School under the Sea: Reeling, Writhing…

John Tenniel, Alice listens to the Mock Turtle & the Gryphon

Wednesday

I’m never sure when to publish my back-to-school post. In Maryland, my home state, school now begins the day after Labor Day, but in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I spend my summers, I’m already seeing school buses.

Anyway, teachers probably need a laugh these days so here’s Lewis Carroll’s description of the Mock Turtle’s and Gryphon’s education. In the past I’ve shared an essay by my son about how Wonderland satirizes general education, which England was just developing. Let me know how you like Carroll’s dream of a world in which the school day “lessens” from day to day until there’s nothing left. As the Gryphon explains, “That’s the reason they’re called lessons.”

Enjoy the puns and have a wonderful school year. The nation owes a debt to its school teachers.

‘When we were little,’ the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, ‘we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle—we used to call him Tortoise—’

‘Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.

‘We called him Tortoise because he taught us,’ said the Mock Turtle angrily: ‘really you are very dull!’

‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,’ added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. At last the Gryphon said to the Mock Turtle, ‘Drive on, old fellow! Don’t be all day about it!’ and he went on in these words:

‘Yes, we went to school in the sea, though you mayn’t believe it—’

‘I never said I didn’t!’ interrupted Alice.

‘You did,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘Hold your tongue!’ added the Gryphon, before Alice could speak again. The Mock Turtle went on.

‘We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—’

‘I’ve been to a day-school, too,’ said Alice; ‘you needn’t be so proud as all that.’

‘With extras?’ asked the Mock Turtle a little anxiously.

‘Yes,’ said Alice, ‘we learned French and music.’

‘And washing?’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘Certainly not!’ said Alice indignantly.

‘Ah! then yours wasn’t a really good school,’ said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief. ‘Now at ours they had at the end of the bill, “French, music, and washing—extra.”’

‘You couldn’t have wanted it much,’ said Alice; ‘living at the bottom of the sea.’

‘I couldn’t afford to learn it.’ said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. ‘I only took the regular course.’

‘What was that?’ inquired Alice.

‘Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied; ‘and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’

‘I never heard of “Uglification,”’ Alice ventured to say. ‘What is it?’

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. ‘What! Never heard of uglifying!’ it exclaimed. ‘You know what to beautify is, I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ said Alice doubtfully: ‘it means—to—make—anything—prettier.’

‘Well, then,’ the Gryphon went on, ‘if you don’t know what to uglify is, you are a simpleton.’

Alice did not feel encouraged to ask any more questions about it, so she turned to the Mock Turtle, and said ‘What else had you to learn?’

‘Well, there was Mystery,’ the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers, ‘—Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling—the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.’

‘What was that like?’ said Alice.

‘Well, I can’t show it you myself,’ the Mock Turtle said: ‘I’m too stiff. And the Gryphon never learnt it.’

‘Hadn’t time,’ said the Gryphon: ‘I went to the Classics master, though. He was an old crab, he was.’

‘I never went to him,’ the Mock Turtle said with a sigh: ‘he taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say.’

‘So he did, so he did,’ said the Gryphon, sighing in his turn; and both creatures hid their faces in their paws.

‘And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

‘Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock Turtle: ‘nine the next, and so on.’

‘What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: ‘because they lessen from day to day.’

This was quite a new idea to Alice, and she thought it over a little before she made her next remark. ‘Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday?’

‘Of course it was,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘And how did you manage on the twelfth?’ Alice went on eagerly.

‘That’s enough about lessons,’ the Gryphon interrupted in a very decided tone: ‘tell her something about the games now.’

 

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