Thursday, January 21, 2010

The bellman always rings thrice …

In honor of nothing in particular, we'll devote this week's posting to an in-depth look at the Bellman (as shown above), the presiding genius and master of ceremonies of Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark.

Readers who care to do so may remember that the Bellman appears in the very first line of the Snark, crying: Just the place for a Snark! This is of course, a tautology (and a rather clever parody of the traditional Homeric invocation of the Muse) and not the first which this avuncular, cozily insane personage will commit. Other Snarkologists have already pointed out that the Bellman may well have been based on an eponymous officer at Christ Church College, "Le Bellman", whose job it was to ring a bell whenever some particularly inert don had finally popped off for good.

Of such grim details are both great poetry and academic life made! An insane man armed with a large, blunt, heavy metal-and-wooden object with which he roams our poem and Oxford alike, announcing the beginning of the verses and the ending of some other poor college-wallah's life. No wonder this illustrator saw fit to flesh out this lugubrious person's person with the above drawing.

The sharp-eyed reader who eats his carrots will instantly ferret out, in his offhand, weaselly ferret-like manner, the fleur-de-lys motif lurking in the wallpaper. This outbreak of French monarchism has been induced by the Bellman's notorious insistence upon the Rule of Three which occurs immediately afterwards in the same opening stanzas:

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.

Such pronouncements reek of royal diktats to this artist's ear; and furthermore, the trefoil motif nicely complements the trinitarian obsessions of what we now call the Clochetic Rule of Three. Learned Snarkologists have found all manner of historical riffraff lurking inside this Rule: a reference to a Victorian mathematical classroom crib, perhaps a jab at the Mad Monadist, Charles Peirce and his triunary blatherings, or it could even be a clever Protosurrealist, anti-anachronistic reference to cybernetics and human cognition and crypto-Catholicism.

But we here at Chez Snarque are made of sterner stuff! We think that the Bellman is nutters because he just is, and we've dug up some really cool facts to support our Nutter Theory. Firstly, the Bellman's odd physical appearance is based upon that of Sir John Tenniel, the quick-fingered illustrator of both of Carroll's Alice books, and a rascally bon vivant, to boot! This cyclopean ink-wallah looked the part, indeed!


Secondly, Sir John's illustrations for Carroll included several drawings of the White Knight, that avuncular, cozily insane personage who assists young Alice in her regal quest (zut! more monarchism!) in Through The Looking Glass. Well-oiled Carrollians will grunt appreciatively at all this, knowing that the White Knight was a stand-in for Carroll himself, who was notoriously shy about being bruited about in public as a avuncular, cozily insane personage.

Which leads us to our third observation, and hence, owing to the Clochetic Rule of Three, our self-evident, truly definitive and tyrannically final royal diktak upon the entire matter: the following drawing by Sir John of the Admirable Carroll in mufti as a White Knight who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Bellman trying pass himself off as — gasp! — Sir John Tenniel disguised as a certain Christ Church don named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson who had a penchant for going out in public as none other than — gasp again! — Lewis Carroll!


Well, I think that just about wraps it up for both the Bellman's little scheme of trinitarian cross-dressing and more importantly, for whatever little standing I still possess amongst legitimate Carrollian circles.

No, no applause, please, I have more simple tastes. Just rattle your kippered herrings or something like that, I'm off for a nice lie-down with some hot-gin-and-nautch-girl-compresses. I feel a lynch mob coming on …


  1. Just the place for a nod to a math progeny: Richard Bellman, a man in optimal control, first utterer of the curse of dimensionality, and endeared to traveling salesmen everywhere by the Bellman–Ford algorithm ...

  2. Thanks, Dave. I'm aiming for the largest collection of Bellmen on the internet and this fellow you mention certainly qualifies. I did not understand a single word of the wiki on him, which is, of course, a necessary prerequisite for inclusion into our Clochetic Hall of Fame (or Shame).

    Hope the new gig is working out!