OF BANDERSNATCHES AND SERENDIPITY, OF BOROGOVES AND KINGS
by Steven Steinbock
I love the word Serendipity. I love the way it sounds as it rolls off my tongue. Seh-Ren-Dip. . . I don’t want to wax too Nabokovian, but you get the idea. I like the meaning of the word and the magic that surrounds it.
Serendipity is the experience of finding something unexpected; it is when you run across something that conveniently clicks with something else you’ve come across. The Oxford English Dictionary defines serendipity as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” The discoveries of penicillin, NutraSweet, LSD, and Cuba were all products of Serendipity.
Serendipity often happens when you’re looking for something else, something with which I have a lot of experience, and if you could see my desk, you’d understand why.
Last week I found several interesting articles about the meaning and nature of serendipity, as well as the Persian folktale from which Horace Walpole coined the term. I printed these out and set them aside. When I sat down to write today’s column, I went looking for these pages. Alas, I didn’t find them, nor did I find anything else that deserves the label of serendipity.
For a long time I thought – mistakenly – that serendipity derived from some obscure Greek myth involving a serpent. That would make for a good story, but it isn’t true. If anyone knows any good myths, Greek or otherwise, that involve serpents and serendipity, by all means, let me know.
Serendipity is also the name of a favorite detective of mine. The creation of Dick Lochte, Serendipity Dahlquist is the precocious, gum-smacking teenage girl partnered with the world-weary private eye Leo Bloodworth in the novels Sleeping Dog (1985) and Laughing Dog (1988) as well as in several short stories (which you can find in Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder (2000).
As a lover of fairy tales, and of Persian literature, as well as being a research geek, I had to track down this story. Walpole’s summary is pretty thin. The story is supposedly of Persian origin. “Sarandib” is the Persian (by way of Arabic) name for Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I’ve found several versions, all modern retellings, and then I lost them. Next week I’ll try to share the story with you.
But on to my own little serendipities.
My weekly soapbox here on Criminal Brief is called “Bandersnatches,” from the nonsense word found in Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” (which in turn is in Through the Looking Glass). For several years, as a member of DAPA-EM, I’ve maintained a print newsletter that I call The Vorpal Blade. I got my inspiration for the name while reading Fredric Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock (1951). At the time, I had no idea how often the fictional Alice — sort of a Victorian prototype to Lochte’s Serendipity — would show up in crime fiction. But over the years, I’ve identified several dozen novels in which Alice in Wonderland themes and motifs play prominently.
Edward D. Hoch wrote a brilliant story of post-war Germany that he titled “The Vorpal Blade.” (The story was published in the short-lived and unimaginatively named Mystery Magazine, which misspelled Vorpal (as Vorpel), and changed Ed’s middle initial from a “D” to a “G.” (In 1983, the British television program “Tales of the Unexpected” did a nice adaptation starring Peter Cushing).
When we sat down as a family last week to watch the film “The Last Mimzy,” I had no idea that it had any connection to Lewis Carroll, Alice, or Jabberwocky. After all, the borogroves in Carroll’s poem were mimsy (with an “s”), not mimzy (with a “z”). But sure enough, the movie, and even more so, the short story on which it was based, make ample use of the Alice story.
Last week I was revisiting Fredric Brown, reading his quirky invasion novel, Martians, Go Home (1955). It’s an off-beat story by an off-beat author. Luke Devereaux, the fictional hack novelist at the heart of the story, is suffering from a serious case of writer’s block, holed up at his friend’s cabin. When a little green man appears and begins insulting him, Devereaux assumes he’s lost his marbles. But when he returns to civilization, he learns that the entire planet has been overrun by these obnoxious aliens, conquering the planet not with weapons or disease or slavery, but with rudeness. The Martians are able to cause a complete societal collapse by interrupting every meeting, every conversation, and every act of lovemaking with their cussing, insulting, and blowing raspberries. It’s the Tower of Babel all over again. In one scene, Devereaux runs into an old friend in a bar, described as “grinning like a Cheshire cat.” When the friend tries to engage Luke in conversation, Luke mumbles, “The Jabberwock with eyes of flame came whiffling through the tulgey wood.”
It isn’t much, but when you’ve already got Jabberwocky on the brain, every unexpected reference is serendipitous.
The other day I started reading The Looking Glass Wars, a young adult fantasy by Frank Beddor. I haven’t decided yet if I like it or not, but the premise is pretty interesting: Alice (her actual name being Alyss) was really an exiled princess from a different dimension. She confided her story to Lewis Carroll, who in turn rewrote it as a children’s fantasy. “Fantasy just declared war on reality,” is says on the cover. We’ll see.
And if you join me again next Friday, we’ll see what other discoveries serendipity brings us.