The Walrus and the Carpenter
John Tenniel’s illustration from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’

When I was small, I was, like most boys of my age, more familiar with Lewis Carroll’s hilarious nonsense poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter, than I was with the grey-green slithery mollusc that I later came to appreciate on my plate. I do not propose to discuss here the wide range of oyster-related gastronomical topics found in food encyclopaedias and recipe books, the many varieties of oyster or how they are prepared (both cooked and raw), but rather to investigate the word itself. But first let me quote Carroll’s poem in its entirety:

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:

He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —

And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun

Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —

‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun.’

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.

You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:

No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;

They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:

‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’

‘If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,

Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
‘That they could get it clear?’

‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

‘O Oysters, come and walk with us!’
The Walrus did beseech.

‘A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.’

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:

The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head —

Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’

‘But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
‘Before we have our chat;

For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!’

‘No hurry!’ said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

‘A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
‘Is what we chiefly need:

Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —

Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.’

‘But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.

‘After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!’

‘The night is fine,’ the Walrus said.
‘Do you admire the view?

‘It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!’

The Carpenter said nothing but
‘Cut us another slice:

I wish you were not quite so deaf —
I’ve had to ask you twice!’

‘It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
‘To play them such a trick,

After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’

The Carpenter said nothing but
‘The butter’s spread too thick!’

‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
‘I deeply sympathize.’

With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,

Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

‘O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
‘You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

Carroll’s deeply sadistic poem must have struck a chord in my young mind as the cruel facts finally dawned on me as well as on the ‘eager’ little oysters, prompting ‘sobs and tears’ from the Walrus as he sorts out the largest molluscs before scoffing them. But we are not told if he did in fact ‘scoff’ them. Perhaps he preferred to let them just slither into his mouth with a contented hum of satisfaction. There is a powerful ellipse here: the accompaniments of the meal (bread, butter, pepper and vinegar) are listed, but there is no description of the actual consumption – except as a kind of ghost image, contained in the punchline ‘But answer came there none’.

The word ‘oyster’ in English has a generally positive metaphorical image. When market researchers scouted around for a brand name to apply to a new London Transport smartcard which would enable anyone to travel freely on most buses, tubes and trains in London, they agreed on the ‘Oyster’ name after a lengthy period of research managed by Transport for London. Two other names were considered, but ‘Oyster’ was chosen as a fresh approach that was not directly linked to transport, ticketing or London. Other proposed names were ‘Pulse’ and ‘Gem’. Andrew McCrum, now of Appella brand-name consultants, who was brought in to find a name by Saatchi and Saatchi Design, says that the ‘Oyster’ was conceived and promoted because of the metaphorical implications of security and value in the component meanings of the hard bivalve shell and the concealed pearl, the association of London and the River Thames with oysters, and the well-known travel-related idiom. The latter originally came from an exchange between Pistol and Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.

Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.

Falstaff: Not a penny.

The original implication of the phrase is that Pistol is going to use violent means (a sword) to steal his fortune (the pearl he may find in an oyster). We inherit the phrase, absent in its original violent connotation, to mean that ‘the world is ours to enjoy.’

But the word ‘oyster’ has other associations. Because of its shape – and no doubt because of its delicacy – it also refers to two small pieces of dark meat that lie on either side of a chicken’s backbone. Arguably the best part of the chicken, these tender bits are frequently referred to as the chef’s reward for cooking. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical film, Amelie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, 2001), is an endearingly digressive farrago of disparate facts, myths, irrelevancies and absurdities worthy of The Walrus and the Carpenter itself. It also proved to be a worldwide hit, despite being lambasted by a handful of Cahiers du cinéma critics, who dismissed it as a chocolate-box portrayal of Paris.

In the film the heroine Amélie, played by the pert Audrey Tautou, sets out to try and improve the lives of people around her by ‘interfering’ with their experiences. This she does repeatedly. To take just one example, after discovering a small tin box containing a child’s toys hidden behind a skirting board, she eventually tracks down its now middle-aged and depressive owner, Dominique Bretodeau. After planting the box in a telephone booth, she ‘engineers’ his discovery of it. This so delights Bretodeau that he resolves to recontact his abandoned daughter, whom he has not seen for many years. In an earlier scene, we learn that Bretodeau’s great obsession in life is with chicken ‘oysters’: whenever he carves a roast chicken he first removes the bird’s breast, legs and wings, then triumphantly homes in on the ‘oysters’, devouring them with his fingers. In a brief epilogue to the movie, after his change of heart about his daughter, he again carves a chicken, but this time unselfishly breaks an ‘oyster’ in two and shares it with a little boy (an echo of the tin box’s original owner).

As you’ll discover when you see the movie, the ‘oysters’ in question go under a different name in French, which has nothing to do with shellfish: they are called le sot l’y laisse (‘the fool leaves it there’). Inattentive carvers often overlook the treasure nestling under the chicken’s legs. This is not the case with certain upmarket restaurants, including Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner in London, which recently featured a delicious ragoût of sot l’y laisse on its menu.

Another curious fact is the connection between the oyster (the bivalve) and the Ancient Greek word for ostracisation, or temporary banishment of a citizen. Ostracisation took the form of a name inscribed on a potsherd, a word related to an oyster shell, or ostreion. So here we are, back in an etymological hall of mirrors not all that remote from Amelie.

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