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On The Origin of Slithy Toves

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2011


A highly fanciful 1833 representation of a South American monkey

Here’s my latest Specimens column for The New York Times, based on my new book The Species Seekers:

When my children were small, we often read them Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies,” a not very edifying book of nonsense that we all loved. The Jumblies were wildly impractical souls who

… sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast …

Back then, I was often away from home for weeks at a time, traveling in distant countries with biologists whose work sometimes required them to do the equivalent of sailing in a sieve. One botanist, for instance, recalled flying out of a war zone in a cargo plane that also carried a pig tied to a 55-gallon drum of gasoline. The Jumblies would have been right there (and probably flicking ashes from their cigars).

A pigeon by Lear

But it never occurred to me that there might be a direct connection between the two worlds of nonsense verse and biology. Then one day I picked up an old print of a tropical pigeon species and noticed the “E. Lear” in the bottom corner. Though he is celebrated today mainly as the author of such works as “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Lear had started out as a naturalist. His first book, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, drew favorable comparisons with Audubon when he published it in 1832, at age 19.

Like many naturalists, Lear described the natural world not just in literal-minded scientific detail, but also in fanciful doodles and verse. And when this blossomed into books for children, he often dispatched his characters, like naturalists, on wild explorations to the back of beyond. He also had them devote considerable energy to collecting the oddities of the country:

And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Nonsense was almost a byproduct of natural history. The twin themes of exploration and taxonomy, were “present in the genre as a whole, even in Lewis Carroll, who had no special interest in the subject,” according to the French scholar Jean-Jacques Lecercle, in his 1994 book Philosophy of Nonsense: “The reader of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is in the position of an explorer: the landscape is strikingly new … and a new species is encountered at every turn, each more exotic than the one before. Nonsense is full of fabulous beasts, mock turtles and garrulous eggs.”

Such fanciful creatures sometimes turned up even in serious scientific work. In his “History of British Star-fishes, and other animals of the class Echinodermata,” for instance, the naturalist Edward Forbes began one chapter with an illustration of Cupid in a sea-going chariot drawn by a pair of sea creatures with bodies like snakes and heads like sea urchins (they were Ophiuridae). Another chapter ends with Puck playing his pipe for a couple of dancing brittle-stars, one of which actually rests the back of a “hand” against out-thrust “hip.” Elsewhere, he drew a stingray smoking a pipe and winking.

In Lecercle’s view, Charles Darwin himself could sound as whimsical as Lewis Carroll; for instance, when he wrote about pulling the tail of a lizard in the Galapagos: “At this he was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared me in the face, as much as to say, ‘What made you pull my tail?’” Likewise, in Patagonia, Darwin and his companions communed with the camel-like guanacos: “That they are curious is certain; for if a person lies on the ground, and plays strange antics, such as throwing his feet up in the air, they will always approach by degrees to reconnoitre him.” Darwin was only 23 at the time, not the gloomy eminence of later years, but Lecercle likes the idea “that the famous scientist should behave like Lear’s ‘Old Man of Port Grigor’, who ‘Stood on his head till his waistcoat turned red.’ ”

So what’s the explanation for this intimate connection between science and nonsense?

Scientists are of course somewhat human. So perhaps it should be unsurprising that they can sometimes have fun with — or make fun of — their own work. But in the 19th century that work — describing species no one had ever imagined — was also often fantastical. It is hard for us now to appreciate just how strange and wondrous the world seemed. It was as if someone you know had joined an expedition to Alpha Centauri and come back years later with first-hand accounts of Wookiees, Ewoks and Kowakian monkey-lizards. But in the great age of biological discovery, the returning travelers actually brought back specimens. Their weird creatures were real.

When they told their tales about riding on the back of a caiman, or waking up from an al fresco nap to find that a gigantic condor had mistaken them for cadavers, it must have seemed even to them that they had traveled through the looking glass.

Near the end of his life, with his adventures as an explorer far behind him, the great field naturalist and evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace built a house in a Dorset village for his daughter, to be joined by his wife after his death. He named it Tulgey Wood, after the haunt of the jubjub bird and the frumious bandersnatch in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Nowadays when I read that poem, I sometimes imagine Wallace hiding behind a tree in Tulgey Wood, peering out and chortling to himself — “Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!”— at the magical but very real world he had been granted the privilege to know.


6 Responses to “On The Origin of Slithy Toves”

  1. David Block MD, PhD said

    “Scientists are of course somewhat human…”
    Such “scientists” would be too ripe even to commit –
    Their thought disorders self-fertilized and bloomin’,
    Their ‘ssociations too concrete to permit
    Among natural-languaged folk.

    Nope. Sorry. All of us humans – even scientists – have no choice
    But to capture our surround in gleeful tales, though we laugh or mourn.
    With metaphors the true educators of each voice,
    Each calls to each across his childhood bourne,
    And prays that someone gets the joke.

    • David Block MD, PhD said

      I’m not at all sure I should have tried the poem.

      My point is that “scientists” are Humans who went to Science School; they are not “scientists” who went to “human school” – and failed some of the classes. They are not “somewhat human”: they are “all too human,” which they try to hide behind official-sounding prose. All scientists, all people, see the world in narrative form; each populates it with her own mixture of strange and wonderful personalities. It just so happens that some of their descriptions refer to lizards or butterflies or even subatomic particles.

      The truly unusual observation is not that an occasional “scientist” reveals her inner joke – her inner milieu and its metaphors – by attaching a voice to an animal. The wonder is that we discourage them from doing it. Or at least we do not EN-courage it.

      Everybody is a scientist writing a novel or poem (from haiku to epic). Only the species protagonists and the mathematics of her science plot distinguish us one from another.

      David Block

  2. Kat said

    Waisted any thinner
    Two a creature!

    by Kathleen

    excellent series- yours-am following

  3. Danielle Jeanne said

    I enjoyed this article very much. It reminded me of a book I read recently called Chrysalis: Maria Sybilla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Merian was an amateur naturalist and artist who spent her days eye to eye with caterpillars and cockroaches, and painted lovely and sometimes gruesome watercolors of their transformations. It is indeed a fantastic world!

  4. […] As a follow up to yesterday’s post, here are some colorful names for imaginary birds by the eminent master of nonsense, Edward Lear: […]

  5. Clark Bierlein said

    the famous scientist that i reall like is Albert Einstein because he has the greatest mind…

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