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.

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

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!

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 the 18th century traditional Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home a mother is informed that her house is on fire and all her children have died in the flames except for one. These rather blackened verses are still often recited when a ladybird is found sitting on ones body. A different, but also quite interesting family situation is described in There was an Old Woman who lived in a shoe. In this merry rhyme about domestic violence, the mother uses to feed her children poorly and to beat them before she sends them to sleep.

Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house in on fire and your children are gone,
All except one and that’s little Ann,
For she crept under the frying pan.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth,Without any bread,
Whipped them all soundly, and sent them to bed.

As it can be seen, children’s songs and nursery rhymes are not exclusively trivial and do not limit themselves to presenting a comfortable and just image of the world. If one takes the time to browse through extensive collections of songs and rhymes, one also frequently comes across very interesting social messages. In addition to their mere entertaining value or to scare children, these songs often turn out to be very witty pieces of literature. They many times reflect about threats and social problems such as domestic violence or poverty. If we for example take a look at the well-known Oranges and Lemons, which is also recited in George Orwell’s 1984, the harsh economic and social reality of 18th century England is presented to the reader. Due to the fact that a person is not able to pay back the price of “five farthings” for the aforementioned oranges and lemons, he or she gets publicly executed.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
Chop chop chop chop
The last man’s dead!

In the well-known German song Maikäfer flieg (Engl. Fly, May bug) which uses the melody of the popular nursery rhyme Schlaf, Kindlein, Schlaf (Engl. Sleep, child, sleep) the social conditions are even harsher: “Fly, May bug, your father is in the war, your mother is in Pommerland and Pommerland burned down”. This is truly a rather depressing outlook for a little child, however it has been a very well-known song since at least 1800 and is still popular today. The same melody is also used in a historically very interesting version which goes like: “Bet, Kindlein, bet! Morgen kommt der Schwed, morgen kommt der Ochsenstern, der wird den Kindleins beten lehrn“ and refers to the German encounters with Sweden during the 30 years war. An English translation goes like: Pray, little child, pray! Tomorrow the Swede will come. Tomorrow Oxenstierna (the Swedish state chancellor) will come, who will teach the little child how to pray.

There are even songs that offer glimpses on the absurd and feature traces of the existential nihilistic void experienced by numerous philosophers. An especially interesting case is the Norwegian song Det bor en gammel baker (Engl. There lives an old baker). It tells the story of an old baker who lives alone on a tiny island. He has so many cakes and other baked goods that he is tired of eating all of it himself. Unfortunately no ship ever lands on his island, so he is forced to gobble everything alone and cry about his misery. The song ends with the old baker lying dead in a pile of cake and pastry.

Eldbjorg Raknes Det bor en gammel baker.
Eldbjorg Raknes Det bor en gammel baker.

There lives an old baker
on a tiny, tiny island.
He is so tired of cakes
and cream and jam.
But he has to sit still
and eat his cakes himself.
Because he lives all alone
on a tiny, tiny island.

When small and large boats
goes steaming past,
he sits and cries
in its warm bakery,
and eat white bread and poor man,
for no customers go ashore.
And he is all alone on
on a tiny, tiny island.

There was an old baker
on a tiny, tiny island.
He ate too many cakes
with cream and jam.
The other day he sat dead
middle of a pile of pastry.
And now there lives no baker
on a tiny, tiny island.

What makes this song even more interesting is the fact that it is told in such a mundane manner. The death of the old baker does not make a difference to anyone, nor does his life leave behind any traces (except for his dead body in the pastry). If one keeps in mind Camus’ ideas of the absurd or Sartre’s and Heidegger’s thoughts on “thrownness”, this little children’s song can also be seen as quite fitting. The baker finds himself “thrown” onto his tiny island and hopes for someone to come and eat his cakes and pastries. He needs customers in order to give his existense or at least his actions (i.e. continuous baking) some sort of sense. But as no one comes ashore to help him, he eats all alone and dies due to his self-induelgence and gluttony.

There are indeed a lot of different ways of how to depict misery and disaster in children’s songs. From the classic cautionary tale to the disillusioning lullaby, the corpus of nursery rhymes and songs for children is a real treasure chest if one wants to take a look at the gloomier side of life. And at the end of the day texts like Det bor en gammel baker or Rock-a-bye Baby are actually not too far away from the bleak thoughts presented towards the end in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If one takes some time to ponder over the classic verses about Jack and Jill, one might start to unveil a subtle but uneasy feeling that has accompanied mankind for centuries. So, bearing this in mind, the gentle reader migh