we tuck our children into bed at night and tell them fairy tales and
nursery rhymes, we intend them to nod off peacefully and have pleasant
dreams. But how pleasant can their dreams be when their sleepy little
heads are filled not with visions of sugar plums but with fear, violence
Their little heads are destined to be filled with the same images
as ours were: blind mice who run but can't escape having their tails
amputated with a carving knife; a boy who kisses girls and makes them
cry; an old woman living in a shoe who whips her hungry children for
no reason; babies rocking in cradles and falling down when branches
break; Solomon Grundy, born on Monday is dead by the end of the week;
Tom, the Piper's son, steals pigs; scary spiders frighten little girls
on tuffets; Humpty Dumpty falls off a wall and can never be fixed;
and monkeys who catch weasels and pop them. How did this carnage begin?
Some of these tales have been around for a very long time and generally
date from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries as one of England's most
enduring forms of oral culture. Apparently most nursery rhymes were
originally composed for adult entertainment, originating as popular
ballads and songs.
The earliest known published collection of nursery rhymes was Tommy
Thumb's (Pretty) Song Book (London, 1744). It included "Little Tom
Tucker," "Sing a Song of Sixpence," and "Who Killed Cock Robin?" The
most influential was "Mother Goose's Melody: Sonnets for the Cradle,"
published by John Newberry in 1781. Among its 51 rhymes were "Jack
and Jill," "Ding Dong Bell," and "Hush-a-bye baby on the tree top."
on the tree top,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
to Vikki Harris' "The Origin of Nursery Rhymes & Mother Goose" (1997),
regardless of their malevolent words, the nursery rhymes that were
popular years ago, and still are today, can be placed into three categories.
First are the lullabies, the songs and melodies with which most of
us are familiar. These were far from soothing but rather are said
to have been sung in order to intimidate the child and/or used as
an outlet for the emotions of the parent or nurse:
|Bye, baby bunting,
Daddy's gone a-hunting,
Gone to get a rabbit skin
To wrap the baby bunting in.
Bye, baby bumpkin
Where's Tony Lumpkin
My lady's on her death-bed,
With eating half a pumpkin.
|A second reason
for the development of nursery rhymes was as infant amusement. Counting
rhymes, and alphabet rhymes fit into this category, and are generally
One, two, three,
Once I caught a fish alive,
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
Then I let him go again.
Here's A, B,
C, D, E, F, and G,
H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V,
W, X, Y, and Z-
And O, dear me,
shall I learn
My A, B, C?
were readily used for the amusement of infants and toddlers. Perhaps
the two best known are:
pat-a-cake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and prick it, and mark it with B,
And put it in the oven for baby and me
piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed home,
This little piggy had roast beef,
This little piggy had none,
And this little piggy cried,
Wee, wee, wee
All the way home.
is also possible that the credit of preservation should go to the
nursery itself," explains Henry Bett in "Nursery Rhymes and Tales
- Their Origin and History (1968) "We owe the preservation of our
nursery rhymes and nursery tales from remote ages to the astonishing
persistence of popular tradition, reinforced by the characteristic
conservatism of childhood which insists on having rhymes repeated
the same way each time."
In the circle
game Ring-around-the-rosie, links have been made to the Great Plague
of London and Edinburgh. The lines "Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down"
or "Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! We've all tumbled down" is referring
to the death of the people.
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Three blind mice
Three blind mice,
See how they run!
They all ran after a farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice?
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought 'twas all in fun.
Pop! goes the weasel.
Georgie Porgie, puddin' and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
(This rhyme refers to the amorous and amoral Prince Regent who became
George IV during Regency times in England)
Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
you carefully reread Hansel and Gretel, you may never again repeat
it to your children:
by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two
children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little
to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land,
he could no longer procure even daily bread. Now when he thought over
this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned
and said to his wife, what is to become of us. How are we to feed
our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves.
I'll tell you what, husband, answered the woman, early to-morrow morning
we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest.
There we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more
piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone.
They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.
No, wife, said the man, I will not do that. How can I bear to leave
my children alone in the forest. The wild animals would soon come
and tear them to pieces. O' you fool, said she, then we must all four
die of hunger, you may as well plane the planks for our coffins, and
she left him no peace until he consented. But I feel very sorry for
the poor children, all the same, said the man.
The two children had also not been able to sleep for hunger, and had
heard what their step-mother had said to their father. Gretel wept
bitter tears, and said to Hansel, now all is over with us.
| In "The Truth
Behind Goldilocks," Mental Floss - Volume 2, Richard Zachs writes
that we are reading watered-down versions of the fairy tales and that
the originals were far more graphic and brutal.
In the earliest known version (1831) of Goldilocks, discovered in
Toronto, the author, one Eleanor Mure, a 32-year-old maiden aunt,
created "The Story of The Three Bears" for her nephew, Horace Broke.
The original "Goldilocks" was an "angry old woman" who breaks into
the bears' house because they snubbed her during a recent social call.
Once the three bears catch the old woman, they try to figure out what
to do with her. Here's what they came up with:
|On the fire
they throw her, but burn her they couldn't;
In the water they put her, but drown there she wouldn't;
They seize her before all the wondering People,
And chuck her aloft on St. Paul's churchyard steeple;
And if she's still there, when you earnestly look,
You will see her quite plainly -- my dear Little Horbook!
|No other version
has Goldilocks impaled on a church steeple. The grayhaired old lady
didn't become a goldenhaired young girl until 1918.
Some believe Cock Robin referred to the death of Robin Hood, the legendary
hero who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin Hood's many
friends are well represented in the poem, as creatures eager to help.
Another theory (Damon Kingshott) speculates that the poem refers to
18th Century English Prime Minister Robert Walpole.
|Who killed Cock
"Who killed Cock
Robin?" "I," said the Sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
"Who saw him die?" "I," said the Fly,
"With my little eye, I saw him die."
"Who caught his blood?" "I," said the Fish,
"With my little dish, I caught his blood."
"Who'll make the shroud?" "I," said the Beetle,
"With my thread and needle, I'll make the shroud."
"Who'll dig his grave?" "I," said the Owl,
"With my pick and shovel, I'll dig his grave."
"Who'll be the parson?" "I," said the Rook,
"With my little book, I'll be the parson."
"Who'll be the clerk?" "I," said the Lark,
"If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk."
"Who'll carry the link?" "I," said the Linnet,
"I'll fetch it in a minute, I'll carry the link."
"Who'll be chief mourner?" "I," said the Dove,
"I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner."
"Who'll carry the coffin?" "I," said the Kite,
"If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin."
"Who'll bear the pall? "We," said the Wren,
"Both the cock and the hen, we'll bear the pall."
"Who'll sing a psalm?" "I," said the Thrush,
"As she sat on a bush, I'll sing a psalm."
"Who'll toll the bell?" "I," said the bull,
"Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell."
All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.
| The tales which
we so fondly recall from our childhood will be passed on to our children
and produce yet another generation of nursery lore and gore.
Who killed Cock Robin? I did Mommy. It was fun.