Milo looks around at the confusing marketplace. Vendors shout for people to get their “fresh-picked ifs, ands, and buts” and advertise “Juicy, tempting words for sale.” Milo and Tock wander the aisles studying the words. Some are short, and some of the longer ones are packaged in gift boxes for special occasions. One vendor offers Milo a bag of pronouns. Milo thinks they look wonderful and muses that if he buys some words, he might learn how to use them. He chooses three: quagmire, flabbergast, and upholstery. He doesn’t know what they mean, but they look elegant. When the vendor shares how much they are, Milo puts them back. All the money he has is the coin to get back through the tollbooth.
Now that Milo has seen how interesting words and language can be, it suddenly seems like a good idea to figure out how he can better use language to express himself. The three words Milo chooses are funny because in terms of their definitions, none of them are particularly elegant. In a way, Milo has found himself in a “quagmire,” which is a way to say that he’s in an awkward and uncomfortable situation—and the Lands Beyond have also “flabbergasted” (shocked and confused) him on several occasions. But because Milo doesn’t know what these words mean, he isn’t in on the joke.
Milo and Tock continue to study the words. At the end of the last aisle, they notice a wagon with a sign that says, “DO IT YOURSELF.” There are 26 bins filled with letters. The merchant offers Milo an A to taste; it’s delicious. The man says not all letters are so good; Z and X are dry and stale. But he lets Milo sample an I (which is refreshing) and a C (which is crisp). When the merchant encourages Milo to try making his own words, Milo admits he’s not good at that.
Discovering how these different letters taste is a transformative experience for Milo. While letters were once confusing, now they’re at least interesting because he’s experiencing each one on a sensory level. So, he’s started to move forward in his learning journey. He might not be good at putting the letters together into words yet, but he has to start somewhere.
Just then, an unfamiliar voice offers to help. Milo turns and sees that the voice is coming from an enormous bee. The bee introduces himself as the Spelling Bee. As he speaks, he spells his words. The Spelling Bee insists he can spell anything and asks Milo for a word. Milo asks him to spell “good-by,” and the bee assures Milo he’s not dangerous and then asks for a more difficult word. The most difficult word Milo can come up with is “vegetable.” Tock counts down while the bee pretends to sweat—and then spells the word correctly.
It’s meant to be funny that the most difficult Milo can think of is “vegetable,” since this is a relatively common word. Before coming to the Lands Beyond, Milo was something of a vegetable, in that he didn’t take interest in the world around him and just existed in it. But again, this is a joke for the reader, not for Milo. The Spelling Bee is somewhat pretentious and frightening, though Milo is willing to play along.
This earns Milo’s admiration. The Spelling Bee explains that he used to be an ordinary bee, but then he realized he’d never be anyone of note if he kept sniffing flowers and taking “part-time work in people’s bonnets.” He decided to get an education. But, just then, a booming voice interrupts the bee’s story with a loud “BALDERDASH.” This speaker is a finely dressed, beetle-like insect. The Spelling Bee introduces the newcomer as the Humbug, “a very dislikable fellow.”
Again, the Spelling Bee is pretentious, but he makes one of the novel’s main points: that without education, one will live their life like Milo before coming to the Lands Beyond, just existing and unable to be curious and excited about the world around them. “Humbug” refers to a person who lies as a joke—which suggests that readers should take the Spelling Bee’s advice and treat the Humbug with skepticism.
The Humbug says everyone loves him, including the king. The Spelling Bee insists that the Humbug hasn’t met the king and that the Humbug is a fraud. But the Humbug insists that his family is noble and even fought in the crusades—his family members have been prominent in government for centuries. The Spelling Bee tells the Humbug to go away so he can continue to teach Milo about spelling, but the Humbug cautions Milo to not worry about spelling: caring about spelling is a “sign of a bankrupt intellect.” Milo has no idea what this means. The Spelling Bee starts to divebomb the Humbug and, as they threaten each other, the Humbug trips and crashes into a stall. Everything in the market falls down as Tock’s alarm rings.
Here, the Spelling Bee references the dictionary definition of “humbug” when he calls the bug a fraud. Turning the Humbug into an actual bug is humorous; while people aren’t entirely sure where the term came from, most agree that it has nothing to do with bugs. It’s also ironic that the Humbug uses such flowery language to warn Milo away from learning, since the bug clearly values language and spelling. The Milo at the beginning of the novel didn’t care about learning and would certainly agree with the Humbug, so it creates a disconnect when he can’t understand what the Humbug is saying. Tock’s alarm clock reminds Milo that time is ticking—there’s more to see and do than get caught up in arguments between the Humbug and the Spelling Bee.