I wrote this article for a West Country community newsletter that I used to contribute to regularly. Subsequently, this piece was also accepted for publication by Gothic Fairy Tales. However, little was I to know that its publication in a small Devon paper would result in my receiving fan mail…all the way from South Africa! A North Devon ‘maid’ (as they are often referred to) had moved all that way but continued to pay for and receive local news as a reminder of her true home and the place where her heart lies. She simply adored The Grimm Truth and wanted to thank me for writing it. No one could have been more surprised and delighted than I. Until I began writing novels this was my first instance of anyone outside of the UK reading my work. Who was to know that a simple article would travel such a long way?
Take someone who has not only travelled abroad but also explored many counties in the United Kingdom. Couple this with an extensive interest in writing, and one cannot visit these places without gaining an awareness of the numerous tales and fables that exist, many unique to the areas. For a writer, it is impossible to ignore the tales of King Oberon’s epic battle on Dartmoor and the wealth of legends regarding fairies and pixies in Devon alone. These stories are born out of and are woven into the magic of legend and history. Yet, as adults, we segregate many of them to the realm of quaintness and childhood. Many of us fail fully to comprehend the extent early delights such as Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes are part of that wealth.
It may surprise many to know that the stories we now regard as created for and belonging to children were originally intended for adults only. They were often traditional folk tales with endings that were far more bloodthirsty than their modern-day counterparts. No one saved granny or the little girl in the red hood from the wolf’s ‘great big teeth’ and Sleeping Beauty was not awakened by a kiss, but impregnated by the prince, and even gave birth while still she slept. These stories speak of mysterious times and places, yet they are a tool to reflect incidences in our own lives and history. It was during the Victorian era that these stories began to be rewritten, printed, and delegated to the realm of children’s imagination. However, maybe in this they still serve their purpose for when read to children now, parents are unconsciously teaching their offspring that bad things happen in life, that we have to learn to deal with them, and that with a little luck and maybe perseverance the good guy can still win. Simply, these stories now teach us at an increasingly young age of the world in which we live, and they should not be regarded lightly or dismissed.
A well-known producer of collectable figurines clearly saw the potential of delving into these fantasies and tapping into the darker origins for adults. Consequently, a small series of figurines depicting these story characters combined with the macabre and Gothic, a soupcon of humour and eroticism hit the market as their response. Certainly not to everyone’s taste, a brief mention is not to publicise them, but to draw attention to the fact that these stories are still with us, and their influence remains as strong. In addition, these strange figures delved slightly out of the realm of fairy tales into the neighbouring text of nursery rhymes, these ditties that are regularly told to children of an even younger age. Indeed, some encyclopaedias classify them as verses for children.
Reminded of childhood reminiscences, I particularly recalled a book given to me by my grandmother containing works of the Brothers Grimm who collected stories as a study of their culture. Conversely, Hans Christian Anderson wrote his own stories, though he readily incorporated elements from the world around him. The Brothers were unhappy to find their work often referenced to children as they intended these tales for all. This was a contention they shared with Anderson, though their tales were sometimes considered coarse, while Anderson’s were often moralistic.
Knowing most fairy tales were not originally intended for younger audiences left the question of nursery verses and the origins and original intentions behind these short, entertaining rhymes. Choosing one for research purposes led to some interesting and equally entertaining information and equally if not more disturbing answers.
A few of us may be aware that Ring Around the Rosies was an account of the black plague and referred to the circles that occurred around the eyes; this ends unsurprisingly with people ‘falling down’ (dead). Conversely, how many of us remember Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater? How many of us would be content to read this to our children knowing that the origins are from America instead of Europe, though this may seem obvious since pumpkins were not readily available in England until recent years? Not much to concern anyone there even with the Pumpkin’s connotations of Halloween. Yet, how many of us would happily sit down to read this rhyme to children knowing what the verse actually meant. “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater had a wife and couldn’t keep her” translates into an unfaithful wife; hence, he couldn’t ‘keep’ her. He put her in a pumpkin shell (pumpkin shell in this instance meaning chastity belt) and there he kept her very well.
Incidentally, the face carved in the Pumpkin is to frighten bad spirits away: it is not a bad entity itself. Another frequent mistake: children are not meant to trick you if they do not give them a treat. They are meant to ask for you to give them a treat or for you to play a trick on them: more examples of where traditions have been twisted to suit this modern age. So adults enlightened, children beware!
The truth is many of the rhymes that we once laughed over at bedtime were written using fact, even politics. Many were folk songs or even prayers; many rhymes were direct digs at greed and taxation. Some may have traditional customs. They may also be categorised as lullabies, riddles and tongue twisters among others. All had individual use and intended audience (counting rhymes are an effective aid to learning). Many are synonymous with other cultures though they may appear in a different form or with a substitute character relevant to that country’s history.
Some do not hold up so well in today’s climate. The tale of Miss Muffet, supposedly based on the daughter of an entomologist named Muffet who was frightened by one of her father’s spiders surely helps to instil fear in children of arachnids. Likewise, Peter Pumpkin Eater is seen by some as a form of abuse and the vision of a blind woman running after three mice with a chopper in her hand would be a strange sight for most of us. However, surely it is important to keep these in the context they have been regarded for decades. Once heard as children they became part of our play, have remained constant companions and did us less harm than most images youngsters are subject to today. The sad truth is some of these rhymes have changed over time and may not reflect their original intention. Alas, some origins are lost to us completely and the creators, many of them anonymous, are no longer with us. Still, they should not be discarded. Not many of us look back on them with any emotion other than a fondness. They are an integrated part of our history and, most importantly, they teach us to play with words at an early age.
Incidentally, King Oberon was seriously injured, and Puck still searches for herbs to cure him. If anyone has any suggestions they could be in for some fairy luck, though Puck is not generally thought of as trustworthy.
© Sharon Maria Bidwell, all rights reserved.