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Not the Sharpest Pencil in the Box

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There is a fan convention that William, and hence Spike, was a thoroughly educated man, adept at languages and especially the classics. It is rare to find a fic in which the subject comes up where William was not just able but a scholar, one of the best and brightest of his generation, the sort of chap who lapped up schooling as if it were cocoa. So I want to consider the facts that support or oppose this case, just what William’s schooling might have been like and what effects it would have had on him, and why Spike should have become credited so often with being a brilliant scholar.

When it comes to canon details concerning Spike’s educational attainments there are actually a surprising number of them.

Our first encounter with Spike battling with linguistics is in What’s My Line, Part 1 when he needs the secret to Dru’s cure from the Du Lac manuscript.

Cut to Spike’s warehouse. Drusilla is standing at one end of a large table dealing her tarot cards. At the other end Spike is looking on as Dalton tries to translate the ancient text in the book that they stole from the library.
Read it again.
Well, I’m not sure. It could be, uh... shrugs with his hands deprimere... ille... bubula... linter.
paging through a dictionary Debase, the beef, canoe.
Dalton looks up at Spike and smiles a stupid smile. Spike cannot abide him and punches him in the face.
Why does that strike me as not right?
Dalton looks at him sheepishly and turns his attention back to the book.
Spike, come dance? holds out her hand
angry Give us some peace, would you? Can’t you see I’m working?
Drusilla pulls back her hand and begins to pout and whine like a puppy.
Oh, I’m sorry, kitten. goes to her It’s just this manuscript. Supposed to hold your cure, but it reads like gibberish. Even Dalton here, the big brain, he can’t make heads or tails of it.
Well. Come on, now. Enlighten me.
Uh,well, it looks like Latin, but it’s not. I-I’m not even sure it’s, it’s a language, actually, I...
Then make it a language! Isn’t that what a transcriber does?!
Well, not exactly...
He yelps as Spike grabs him by the shirt and lifts him from his chair.
I want the cure.
Why not? Some people find pain punches Dalton in the stomach very inspirational.
Dalton doubles over.
looks up from her cards He can’t help you. Not without... the key.
The key? You mean this book is in some kind of code?
Dalton nods weakly, still in pain.

What’s My Line, Part 1

So in other words this book is written in what appears to be Latin, but he has got in Dalton to help him. The fact that it isn’t normal Latin is sufficiently unclear that Dalton takes some time to realize the fact. Why then, if Spike can read Latin, can’t Spike attempt the translation himself? Why isn’t he the one working out that actually it isn’t Latin at all? The only suggestion I can make is that the script itself is hard to read. Fair enough then, that lets Spike off the hook and might explain why a master linguist needs a transcriber. But what about the bits of supposed Latin that are read out to him? deprimere... ille... bubula... linter This is not advanced stuff so why the hell does Spike need a dictionary if he’s so brilliant at Latin? This comes across to me as someone who can scrape together a bit of Latin – enough to bother to offer to help Dalton, but certainly isn’t comfortable enough with the language to translate in his head.

Next we have Spike’s slightly more creditable translation of the inscription in Empty Places

The inscription is Latin words written with Greek letters:



Which Spike translates as It is not for thee. It is for her alone to wield.

The correct translation is apparently:

It is not for you. He/she only is permitted to touch/handle/wield.

(This was not translated by me but by Prillalar who actually knows what she’s talking about.)

The vital point being that Spike incorrectly translates the gender of the subject as ’her’ when it is actually indeterminable. So yet again we see Spike as being competent at Latin but by no means above average. And he can read Greek letters.

ETA: It has been pointed out that the inscription in fact reads


I have now tracked down my original source for this and I’m enquiring as to the implications. It looks as if maybe Spike was correct after all. I don’t think that substantially alters my argument but I will get back to you.

We also know Spike can speak two words of Italian – Strada and Ciao (The Girl In Question). He has earlier claimed that he can’t speak the language at all.

Pack your bags.
I don’t even speak the language.
We’ll get you a book.
How do you say ‘wank off’ in Italian?

The Girl In Question

It is interesting to note Angel’s reaction to this – he is rather rude and intolerant, yet despite the fact that Spike has been in Italy with him before he clearly doesn’t expect Spike to be able to speak Italian. In fact he is very surprised when Spike produces a single word of it.

Well, it’s gone now, isn’t it? You gonna stand here in the strada yelling at me all night?
Did you just say strada?
It means street.
Yeah. I know what it means.

The Girl In Question

There is a similar situation as regards Spike speaking no (or very, very little) German (Why We Fight). Angelus and Spike have been in Germany together (Frankfurt, some time between 1880 and 1894, having a run-in with the Immortal) yet Spike can’t speak German and just as interestingly seems unaware that Angel can. It is rather difficult to be sure if Angel expects Spike to understand at least some German when he instructs him to menace the Nazi – that is very much open to interpretation. I have my own personal bias since this affects some long established details of the peasantverse so I’m not going to comment further.

What can Spike do? He can speak the demonic language Fyarl which is neither here nor there (A New Man) as regards his human education. And it is just possible he understands a little of the African language addressed to him when going to visit Lurky the re-ensouling demon, but you can’t really say from context (Villains). He has a reasonable stock of Shakespearian quotations and a pretty extensive knowledge of demon breeds many of which he can recognize and name on sight (far more than either of the watchers, for example). Oh and Angelus commented that he never did learn his history (BTVS 2/21 Becoming Part 1).

I think it is worth bearing in mind Spike’s own assessment of his abilities:

I don’t exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood, which doesn’t exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes, a lot of wrong bloody calls.


And Angel’s:

I’m detecting brainwave activity.
On Spike? That is weird.

Just Rewards

We can safely assume that if anyone taught him his knowledge of Fyarl and demons it was Angelus, but for the rest now would be a good point to stop and consider William’s schooling.

At a best guess (the famous ’twenty-seven’ theory) William was born in 1853 into a middle class family. His exact social status is impossible to determine from what we saw on screen, but for once let me try and go with what seems to have been intended rather than what was actually conveyed, so let us say upper middle class. Leaving aside the wildly eccentric, such a boy could have been educated in the following ways:

He might have been educated at home. This was the normal thing for girls but also fairly common for any boy considered too frail for reasons of health or mentality to attend a school. It was also common for younger boys to have a governess until they were old enough to be sent away to school. There is however quite strong evidence (see below) that William went to school at some stage. But, it is very unlikely he was educated other than at home until the age of about eight (c. 1861), possibly for longer.

He might then have attended a private school. That is a school run by an individual as a private enterprise. Many young boys attended a private school when they were too old for a governess but not old enough for a public school. However, boys not considered suited to a public school might have their whole education at a private establishment. He would probably have attended a private school for a year or two between the ages of eight and thirteen. In the 1860s the prep school was a very new idea, most private schools catered for the full age range of boys, although they might well be very small – as few as half a dozen pupils. (Note for Yanks: prep school in the British sense means a school for younger boys only, i.e. a school that prepares them for their public school.)

Finally there was public school. (Note for Yanks: If you really don’t know what a British public school is, go and look it up.) As noted above, not every boy of his class was sent to a public school, but a very large proportion of them were. In the 1860s he would probably have started at between twelve and fifteen (1865-1868) and stayed until he was seventeen to nineteen. By this date the public schools were starting to become slightly more civilized places – the full excesses of the early nineteenth century were being eliminated as the Arnold revolution spread, so there was less heavy drinking, gambling, rioting, sexual freedom, exploitation of the younger boys by the elder and a semblance of order, moral structure and even education was beginning to emerge. They still were not the sort of place anybody reading this would let their children near, which was why many frail boys were kept at home or went to a small private school instead. (Incidentally, at the risk of bursting some dearly treasured bubbles, the incidence of homosexuality waxed and waned in most schools, with periodic spates followed by purges, so, astonishing as it may seem, not every boy left having been buggered nightly.)

I refuse to enter into any games guessing which public school he might have attended (other than for purely frivolous jollity, of course Aerin0nab, ;o) since the variables and the possibilities are too many. They all have their own ethos and character, and they all took boys who were variations from the norm, so really there is nowhere sensible one can start.

Whatever his school, the curriculum would vary slightly but not much. The main business of education for a boy was always the classics – Latin, Greek and possibly Euclid (geometry) none of which was taught because it was useful but all because it was considered good training for the mind.

A governess would nominally give him the widest curriculum since they normally claimed to be able to provide all the accomplishments a young lady needed – French, German, Music, Drawing, Geography, History etc. To be considered competent to teach a boy a governess would also have to offer Latin and preferably Greek, otherwise she would be supplemented by a tutor.

In the 1860s a private or public school might well only teach the classics and nothing else at all. Lessons concentrated on the rules of grammar (Greek grammar rules were taught in Latin just to make it funner) learning large chunks by heart and then reciting them, and translating. Such delights as French, History and even mathematics only started to appear on their curriculums as the century progressed. A modern school might have offered them in the 1860s but many of the more hide bound ones didn’t until the 1880s or 90s. The private schools (who had to work harder for their clientele) would be more likely to offer additional subjects than the public schools. Many schools would however permit or even encourage private tuition to make up the deficiencies in their nominal curriculum.

To teach this mind numbingly dull curriculum to boys of every ability, the schools had developed their notorious system of discipline. A boy who failed at his lessons spent his life in detention and writing lines, and if he persisted in being stupid he would be beaten. The boys responded by developing cribs – a set of books with the translations already written out – and devoting all their energy to sport. By the 1860s cricket and football had already become the main point of a public school.

All of which means that if William had survived his schooling without knowing some Latin and Greek it would have been a small miracle, but there is no reason why he had to have learnt any modern language, history or any other subject. English literature, incidentally, is only a modern subject so he picked up all his Shakespearian quotations by himself. We can also say with some certainty that he can play cricket.

What though did William think of his schooling? Did he enjoy it as the brilliant scholar so often portrayed in fan fic? Did he resent the sport and concentrate all his energies on being the class swot, hiding behind his glasses while the other chaps were being manly on the rugger pitch?

To start with let me point out that the notion that a person has to be either a sporting ’jock’ or an academic nerd but never both is an entirely American notion. The ethos in a British public school was and still is that everybody is expected to be good at sport if they possibly can be and sporting ability bears no relationship to academic attainment either way. But almost the only hope of popularity came from sport – there was no separate culture for those who couldn’t play games. The sport at Victorian schools was not prescribed by the masters but was an entirely recreational activity, run and organised by the boys themselves. As such, given the disciplinary role that older boys took over younger ones, it was far more compulsory than anything the masters might have imposed.

Now Spike is obviously a very active person – he uses physical activity, the more violent the better, as a way to relieve his feelings. I don’t see any reason why this should be something that he only developed after death. To me it is very consistent with something that could have started in a Victorian school boy letting his pent up energies explode on the sports field. But as I say, having a taste for games would be expected of him, and it wouldn’t reflect on his academic abilities either way.

In antithesis to this, public schools also fostered a rather bizarre notion that nobody should try too hard at anything – being a keen amateur is so much more admirable than anyone who takes a professional attitude to anything. This ethos was just starting to develop in the 1860s and 70s as sport began its meteoric rise in the public schools and would have meant that if William really was keen at his books then he would be considered really rather odd and a social outcast in every way possible. It wasn’t quite as bad then as it became later but it was just starting. I’m not sure how much of this attitude we can detect in Spike. He does have a tendency to sneer and walk away from enthusiastic group activity but I don’t think there is any real evidence of him worshipping amateurism.

A further point arises because most of the school work consisted of turning Latin and Greek into English verse or vice versa. Now this has been described as a knack – you either had it or you didn’t. But with the aid of cribs you could get by if you didn’t have the knack of churning out the verses simply by being moderately diligent and plugging away at it, while no further amount of work would actually improve your performance. The second common requirement was a good memory for the verses – again, something that with patience and practice can be acquired and then not much improved upon (you could either remember the set pieces or you couldn’t). This is the origin of two well noted facets of the British public school character – a derision for excessive swotting whilst also being pretty diligent and having a capacity to stick to boring tasks. These men could be sent out to some far flung corner of the empire and relied upon to do their work with minimal supervision. I think we can actually see this in Spike’s character:

Once he starts something he doesn’t stop until everything in his path is dead.

School Hard

And incidentally he clearly has a good memory for demon types and Shakespeare.

Now, as regards to what Spike thinks of schools we do actually have some canon evidence.

She responded to Buffy Bot because a robot is predictable. Boring. Perfect teacher’s pet. That’s all schools are, you know, just factories spewing out mindless little automatons.

Bargaining, Part 1

(Aside for those who have knowledge of popular music – would that song by, I believe, The Who ‘We Don’t Want No Education’ be concomitant with Spike’s taste?)

We also have his very interesting reaction to Wood in Get It Done. He is quite polite until he realises Wood isn’t being so, when he turns nasty sharpish. Most of which can be put down to sexual rivalry but it is interesting the way he chooses to insult Wood – by calling him ’the educator’

Principal Wood
(discussing Spike’s soul) Oh, come on, Spike. Don’t blame Buffy. I asked.
Right. The educator. Yeah, I went to great lengths. Lots of trouble, and now I’m unique. Well, more or less. Got myself a soul, whatever that means.

Get It Done

Most of this is done with tone which the quote doesn’t really convey but it comes across to me that in Spike’s mind to be an educator – a man who asks questions – is nothing to be proud of. Calling Wood an educator is very much an insult the way he phrases it. Incidentally, he most certainly isn’t thinking of Angelus when he says this since when considering his own uniqueness as a souled vampire a sentence later he pauses before remembering he isn’t the only one. Angel thus isn’t in the forefront of his mind at this point.

There are a couple of other important references that shed some light on Spike’s attitude to education. The first is when he is being held and tortured by the First.

Ooh, daddy. No kicking. It’s almost Christmas day today and you’ve gone spoiling it. I’ve been so very good all year. (growls playfully in Spike’s face) But I could be bad if you like. (Spike looks away from her, but the UberVamp punches him in the head) Bad daddy. Needs a caning. Never learned his headmaster’s lesson while all the school bells ring and ring and ring and ring and ring... (bends down to whisper in his ear) Choose a side. Choose our side. You know that it’s delicious. What do you say?

Bring On The Night

Now obviously this is confusing – the references to how he ought to be bad to be good might well mean this is referring more to the lessons in evil Angelus taught him than anything he learnt as a human. But it does at the least seem to imply that for Spike, school and being beaten and not learning his lessons are notions that are all very much mixed up together in his mind. I also think it means that we can say with some certainty that he did go to school and didn’t just have a governess or tutor at home.

But perhaps the strongest evidence for William’s education comes from the episode appropriately called Lessons:

(Yelling) Don’t you think I’m trying? I’m not fast. I’m not a quick study. (Suddenly crying) I dropped my board in the water and the chalk all ran. Sure to be caned. (Laughs) Should’ve seen that coming.


Just let me parse out the middle bit: board in a Victorian sense could possibly mean an academic cap or mortar board, quite why it should have chalk on it and it be important for it not to be washed off is anybody’s guess. Or you could imagine something involving the board used to mark up a cricket score which is indeed written on with chalk. What Joss presumably actually meant was a slate (and they didn’t write on them with chalk they used a squeaky slate pencil, but let’s be charitable and ignore such details.) A slate is a tool for younger children only so this was something that happened to William while he was quite young. And the sure to be caned sums up the typical Victorian attitude to education – mistakes were the child’s fault not down to circumstances or academic disabilities or an unhappy home life. Poor little sod.

But let’s not beat about the bush here: I’m not fast. I’m not a quick study.

All in all I think the canon shows that Spike remembers school as an unpleasant experience, that he became tolerable in Latin and possibly Greek but not exceptionally competent, and that there is no evidence for him having any facility for other languages except possibly Fyarl.

All of which makes me wonder why the fan convention has become so strikingly common. Most fanon has at least some basis in canon, this one seems to actively contradict it.

Now, we like Spike, and there is obviously a desire to paint William as a talented individual, so making him out to be excessively studious and clever at the classics, with other linguistic abilities to boot, may be an obvious way to do this. Chase820 said recently, speaking of his having a photographic memory, that she was damned if Angel was having a super-power that Spike didn’t and maybe something similar also influences people’s desire to make Spike multi-lingual. (Angel has shown a facility for several languages.)

But overall I think this phenomenon mostly comes from people who engage closely with the notion of William as a gentle, rather put-upon man. For them their understanding of Spike is heightened and sharpened by having him come from the gentlest of bookish backgrounds. I wonder if a lot of it comes down to that business I remarked upon earlier – a largely American thing, I think – whereby anyone who is bullied is seen as the antithesis to the boisterous, rather bullying jock culture, and that they have associated academic, possibly rather nerdish, abilities. William was bullied and gentle, therefore William was bookish – the connection seems to be too obvious to comment upon in many people’s minds.

I hope I have shown a slightly alternative point of view.