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Nursery Rhymes, Fairy Tales, and Gruesome Ever Afters:

Updated on November 20, 2012

An Introduction

I've always been fascinated with the origins of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, along with their original versions and their historical contexts. So this will be a study of a few of these select works, with artwork on the side by me! I hope you enjoy!

Here are some definitions for you, provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online:

Nursery Rhyme: a short rhyme for children that often tells a story

Fairytale: a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins) —called also fairy story or a made-up story usually designed to mislead


Mary Mary, Quite Contrary

The Rhyme:

Mary Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.


The Origin:

This rhyme was said to originate from Mary Tudor (better known as Bloody Mary), who was devoutly catholic. The garden alludes a representative grave, in which the Protestants who dare defy her were laid to death as martyrs. The grotesque nature of this work is further enhanced by the implied torture instruments disguised in flowers. Interestingly, silver bells were a subtle reference to thumbscrews, whereas cockle shells were torture devices for the genitalia The story ends, appropriately, with an execution via the "Maids" or original guillotines used - originally called the Maiden, this rhyme actually served to shorten the name to the "Maid".

Ring Around the Rosy

The Rhyme:

Ring around the rosy

A pocketful of posies

"Ashes, Ashes"

We all fall down!


OR

Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies

A Pocket full of Posies

"A-tishoo! A-tishoo!"

We all fall Down!"


The Origin:

This poem refers to the Black Death or Bubonic Plague that ran rampant in England. The roses are based on the symptoms of the sickness - a ring-shaped red rash. The pocketful of posies is related directly to the assumed cause of contagion, which was a bad smell. The posies were a sort of perfume rumored to ward off the bad smell or the sickness. The "ashes ashes" version of the song references the Great Fire of London in 1666, which led to the demise of the rats responsible for the epidemic. "A-tishoo, a-tishoo" refers to another symptom: a bad sneeze.

Sing A Song of Sixpence

The Rhyme:

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,

Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house counting out his money,

The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey

The maid was in the arden hanging out the clothes,

When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!



The Origin:

While the image of black birds in a pie might be visually appealing to a child, the origins of this nursery rhyme are pretty accurate to their words. Black birds were a delicacy for the King, and thus the suggestion was offered that they be baked in a pie for the King's amusement. When the birds flew out, the King would be impressed by this act. However, the birds wouldn't be quite as thrilled, thus the last few lines. Satire might be interpreted in the lines referencing the King and Queen, as often this is what the general community imagined the royalty doing in their spare time. The lack of sanitation presented in the conclusion was eventually confronted by a new ending, in which a doctor re-attaches the nose.

Three Blind Mice

The Rhyme:

Three blind mice, three blind mice,

See how they run, see how they run,

They all ran after the farmer's wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife

Did you ever see such a thing in your life,

As three blind mice?



The Origin:

Another Bloody Marry-related poem, this one centers mostly around the farmer's wife, who is believed to be Mary I. She is referred to as a farmer's wife in this particular text because of the abundant amount of estates she and her husband King Phillip of Spain claimed ownership of. The mutilation of the mice in the story is actually irrelevant, other than the idea of consequence - instead, the three mice were noblement who were burned because of their persistence in remaining Protestant.


There Was An Old Woman

The Rhyme:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,

She had so many children she didn't know what to do!

So she gave them some broth without any bread,

And she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed!


The Origin:

The first alleged origin comes from Queen Caroline who was the wife of King George II with eight children. The second alleged origin comes from King George, who's nickname "the old woman" came from his revolutionary white wig wearing. Less literally, the children are here represented as members of parliament who were "whipped", or asked to stay in line. This terminology is used even today.


This is the House that Jack Built

The Rhyme:

This is the house that Jack built!

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rate that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the cat that killed the rat

That ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack bilt.

This is the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the priest all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the cock that crowed in the morn

That waked the priest all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.


This is the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the cock that crowed in the morn

That waked the priest all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattern and torn

That married the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built!



The Origin:

The origins of this rhyme are relatively vague, as the activities are only referencing the general lifestyle found in 16th century rural England as opposed to one specific event. The only specific reference can be found in the repeating phrase "this is the house that Jack built", which often meant a poorly constructed house.

(Personal sidenote: This was one of my favorite nursery rhymes as a kid and every time I read it now, it makes me smile!)

Baa Baa Black Sheep

The Rhyme:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!

One for the master, one for the dame,

And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.



The Origin:

There were two purposes for this rhyme. The educational purpose was a simple one: associate an animal by-product with its animal producer. The onomatopoeia associates animal sounds with the animals (much like Old McDonald's). The history of the rhyme refer to the wool industry during the middle ages up to the 1800's. The other theory is less straightforward, and it theorizes that the rhyme is in fact a satirical commentary on Edward I and the export taxes that were pressed onto Britain in the 13th century. There is yet another idea about this text - King Edward II is the center of this suggestion. While the best resource was found in England, the best producers of wool were found elsewhere, which prompted King Edward II to push his Flemmish weavers and clothe dyers towards a higher quality product.

Little Boy Blue

The Rhyme:

Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,

The sheep's in the meadow the cow's in the corn.

But where's the boy who looks after the sheep?

He's under a haystack fast asleep.

Will you wake him? No, not I - for if I do, he's sure to cry.



The Origin:

Although it's hard to pinpoint a specific model for this rhyme, it's been suggested that the boy is a reference to Cardinal Thomas Wosley, who was alive during the Tudor period in England. He was extremely rich and arrogant who did not fall short in the number of enemies he accumulated. He was considered a "boy" in reference to "boy bachelor", his nickname because of his early educational success as a 15-year old Oxford graduate. Under this context, the idea of blowing one's own horn becomes blatantly obvious. His decline approached with the increase of the wool industry, which might be referenced in the line "where's the boy who looks after the sheep?". Because speaking against the Cardinal could lead to severe consequences, a more subtle way of portraying disapproval was found in this text.

Snow White

Where We Know it From:

Walt Disney's version of Snow White is famous for its craft as a highly detailed, fully animated film. Its delicate characters and happy ending are what children now see as the real story, in which prince Charming saves Snow White at the end. While morally supportive of good vs bad, the original tale is a little less pleasant.

The Real Story:

While this is one of Disney's more accurate interpretations, some key elements were left out. In lieu of a heart, the stepmother asks instead for the liver and lungs to be served as a dinner entre that night. Furthermore, the magical kiss that all young girls swoon over and secretly wish for in adulthood is a devastating falsehood. Snow White is instead woken up by the bumpy ride on the back of the prince's horse, which doesn't sound awful until you realize that he thinks she's dead. And then you wonder why he's taking her dead body. And while the Grimm version still ends in favor of the damsel (more or less), the punishment for her stepmother is violently portrayed as a dance of death in hot iron shoes.

Rumpelstiltskin

Where We Knew it From:

I don't actually remember where I first heard this one, but I remember reading a book of it and thinking it was really scary and horrible. I don't know if I quite understood it when I was young.

The Real Story:

Ironically, my disgusted childhood self was sort of right in being scared and horrified. The original was actually more domestic in nature than the popularized text, which was edited by the original author to be more graphic. The original finds "Rummy" spinning the straw into gold for the young girl, who in return promises her firstborn child to him. However, like any mother, she becomes emotionally attached to her child and cannot give him away. Angry, Rummy challenges her to guess his name in three tries. If she were to correctly guess, the child was hers. If not, it was his. Wrecking her brain for the answer, the girl happens upon Rummy singing and bragging in the woods around a fire, where he says his name. The next day she's able to guess his name, and he runs away, defeated.

Interestingly, the updated version adds a new twist, in which Rummy rips himself in half from fury.

Beauty and the Beast

Where We Knew it From:

This is, of course, a classic Disney tale of love and acceptance. Belle is what might be considered one of the only intelligent and strong-willed female characters ever to grace the screen of a Disney film, and appropriately is the only one who disregards appearance and all else for a "pure" personality. In the end, she is rewarded with the true form of the Beast as an attractive prince, which she lives happily ever after with.

The Original Story:

There are several variants.

The earliest was written by Apuleius in the 2nd century CE. This is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, which is a prominent myth. If you don't know it, the basics of the text are the same as those of Beauty and the Beast. Disguised as a snake, Cupid tempts Psyche by sleeping with her at night. His condition, if he is to continue keeping her company, requires that she never look at him, no matter what. When temptation takes over and she takes a candle to watch him sleep, wax falls onto his face and he awakens. This betrayal of his one requests forces him away forever, and she loses her nightly companion.

A later version was composed in 16th century Italy. This story was called Re Porco or "King Pig". Featuring a man who is referred to as a pig for his "swinish" behavior towards women.

Another Italian version surfaced a century later by the name of II Pentamerone.

Hans Christian Anderson was the next to pick up the plot in Scandinavia. The original title for this particular version was East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Instead of an ambiguous furry scary animal, Hans's beast was a white bear who arrives at Beauty's bed every night like Cupid to Psyche's. The story parallels the original Psyche and Cupid in that the sexual component and the request for anonymity are key to the story.

The next version before the best known came to power was entitled Riquet a la Houppe. The unique element in this is that the reader isn't offered a conclusion. They are instead left to wonder if the beast turns into a prince or not.

Finally, the version prior to Disney's! La Jeune Ameriquaine et les Contes Marins was written in the 18th century by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve. The original was extensive in character development, and Belle was a royal descendant while the prince was cursed. The story was re-edited by Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont who moved to England. A few years after the original was published, she released a condensed version that omitted the introductive genealogy and added the conclusion of the Beast turning into a prince at the end.

Interestingly, the Beast's appearance is never actually given, and so any interpretations of it are completely hypothetical.

Alice in Wonderland

Where We Knew it From:

Of course, the cute little girl and the jumpy cartoon rabbit are fond memories for us all. The story is surprisingly friendly considering its implications, aside from "off with her head!" still being mentioned.

I'm going to do this one differently. I found an interesting website that takes elements from the story and talks about them, so I'll use some of her content. Everyone will be cited at the end.

The Real Story:

(If you didn't know, Alice in Wonderland was based off of actual places and people. Alice was a real girl, who was studied by Lewis Caroll as a friend: many of the events in the story are inspired by actual events or actual places that inspired his imagination)

The White Rabbit could be a reference to the actual Alice's father, who was never on time. The rabbit hole could be the Christ Church dining hall, where Alice's father would have dined with top members of Oxford. The idea of the rabbit hole probably came from the way in which these men exited: through a small doorway into thin corridor with a spiral staircase. This would lead them to the senior common room. The White Rabbit was notoriously late because of time inconsistencies between Oxford and Greenwich.

"Off with his head!" is a reference to King Henry VIII, whose notoriety for decapitating those who didn't agree with him or his politics prompted this phrase.

The door to Wonderland was supposedly a small door concealed by a curtain. The garden behind the door, the Dean's Garden, is where the real Alice often played. This wasn't Wonderland, however; the forbidden garden that they could see from their nursery, the Cathedral Garden, was the actual "Wonderland" as portrayed.

"To grin like a Cheshire Cat" was a common phrase during the time Alice in Wonderland was written, though there's no record of its origin other than speculations of a painter in Cheshire who depicted smiling lions. There are other possibilities, however: one postulates that Cheshire cheeses were shaped like grinning cats. Another assumes that perhaps the inspiration came from grinning animals depicted on Alice's windows. The last theory is inspired by a carving in Croft Church on a sedile, where the clergy sat. The cat or lion was sculpted to either end of the seat, and grinned until the clergy stood, whereupon the grin would mysteriously disappear.

Other common phrases at the time were "mad as a hatter" and "mad as a march hare". "Mad as a hatter"'s origin lies in the actual insanity of hatters, who were victims of mercury poison in the materials they used to make hats. Another interesting interpretation of this phrase uses different definitions of the words and some clever language play. "Mad" during Carroll's time would have meant "venomous" instead of insane, and it is speculated that "hatter" was originally "adder", which is a venomous snake. Contextually, this explanation is the most likely.


References Used


All images created by me. Source images are not owned by me and were found via Google Search. I do not take credit for them; these were all school assignments. Please do not use any of these images for your own use, as these are all for my personal use only. Once again, I don not take credit for the source images. If this is your image and you would like credit, please let me know and it will be awarded to you.

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    • profile image

      Amber 4 years ago

      Thank you for doing some great research I also find fairy tales real origins extremely interesting and I think you did a fabulous job really surprised me on some parts but also made complete sense.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      This is a hub full of historical detail embedded in familiar nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Perhaps when children recited these verses, the politics, drama and conflict that lay behind the stories were lightened or made fun of. Voted up and interesting.

    • Brandon Bledsoe profile image

      Brandon 23 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Great job

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