Lewis Carroll contributed quite a lot to the world of fantasy. His most well known works include Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, and a personal favorite of mine, Jabberwocky.
Jabberwocky paints a picture of an impressive fantasy world in seven stanzas (closer to six, since the first and last stanzas of the poem are the exact same). The poem retells the story of a young warrior’s quest to hunt and kill a hideous burbling monster dubbed the Jabberwock.
Carroll constructs his fantasy world using a couple different tricks. By breaking down Jabberwocky and analyzing the techniques Carroll implements, we can improve our own world building and expand our tool box as writers
Lexicon and “Cow Tools”
The first trick — and probably the most noticeable one — leaps out at the reader within the first two words: “Twas brillig”. Before this poem, “brillig” wasn’t really a word. By the last stanza, Carroll invents a total of 22 nonsense words and names four to five imaginary monsters.
Despite being ridiculous, none of these words feel out of place. Carroll places each one with intent, structuring every sentence in a manner that portrays meaning without explicitly defining them. Inventing an entire lexicon with clear meaning pulls the reader into the world of the poem.
Whenever a new word appears, the reader must think about what context the word is being used in, which then forces them to think about the world of the poem. When Carroll tells us that the Jabberwock “came whiffling through the tulgey wood/and burbled as it came”, we need to consider what the verbs “whiffling” and “burbling” might look like, and how a monster might perform these actions. It paints a clear picture of an imaginary monster without actually describing it.
Using nonsense words, Carroll lays the groundwork for a setting but lets the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination. The words function similarly to “Cow Tools”, a device for world-building named after a comic from The Far Side by Gary Larson. “Cow Tools” are absurd little details placed as set-dressings that flesh out the world without being overexplained, providing the opportunity for the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Star Wars series does this a lot: a background character might be running around with some mechanical box, and the fanbase goes nuts, working hard to discover what function the box serves.
What’s more, every word is treated as normal. The best way to convince your reader that what you’ve written is the truth of the story is to present it with confidence. Trust that the reader will suspend disbelief. Pull them along for the ride, and they’ll immerse themself in your world.
The same trick applies to the construction of setting. The world of Jabberwocky features a wide variety of plants and animals, all whimsical and dangerous. The poem’s opening declares that “the slithey toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe”. What’s a “tove”, how is it “gyring” and “gimbling”, and why is it in the “wabe”? Hard to say for sure, but through context clues we can predict that toves are an animal, and the wabe is their habitat.
As the poem continues, we get a glimpse of the vast menagerie of creatures living within the “tulgey woods”. In addition to the Jabberwock itself, other animals include the “borogoves”, the “Jubjub bird”, and the “frumious Bandersnatch”, all with varying degrees of dangerousness. In the third stanza, the poem’s protagonist stops and rests beneath a “Tumtum tree”.
By listing off varying plants and animals, as well as some of their behavioral traits, Carroll fleshes out the world of the poem. He shows that this world is bigger than just the few characters, and there’s an entire ecosystem to explore. Once again, he doesn’t describe the animals in depth, usually providing only a made up adjective or verb. Carroll delivers just enough detail to create an immersive world without lengthy descriptions.
In Jabberwocky, two main characters carry the story: a young, heroic protagonist, and his advisor. At the start of the poem, the advisor warns the protagonist about the horrors that await him in the forest, and urges him to exercise caution. The protagonist then ventures into the forest, rests “in uffish thought”, and faces off with the Jabberwock, slaying the monster with his Vorpal blade.
Both characters fulfill traditional archetypal roles. The protagonist plays the role of the Warrior, marching headfirst into danger and overcoming his obstacles with his sword by his side. This archetype includes the likes of Luke Skywalker, Frodo, and Conan the Barbarian. The unnamed advisor serves the Mentor role, aiding the hero on their quest — think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.
With such recognizable archetypes, Carroll immediately informs the reader what function these characters serve for the story. This frees up the writer to focus on other aspects of characterization. We’re shown a bit about the characters' relationship, with the mentor celebrating the hero’s victory and asking for an embrace: “‘Come to my arms, my beamish boy!’”. We also know that the hero isn’t completely brash and emboldened, taking the time to stand and think, showing the character’s philosophical side.
We see a mere snapshot of these characters’ lives, and we still learn quite a lot. This poem proves effective at building a fantasy world because it isn’t bogged down by excessive descriptions. Everything is done with intention, providing only what’s absolutely necessary for the sake of the story.
So, what’s the takeaway? How does Carroll pull off such an enchanting world in seven stanzas? By highlighting significant details and leaving things to the audience to determine for themselves, Carroll successfully presents a world that he knows inside and out, but doesn’t over explain it to the audience.
In your own writing, try and challenge yourself by pulling out only the most important details, and centering your story around those few details. Less can be more, let your audience draw some conclusions of their own.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.