As ever, welcome, dear readers.
I’ve just finished watching an ancient TV production
of Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)
The Old Curiosity Shop (first published 1841—although printed serially slightly earlier)
This is, in my view, one of Dickens’ gloomiest novels, mostly about a sadistic and physically-twisted character named Quilp,
who pursues a rather mentally-unstable elderly man with a gambling addiction and his granddaughter, called “Little Nell”.
There are a number of literary anecdotes related to this book, including one which says that people supposedly mobbed the wharf in New York when it was reported that the last installment, in which we find Nell succumbing to what appears to be a combination of exhaustion and perhaps tuberculosis, had just arrived by ship from London. This reinforces the usual stereotype of the overly-sentimental Victorians, but there is another side to this, a later Victorian’s opinion, which may have been said or written by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” (For more on this quotation, see: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/02/21/heart-stone/#more-439260 )
It is not my favorite Dickens (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, and Bleak House being those which I reread) but there is a scene here which recently caught my attention because of another work entirely. Kit (surnamed “Nubbles”, a typical Dickensian last name, but hardly up there with “Mr Pumblechook” from Great Expectations) works as a kind of assistant in Little Nell’s grandfather’s antique store (or junk shop—it’s a little hard to tell).
Several times a week, he is instructed in writing by Nell, which affords much merriment all around, it seems, but perhaps not much actual learning–
“…when he did sit down, he tucked up his sleeves and squared
his elbows and put his face close to the copy-book and squinted
horribly at the lines how, from the very first moment of having the
pen in his hand, he began to wallow in blots, and to daub himself
with ink up to the very roots of his hair how, if he did by accident
form a letter properly, he immediately smeared it out again with his
arm in his preparations to make another how, at every fresh mistake,
there was a fresh burst of merriment from the child and a louder and
not less hearty laugh from poor Kit himself…” (The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 3)
(This is a well-known painting by Victorian painter by Robert Braithwaite Martineau, 1826-1869,
entitled “Kit’s Writing Lesson”, 1852.)
Just before I finished the Dickens, I had also viewed the finale of the last season of A Game of Thrones. As I’ve written previously I did this reluctantly because I was aware that some of my favorite characters would not survive. One of these was “Lord Varys”, the spy master for several Westeros kings in succession,
who, for all that he was an agent for espionage and potential assassination, was, in fact, one of the most humane of characters.
Another, who, fortunately, did survive, was Sir Davos Seaworth,
whose past career as a smuggler had lost him the fingers of his right hand and whose loyalty to the would-be king Stannis Baratheon,
who had punished him, would lose him his son.
Seemingly always on the edge of execution, he is befriended by Stannis’ only child, Princess Shireen, who, when he is imprisoned, tries to cheer him by bringing him some of her books, only to have him admit that he can’t read. She begins to teach him (he’s clearly a very rapid learner), moving from letters to words (ironically, he has trouble with “knights”, even though he is one) and here I saw reappear that same image: the child helping someone older to become literate.
That Kit can’t read or write might not be surprising when The Old Curiosity Shop is supposed to take place, in the 1820s, but literacy grew rapidly throughout the 19th century in Dickens’ England, pushed by the Industrial Revolution and helped in the latter part of the century by the government’s Taunton Report (1868) and the Elementary Education Act (1870). (For a quick look at the history of British education, see: https://www.schoolsmith.co.uk/history-of-education/ )
And, in real terms, that literacy can be seen in the amazing spread of newspapers and magazines throughout the century. Just a rough count using the listing in the WIKI article “List of English 19th Century Periodicals (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_19th-century_British_periodicals ) and starting the count in the 1830s (Victoria became queen in 1837), we can see just for the 1830s-40s, 78 publications, some of them, like the Illustrated London News (begun in 1842) surviving as late as 1971.
Westeros, in contrast, and true to its medieval roots, appears to have very limited literacy, restricted to the upper classes—Sir Davos originally came from the lowest slum in the capital city, Flea Bottom—and specialists, the “maesters”. Messenger ravens travel from maester to maester for long-distance communication,
and there are a number of libraries stashed around the island under the control of the maesters, including this rather dazzling one at Oldtown.
This semester, I’m once more teaching a fun course about monsters and, in it, we read, among other things, The Odyssey, and The Hobbit, the one depicting an ancient world and the other a sort of medieval world a bit like that in A Game of Thrones and it’s interesting to see that one of the differences between these two is the appearance—or lack—of literacy.
No one in The Odyssey ever reads or writes anything. Information is conveyed entirely by word of mouth. That news is highly valued when it comes is emphasized in Book 1, where, when Penelope complains that the aoidos (ah-oy-DAWS), Phemios, is singing about the (relatively) recent war at Troy—in the story, obviously treated as a real event–and its aftermath, her son, Telemakhos, replies:
“My mother, why, then, do you begrudge the distinguished singer
To sing in whatever way the spirit moves him?…
For men applaud more a song
[which is] the newest which floats around those listening.” (1.346-352)
These are not readers, then, but those who use their ears to gain knowledge (the Greek word I translated as “listening” is the present active participle akouontessi from the verb akouo, “to hear”).
In the opening chapter of The Hobbit, although Tolkien tells us that “By no means all Hobbits were lettered” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 3 “Of the Ordering of the Shire”), what do we see Bilbo doing (besides smoking an enormous pipe and trying to fend off Gandalf)?
“Then he took out his morning letters, and began to read, pretending to take no more notice of the old man.” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)
(Perhaps my favorite Hildebrandt Bros illustration)
The Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, gives us a bit more about the Shire’s postal system (see 3 “Of the Ordering of the Shire”, as well as does an earlier posting from this blog, “His Letters”, 25 May, 2016), and the very idea of such a system suggests a level of literacy far beyond that of the occasional raven. As well, there are other references to the ability to read, such as the inscriptions, visible and invisible, on Thror’s map,
and even the written announcement of the auction of the (officially assumed deceased) Bilbo’s house and possessions in Chapter 19:
“There was a large notice in black and red hung on the gate, stating that on June the Twenty-second Messrs Grubb, Grubbe, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”)
Kit is laboriously acquiring literacy, as is Sir Davos, each being instructed by someone younger than himself. That makes me wonder who taught Bilbo, let alone anyone else in the Shire—and beyond—to read and how?
As there are no schools in the Shire, we can only presume that it was done in an informal setting, as in the case of Kit and Sir Davos. Beyond that, we can only guess, but we do have a hint in something which the Gaffer says in Chapter One of The Lord of the Rings about Bilbo himself:
“But my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)
So, in the case of Sam, at least, we see the same instruction as that received by Kit and Sir Davos—one on one teaching. For more on this, please see “Learned Him His Letters”, a posting here, from 4 November, 2020.
Thanks, as ever, for reading—and how wonderful it is that we all can do what I still find such a magical act: stepping into other times and other worlds at the turn of a page.
Turn that page,
And remember that there’s always
File under “odd coincidence”–
Martineau’s best known work is this, entitled “Last Day in the Old Home”, painted in 1862.
It is actually a portrait of a friend of the artist, John Leslie Toke, whose most distant ancestor came to England in 1066 with Duke William. That ancestor came from Touques in Normandy and so the spelling and the pronunciation differ, as so often in English. That being the case, the name should be said “Toook”. Although Tolkien goes into a bit of detail about various Tooks in Letters (especially about “Lalia the Great”—see 294-5) and we are given tantalizing hints about Took propensities in Chapter One of The Hobbit, I have yet to see any information about the Tolkienian inspiration for the name, but perhaps the original Baron Touque was a forebear? (For more on the historical family, see: https://www.houseofnames.com/toke-family-crest )