Friday, August 04, 2006

Sugar and spice and everything nice? Not so much...

I have been looking at the fairy tales and nursery rhymes that we grew up with and some of them have pretty Grim(m) themes running through them that vary from the weird to the downright morbid. Here are some that I can remember (with some able help from Google)-

Poverty and starvation
In Hansel and Gretel, the father is so poor and unable to provide for even the most basic of his children’s needs that he agrees to go along with his second wife’s scheme to abandon them in the forest. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the poor widow and her son Jack live a life of extreme poverty, depending only on the milk that their cow gives and one day, that too stops. And finally there was Old Mother Hubbard whose cupboard was bare and whose poor hungry dog has to go without a bone.

Child Neglect
In Hush-a-Bye-Baby (my least favourite lullaby ever), the baby is left hanging in his/ her cradle on the treetopand is told that his cradle is likely to come tumbling down if the wind blows - not a very sleep-inducing thought! In Hansel and Gretel, the parents abandon their children to almost certain starvation and death in the forest.

Animal Cruelty
The award for depiction of animal cruelty clearly goes to Mother Goose with her nursery rhymes like Ding Dong Bell (where the poor pussycat is drowned by Little Tommy Thin), Three Blind Mice (where the farmer’s wife cuts of the tails of three visually handicapped mice) and Sing a Song of Sixpence (where 24 blackbirds were baked into a pie when they were still alive).

Attempted Murder
The evil queen from Snow White would put any modern-day over-competitive beauty contest participant to shame. She would stop at nothing to ensure that that she was the ‘fairest of them all’ and tried to murder Snow White three times to achieve this end.

As a kid, the witch in Hansel and Gretel always scared me silly. She kept Hansel locked up in a cage and fattened him up so that she could eat him. And who can forget the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk and his chilling chant of “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll have his bones to grind my bread”.

In ‘Ladybug, Ladybug’, it’s not very clear what is meant when she says, “your house is on fire, your children are gone” – have they fled or are they dead? There is no doubt though in the case of poor little Humpty Dumpty who couldn’t be put back together again - a rather early introduction of death to the little tots.

Unrequited Love

The Little Mermaid leaves behind all she knows and loves (including her tail and her voice) to get a pair of legs and go up into the world. This is all done so that she can make the man of her dreams fall in love with her. In the end, he doesn’t and she comes to an untimely end by becoming one with the foam in the sea. Read a review of the same by Aqua, who couldn’t bear to expose her little daughter to such sadness and actually changed the ending while reading it to her…

So I wonder. If these tales and rhymes were written today or made in films or TV shows, would they get away with a ‘U’ rating or would they merit atleast a ‘PG’...

While googling around for this post, I also found another old favourite – which, as it turns out, I was singing wrong all these years:

The English Version:
Ring a-round the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

The American Version:
Ring a-round the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

What I used to sing:
A pocket full of posies
Husha busha
We all fall down.

Was I the only one or is this the Indian version? :)


Some of the comments alerted me to stuff that I had missed out:

1. Ranjit informs me that Ring-a-round is really about the bubonic plague that swept Europe in the fourteeth century, claiming the lives of over 30% of the population. Now, that is really morbid...

2. M points out Cinderella as an example of child labour.

3. Talena adds that most so-called "fairy-tales" were originally told around fires and in ale-houses as adult entertainment, which is why they are so gory, violent, and filled with terrible themes.

4. The Visitor points to the fact that Agatha Christie used nursery rhymes as the titles and themes of many of murder mysteries. Here are some that I could find:

- And Then There Were None

- One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

- Five Little Pigs

- A Pocket Full of Rye

- Hickory Dickory Dock

- Three Blind Mice

5. Lady M suggests that Hush-a-Bye-Baby might have been a parable about an English king, possible Charles II, whose reign was threatened. I wonder how and when it made a transition from that into being a lullaby.

6. And now for the most bizarre one. According to Frida, the nursery rhyme The Muffin Man is really about Jack the Ripper!


  1. we had to (psycho)analyse nursery rhymes and fairy stores adn aesop's fables and whatnot in English classes in University...Life seemed pretty bleak as a result..

    same thing with pretty songs..

    "What a Wonderful World" - Louis Armstrong.

    it reeks of ironicism....of a time filled with racism and political upheaval...and people thought it was all fluttery and flowery....

    its amazing how deep the meaning of "in between the lines" can go.

  2. Ring around the roses... I always used to say "Haysha, husha, we all fall down". You could add it to your list of macabre nursery rhymes because this one is about the bubonic plague epidemic that swept Europe in the middle ages. I think they had a 30% death rate or something. Awesome post!

  3. My guess is that the stories were all basically veiled ways for scaring children into staying in the vicinity of adults rather than wander off alone and get into BIG trouble.

  4. Very nice post rohini. I love the way you analyze the fairy tales and rhymes. You can also add Cinderella as an example of child labor.
    What I have recentlt started disliking about these tales are the way they have depicted step moms as evil These days with alarming rates of divorce and parents re-marrying, it would be traumatic for kids to grow up learning stepmoms are evil. I don't of one story where the stepmom is nice.

  5. Amazing post!
    You've gotten me thinking.....

  6. Hey I've been singing the Indian version too... and that's what Tara has learnt too :)

    yeah..."hush a bye baby" is absolutely is "jack & jill".

  7. I sang the American version,

    I know my girls are terrified of the evil witch/step mother combination.

    For bedtimes, my Dh has been telling the girls Hindi mythological stories, from Ramayan and whatnot. Its very funny to ask the girls the next day what they remember from the previous night. They get all the characters and events mixed up.

  8. I was surprised to find out as a late teenager that most so-called "fairy-tales" were originally told around fires and in ale-houses as adult entertainment, which is why they are so gory, violent, and filled with terrible themes like you mentioned. This was in the introduction to a novel version of the fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red", which had been one of my childhood favourites. It made a lot of sense to me, and made me wonder when they became deemed as fit for children? Wasn't it bad enough that mothers used to scare their children into obedience by telling them that the goblins (or Necht Ruprecht--St. Nicholas' dark companion) would come and kidnap and eat all naughty children? I don't think even medieval mothers would tell their children some of the horror stories we expose them to nowadays--real life was horrific enough.

  9. Ayaan's Mama,

    That was an excellent collection and analysis of rhymes and fairy tales. I was awakwened to the gory side of nursery rhymes by Agatha Christie in her murder novels. In fact many of her stories have a title of a nursery rhyme.

  10. hahahaha!! i too sang the same way!! only it used to be "pocket full of roses" too:) i used to have this lovely huge fairytale book, which i still have, with lovely pictures of all these characters. hey, come to think of it, probably i inherited all my fears from there ;)

    maybe you could try the story versions of little krishna or something. ayaan can sure pick some naughtiness this way ;)

  11. Rohini, how does one put up this 'email me' link on the blog? what do you type in the template?

  12. [Grafx] You would think though that they would leave out the in-between-the-lines stuff atleast for stories meant for kids...

    [Ranjit] Thanks for the tip about the macabre side of Ring-a-round. Will add that.

    [Suemamma] I think you might just have a point there. Snow White clearly carries a lesson for not accepting food from stangers and Hansel and Gretel is the story of what could happen to kids wandering alone in the big, bad world.

    [M] Thanks for the Cinderella tip - I will add that to the post. I know its sad but there are real-life step-moms who perpetuate this fear too.

    [Perspective Inc] Thanks :)

    [Aqua] Atleast the wording in Jack and Jill is a little vague. I never really realised what a 'crown' was until I was much, much older. I always thought it was just a crown like the ones kings wear.

    [Sraikh] That's cool. But my knowledge of mythological stories is rather poor... my mom brought me up on a diet of Grimm's fairy tales followed by Enid Blyton.

    [Talena] I did not know that!

    [The Visitor] You are right. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe and Three Blind Mice to name a few.

    [Pearl] Do you know a good book for Indian mythology for kids? I bought a Panchatantra book but the stories were so badly written. And check this out for putting the e-mail link.

  13. yeah i know!!! .. apparently when they wrote each story( from what i looked up)...the writers were each in a way voicing out their retaliation against the bigwigs or the politicians or the noble-people...for whatever reason...and that this was their way of hiding it in this as to make it seem harmless...mostly read out to the common folk .

  14. Panchatantra is a good collection of stories for children; Each story has a moral, uses personified animals for the setting; the western equivalent would be Aesops fables. If you dont get a good english version, you could go in for a regional language version. At one go you have a source of stories and you could use/teach your own language too.

  15. I love ur comic strips!! so cute!! hee..

  16. Some time agao, I read that Hush-a-bye-Baby (which I know as Rock-a-bye-Baby) is a parable about an English king who's reign was threatened. Perhaps Charles II? It made a whole lot more sense than if it was really supposed to be a soothing lullabye!

    Fun post!

  17. [Grafx] It's funny though that what seems to have started out as political satire ended up as standard reading fare for young kids.

    [Visitor] I have been looking for a good Hindi version too but no luck so far. Any ideas where these could be avilable? The standard Crossword-type bookstores don't stock them.

    [Amanda] Mostly, I find strips from Marvin, who's a one-plus toddler and seems a lot like Ayaan! Thanks for dropping by...

    [Lady M] Another interesting fact. Shall add that in my update as well. Thanks for dropping by...

  18. Why dont you try the Children's Book Trust. It is a GOI organization - they have a good collection of children's books in multiple languages. You could ask for th Press Information Bureau (PIB) for details.

  19. The muffin man is about Jack the Ripper. According to the case file
    "Last Sunday morning at five minutes past one o'clock a young man called at the HERALD office and reported that there was another "Jack the Ripper" murder. He was sent up to the editorial rooms and interviewed by the night editor. He said that a mutilated body had been found in Backchurch-lane, in Whitechapel. He said that it had been found by a policeman at twenty minutes past eleven o'clock. The map of London was immediately studied by two reporters in order to locate Backchurch-lane, while the editor cross-questioned the man. He said it had been told to him by an acquaintance of his, a police inspector whom he had met in Whitechapel High-street. He said there was no doubt about it, and that he had hurried to the HERALD office understanding that he would be rewarded for the news. He said his name was John Cleary, and that he lived at 21, White Horse-yard, Drury-lane. He was asked to write down his name and address; and he did so, the writing being preserved. His information was explicit and seemingly authentic, and two reporters were detailed to take the man with them, and go and get the story."

    Oh, do you know the muffin man,
    The muffin man, the muffin man,
    Oh, do you know the muffin man,
    That lives on Drury Lane?

  20. I'm a cartoon fanatic but I find that cartoons are full of danger, evil and scary things.....

    By the way, you've been tagged!

  21. Hi 30in2005,

    You did my tag! And w/o realizing that you were tagged!! That's some ESP. Anyway thanks for doing the tag. LOL

  22. I remember "ring around the roses" pretty much the way you do. The mutilated Indian version! Except i think we further changed pocket full of 'posies' to 'poses'. I dont know any of us even remotely understood what we were singing. It was just a lot of fun and games!

  23. oh damn!!
    Now i dont think i will ever be able to enjoy any fairy tale...they will all make me realise of either child labour or povert or cruelty..!

  24. [The Visitor] Thanks for the tip. I will check it out.

    [Frida] Wow! That is really bizarre - a nursery rhyme for children that was actually about one of the most (in)famous mass murderers of all time! Thanks for the info. I will add it to the post.

    [30in2005] What cartoons have you been reading? And I already did that tag here

    [Freespirit] Now that I think back, I thoink we said poses too!

    [Anand] Sorry to ruin your fun but they do all have happy endings though...

  25. I think its actually our "adult" minds that find these nursery rhymes gory and dripping with the most groteque details! A childs mind is the most innocent and they just enjoy the story - 24 blackbirds baked and then they just come out and sing!!! They're not going to think of the process - they just want a story!

  26. Can someone explain the meaning of this rhyme (unless I've got the words all wrong!)?
    Round and round the mulberry bush, the monkey and the weasel, that's the way the money goes, pop goes the weasel.
    I've been trying to figure out what this means for a long time! :)
    p.s I sang the indian version :)

  27. "And then there were none" was originally called - "Ten little niggers". Since that was rather offensive, the title was then changed to "And then..." and finally became "Ten little Indians"--- interesting info I picked up from the net :)

  28. When I read this post and the comment about cartoons I remembered a Woody Allen Cartoon since we are talking of bizarre tales
    (I couldn't find it on the net).

    Woody Allen's Dad is talking to him and says, Son do you remember I used to take you on those long walks in the woods when you were a kid ?
    Next Clip:
    Dad says: Darn! you always found your way back home.

    Looks like the tag is hounding you..

  29. [Undisputed Godfather] I agree. I am not suggesting that these stories traumatise kids - but that's probably because they don't really get most of the really bad parts and there's always a 'happily ever after' to tie up everything nicely.

    [Inquisitive Akka] The answer to your question is here

    [Outsider] Nice one. And yes, I've been tagged three times with the same tag!

  30. to be checkin email plisss :)

  31. Thank you! All these rhymes seem to have so many different interpretations!

  32. [Once Again] Thanks :)

    [Inquisitive Akka] I was surprised to discover that they have interpretation at all!

  33. Wonderful piece of research :). I'm amazed for sure!

    BTW, for me also it was "pocket full of roses" and "husha, busha"... I guess its the undisputed Indian version ;)

    A month or two ago, I'd read an article in the Times of India, about Enid Blyton - there was an uprising/mass protest against her during her last years or so, because people started accusing her of promoting racism/chauvinism etc in her stories - one particular 'evidence' which they cited was the story of Noddy which had Golliwog characters (not particularly nice guys) - who were in the pictures depicted as dark fellas with a curly mop of hair - the accusation was that it depicted black people, and hence was racism since Noddy was fair/white skinned. There were also a lot of other accusations, (for eg. from feminists since there was some female character who was always cooking and cleaning), and I believe Enid Blyton books were banned for a long time.

    I was incredulous after reading the article because I didn't agree with the cited examples of racism et al. And now I think, as compared to Enid's books, nursery rhymes/fairy tales look really evil! Wonder why no one's thought of banning them?

  34. Hi Rohini, thanks for the email thing! As for books, I too thought Panchatantra wasn't very well written. Probably you could go for these books for little kids with lots of pictures in them... I don't know who publishes such... amar chitra katha comics were great, but i guess ayaan has to be a bit older for those

  35. As a teacher of nursery kids for many years, the kind of stories you can tell them depends so much on the age. I find the youngest ones are happies with stories based on people--them, mama, etc. Then come animal stories. To really appreciate Grimm's fairy tales youhave to be around 6. Incidentally, many kids from 6-12, like to get scared, look at the popularity of the 'goosebumps' series by RL Stine.

  36. [Lonelyinspace] I read that too. I grew up with Enid Blyton and I never got any racist message from it. And as for the women doing all the house work, these books were written at a time when that was the norm. Also, I am not advocating that we don't read these fairy tales to kids either. I don't really remember being traumatised or scared by them as a kid. Well, except the witch in Hansel and Gretel who freaked me out a bit... I was just listening to a CD of nursery rhymes with Ayaan and I started thinking about the messages in some of them and before I knew it, there was a post!

    [Pearl] I am constantly on the lookout for books for Ayaan but so far no luck with good Indian books.

    [Suemamma] I haven't seen the Goosebumps series - what age are those meant for? Also, I think happy endings are the norm in kids' books so that usually rounds off any fear or sadness that might have been generated in the course of the story nicely...

  37. Yup, that's true. I don't remember being traumatised either... and conversely, stories like Ugly Duckling, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel etc left a lasting impression ;).

    Good Indian Books... I remember that my mother used to pick up hordes of books about simple moral values and stories about Indians like Swami Vivekanandan - completely Indian stories - and I think they've left a lasting impression on me. Sadly, I don't remember what series they were, else I could have recommended them to you. They were very nice stories told in simple language and they'd weave values such as "don't waste food", "try to make the most of what you have", "being good can earn you rewards" and other such stuff into the story, so the child doesn't know you're giving him/her a lesson. If I find any such books, I'll let you know :)

  38. more on fairy tales - check out

    On Agatha Christie, she also named a lot of her books after lines in Shakespeare's plays (errr actually might even be plays by someone else, not too sure)....
    By the pricking of my thumbs - 'by the pricking of my thumbs, something evil this way comes'.

    'Taken at the flood' - there is a tide in the affairs of men, which when taken at the flood leads to fortune......


    check the above link for more gory details
    while the menaing are quite gory I still feel I had enjoyed reciting them & may be will still do for my kids....

  40. Read a very interesting post:, which contrasts JK Rowling with Enid Blyton. Surprisingly the author actually thinks that acceptance of Harry Potter's dark magical world is a reflection of the changing times, where children want to be told more realistic things than the bunnies/bears and sweet stuff that Enid had in her books...

  41. Who can ever forget those rhymes, ever. If nothing else, they take me back the memory lane.

  42. Anonymous7:48 am

    its "ring around the rosies" and it refers to the circles that those infected got around their eyes. "a pocket full of posies"- was felt to be good luck. "achoos achoos, we all fall down." one would start to sneeze and then they would die (fall down). It is a song about the black plague when it is said correctly