Twas Brillig and Shook Me to the Core

November 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

As a child I read everything in sight. Recklessly literate is the term my brother-in-law employs. I have vivid memories of the books I devoured, from the singsong cadence of Dr. Suess’s One Fish, Two Fish to the songs made up in Bedtime for Frances and the mystery series I zipped through on my own when a little older (Boxcar Children, Encylcopedia Brown, Mandie and the Mystery of (fill in the blank)).

The first time I realized words had power was different. It didn’t come from feeling out a rhythm or the repetitive structure of a series, but from my biggest fear.

We’d recorded the BBC production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the Looking Glass. In 1985, the design and special effects were…well…they were something.

Their interpretation of the Jabberwocky was truly monstrous. Slimy, flailing, alien, and loud. He appeared unexpectedly. He appeared with stormy backgrounds and flickering lights. He advanced slowly upon the other characters in the scene, and all Alice could do was scream and back into a corner (really, Alice? Run!).

The worse part was that Alice was the one who’d brought him to life. And she did so simply by reading a poem aloud.

Each time I watched the beginning of this film, where she opens a great big book and reads those famous words, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” I braced myself for the slow formulating of this imagined creature. These were even nonsense words, yet they worked to call forth all my imagination. The result was often me with a blanket pulled over my head, heart pounding, reassuring myself that the Jabberwocky was not real.

This is what Alice learns to tell herself as well. And by the end of the story, she manages to quell her fears and banish the beast with – not just any words – but her own words, telling the creature it does not exist, that she does not believe it, that she will not be afraid.

Years later, I continue to believe that words have power and that reading and writing and speaking release that power. It can still give way to fears and nightmarish runs of the imagination. It can also bring a rest to those fears, can bring lightness and connection, a voice. And so I read – still recklessly literate – all that comes across my path, and I send my own words out into the world.

Here’s Christopher Lee’s rather perfect reading of “The Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll. Be wary of what might come next.

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