Have you seen a mome rath lately?

Dear Readers, As some of you know we’ve been having some technical difficulties with the website sending out posts at the wrong time. We are working to correct the problem and apologize for any inconvenience it has caused.

Sheila, here. It’s Labor Day–happy Last Hurrah of Summer! It’s shaping up to be a busy fall.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams in the Sunday paper—you know, the strip with the idiot boss and the bored employees? I’ve been reading the Sunday comics for most of my life, ever since my father used to leave them on the table when he went to work. I could make up some twaddle about how they serve as a barometer for the nuances of contemporary middle-class life, but mostly I like to start Sundays with them.

This time in the strip Idiot Boss was trying to sound important in a meeting and throwing around terms that he was either making up or didn’t understand, and his final statement was: “And the mome raths outgrabe.”

I laughed out loud in delight. Before I go on, please stop and ask yourself if you know where that quotation comes from (and don’t check Google!). I do, but largely because of an extraordinary 4th-grade teacher in Philadelphia who stretched all of our minds. As a class we read the entire Little House series; we ground our own grain and made bread; we sewed nautical signal flags (on a treadle Singer) and created our own crow’s nest. And we learned the poem from which that quotation comes.

For the past decade or two I have watched Jeopardy regularly, and I find myself yelling at the contestants a lot. What has happened to a solid classical education? Nobody seems to know any non-English languages any more (I insist that the one high school Latin class I took has been incredibly useful in a number of ways). Too few people know most of the classics of English or American literature, beyond the name of the main characters or the setting (or if they’ve been used in a movie lately). I’ll admit I’m terrible at identifying contemporary music, or current computer terms, or even sports teams, but things I learned in my youth, in a different millennium, stick with me. I can quote about two lines of a lot of poems (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee…” Or “Whose woods these are I think I know…” or even “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day…” Actually I like the last line of that stanza better: “And leaves the world to darkness and to me.” That poem appeared on a classroom test I took in sixth grade.)

Okay, learning a lot of poetry or plays or passages from “Great Works” can be boring, and a lot of kids these days don’t get the point. What’s it good for? What young student cares about what happened a couple of hundred years ago? But for a long time, the words of authors and statesmen unified our culture in the present day, gave us a sense of shared history. Those lines or passages survived for centuries, passed on from generation to generation. We still use old idioms without knowing where they came from. Now and then you see flickers of that on Jeopardy.

If you’re still stumped, the “mome raths” come from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, in Through the Looking Glass. Yes, Carroll (or more accurately, Charles Ludwidge Dodgson) made up those words. They are funny or satirical or maybe he’s just poking fun at the pompous revered authors of his time. But they are memorable words, and I was delighted to see them when I opened the first part of the Sunday paper I read: yes, the comics.

I salute Scott Adams for keeping Lewis Carroll alive, just a little. But I have to confess that I have not one but three pairs of socks with images of the Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. They must find some audience, else the socks would not exist! Words still matter!

16 Thoughts

  1. I was angry when my father wouldn’t sign my course card until I signed up for Latin. You know, I’m sure, how I feel now.

    As I read what you wrote for today, I had lovely memories of my much too brief time at Christ Church, Oxford where my rooms overlooked the dean’s garden where Dodgson met Alice and her sister.

    Great post today, Sheila.

    1. Thank you! I have to say our Latin class in high school was not very popular. It was taught by the dean of women (who was rumored to have a drinking problem), and there were all of four students–we met at a table in the library. But I am so glad I took it!

  2. With my British/Scottish/Irish heritage, the classics made a lot of sense as a foundation, but I applaud teachers today who embrace multicultural literature, diversity, and inclusion in their classrooms and schools. Keeps me learning and looking beyond my comfort zone, like Jabberwocky did all those years ago! I’ll never forget the really talented teen who wrote phonetically: I had to suspend disbelief and recite his papers to “hear” what he’d written. He was incredibly insightful, and his phrasing was sophisticated. Spelling? Nah! Thanks for the reminder 🙂 –kate

    1. Exactly–and Mrs. Scattergood was wonderful. I feel sorry for school kids these days (at least in this state) who are taught with the sole aim of doing well on standardized tests. Not that I’ve seen a test, but I’m going to guess they aren’t focused on beautiful language. “This is the forest primeval/The murmuring pines and the hemlocks/Stand like Druids of eld…” (Eighth grade)

  3. My Latin teacher was rumored to have a drinking problem, too. And also was a bit of a lech. I wonder if that’s a thing? My son took Latin at a high school that had a deaf inclusion program and I liked that the deaf kids took Latin because it wasn’t spoken.

    1. My daughter took a signing course one summer after college, not because she had any practical application for it, but because she saw it as a different approach to language (she was a Comparative Literature major). That made sense to me.

  4. Having survived six years of Latin I can only say, I got an 800 on my SATs in those long ago days because even if I didn’t recognize the word, I could parse the root. Long live Latin!

    I hope that they are still teaching the classics in schools, although I am not sure they are teaching much that has to do with reading at all. Sad. The classics ignited my interest in reading and writing. I can still close my eyes and see my version of the Iliad (mine because it is culled from the pictures the words drew in my mind), watch Anna Karenina throw herself at a train, travel the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. Oh so many experiences I would have lacked.

    1. Ah, someone else who “sees” words! Who needs movies when you can visualize books? It was always a thrill to finally visit places that I’d only read about and find they were much as I had imagined them (of course, there were a few disappointments along the way, but mostly the writers nailed it).

  5. One of the stories in an anthology I’m in has a story titled Mome Rath, My Sweet. It’s a noir style story where the P.I. is in an Alice In Wonderland world. The mash up of styles actually works quite well. I was impressed with my friend, Gale Albright.

    1. That sounds wonderful! And I forgot to mention The Walrus and the Carpenter:

      “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.

      That last line has stuck with me for years.

  6. I’m an Alice fan, but I didn’t recognize those words from the poem. Then again, I’ve just read the books (several times each) and never studied or memorized them.

    While I get what you are saying about the classics and understanding their influence on our culture, the other side of teaching and reading them in school is this. How many people do you know who don’t read stopped reading because of the chore of getting through those classics? Honestly, I hated most of the books I had to read in school. I’d slog through them, but the instant we were on vacation, I was diving into my TBR pile and plowing through as many books as I could. There must be a balance there somewhere.

    1. Admittedly the books some stuffy academic labeled as “classic” a century or more ago are dry as dust to us these days. Styles change, and so do attention spans, apparently. Do we read the old books for the language or the plot (if you can dig it out of all those words)? On the other hand, Shakespeare’s language still rings true–IF you hear it spoken (well), while on the page it reads as stiff and odd to us now.

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