Giants and Wolves and Bears, Oh My!

In sorting through remnants of books and page illustrations from children’s stories, nursery rhymes, fairy tales and such lately, I noted a disturbing element in the contents.  One of the most beloved nursery rhymes / songs is “Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows, the cradle will rock.  When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all!”  Hmmm…sure hope that baby survived that long fall from the tree tops! 

Oh, some of those stories and illustrations were lighthearted and perfectly fit for small children.  Take “The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk”, written by Thornton W. Burrows for example.  This nice little story was beautifully illustrated by Harrison Cady and the ten full page color illustrations (available at my Etsy shop ) therein would be fit for any young child’s room.  An example follows:

Harrison Cady Illustration from “Jimmy Skunk”

But other illustrations and tales were heart wrenching, if not down right upsetting.  Take the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story, for example.  The only thing Jack and his mother had going for them was their cow and then one day the cow stopped giving milk.  They were destitute and needed to sell that cow in order to survive.  There are marvelous Lois Lenski illustrations in one edition of this book.  The picture showing Jack leading the cow off to town with his mother standing there sobbing is especially moving. 

Mother Sobbing as Jack Takes the Cow to Town

And what about that Giant?  As the story goes, this gargantuan sized creature lived in a castle “above the clouds”.  So he was not of this earth which would make him an extraterrestrial, right?  And this gigantic sized alien chased Jack down the beanstalk after Jack had stolen the hen that laid the golden eggs and then the harp.  Jack was clearly a thief and he was cheered when he killed the supposedly “wicked” giant.  But that giant was minding his own business up there in the sky above the clouds; he wasn’t harming or threatening planet Earth.  Twisted little story, isn’t it? 

Sleeping Giant with Jack Lurking in Background

A multitude of themes and characters exist in these supposed children’s stories.  There are witches and ogres, ferocious and anthropomorphic animals and supernatural figures involved in various  tales.  But perhaps the most frightening are the nursery rhymes involving only human beings.  Take, for example, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe”; talk about child abuse!  “She gave them some broth, without any bread; then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.”  Shame, shame on you Old Woman!  If this had happened today, DCYS would remove all those children from the shoe and lock up the woman.  The entire text is included in the illustration below:

There is an extensive classification system of folktales called the Aarne-Thompson tale type index which organizes folktales into broad categories like Animal Tales, Fairy Tales, Religious Tales, etc. Within each category, folktale types are further subdivided by motif patterns until individual types are listed.  The Three Little Pigs is indexed as No. 124 under “Wild Animals and Domestic Animals”.  The “big bad wolf” in this story “huffs and puffs” and is successful in blowing down two of the three little pigs’ houses.  But the third pig outsmarts the wolf and cooks him in a pot of boiling water when the wolf tries to come down the chimney.  Then the pig eats the wolf for dinner.  Ah, another happy little  story!  This tale is included in “American Childhood’s Best Books All in One” which I have listed at my Etsy shop (

The Big Bad Wolf and a Little Pig

The “big bad wolf” makes another appearance in Little Red Riding Hood which is No. 333 in the Aarne-Thompson Index under the “Supernatural Opponents” section of Fairy Tales.  Why this story is included in this section, I don’t know…was the wolf really a supernatural opponent?  There are many variations of this story, one more gruesome than the other.  The following was taken from Wikipedia:

“A mean wolf wants to eat the girl but is afraid to do so in public. He approaches Little Red Riding Hood and she naïvely tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl pick some flowers, which she does. In the meantime, he goes to the grandmother’s house and gains entry by pretending to be the girl. He swallows the grandmother whole, (in some stories, he locks her in the closet), and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandma.

“When the girl arrives, she notices that her grandmother looks very strange. Little Red then says, “What a deep voice you have,” (“The better to greet you with”), “Goodness, what big eyes you have,” (“The better to see you with) “And what big hands you have!” (“The better to hug you with”), and lastly, “What a big mouth you have,” (“The better to eat you with!”) at which point the wolf jumps out of bed, and swallows her up too. Then, with a fat full tummy, he falls fast asleep.” 

Some versions of the story end it right there with grandma and Red eaten up by the wolf.  Other versions, however, introduce a lumberjack coming to the rescue and “with his axe cuts open the wolf, who had fallen asleep. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf’s body with heavy stones. The wolf awakens and tries to flee, but the stones cause him to collapse and die. (Sanitized versions of the story have the grandmother shut in the closet instead of eaten, and some have Little Red Riding Hood saved by the lumberjack as the wolf advances on her, rather than after she is eaten.)  If this were a movie today, it would have an “R” rating for violence. 

Little Red Riding Hood On The Way to Grandmother’s House

The Three Bears is No. 171 on the Index, in the Wild Animals and Humans category.   This tale was “first recorded in narrative form by British author and poet Robert Southey, and first published anonymously in a volume of his writings in 1837. The same year, British writer George Nicol published a version in rhyme based upon Southey’s prose tale, with Southey approving the attempt to bring the story more exposure. Both versions tell of three bears and an old woman who trespasses upon their property.” (From Wikipedia)

Also from Wikipedia: “In Southey’s tale, three anthropomorphic bears – “a Little, Small, Wee Bear, a Middle-sized Bear, and a Great, Huge Bear” – live together in a house in the woods. Southey describes them as very good-natured, trusting, harmless, tidy, and hospitable. Each bear has his own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. One day they take a walk in the woods while their porridge cools. An old woman (who is described at various points in the story as impudent, bad, foul-mouthed, ugly, dirty and a vagrant deserving of a stint in the House of Correction) discovers the bears’ dwelling. She looks through a window, peeps through the keyhole, and lifts the latch. Assured that no one is home, she walks in. The old woman eats the Wee Bear’s porridge, then settles into his chair and breaks it. Prowling about, she finds the bears’ beds and falls asleep in Wee Bear’s bed. The climax of the tale is reached when the bears return. Wee Bear finds the old woman in his bed and cries, “Somebody has been lying in my bed, – and here she is!” The old woman starts up, jumps from the window, and runs away never to be seen again.” 

In later years the ugly old woman was changed to a pretty little girl (Goldilocks) as it was thought that it would be more appealing to young readers.  Goldilocks’s fate varies in the many retellings: in some versions, she runs into the forest, in some she is almost eaten by the bears but her mother rescues her, in some she vows to be a good child, and in some she returns home.  The bears are the victims and the aggressor in this story is clearly the ugly woman / little girl as she trespassed and breaks another’s property (clearly another crime befitting imprisonment).

Three Bears Looking in at Sleeping Goldilocks

Published in 1621, Tom Thumb is the first English fairy tale in print with Londoner Richard Johnson believed to be the author.  This story is No. 700 in the Aarne-Thompson Index, in the “Other Stories of the Supernatural” category.  Being eaten by a giant is just one of the twists of this imaginative story.  The following is a synopsis from Wikipedia:

“Richard Johnson’s The History of Tom Thumbe of 1621 tells that in the days of King Arthur, old Thomas of the Mountain, a plowman and a member of the King’s Council, wants nothing more than a son, even if he is no bigger than his thumb. He sends his wife to consult with Merlin and in three months time she gives birth to the diminutive Tom Thumb. The “Queene of Fayres” and her attendants act as midwives. She provides Tom with an oak leaf hat, a shirt of cobweb, a doublet of thistledown, stockings of apple rind, and shoes of mouse’s skin.

“Tom cheats at games with other boys, and, because of his many tricks, the boys will not associate with him. Tom retaliates by using magic to hang his mother’s pots and glasses from a sunbeam, and, when his fellows try the same, their pots and glasses fall and are broken. Thereafter, Tom stays home under his mother’s supervision. At Christmas, she makes puddings, but Tom falls into the batter, and is boiled into one of them. When a tinker comes begging, Tom’s mother inadvertently gives him the pudding containing her son. The tinker farts while crossing a stile but Tom calls out about the farting and the frightened tinker drops the pudding. Tom eats himself free and returns home to tell his mother and father of his adventure.

“His mother thereafter keeps a closer watch upon him, but one day he accompanies her to the field to milk the cows. He sits under a thistle but a red cow swallows him. The cow is given a laxative and Tom passes from her in a “cowturd”. He is taken home and cleaned. Another day, he accompanies his father for the seed sowing and rides in the horse’s ear. Tom is set down in the field to play the scarecrow but a raven carries him away. His parents search for him but are unable to find him.

“The raven drops Tom at the castle of a giant. The cruel giant swallows the tiny boy like a pill. Tom thrashes about so much in the giant’s stomach that he is vomited into the sea. There, he is eaten once more, this time by a fish, which is caught for King Arthur’s supper. The cook is astonished to see the little man emerge from the fish. Tom then becomes King Arthur’s Dwarf.

“Tom becomes a favourite at court, especially among the ladies. There is revelry; Tom joins the jousting and dances in the palm of a Maid of Honour. He goes home briefly to see his parents, taking some money from the treasury with the king’s permission, then returns to court. The Queene of Fayres finds him asleep on a rose and leaves him several gifts: an enchanted hat of knowledge, a ring of invisibility, a shape-changing girdle, and shoes to take him anywhere in a moment.

“Tom falls seriously ill when a lady blows her nose, but is cured by the physician to King Twaddell of the Pygmies. He takes a rides in his walnut shell coach and meets Garagantua. Each boasts of his many powers, but when Garagantua threatens to harm Tom, he is cast under an enchantment and Tom hurries home to safety. King Arthur listens with amazement to Tom’s many adventures. Richard Johnson’s 1621 narrative ends here but he promised his readers a sequel that has never been found, if published at all. In 1630 a metrical version in three parts was published that continues Tom’s adventures.”

Can’t ask for a more fun filled action adventure than this, can you?

And finally, Rub-a-Dub-Dub…what were those guys doing in that tub?

Three Men in a Tub

This entry was posted in Aarne-Thompson, bears, children's story, Etsy, extraterrestrial, fairy tale, giant, Goldilocks, Harrison Cady, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jimmy Skunk, Little Red Riding Hood, Lois Lenski, nursery rhyme, Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, queenofsienna, Richard Johnson, Robert Southey, Roberty Southey, rub-a-dub-dub, The Three Bears, Thornton Burrows, Three Little Pigs, three men in a tub, Tom Thumb, Uncategorized, wolf, wolves and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Giants and Wolves and Bears, Oh My!

  1. Love the vintage images you chose!

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