"I Am the Walrus / Goo Goo G'Joob"

On a beach lit by both the moon and the sun, a carpenter and a well-dressed walrus walk along the shore and dine on oysters. This is the central image of the poem aptly titled "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in Lewis Carroll's 1871 Through the Looking-Glass. This fictional image of the walrus as an eccentric-looking whiskered creature with tusks as large as its appetite also represents perhaps the best-known depiction of walruses in English literature and has come to find itself reproduced in other English cultural artifacts, from film to television to songI'm looking at you, Lennon-penned Beatles B-side "I Am the Walrus" (1967).

The English understanding of the walrus is as interesting as it is far-reaching. What makes the English walrus most intriguing, though, is its relationship with reality; the English walrus is as rooted in reality as John Lennon's declaration, "I am the walrus / goo goo g'joob." Lennon, Carroll's walrus, and the English walrus are not really walruses. In short, no English-language walrus is a real walrus, because any walrus in the English language is less a walrus than a placid caricature of a creature or a compilation of parts capable of being separated and used for economic gain.

The very first recorded instance of a walrus in an English-language text occurs in William Caxton's 1482 Chronicles of England. Caxton, a merchant and the first English book printer, reveals the walrus, then the morse, or rather, "mors marine," in a rather bland manner: "This yere were take iiij grete fisshes bytwene Eerethe and london, that one was callyd mors marine." Not exactly the robust beast of the sea that the indigenous peoples of the global Arctic and Northern Europe had been encountering and describing in their societies for centuries at this point. In fact, under the English name of morse, the walrus is a relatively docile albeit odd creature that will soon become known only for its tusks.