Picture by John Vernon Lord
I mentioned on Twitter last night that, when I hear the number forty-two, I don’t think of Jackie Robinson, but rather of Douglas Adams or Lewis Carroll. I guess that’s largely because I’m just not a sports fan in general. Which isn’t to say that Robinson wasn’t an important figure who deserves his own movie, just that I always expect something different when I hear the movie title 42. This got me thinking that I don’t think I’ve ever actually done a post on recurring numbers in the works of certain people, and it really is an interesting subject for me. It’s never entirely clear why certain people are drawn to certain numbers; people can come up with all kinds of crazy theories, but I doubt it’s anything that complex. I don’t know if there are any authors prior to Carroll who had famously recurring numbers in their works, but I’m starting with him. He used Rule Forty-Two in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the introduction to The Hunting of the Snark, and Snark itself contained a reference to the Baker having forty-two boxes of clothes packed. Carroll was actually forty-two years old when he wrote Snark, so perhaps it was on his mind even more than usual. There are also forty-two illustrations in Wonderland, and if you want to stretch a bit, the White King has 4207 men in Through the Looking-Glass. In fact, if you stretch enough, you can come up with all kinds of other instances of the number, like how Carroll lived in room number six, accessible through the seventh stairs. Really, though, you can easily make ANY number with tricks like that, so I find it best to disregard them. Anyway, forty-two is perhaps even better known as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (although no one has any idea what the question actually is). From what I’ve heard, Adams came up with the number more or less randomly, and not as an intentional reference to Carroll, of whom he was never a particular fan. I did note that the episodes of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide radio show were referred to as “fits,” as are the verses in Snark, but again it isn’t necessarily an intentional reference. “Fit” is an archaic term for a division of a song, poem, or story; the real joke in Snark is that it’s “an agony in eight fits.”
Not as well known is that L. Frank Baum had a similar affinity for the number forty-seven. In Queen Zixi of Ix, it’s the forty-seventh person through the gate of Nole who becomes the new ruler. Duchess Bredenbutta is forty-seventh cousin to the Monarch of Mo, and the room of the Six Snubnosed Princesses in Sky Island has forty-seven windows. While I haven’t read it, I also understand that Mary Louise and the Liberty Girls has Josie O’Gorman saying forty-seven is her lucky number. Strangely, the number doesn’t appear in any of the Oz books.
I think, however, that the first recurring number I can recall seeing noted was twenty-seven in the works of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Here’s a list of them, including a few stretches, but mostly legitimate uses of the number. Apparently the number appeared in some of Al’s songs and videos without his thinking much about it, and when he was alerted to it he started including other references on purpose. He even slightly subverts this in “Albuquerque,” when he refers to being twenty-six and a half years old. Interestingly, I also recall twenty-seven showing up quite a bit in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. I’ve read several other of Vonnegut’s books, and as far as I can tell it’s just that one that makes frequent use of the number.