Why Not?


Peasantry Resurrected by Jackson
November 28, 2009, 1:17 am
Filed under: Jackson, Uncategorized

Alice, in Chapter 10, attempts to recite “The Sluggard,” a poem by Isaac Watts. When she recites the second stanza, she is once again tripped up by Wonderland’s strange warping of her brain. Instead of the correct version, this is what is produced:

“I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
While the Own had the dish as its share of the treat.
When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet by -“

At the end of the poem, she is interrupted by the Gryphon, and is unable to finish the phrase. The final words that fill in the blank (to be assumed by the reader), “eating the owl,” are left out, but serve as a valuable nugget of information when attempting to decipher the poem.

As I understand it, the poem is a metaphor for the archaic feudal system employed by lords and peasants circa the Middle Ages. Although the use of the system goes much further back (and forward), the clearest interpretation, with the maximal use of direct comparison, comes from the system that surfaced at the aforementioned time period.

The Panther represents the lords and nobles during the time period. These nobles obtained most of their wealth through the owning of land. Land was the primary indicator of wealth in such times – in fact, to have any say in government affairs, one main qualification was the owning of land. On this land, known as the manor, they practiced what was known as the three-field system. Three cultivated fields, in which crops were rotated depending on the season, were located around several central buildings. These buildings included a mill, houses of the peasantry, stables for the nobleman’s horses, and the largest building on the estate, the manor home. The manor home was the building in which the nobleman and his family, plus assorted servants slept and ate (the servants, of course, not being in such luxurious accommodations as the nobleman et al). Because of all of this land and other assets, the noblemen were dominant in the feudal system – oftentimes superior to even the king of the region, as the king had to rely on the nobles for money and military service.

The Owl, on the other hand, has drawn the short straw, and come to represent the peasants in service to the nobles. The peasants were completely subservient to the nobles, and had generally no say on what happened to them. The presiding nobleman was free to treat them however he wanted. He charged them for use of all town services, including use of the mill, public water (a complicated and contrived system better known as a “river”), and grazing their herd animals on a common pasture. The lord also took plenty of the peasant’s produced grain (or other produce) as a sort of tax. In general, being a noble was great. Being a peasant – not so great.

The comparisons between Alice’s muddled recital of the poem and the feudal system are clear. The Panther and the Owl “sharing” the pie is a representation of the division of the peasant’s produce after the harvest. The Panther, says the poem, “took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,” – in other words, all the expensive and fine crops that the nobleman wished to have for himself, or could sell at a high price at the market. The Owl, however, “had the dish as its share of the treat” – the simple grains and basic staples necessary for life, such as bread, common fruits, and other non-luxurious foodstuffs.

When the pie has been consumed, the utensils must be distributed amongst the two diners. The utensils, in this case, represent the weapons and forms of defense that were available, with which the peasants and nobles were able (or, in some cases, unable) to protect themselves. The Owl is left with the humble spoon. The spoon represents the simple weapons of the peasant, such as the common farm tools – the pitchfork, the hoe, and the rake. These were complemented by walls that may or may not have existed around the manor, depending on how cheap the nobleman was. As the spoon is blunt, so were the weapons of the peasantry crude and generally ineffective.

The Panther, however, has the knife and the fork. These were the proper weapons and armor of knights under his command. These armored knights were very capable fighters on the battlefield, and were not to be trifled with by enemy forces. Although the nobleman did have to pay the knights for their service (in the form of land), the rewards to the nobleman far outweighed the deficits. Complementing the knights in shining armor were the powerful war machines. These medieval weapons of mass destruction took the form of trebuchets, catapults, and onagers. All three of these devices were designed to throw projectiles a tremendous distance. When large boulders came crashing down on an opposing army, the result was nothing short of stunning.

The last line, in which the Owl is devoured, is yet another example of the treatment of peasants by their lords. When peasants died, rare was the case that a noble would care about it, let alone know that it had happened. As long as peasants were numerous to tend their crops, nobles were relatively ignorant of any losses of life among the peasants that they oversaw. If, however, the number of peasants dropped below a critical level, however, the nobleman would generally attempt to raid another manor, and so obtain not only its land, but also its labor, in the form of yet more peasants. In this way, the manor system devoured peasants. As long as a fuel of cheap/free labor was supplied, the manor engine kept running, and the nobles were happy with their apparent success.

Alice’s garbled recital of “The Sluggard” yields many surprising connections. Through the lens of the feudal system, it can clearly be seen that Carrol had more than a simple “guided misguidance” on his mind. With simple analysis of a complex poem comes many valuable pieces of information, and all of these nuggets are to be treasured.


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