A Gryphon Newsletter

Volume 3, Number 1, Winter 2003


Michael D. Winkle

beware the Jabberwock

Everyone knows about the Gryphon in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the quadrille-dancing companion of the Mock Turtle. There may be a distant reference to a quite different gryphon in Through the Looking-Glass, the second Alice tale.

Literary critic Roger Green, in an article for the Times Literary Supplement (March 1, 1957), and later in The Lewis Carroll Handbook (1962), suggests that Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" might have been a parody of an old German ballad, "The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains." In this epic poem "a young shepherd slays a monstrous Griffin." [1] Sound like we're reaching a bit, until we learn that it was translated into English by Menella Bute Smedley, who was Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson's cousin. The Bute translation was published in Sharpe's London Magazine, issues of March 7 and March 21, 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books.

Was the burbling, whiffling Jabberwock based on a gryphon? Perhaps. The "Shepherd" ballad may have been only one of a hundred sources held in Carroll's unconscious mind when he penned the nonsense poem. As Martin Gardner points out, "Like Homer, the Bible, and all other great works of fantasy, the Alice books lend themselves readily to any type of symbolic interpretation." [2] And to any type of ancestry; ask yourself: how many tales and legends are there in which a hero slays a monster terrorizing the land?

1. Gardner, Martin, ed. Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol (New York: Meridian, 1972 [1960]), p. 197.

2. Ibid., p. 8.


An ancient Greek writer called Suidas is known only by a few fragments of his work, collected as The SUDA. In a fragment entitled "Avaris", Suidas tells of a tribe or nation called the Avars. Like the Cimmerians, the Scytheans, Aristeas' mythical (?) Issedonians, and other peoples, the Avars were forced to invade new territories. A very odd reason is given for this migration:

These Avars drove out the Sabinores, having themselves been compelled to emigrate by tribes inhabiting the shores of the Ocean but driven out of their country by a fog bred of the Ocean overflowing and by the appearance of a multitude of griffins, about which there was a saying that they would not stop until they had devoured the entire human race. Under pressure from these terrors they assaulted their neighbors, who, proving weaker than the invaders, had to emigrate. [1]

Well, those griffins get hungry. Ancient tribes were often forced on by plagues, famine, or barbarian invaders. You'll have to admit, a multitude of griffins could exert severe socio-economic pressure. Some people think locusts are bad. . .

1. Suidas, Suda, reprinted in Bolton's Aristeas of Proconnesus, p. 171.


The Thirty-Nine Steps

As when a Gryphon pursues

Literary references to gryphons are as rare as a golden hoard. The lion-eagles at least lurk in the background of Andre Norton's "Gryphon Trilogy", beginning with The Crystal Gryphon; they star in The Black Gryphon and other Valdemar novels by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon; and they pop up in the occasional stand-alone book, like The Golden Gryphon Feather by Richard Purtill. So when I see some sort of literary link, however obscure, I pounce on it.

My first pounce is upon John Buchan's short novel of pre-World War I espionage, The Thirty-Nine Steps. This book introduces Buchan's series character Richard Hannay, a hero in spite of himself. Hannay has made his fortune in South Africa before the novel opens, and he has moved to England to retire at a young age. Life in pre-war London, however, bores him to tears, and when his upstairs neighbor tells him the freedom of the world is at stake, he is quite happy to listen.

The neighbor, Franklin Scudder, a minor official with the British government, has learned of a coming assassination that will start a devastating war, and now "they" are out to kill him. Hannay lets him hide in his apartment -- and he comes home one day to find Scudder murdered, and the enemy after him. He flees to the wildest parts of Scotland, the police and public convinced he is a murderer, the enemy (German spies) hot on his trail.

So what's gryphony about this? During his flight Hannay encounters a literary innkeeper, who quotes Milton: "As when a Gryphon through the wilderness,/ With winged step, o'er hill and moory dale/ Pursues the Arimaspian. . ."

And Hannay does hide and run through the wilderness. Mere men he can elude, but the Germans have constructed a secret airfield in Scotland, and throughout the novel a silver plane seems to follow Hannay everywhere:

I had the sense to remember that on a bare moor I was at the aeroplane's mercy. and that my only chance was to get to the leafy cover of the valley. Down the hill I went like blue lightning, screwing my head round whenever I dared, to watch that damned flying machine. [1]

So he flees, o'er hill and moory dale, his following gryphon a silver airplane.

One of Alfred Hitchcock's early films was an adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Twenty years later he directed a very similar film about a man chased by spies and accused of a murder he didn't commit, North By Northwest.

So the next time you see Cary Grant attacked by that crop-dusting biplane, just imagine that you're seeing a bit of gryphon lore, updated a few thousand years.

1. Buchan, John. The Thirty-Nine Steps (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1943 [1915]), p. 41.

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