Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits

by Lewis Carroll; Oleg Lipchenko, illus.

The works of Lewis Carroll are an illustrator’s dream. In the century-and-a-half since he wrote his enduring masterpieces, artists as disparate as Arthur Rackham, Mervyn Peake, Tove Jansson, Salvador Dali, and Ralph Steadman have taken a crack at visualizing the dense and absurd realms that lie beyond the looking glass or out among the borogroves.

Oleg Lipchenko’s style seems perfectly suited to Carroll’s thoroughly Victorian brand of literary psychedelia. The Toronto artist takes a Terry Gilliam–like delight in folding perspectives in on themselves and loading each image with dozens of tiny details. His 2009 reimagining of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a visual feast, though the baroque design of the book tended to overwhelm the words on the page, making the text difficult to read.

Lipchenko has much more success with this new version of The Hunting of the Snark, an anti-epic poem that shares DNA (as well as a few creatures and portmanteau words) with Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” In eight sections called “fits,” the verse tells the story of a voyage by nine men and a beaver to a mysterious land. They are there, ostensibly, to capture a Snark, which is never really defined other than as a creature that may have whiskers or feathers and (wisely) “always looks grave at a pun.”

The poem is more about inertia than adventure – the hunt doesn’t really begin until the tale is more than half over. Lipchenko responds to this lack of action by making his illustrations flow around the text like a dream. Or rather, a nightmare: as the party gets closer to its prey, the images darken forbiddingly, until we finally encounter the deadly Snark/Boojum/Bandersnatch, which looks like something H.R. Giger might’ve dreamed up in a whimsical mood.

Of all Carroll’s best-known works, The Hunting of the Snark, with its highly cerebral twists and literary puzzles, may be the least kid-friendly. In Lipchenko’s hands, that barely matters: kids will get sucked in by the visuals alone. Best of all, his images provide enough fodder to inspire a hundred alternate stories.

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