“Jabberwocky” & the Value of Nonsense

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Reflection:

“Jabberwocky” finds its original home in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.  During an early scene in this sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Alice discovers a book written in a sort of backwards type, forcing her to use a mirror to read it.  Of course, even with the mirror, the verses make little sense to her.

Though largely nonsensical, “Jabberwocky” still manages to delight the imagination through Carroll’s playful and strangely vivid language.

Only a few nights ago, I read this poem to my own children for the first time.  I must admit that I only read it to take their minds off my previous reading of Shel Silverstein’sThe Giving Tree.  That, by the way, is a horrid idea of a bedtime story; way too emotionally charged.  Word to the wise.  So, I quickly picked up a book of poems in desperate attempt to undo my moment of terrible fathering and began reading “Jabberwocky” to stop the crying and painful questions about stumps and seemingly thoughtless boys.

I had them at “slithy toves.”

As the poem progressed, my kids laughed at the silliness of the words, but I could see their minds trying to grasp what was going on.  What is a Jabberwocky?  Is it dangerous?  Was it like a dragon?  Should the “son” have killed it?  Should the father have celebrated this?  They are used to stories about knights and dragons that need slaying, but they also know that sometimes dragons are Eustace in the midst of repenting.

Though only a small part of a larger story, it is easy to see how “Jabberwocky” took on a life of its own, outside of Through the Looking Glass.  I have seen it enjoyed by little ones, high school students, groups of teachers, and other folks of varying ages and backgrounds.  I have witnessed its usefulness in teaching parts of speech and their function (An excellent idea!  What does “mimsy” mean?  Is it a noun or an adjective?), to start a debate (Should the boy have killed the Jabberwock?), to stir the imagination (Could you draw a Jabberwock?  What would it look like?), to cause a laugh (He said “frumious”), and to delight.

Sometimes a little nonsense goes a long way.

My post, reprinted from The CiRCE Institute

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Reflections from Archenland: Some Thoughts for Leaders

The Horse and His Boy, the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia series, tells of Prince Cor’s return to Archenland.  The long lost prince began his nostos in Tashbaan, proceeded through the desert, and finally arrived in Anvard, the Archenland capital.  But, much like Odysseus, the celebration of Cor’s return is delayed by fierce battle against enemies who threaten his home and kingdom.

When the dust of battle settles, Cor is more properly reunited with his father, King Lune, and hears the news that he will one day be king of Archenland.  Cor’s reply is one of fear and even apology to his twin brother, Corin.  “Oh dear,” said Cor.  “I don’t want to at all.  And Corin – I am most dreadfully sorry.  I never dreamed my turning up was going to chisel you out of your kingdom.”

Corin, however, immediately rejoices, saying, “Hurrah!  Hurrah!  I shan’t have to be King.  I shan’t have to be King.  I’ll always be a prince.  It’s princes have all the fun.”

King Lune, who is previously described as “the kindest-hearted of men” answers Prince Cor with both honesty and grace: “And that’s truer than thy brother knows, Cor.  For this is what it means to be a king; to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

Some long for leadership positions for what it can give them.  Others understand leadership.

My post, reprinted from The CiRCE Institute

“Beauty in the Word”: A Brief Review

A reprint of my post for the CiRCE Institute.

Stratford Caldecott’s 160-page new book Beauty in the Word has proven difficult for me to finish, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

Serving as a sequel to his 2009 work Beauty for Truth’s Sake, in which Caldecott offered a study of the mathematical arts of the Quadrivium and called for an education that reintegrates the arts and sciences, Beauty in the Word examines the Trivium – the foundational arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and calls for their application in ways that recognize and honor the human nature of both child and teacher.

Far from a simple (and all-too-familiar) regurgitation of the Trivium as three “stages” of learning that corresponds to natural child development, Caldecott’s work examines the Trivium in more human terms – as Remembering, Thinking, and Communicating.

He argues that “education is not primarily about the acquisition of information.  It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society.  It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word)…Too often we have not been educating our humanity.  We have been educating ourselves for doing rather than for being.”  His exploration of the Trivium in that light is truly inspiring.

Beauty in the Word is an inspiring, challenging and even convicting book.  Perhaps that’s why it has proven so difficult to finish.  Stratford Caldecott has done us a great service.  It’s my hope that Beauty in the Word will be widely, but slowly, read by many others.

Culture-Makers or Culture Warriors?

Part One

My journey into classical education mirrors the story of so many others.  I came across a catalog from a Christian classical publishing house, which led me to Dorothy Sayers’s essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which led me to internet searches, which led me to The Abolition of Man, and so on.  I was quickly drawn into the world of C.S. Lewis, including and beyond Narnia, to Middle Earth, to G.K. Chesterton, and so on.  Such are the nostoi (“return stories” or homeward journeys) of so many in the classical renewal.

Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien, and a few others have ushered many into the renewal, and have come to be viewed as the “founding fathers” of the movement. Their works rightly garner wide readings, their lives become the subject of conference talks, and they have inspired many young men to twill coats and pipe-smoking.  And while they are deserving of the high praise they receive in many classical school circles, there may be a downside to their elevation. As Gregory Wolfe observed in Beauty Will Save the World:

Among Christians who care about the arts, there are many who cling to the works of a few figures, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor, who have forged a compelling religious vision in the midst of a secular age.  But the danger in celebrating these Christian artists is that we isolate them from their cultural context, from the influences that shaped their art.  There is a large body of believers who have essentially given up on contemporary culture; they may admire a few writers here or there, but they do not really believe that Western culture can produce anything that might inform and deepen their own faith.  One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time.  For me, the most depressing trend of all is the extent to which Christians have belittled or ignored the imagination and succumbed to politicized and ideological thinking.

A couple of things need to be pointed out directly.  First of all, Wolfe is not downplaying the marvelous contributions of those artists.  In fact, he goes on to specifically praise the influence of both Eliot and O’Connor later in the book.  It should also be noted that Wolfe’s argument against “politicized and ideological thinking” is far more developed than what I shall present here.  So read his book.

But with these qualifications in mind, let me say that Wolfe’s point must be taken seriously, and applied by both Church and school.  For too many in the classical renewal, Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Eliot, and so on, have been a very ineffective gateway drugs; that is, while these culture-making giants have drawn us to the threshold of a whole new world, too often we have not stepped through.

Classical education, unlike forms of modern education, aims at the nurturing of the soul, the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.  This stands in contrast to arming students with ready-made answers – the problem of “ideology,” according to Wolfe.  We claim our desire is for students to know how to think, not just what to think; yet we seem to fall short of that reality.

For example, in many Christian classical schools, the teaching of logic and the growing emphasis on apologetics courses belies a truly defensive slant, the courses being taught as a way of protecting students from an ungodly culture. And, while there is nothing wrong with arming students for defense, it does not stop there. Even rhetoric has been reduced to the mere production of persuasive essays and speeches, rather than developing (as Aristotle said) the “faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion” – an art that could include story-telling, creative writing, poetry, and more.

The result is that classical educators are preparing culture warriors but not “culture-makers.”  In holding up the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, et al, then, we hold up museum pieces because rather than stressing the need for great artists, musicians, songwriters, poets, and authors, we merely equip our students to argue.  We have called them to uphold truth and, perhaps, goodness, but beauty has been left out of the equation.

To be continued…

Past Dorothy & the Doorway (Part 1)

This is reposted from my Circe column (8/29/12).  Hopefully, the beginnings of an interesting narrative…  

Part 1

The solid darkness of the spires stood in subtle contrast against the moon light.  Our hearts lifted slightly at the knowledge of the place,  so, wearily we put forth what energy we could to reach the gates.

We escaped the Plague, but no one left the gruesome scene  unscathed; nearly half our city had fallen to the disease.  Yet, for some time, it seemed we had stolen away only to die in the wilderness.  Cutting through the face-high weeds and grass, we entered the clearing in front of the castle moat.

Our eyes, first illumined with torchlight, were greeted with still more horrors – corpses littered the small yard, the slope of the moat, and the filthy water.  Yet, strangely, the castle felt warm, even from where we stood.  Light beamed from inside; the sounds of laughter and singing greeted our ears, long used to the screams of death.  And bread.  The faint smell of bread wafted to us, flying from the windows, crossing the moat, and sweeping through our weary band.  The stench of death was quickly replaced with the scent and our hunger pangs expectantly revived.  We smiled at one another, a skill nearly forgotten, and stepped towards the castle.

The heavy creak of the drawbridge drowned our chatter and the din from the castle.  It lowered slowly, coming to rest with a heavy thud.  From the other side called the voice of a lady, “Come.  Enter through this door and leave the death behind.  Cross the bridge and come home.”  She stood in a simple, bright dress, and extended a small lantern in one hand.

We began to walk slowly, the bridge complaining with every step.  “My Lady,” I called, assuming the uncomfortable role of the group’s leader, “we have never seen this castle.  We come from another place quite far from here.  Why do you say we are coming home?”

Smiling, she replied, “Ah, my friends, this is a castle your people and mine left long ago.  I only invite you to return.  Come and stand with me.”

Looking down at my feet, my eyes were drawn to the bodies that littered the moat.  “Look not to them,” the lady’s sweet voice called.  “Their story is too long for you to hear now.”

“Pray, tell me, my Lady, but who are they?” I asked with a shudder I hoped she wouldn’t see.

She sighed, not a sigh of frustration but of compassion, and spoke once more, “They are many.  Some fled from this castle, believing they would find new worlds without the graces found here.  Some are those who tried to batter down this castle’s old walls.  They have done damage, but still we are here.  Still more fell just short of here, never able to bring themselves across the bridge.”

Our pace slowed, uncertain of each step, drawn further only by the sweetness of her voice and the warmth and smells of the castle.  We stepped gratefully from the drawbridge and looked to our gracious and mysterious hostess.  She held her empty hand to us and said, “You may call me Dorothy.”

No Place for the Stagnant

“Having now had an opportunity to study schools as a headmaster as well as a teacher, I would argue that the teacher, not the curriculum, needs to be the focus of reform.  The greatest value of the curriculum proposed in this book, I now believe, is that it sustains and nurtures teachers as practitioners of the art of learning while discouraging non-learners from entering the profession…The classroom should be no place for teachers who are afraid of change, who are willing to talk about ideas ad nauseum but unwilling or unable to act on them, to experiment, to grow, to absorb new disciplines, to teach beyond themselves, their college lecture notes, their State-approved lesson plans, their textbooks.”

– David V. Hicks, in the 1990 preface of Norms & Nobility

Every teacher wants to be comfortable with their subject, courses, and routine.  We like to know what to expect and that is good and understandable.  After all, the first law of teaching according to John Milton Gregory is that the teacher must be fully equipped with the knowledge they wish to communicate.  We have to know what we are talking about, and we must know it well enough to arouse interest in our students and communicate clearly and effectively.

Yet the desire for comfort can morph into stagnation.  Rather than possessing healthy confidence, we can become entrenched in unwitting laziness.  Do we call our students to challenge themselves, to do hard things while we watch?  Or do we model what it means to be a learner, a lifelong student?

To sound the cry of “Excelsior!” while sitting contentedly in our current level of knowledge smacks of hypocrisy, and we all know that “Do as I say, not as I do” never works.

Summertime ought to be more than a break for us teachers.  A time of refreshment, certainly, but we must see it as a time for challenging ourselves as well.  Redeem the time.  Grow and stretch yourself (and not just from an abundance of naps).

  • If at all possible, attend a conference.  I hear there’s a great one coming up in Louisville.  The CiRCE Conference, “A Contemplation of Creation,” will be held from July 18th-21st.
  • Whittle down the reading list.  Every teacher I know has a list of books they’ve been meaning to read – all those books you wish you would have read when you were younger, if you had received a classical education.  If not now, when?
  • Study beyond your comfort zone.  Being a history teacher, several of my students have confessed that they simply aren’t “math people.”  Of course, I do my best to squash such artificial, dangerous assumptions…while maintaining them for myself.  Don’t know Latin?  Pick up a copy of Wheelock’s.  Not a “math person”?  Visit the Khan Academy online for some free instruction.

Do for yourself what you challenge your students to do.  Sharpen your mind.  Read, grow, study, and learn always.  Let it never be said of you that you teach because you will not do.

From my weekly column for the Circe Institute – 6/25/12