Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Christopher Myers

Let me open this review by opining, although I've never met him, that Christopher Myers must have balls of steel. Only such an explanation is possible for his clever audacity in reimagining Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky"*, as being set in a concrete playground, where the battle involving a vorpal blade is rendered as a fierce, stylized game of one-on-one between mismatched ballers.

If you don't know of what I am speaking, check out the cover, which features "the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame":

For those of you who need a refresher in the Jabberwocky* text, I recommend you check out the text online. Longtime readers know I'm a Carroll fan, and that I've posted about nonsense words before.

Now, I should add that Christopher Myers has not monkeyed with Carroll's text, but has merely moved its venue. Check out this splendid spread, for instance, which shows part of the battle in the heart of the poem ("One, two! One, two! and through and through,/the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!/He left it dead, then with its head/he went galumphing back"):

But that is not to say that Christopher Myers didn't add some text to the book. Because at the end of the book, he added some text, which may be my very favorite part of the book, meaning absolutely no slight at all towards his poster-like, primary-based, primal pictures. (Zounds! Alliteration!) Myers added an endnote, which I only wish I could reprint in its entirety, in which he explains how he came to set the battle on a basketball court. He explains how he met with lots of members of the Lewis Carroll Society, and examined Charles Lutwide Dodgson's (aka Carroll's) original diaries, where he found the Mesoamerican word 'ollamalitzli' scribbled in the margins. (Those of you who've been to Chichen Itza know what ollamalitzli is — it's the field sport in which teams try to get a ball through a stone circle mounted high on the walls while preventing the other team from scoring; captain of the winning team gets decapitated to honor the gods.)

I loved this note for how well-written it was and how well-researched it sounded. And really, since Dodgson was involved with the folks who created the Oxford English Dictionary, it didn't seem to me to be beyond the pale that a word like ollamalitzli would appeal to him, had he ever heard it. But the fact is that he may not have. In fact, a wee bit of controversy about the endnote broke out in the New York Times, of all places, after the extremely talented J. Patrick Lewis reviewed the book, and discussed the endnote. Turns out that Myers was just joshing, in a smart-ass way that Carroll would have enjoyed.

The first response printed in the December 2, 2007 issue came from the communications director for the Lewis Carroll Society, who tersely stated that there was no such word in the margins, and then opined that pretending to know what the poem was "about" was naughty (more or less— you can judge for yourself by reading the response here). The LCS response is followed by a letter from Christopher Myers, who has won my undying adoration for the content of his letter, which I've quoted in its entirety below:

To the Editor:

In the author's note of my illustrated version of "Jabberwocky," I suggested that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was undoubtedly familiar with an Aztec ritual sport called ollamalitzli, a sort of proto-basketball. I wrote the author's note in a particularly nonsensical mood, in keeping with the spirit of whimsy found both in Carroll's original poem and in his varied and inconsistent explanations thereof. I thanked for their assistance several fictional members of fictional divisions of the Lewis Carroll Society, including the L.C.S.'s of Mogadishu, Kashmir and Bed-Stuy, again in the spirit of all things droll.

Since the publication of my version of "Jabberwocky" and the subsequent review and praise published by yourselves (thank you very much), a number of strange events have occurred. My neighbors on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn have reported a man in a top hat snooping around my building. Three men with sideburns and a woman with a parasol asked after me at my corner bodega. I suspect that these nefarious Victorians may be emissaries of the Lewis Carroll Society seeking to confront me. While I delight in Carrollian visions of fancy, I am dismayed by the darker side of Victorian life.

Surely the gracious, learned and well-humored members of the Lewis Carroll Society understand the spirit we all appreciate so much, which I have tried to embrace in the book. However, I wish to note, in the public eye, my suspicions regarding zealous Victorians in case some ghastly fate should befall me and I am found trussed up like something out of "The Mikado."

Many thanks to those who have appreciated the book.

Other reasons to love Christopher Myers, besides his illustrations for Jabberwocky and other books, such as the lovely Jazz, written by his father, Walter Dean Myers (who said in LA that he was forced to use Christopher as an illustrator because Walter was "sleeping with his (Chris's) mother") include this interview at Reading Rockets, which you can read or even watch online. My favorite part? "Reading is not like going to Hawaii", for reasons which will become obvious if you take a few minutes to read it.

All of this has been a rather large digression. Myers's illustrated version of Jabberwocky is decidedly a new spin on a poem which generations of kids have loved. His illustrations bring this poem to the attention of a new generation and/or make readers think about this poem in a different way, which is all fine by me. But it sure took some cojones to do it.

*Jabberwocky is from Carroll's second Alice book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

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