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Words… Words… Words…

So I’ve been going through two very different books about language. The first is Through the Looking Glass and the second is The Phantom Tollbooth. I’ll thank Luke for his insights into the former. What I find most intriguing about the two in their diametrically opposed stances about meaning. It amuses me how children’s literature can be so diverse.

Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, and home to such memorable characters as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, Humpty-Dumpty, and the Jabberwocky) takes place in a dream world where words and meanings are fluid, changing shape and purpose more frequently then a college student’s major.  Alice, in her prim and proper world has a hard time reconciling her manners-and-rules based approach with the crazy game-world inside the looking glass.  Nothing works, or makes sense the way it should. In fact, in the end she finally snaps and resorts to violence to solve her problems, which abruptly takes her back into the real world.

Phantom Tollbooth on the other hand is a whimsical story of a bored boy named Milo who journeys through the kingdoms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis (and many others) to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason. By rescuing them, he restores meaning to a world that’s been absurd ever since they left. Milo faces the logical consequences of not thinking, and learning to think about things from multiple angles. In his world, the world does make sense, it just takes a little imagination and wisdom to get used to it.

I hardly think there could be two more opposed views of meaning and language. Naturally, I favor the latter. The universe does have meaning, as does can language. If you take away the inherent meaning behind the world, you wind up where nothing makes sense, nor can it. Any explanation for anything is subject to the speaker’s own vocabulary which may or may not be related to your own. Subsequently, you can’t know what anyone means.

While language definitely changes, it’s not nearly as fluid as Alice would have us believe.  The loss of meaning in modernism didn’t get anybody anywhere beyond Nihilism.  The age of doubt that followed was an age of frustration and mucking about looking for a definitive proof that nothing was definitive.  Looking back from the edge of postmodernism, I think it’s fairly clear that people do better with purpose and an understandable universe. Perhaps we were just built that way.

Thank you Mr. Carol, but I’ll keep my universe intelligible.








Teachers: If you are interested in these books for your high school students, check out the Bright Ideas Press study guides that accompany them here and here.

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