradition of some of the recent tongue-in-cheek re-writes of literary classics. That Snark offers an ingenious parody of a tale about a Snark which also amounts to a parody of the parodist who wrote it, illustrates what postmodernism terms ‘pastiche’, the irreverent borrowing and re-fashioning of material from an earlier author.

As for ‘The Jabberwocky,’ the delight of generations of linguists and nonsense lovers, Carroll’s poem of seven stanzas is inserted into the second Alice book and recounts the hunting and dispatch of a fearsome beast called the Jabberwock. John Tenniel illustrated it for the first edition as an evolutionary monstrosity winged like a pterodactyl and having ‘the long scaly neck of a sauropod’ (Stephen Prickett). While Tim Burton’s 2011 Alice in Wonderland copies Tenniel’s image fairly closely, Elliot’s interpretation resembles only itself. Fearsome claws, long buck teeth, and more like a kangaroo on testosterone, the Jabberwock in Snark plays just as terrifying a role. It steps out of Carroll’s original text to pursue Boots, and nearly devours him. No mention of a vorpal blade or snicker-snack: the boy runs for his life.

According to dictionaries, the word ‘snark’ was coined by Carroll in 1876. Predictably an additional cluster of associations gather around this coining today: for instance, it carries resonances from the High and Low German to snore, snort, or to find fault with. And its next-door neighbour in the New Shorter Oxford happens to be: ‘snarl,’ viz.: “‘Traffic snarled . . . along Brompton Road at a snail’s pace [spoiler alert].’” Any Alice scholar is happy to explain the nature of a portmanteau word and snark surely is one of them, blending the sounds and combining the meanings of (at least) two others.

Elliot’s version contains more narrative and less nonsensical linguistic play than Carroll’s. And having arrived over 100 years after the original, it cannot help but be more self-consciously meta-textual. After all, there are whole schools of Alice scholarship; many modern fiction writers owe at least some of their bizarre imaginings to Lewis Carroll. Elliot might begin with the original Snark – its slowness, its incorporation and stealth, but it quickly morphs into a figure for the fluid world of the imagination. Elliot’s wonderful illustration of the giant snail-shaped Snark towards the end of the voyage shows just how this Lovecraftian creature that consumes the boat and devours most of its hunters (some tribute in passing to Moby Dick?) parallels the ability of the imagination to devour everything it comes across and metamorphose it into an immense, ungovernable story.

Here is an innovative, amusing tale rich in intertextual references and containing a lugubrious collection of end-notes. Snark is full of delicious irony that could definitely be read and enjoyed by a range of ages. Like the clever Tailor of Gloucester, David Elliot has stitched together a remarkably entertaining piece of work that truly deserves a wide readership.



Anna SmithDr. Anna Smith (University of Canterbury) teaches children’s, young adult and supernatural fiction. She has published work on Margaret Mahy, Keri Hulme, Julia Kristeva, Ben Okri and Julia Morison, among others and the novel, Politics 101: A novel (CUP: 2006).

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First published
takahē 88
December 2016