Feigning Fairytales

December 3, 2009

“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late I’m late I’m late!” -the White Rabbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”

Little Red Riding Hood

What do these all have in common? They are all seemingly innocent means of entertainment for young children, be it a chant, song, book, nursery rhyme, or anything else for that matter, that have extremely dark connotations. I remember as a little girl, I would always use the Rabbit’s “I’m late!” phrase whenever I was running late or in a hurry. It’s very catchy, no? I thought I was just being cute saying something a cute little rabbit said on TV. Little did I know, however, that the Rabbit was only obsessively repeating the phrase because he was late for a truly important date, for which he may be executed. (and, of course, there’s the pun that if he is late he will literally be the late, as in dead, rabbit. Get it?) I wonder, if young kids knew the darker side of their favorite catchphrases or songs, would they continue to gleefully sing them?

Take “Ring Around the Rosie” as another example. Children love to dance around in merry circles singing this little nursery rhyme, and playfully fall down at the end. Even many adults chant the song without taking a minute to consider the lyrics. What they’re missing is the dark, terrible history of it.

In 1961, James Leasor made the connection between the lyrics of the rhyme and a disease that terrorized the world 700 years ago.

Children in the Middle Ages were, supposedly, taught the nursery rhyme during the epidemic of the Black Death. The bubonic plague spread all over Europe and eventually all over the world, killing a majority of populations in the process. Now, the words to the rhyme as we know them are different than the original English version. That version, the true version that best represents the Black Death, goes as follows, “Ring-a-ring o’Rosies, a Pocket full of Posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down!” The “ring-a-ring o’rosies” part of the nursery rhyme refers to the rosy-colored rashes in the shape of rings that would appear on the skin of victims of the bubonic plague. The next part, the “pocket full of posies,” refers to the uninfected people who would quite literally walk around with flowers, like posies, in their pockets in order to avoid the stench of the multitude of dead bodies of people who had succumbed to the frightening disease that were laying before them. “A-tishoo! A-tishoo” is supposed to represent the sound of a violent sneeze. Due to the fact that intense sneezing was one of the symptoms of the bubonic plague, this is also another legitimate connection between the seemingly joyous rhyme and the anything-but-joyful disease. Finally, “we all fall down” has been interpreted to refer to the majority of people literally falling in death from the disease. (http://www.rhymes.org.uk/ring_around_the_rosy.htm) Now, after all of that, who wants to gather round in a circle and sing?

Lastly, let’s look at the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Do you think someone just decided to make up a story about a young girl who goes into the woods and encounters a wolf that plans to eat her and her grandmother? I doubt it. As all fairytales, this story has probably been told for centuries, in various different ways. If it was based on folklore centuries ago, then it may be interpreted as more of a warning to young girls than a fairytale. The main point? Don’t go into the woods! Don’t talk to strangers! Beware of what is lurking behind you! People are not always what they seem! These messages are practically being screamed at the children listening to the story. Do this and die, that’s the point that’s trying to be made.

So, why does it seem as if children’s stories are some of the darkest and scariest around? Basically, children need to be warned, and the best way to get them to listen and pay attention is hide a serious message in a fun, playful story, so that they may just learn from the mistakes of their favorite characters. Maybe all of the dark aspects of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that we have been discussing over the past 6 weeks are an attempt by Carroll to get a message across to Alice Liddell. Watch where you’re going, don’t go into strange places that you’re unfamiliar with, don’t drink/eat something unless you know what it is, be respectful towards authority, etc.

What is your opinion? Was he trying to get a message across to Alice Liddell, or children in general, or was he just telling a story?


  1. You’ve hit on a fantastic part of history, Kathy–one of my favorites, actually. So many phrases in common conversation have dark and unpleasant origins…my very favorite is the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” — meaning, if you toss out a whole project, don’t forget to save anything that could be useful in the next one!

    The phrase originated in Medieval England, when whole estates would bathe, usually quarterly. They would bathe in order of importance — first the landowners, then the free residents of the land, then the serfs and servants, then children. By the time the kids were using the water, it was filthy–so filthy that it was impossible to see into it. More than one baby was lost in the bathwater – and thrown out with it.

    Your idea that Carroll was actually warning Alice about dangers in the world is an interesting one. It’s been a long time since I’ve read AiW…but now I will absolutely have to go back and do it again!

  2. I’ve always thought that this story is a creative tale filled with subtle messages and lessons to teach Carroll’s desired audience. When he told this story to Alice Liddle for the first time, he was making it up as we went along. I’m sure that he had some sort of idea in mind to warn, to teach her something. If that wasn’t his intention, I’m sure she still learned something.

    As a child, I used to play ring around the rosie all the time! Then in second grade my friend told me, “You know that game is about DEATH right???” and I was extremely shocked for a few minutes. Naturally, it completely slipped my mind afterwards because it’s relevance wasn’t very serious. However, my school ran several Anti-Drug programs and we sang songs with the people who came to visit us, and we children were all very serious about it. Interesting how the mind of a child works.

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