Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Wisdom and Knowledge

By Neil Gaiman

Wisdom and Knowledge

The plaques that explained who they were also told me that the majority of them had murdered their families and sold the bodies to anatomy. It was then that the word anatomy garnered its own edge of horror for me. I did not know what anatomy was. I knew only that anatomy made people kill their children. (2.36)

We fear what we do not understand. This poor kid is terrified of anatomy because he has no idea what it means—he just knows it has a sinister implication in one particular context. When he gets older, he probably realizes that anatomy is just the study of body parts, and laughs at himself.

Then she took down five chipped mugs from a cupboard, and hesitated, looking at the woman.

The woman said, "You're right. Six. The doctor will be here too." Then the woman pursed her lips and made a tchutch! Noise. "They've missed the note," she said. "He wrote it so carefully too, folded it and put it in his breast pocket, and they haven't looked there yet."

"What does it say?" asked Lettie.

"Read it yourself," said the woman. (2. 66-69)

This is one of the first places where we realize that the Hempstock women are weirdly omniscient. They know about the care the opal miner took in writing his suicide note, and can even read it from where they are.

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, "Be whole," and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping. (4.78)

The translation here is knowledge is power. He understands an ancient language and gets a vision of his own future in which that language—just understanding the language—allows him to heal people. That's pretty intense.

"…We could turn the boy into something else, so they'd never find him, look how hard they might." I blinked. Was that even possible? I wanted to be turned into something. (9.31)

Haven't you ever wanted to know how to do that? Just wake up one morning and—poof—you're a Velociraptor. We want to learn how to do that.

"That'd work, and work well," said Lettie, "if there was any witches involved in all this. But there's not." (9.41)

Confirmation that the Hempstocks are not witches—hallelujah. Anyway, read up on this saying, it's pretty neat.

"Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't."

[…]

"Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters." (10.44-46)

Here's another example of how knowledge can equal power. If you know that monsters are acting out of fear, doesn't it make them a little less scary? Obviously, they might still be huge and violent and angry, but understanding their motivations takes away a little bit of the element of the unknown.

"I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world." (10.48)

Lettie is wise beyond her years (which we know total more than eleven, that's for sure). To a normal kid adults do seem like they know everything and are all-powerful—but to know that on the inside they're not much different than a seven-year-old takes away a little bit of their invulnerability.

The second thing I thought was that I knew everything. Lettie Hempstock's ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe, from Egg to Rose. I knew that. I knew what Egg was—where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void—and I knew where Rose was—the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind. (13.24)

Do you know what Egg is?

I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. (13.26)

If you look at this quote and the one before it (13.24), we can see the contrasts between two ways of viewing knowledge and wisdom. On one hand it's a beautiful symphony of discovery, and on the other it's something dark and dirty and frightening. But on another hand it could be something totally neutral… but then you'd have three hands, so we'll just leave it at that.

"She's not dead. You didn't kill her, nor did the hunger birds, although they did their best to get to you through her. She's been given to her ocean. One day, in its own time, the ocean will give her back." (14.35)

In this case, knowledge brings comfort. Ginnie is understandably distraught, but she's not totally losing it because she knows that Lettie isn't dead. She needs time to recover, but eventually the ocean will return her as good as new—and knowing that is keeping her mother sane.