On the Origin of Nursery Rhymes


Like fairy tales, nursery rhymes have darker sides too. What sounds like nonsense now is actually steeped in history. For example, Humpty Dumpty is a cannon that fell off a fort wall during the English Civil War. Apparently the only reason we think of him as an egg is because the original illustrator for Alice in Wonderland drew him that way. Who knew! Below are my favorites of the origins I uncovered.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Sounds lovely. I think all of the illustrations I’ve seen depict a little girl watering flowers. But no! Mary refers to Queen Mary (you know, Elizabeth I’s older sister), who waged war against Protestants. The “garden” is actually a graveyard (the original word in the rhyme) for the dead Protestants. And silver bells, cockle shells, and maids are all torture devices. Well, two torture devices and a guillotine. Not quite what you pictured, eh? An alternative interpretation for the garden line is that it’s a taunt about Mary’s barrenness. I hope nobody was stupid enough to recite it for her though. One more for the garden!

Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill went up a hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
Anyone else laugh at Jill for falling down after Jack? Kind of reminds me of The Princess Bride, when Buttercup launches herself after Westley down that ridiculous hill. Anyway. Jack and Jill are actually Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette — you know, the monarchs who were beheaded during the French Revolution. Definitely lost their crowns then, in both senses of the word. Ouch.

Pop Goes the Weasel
Half a pound of tuppenny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
Up and down the City Road
In and out of the Eagle
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
Technically, it keeps going, but this is enough to dissect for one blog post. I honestly never understood this thing, and that’s because it’s mostly slang and historical references! (Go figure.) “Pop” means “pawn,” and “weasel” means “coat.” So this guy is pawning his coat to pay for his food, a night at a music hall (the Eagle), and what have you because he doesn’t have any money. Makes me wonder why he’s wasting it on a music hall, but hey, that’s just me. I also found that “monkey” means “tankard.” So if you’re familiar with the “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel” verse, I bet it was just a weird adaptation of the original verse, where this guy pops his weasel to go out drinking. (Again, why are you wasting your money, sir?)

Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the Master,
One for the Dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
This was my brother’s favorite nursery rhyme as a kid. He’s a very frugal guy, so I find it hilarious that this rhyme is about taxes. A third goes to the king (the Master), a third goes to the church (the Dame), and a third goes to the farmer (the little boy down the lane). Originally, there was one more line: “and none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” That’s the shepherd! The shepherd has nothing but his poor little shorn sheep!

Ring Around the Rosy
Ring around the rosy,
Pocket full of posy,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down!
I bet you know what I’m gonna say. That this rhyme is about the Black Death, and the ashes are the cremated bodies, and so on and so forth. But no! It didn’t show up until 1881. For those less historically inclined, that’s 531 years after the Black Death subsided. Not related at all. Of course, if you’re like me, you’re slightly disappointed by that information aren’t you? That’s why I like you.

There are plenty more where this came from. What’s your favorite nursery rhyme? If you don’t know the origin, I might have come across it in my prep for this post. I could tell you more than you ever wanted to know!

Or you could be lame and look it up yourself. These are the sites I drew on, but there are tons more out there.

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

The Reality of Romanticizing the Past


I’ve noticed an interesting theme this past week in my activities: romanticizing the past. In the book I read, the main character romanticized the Regency era; and the Renaissance Festival I went to Saturday celebrated the romantic ideal of the Middle Ages. Since I’m regularly guilty of romanticizing both periods, the juxtaposition got me thinking.

I’m a Jane Austen fan. I love the romances, but I also love the culture. The mannerisms, the courtship, the courtesy. Dancing that doesn’t involve grinding up against your partner. Very clear rules that provide structure, versus an ambiguous “let’s go hang out without defining whether it’s a date or not.” Yes, that happens to me a lot.

Of course, that’s the rose-colored glasses version. As Definitely Not Mr. Darcy explored, real life was much less romantic. Medicine included leeches to balance the humors, and cloves to cure toothaches. Women had no voice, no free will, and no purpose beyond birthing sons. Not to mention the terrible hygiene in their attempt at brushing teeth and their all taking baths in the same water.

But at least they took baths, unlike medieval people. I’m not even going to start in on their living conditions, because it’s just going to be worse than those of the Regency era. Instead, I’m more interested in the meshing of romanticization and fantasy.

The Renaissance Fair doesn’t just romanticize the past. It recreates it. It keeps the knights who value honor and chivalry, the good kings and fair ladies, tradesmen with authentic wares, and even the tavern wenches. But it also adds its own elements. An obsession with dragons and fairies, a medley of centuries crammed into one village, and the reality of magic rather than the hope of it.

Which time periods do you romanticize?

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

Oh, to Be Human


As humans, we have a pretty sweet deal. We have books. And indoor plumbing. And opposable thumbs. No wonder all of the non-humans are trying to get in on this gig.

I kid, of course. But I do enjoy a good human transformation.

Whether it’s a little mermaid wanting a pair of legs or a crow turning in his wings, each character who wants to be human is in love with one. And what really draws me to these characters is their decision to sacrifice everything they’ve known in order to be with the one they love.

The little mermaid doesn’t just give up her tail. She gives up her family, her way of life, even how she breathes. Plus, you know, her voice. So she gives up everything for the man she loves, and can’t even tell him.

In Disney’s version at least, she manages to cope pretty well with the transition. She finds her balance moderately quickly and is eager to learn everything she can about life as a human. But at least she was already used to hands and whatnot.

In Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice, Nawat the crow falls in love with Aly the human. He takes on human form to be with her, giving up his feathers and his flock, but he has a much harder time with the transition. He tries to woo Aly as a crow would, with offerings of bugs and shiny rocks — which, unsurprisingly, she doesn’t go for.

But as he learns more about humans, the more torn he becomes between his crow self and his human self. Humans don’t think the same way crows do. Humans lie and betray and play with the feelings of others. Nawat ends up sacrificing more than he bargained for when he first became human.

His love, however, carries him through. He may not think much of humans in general, but he can still believe in Aly.

And that’s what’s so great about characters becoming human. There’s that culture clash between their old world and the human world (which, as an anthropology major, I love), but there’s also a deep undercurrent of love that drives the character. All of their sacrifices, all of their differences, none of it matters because they are able to be with the one they love.

P.S. Want to know why the post’s picture is a doe? Sign up for my free newsletter (to the right, there). One of the early stories is about a doe who becomes human to — you guessed it — be with the man she loves. Edit: my newsletter has changed and this story is no longer available.

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

At Least Stab Me in the Front


I love a good betrayal. It’s so…delicious.

Done right, it’s a shocking revelation. The heroes are devastated by their misplaced trust. The villain becomes bigger, badder, stronger. And everything changes.

A perfect example: Peter Pettigrew. (Yes, this is Harry Potter, I cite Harry Potter a lot.)

He turns over his best friends to Voldemort. People he grew up with, shared secrets with, got into trouble with. He sent them and their son to their deaths, because his master was the baddest kid on the playground. Even better, he framed his other best friend for that betrayal.

Well played, you rat. Well played.

Another good example is from Tangled, when Rapunzel realizes Mother Gothel kidnapped her.

She’s spent eighteen years living a lie. She thought her mother loved her, wanted to protect her from people who would use her magical healing hair — never knowing that’s exactly what her “mother” was doing. Worse, she is willing to keep up the charade to save the man she loves. That’s sacrifice right there (but that’s another theme for another post).

Luckily, I haven’t suffered any heart-wrenching betrayals yet. I hope I never have to. Little betrayals are hard enough — when you think someone will stick up for you, but throws you under the bus; when you thought you were friends with people but actually weren’t; or when you trust someone and they just plain let you down.

How do you feel about betrayals? Love them? Hate them? Wish they would turn themselves in for a reward?

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.

How Pictures Steal Your Soul


Some cultures believe that if you take a picture of them, you steal their soul. The Aboriginals of Australia believe this, and I think some Native American tribes do as well. (I can’t find decent documentation right now, so we’ll just go on faith.)

Maybe subconsciously I’ve always considered the possibility. I’ve never liked being photographed. I hide in group shots, and my hands shoot up to cover my face if I’m the primary target. I even wrote a poem about being caught in hundreds of tourist photos.

Yeah, no cameras for me.

We see this in fiction too. Mirrors commonly trap souls. In Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, the Undying can’t have their images captured (by painting or sculpture) without losing a part of themselves. Dorian Gray’s portrait doesn’t exactly steal his soul, but it certainly isn’t handing out sunshine.

I’m using this image/soul element in my upcoming series. I actually came up with the entire series from this one idea.

We woke before dawn to eat a hurried breakfast and leave our hotel for the last time. Our trip to Sydney was at an end. I’d already finished my bagel, so I lurked by the wall of windows for a last glimpse of the city. Not that I could see much, with the glare from the dining room lights.

And then I saw a terrifying image. My face was reflected in the window, but one side was drenched in shadow and therefore invisible. And, this being Australia, I remembered the half-forgotten lore of an image stealing your soul.

And in that moment it seemed entirely possible.

So! I spent a good chunk of the plane ride writing down all sorts of ideas (take that, J.K. Rowling!). A lot of it has changed through the years, but that one element of the reflection stealing the soul is still central to the story.

I’ve toyed with other variants too, including a ghost who was tied to the world through her portrait. I tried including her in my series, then a one-shot book, then a flat little novella. I abandoned her years ago as a cool idea with no home — but now she has one! You can read her short story in my anthology, Frozen Roses.

Do you ever think about this happening? What would you do if your soul was stolen?

(For my part, I would probably cry. Like a lot. I’m quite fond of my soul, I don’t want it wandering about, thanks.)

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.