Nonsense, Magic, Religion, and Superstition
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Nonsense, Magic, Religion, and Superstition

In her seminal work, The Field of Nonsense, Elizabeth Sewell suggests that in “pure” nonsense, such as that written by Lewis Carroll, nonsense distances itself from ambiguous ideals such as “beauty” and “majesty” and rejects the artificial claims typical of “high-mindedness” and “preaching” (174). Sewell documents “nonsense’s careful attention to the concrete” (58), and she emphasizes the point that “nonsense is supremely concerned with the rational mind” (131). She notes also the pains with which Carroll attempted to keep God out of his nonsense—“to keep nonsense and religion separate” (179).

Noting these tendencies of nonsense, it is not surprising to note that there are countless occurrences in nonsense literature where mythological/magical beliefs are lampooned, discredited, and brought down to earth. In Ann and Jane Taylor’s original “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” the star is like a mythical guardian angel as it benignly and mysteriously watches over a child and travelers in the dark:

In the dark blue sky you keep, And often thro’ my curtains peep, For you never shut your eye…

Consider next Lewis Carroll’s parody of this poem:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at! Up above the world you fly, Like a tea-tray in the sky.

Carroll’s parody rejects the subtle mysticism of the original and switches the allusion from a guardian angel to something entirely more concrete and everyday: a tea tray, an object that when launched in the sky will fly unpredictably and will come crashing down quickly. Carroll’s parody thus rejects the permanence and reliability of the Taylors’ benevolent and ever-watchful star. This is what Sewell describes as nonsense’s preoccupation with the “concrete and fastidious” (quoting Lear), and this rational quality is often used to point out the difference between fantasy and nonsense: where fantasy relies heavily on magic, nonsense typically rejects it.

This essay, while acknowledging the correctness of the above claims, documents the fact that, simultaneously, nonsense is in fact informed by magical beliefs and, in particular, by a set of superstitious folk customs. Ultimately, the essay claims that temporally and spatially, nonsense invokes a spiritual setting, one in which the “miracles” of nonsense can occur.

The deflation of mysticism typical of nonsense is perhaps a descendant of medieval travesty, in which sacred prayers and religious rights were desecrated at carnival time by parodies of prayers and liturgies such as The Liturgy of the Ass, Cyprian’s Supper, or The Money Gospel (Bakhtin, Rabelais 85). Such travesty has a direct descendant in children’s oral tradition, as Iona and Peter Opie observe in their chapter on “parody and impropriety” in The Lore and Language of School Children. They record, for example, the following nonsensical parody of the Christmas hymn, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night”:

While shepherds washed their socks by night All seated round the tub, A bar of Sunlight soap came down and they began to scrub.

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So much for the Light of Divine Knowledge. In a related tendency of nonsense, authority-figures whose power is sanctified by quasi-mythological belief systems—systems involving, for example, the belief that a person with royal lineage is endowed with certain rights beyond those of the common man—will suffer a loss of prestige when their mythological power is brought down to an everyday, common sense level. Nonsense verse is eminently suited to serve this function. Consider the following two nonsense verses and the everyday items that serve to undermine any divine right to power:

When good King Arthur ruled this land,   He was a goodly king; He stole three pecks of barley meal   To make a bag pudding.

And from oral folklore,

Good King Wenceslas looked out   In his pink pyjamas. What d’you think he hollered out?   “Lovely ripe bananas!”

Note the total absence of crowns, scepters and shooting stars. It is rather with barley meal, bag pudding, pyjamas, and bananas that these nonsense poems “ordain” mythological English Kings. Or consider this gem, perhaps a loose reworking of the nursery rhyme...