''One thing that made (Lewis Carroll's) stories particularly charming to a child was that he often took his cue from her remarks - a question would set him off on quite a new trail of ideas, so that one felt that one had somehow helped to make the story, and it seemed a personal possession. It was the most lovely nonsense conceivable, and I naturally reveled in it. His vivid imagination would fly from one subject to another, and was never tied down in any way by the probabilities of life.''
These are the words of Gertrude Chataway, remembering the summer of 1875 (just shy of her eighth birthday), when her beach neighbor was the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Mr. Dodgson -- a shy and fastidious Oxford mathematics lecturer, a bachelor who was eternally drawn to the ''society'' of young children -- published stories and poems of exquisite absurdity under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. ''The Hunting of the Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits,'' was dedicated to Gertrude and their delightful summer.
Now, a century after publication of the ''Snark'' and just in time for the 150th anniversary of the author's birth, this special volume galumphs into the ranks of Carroll collections. It is a lovely amalgam of text, illustration, and commentary that will excite committed ''snark hunters'' and entice new readers to the quest.
The book itself embodies the group enthusiasm of a snark hunt, combining several independent ''Carroll'' projects that were under way. Along with a complete facsimile of the original 1876 printing, this centennial edition contains: a new printing of the poem and the splendid Henry Holiday illustrations, designed by the famed Stinehour Press; a completely annotated text by Martin Gardner (who is responsible for the annotated ''Alice'' books); an extensive collection of artwork by Holiday from the Bryn Mawr College Library collection (including the original sketches, drawings, wood engravings, and artist's proofs for the ''Snark''). Charles Mitchell's contribution, ''The Designs of the Snark,'' describes the ''frumious'' (''Jabberwocky'') process that resulted in the original printing; Selwyn H. Goodacre completes the gathering with a ''Listing'' that details all publications and translations of the poem.
Sailing to the island of the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch (''no doubt'' wrote Carroll in a letter, ''the very island in which the Jabberwock was slain'') is an unlikely expedition of alliterative Englishmen: the Bellman, Boots, Baker, Barrister, Billiard-marker, Banker, Bonnet-maker, Broker, Butcher, and Beaver. Carroll sings their tale in impeccable anapestic verse and continuous mind-tickling absurdity. Pressed, throughout his life, for the ''hidden meaning'' to the spirited madness of the poem, he insisted he was aware of none -- but reminded readers that ''words mean more than we mean to express when we use them.'' And perhaps that is the reason why, a century later, readers , literary scholars, mathematicians, philosophers, psychologists, and ''snark societies'' are still reveling in Lewis Carroll's wonderlands. Each group goes merrily staking out personal theories (for which are claimed absolute certainty) and questing through the text for corroboration.
Though Carroll published his work expressly for a young audience, his writing was a difficult tumble for Victorian children, and it proves to be even less accessible for young people today. But adults have never tired of the roller-coaster literary chase. Like the young girls for whom Carroll created his stories, the enthusiasts and scholars feel they, too, contribute to the richness of the tale and thus make it a ''personal possession.'' Reading through the elaborate annotation, I found a special delight in hearing staid gentlemen of the arts and sciences beamishly exclaiming about ''meeting a Boojum'' and its ''frumious'' consequences.
Existential dilemma, Freudian trauma, or bubbling fantasy, ''The Hunting of the Snark'' is a marvelous vacation from the mundane, and this centennial edition can outfit your voyage with all the background baggage and allusive references you can use. But more, it is a subtle demonstration that beneath the most extensive ''adult'' incrustation there is always the child waiting quietly at the heart. Lewis Carroll's writing prods him or her to rise to the surface. As Gertrude Chataway explained years afterward: ''He never appeared to realize that I had grown up, except when I reminded him of the fact and then he only said, 'Never mind: you will always be a child to me, even when your hair is grey.' ''