Sitting on a Cornflake, Waiting for the Van to Come


I have a fondness for the Beatles song “I Am the Walrus,” as I’m sure many people do. Beth told me she found it scary, which I can see, but I don’t remember thinking that. I was, however, a little creeped out by “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which of course is referenced in “Walrus.” They’re both very much in the psychedelic vein, but while “Lucy” is a narrative describing images that don’t make much sense but are still imaginable, “Walrus” is more pure nonsense verse.

John Lennon admitted that he purposely wrote the song to be obtuse after learning that people were interpreting Beatles songs. Just because there isn’t one overarching meaning, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to examine in the lyrics. The song is a popular one among the “Paul is dead” crowd, probably based on a satirical article that insisted “walrus” was Greek for “corpse.” This obviously isn’t true, as Greek doesn’t even have a letter corresponding to W. I guess it could be “ualros” or something, but, well, it isn’t. The thing is, the idea that the walrus is a symbol for death, which sounds more likely on the face of it, survived outside the context of the joke. As far as I know, though, there isn’t any culture that uses such a symbol. So where does the walrus come from? Well, John was known to be a fan of Lewis Carroll, whose work was highly influential on the whole psychedelic music scene. And Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass includes the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” as recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

As discussed here, the walrus in the poem is a con artist, pretending to weep for the oysters while simultaneously shoving them down his gullet. This could have influenced the line, “I’m crying,” which should then be taken as hypocritical. The Wikipedia page quotes a Playboy interview in which John admits to the Carrollian influence, but I’m not sure he remembered the poem all that well at the time. He says something about the walrus being the bad guy and the carpenter the good guy, when in fact they are BOTH bad guys.

The Walrus is the trickster of the two, but the Carpenter goes along with his plans. The idea of the Walrus representing the upper class and the Carpenter the lower class is tempting, but I’m not sure it was intentional. According to Martin Gardner in The Annotated Alice, Carroll gave illustrator Sir John Tenniel the choice between a carpenter, butterfly, or baronet as the Walrus’ partner. Perhaps John had the depiction of the poem from the Disney movie, in which the Walrus smokes a cigar, in mind.

While Disney sticks pretty close to the original, it’s changed somewhat in that the Walrus eats ALL the oysters while the Carpenter is out of the room, making his role as exploiter more obvious. The Carpenter still isn’t a good guy, but he’s more of a victim.

So, if the Walrus is from Carroll, does that mean the Eggman is as well?

Perhaps, as Humpty Dumpty also appears in Looking-Glass. It’s apparently a popular rumor that “goo goo ga joob” were the last words Humpty said before falling off the wall and breaking. Not that they’re really words, but Carroll’s Humpty has a rather unusual approach to vocabulary.

Actually, though, the last thing the egg is recorded as saying before his fall in Carroll’s book is “Wait till you’ve tried.” So where is “goo goo ga joob” from? A popular answer is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which also includes Humpty Dumpty, but I understand the closest that book comes is “googoo goosth.” So probably John just made it up. This page discusses possible origins for the phrase in more detail. If I must come up with a conclusion, it’s that the song shows signs of Carrollian influence, but we don’t know the exact extent of it.

While I’m at it, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Mole from the Ministry,” a song that XTC did as their psychedelic alter-egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear. While not entirely a pastiche of any one song, it definitely draws very heavily from “Walrus.”

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One Response to Sitting on a Cornflake, Waiting for the Van to Come

  1. J. L. Bell says:

    The Walrus and Carpenter are appearing to good effect in Roger Langridge’s new comic for kids, SNARKED!

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