The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Three Parables

by the Hon. Lady Welby
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 852


The letters of the alphabet once met to discuss the question of Whence, Whither, and Why? And one got up and said, "The whole question really comes to this, "What are we?" So all applauded. And as they were very practical letters and proud of their common sense, they felt that the first point to be clear about was, that they meant nothing; for no "meaning" could be weighed or measured, or even proved by demonstration to exist. They did not see, of course, that if so there as no sense in them, common or other, and they scouted the idea of a "meaning" as a superstitious legend or a survival of early fetchism. So they insisted that all they could really know about themselves was that they were irregular marks, angular or curved, sprawling over a surface or incised upon it; gathered in close-set groups or set wide apart, by the action of mechanical or at least unconscious forces. But at last one summoned courage and said, "Is it really so certain that these groupings and these intervals have no reason and no object? May we not form part of what has 'meaning'? Surely a 'meaning' is the only thing that makes us letters at all and not merely blots or scrawls or scratches."

So hearing this, they examined each other with microscopes, and subjected each other and the stuff on which they were traced, to all the tests they could think of. But no nearer to their origin, their object, and their "meaning" did they get. At length one said, "I find sometimes that when we are joined in a group great results follow. Some of us were arranged the other day on a scrap of paper and carried through the air. Then I saw, as usual, a pair of eyes fixed on us; but in a moment a mouth opened to shout 'Charge!' and, with a sound like thunder, a great company of men and horses swept forwards and overwhelmed an army. Yes no one came and thanked us; the one who arranged us came and praised the one who looked and spoke." "And I," said another letter, "was arranged in many groups with many brothers, and drops fell on us as the paper we were married upon was folded and closed up. Then came a time of darkness; but I saw the light at last, and found myself on the other side of the world with a pair of loving eyes fixed on us. And murmuring sounds of blessing might be heard. . . . Was this because of our beauty of form, or what?" But none could answer; though many had like stories to relate. Then a bolder letter suggested that not merely in arrangement lay their power, but that their very being implied a writer who was Whence and a reader who was Whither; both were Why.

Now as letters only, the marks and the cuttings could not know this. But as elements of words they had a realising power (through inference) which they could use. They could live as markings merely, or in their character as word-builders. And those who recognised their noble work and reason became able to reach through the eyes to the hearts and minds of those who wrote and read them.

Thus too they discovered their brotherhood with sounded words and letters. Nothing could be more difference, of course, than spoken and written words. But they learnt to discern identity of nature and purpose through what seemed an "impassable gulf" of difference. Thus they became in conscious union and motive, more and more expressive, greater and greater in power and in blessing. Yet even so, there arose among them some who maintained that the sole discoverable laws of their being were those of spelling and grammar; and that all notion of their power, through their meaning, upon those who "understood them" was a mere relic of dark days of pre-alphabetic hieroglyph; a fancy bred in times when they were pictures and not letters. But even these grew wiser in the end; and mastering the secret of their Why and Whence and Whither, found the Mystery of Letterhood made plain; learning through their service What they were, and bring, might attempt, and could achieve.


In a nursery one day, the Needle, the Walking-stick, the Toyship, the Candle, the Hoop, the Top, and the Baby all discussed together the best way of standing upright. The Needle said, "You must be stuck into something," "No," said the Walking-stick, "you must be held in a hand." "Not a bit," said the Toyship, you must float on a liquid surface." "You'll find there's only one way to manage it," said the Candle; you must be fitted into a candle-socket." "Much better roll along straight as quick as you can!" retorted the Hoop. "The true way is to spin so fast that you seem quite still, and are described as 'asleep,'" cried the Top.

Meanwhile the Baby had struggled to his legs; and after swaying backwards and forwards for a moment, proudly stood upright and looked round upon the company smiling. "You're all wrong," said he, crowing and chuckling, "for I'm stuck into nothing, floating on nothing, fitted into nothing, and neither rolling nor spinning! The best way to stand upright is to get on your legs, and stay there!"



"I wish I could help it," said the cloud.

And though the farmers and gardeners said there was plenty of wet in the ground he could not restrain a little burst of tears, which the rainbow instantly rushed to span with its arch of comfort.

"Why, what's the trouble?" said the wind, as he swept by on a sweetening errand in the city.

"Only that, try as I may, I cannot help making a deep shadow as I go, so those in the shadow can't see the silver of me, and they are afraid of letting me fertilise the earth, and all the little drops which are wanted in heaven are afraid of trusting me to carry them into the blue."

Typed by happi, June 2017