Meny Stäng

We who were living are now dying: Violence and Death in poems and songs for children

By David Prieth

Margareth Tarrants illustration of Jack And Jill
Jack and Jill illustrated by Margareth Tarrants

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.

Violence and dread have a long tradition in children’s literature. From classic fairy-tales written down by the Brothers Grimm to contemporary children’s books and songs, the death of children seems to be daily fare. However, children’s literature usually follows a narratologial principle that has already been discussed in Plato’s days: poetic justice. Virtue is rewarded, wheras vicousness is going to be punished. We ususally experience that children’s literature tends to picture the world in a better way than it actually is. Positively connoted protagonists are very unlikely to die and if they do so there has to be a profound reason for it. Your decisions, actions and most important your very existence is important, makes a difference and has meaning.

But is this always the case? What happens if poetic justice is not only violated, but people start to die and suffer randomly and the prospects of an adequate reward are erased? What about children in literature who suffer severe accidents, burn to death, get beaten by their parents or die in solitude? Images like these can open the abyss to the ultimate conceivable waste land: life has no intrinsic meaning and value at all. This is a prospect that may appear worrying to quite a lot of people, however a lot of songs quite snugly fit into this context. So let us take a look at different ways of how to depict misery and death in children’s songs. And furthermore let us take some time to muse about their content and try to understand why a lot of children’s songs can still be interesting for an older audience.

As stated before, calamities and disasters are nothing unusual in texts for children. This is not simply due to the sadistic mindsets of wrathful children’s authors, but can be explained due to different motifs. A fairly obvious reason is that violence is frequently used as a stylistic device in order to enhance tension and suspense. Another usual motive is the aim to convey an educational, instructive message and to prepare children for potential dangers in life. A lot of classic fairy-tales or cautionary tales such as the famous German Struwwelpeter (Engl. Slovenly Peter) do very obviously not only use violence and death to entertain, but also to enhance their warning/instructive messages. Therefore nursery rhymes are often used to make children behave and follow their parents advice (e.g. in the English traditional Naughty Baby). But violent acts and even dying are often also presented in a trivial or comic manner. The popular nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill quoted at the beginning tells the story of two characters going up a hill and having a severe accident. Its verses “Jack fell down/ and broke his crown” have frequently been interpreted as Jack while toppling breaking his skull before Jill falls down shortly after. Although no mischief caused by Jack and Jill is described, which could probably “justify” their misfortune, the two children face quite gloomy fates. And there is more to this cautionary song than merely the vision about falling down a hill. It can also be interpreted as a reminder or the instability of all things and that life can indeed end violently at any moment and in unexpected ways.

But Jack and Jill are by far not the only protagonists in nursery rhymes who find themselves in this situation. First we have to keep in mind that lullabies are supposed to sooth children and to help them fall asleep. This makes it obvious why so many of them such as the Czech Spi, Janíčku, spi (Sleep, Johny, Sleep), Brahm’s lullaby (German Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, French Bonsoir, bonne nuit, Norwegian Nå i ro slumre inn, etc) or the Chinese lullaby that is referred to as Northeastern Cradle song, often deal with the topic of falling asleep. But as we have already seen, falling asleep is sometimes not far away from falling to one’s death. A popular example in the English language is the traditional Rock-a-bye Baby, which in its most common version goes like:

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Although the rocking cradle and the soothing wind in this song create the image of a classic lullaby, the last two verses present a vision of serious threat similar to the fate of Jack and Jill. At some point the bough carrying the baby’s cradle will break, causing it to fall down and thus the baby will get severely injured or even die. This again quite eloquently represents the instability of all things and that there is no guarantee for an easygoing future. It is interesting that the motif of “unfortunate death due to falling” is frequently present in children’s songs. In the German traditional Hoppe, hoppe Reiter, sung to children while they playfully imitate to ride a horse, the rider has to beware not to fall down and get devoured by ravens. A similar case can be seen in the famous Humpty Dumpty song.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Humpty Dumpty illustrated by John Tenniel.
Humpty Dumpty illustrated by John Tenniel.

But falling down and breaking one’s “crown” is obviously not the only danger that threatens and kills characters in children’s songs. There are of course grimmer ways to die or to get hurt and a lot of children’s songs present tragedies that would also fit quite well into a horror film or a dark tragedy. For example in th