Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

Illustration by Jesse Wilcox Smith

For every Evil under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.

If there be one seek it till you find it;
If there be none never mind it.

As you can see fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes
weren’t always so warm and fuzzy!

Most of us grew up listening to Mother Goose rhymes and Fairy Tales. These imaginative narratives introduce children to a world full of magical creatures and impossible events. Many of these centuries-old stories go all the way back to ancient mythology. It is interesting to note that before Walt Disney got a hold of stories like Cinderella and Snow White and made them “Family Friendly” many of these early Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales are originally quite dark and menacing. #

Did you ever hear of Billy Pringe’s pig?
It was very little, and not very big.
When it was alive it lived in clover;
but now it’s dead and that’s all over

Bill Pringle he lay down and died.
Betsy Pringle she sat down and cried.
So there’s an end to all the three,
Billy Pringle he, Betsy Pringle she
And poor little piggy wigee.

‘Mother Goose’s Nursey Rhymes, Tales and Jingles’ 1902

The Peter Patter Book c. 1918

Victuals and Drink

This character is described as an old woman and
not an old wife.
I think she lives alone.
“She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink”. Victual is an old word meaning food. Drink, on the other hand, is not used here as a verb but as a noun. Without the preposition a (drink) it is commonly taken to mean alcoholic beverages. c.1912

The last line is a bit of humorous satire. Everyone knows that the more alcohol you drink the louder and more eloquent you become. [sic] #

Babes in the Woods c.1870

My dear, do you know,

How a long time ago,

Two poor little children,

Whose names I don’t know,

Were stolen away on a fine summer’s day,

And left in a wood, as I’ve heard people say.

And when it was night,

So sad was their plight,

The sun it went down,

And the moon gave no light!

They sobb’d and they sigh’d, and they bitterly cried,

And the poor little things, they lay down and died.

And when they were dead,

The Robins so red

Brought strawberry leaves,

And over them spread;

And all the day long,

They sung them this song,

“Poor babes in the wood! Poor babes in the wood!”#

As I went over the water,
The water went over me.
I saw two little blackbirds
sitting on a tree:

One called me a rascal,
The other called me a thief;
I took up my little black stick,
And knocked out all their teeth.#

There are many traditional fairytales that use the color red to signify evil and danger. The Evil Queen gives Snow White a poisonous red apple. There are deathly red dancing slippers and little red riding hood’s cloak. This may be a subliminal reference to the inherent danger of actually seeing red blood. Young children have a natural aversion to unfamiliar things colored red.

Poison oak and Ivy leaves turn a brilliant scarlet in the autumn. Bright red berries like climbing nightshade and holly are toxic. Red Baneberry and yew berries will make the eater sick. The attractive Fly Agaric mushroom is deadly.

  Red is commonly used in movies to foreshadow that something bad is about to happen. For example, a doomed character will walk past a red door that came out of nowhere.  I was telling Tessa about this use of red as we were watching Jaws. As if to make my point, the little boy at the beginning who is about to be mauled by the shark walks across the beach in a …you guessed it…red bathing suit. If you start looking for instances of red at climatic moments in movies you’ll be surprised at how often it’s used.

This is a cautionary tale copied from a children’s storybook c.1860.
Be careful what you wish for.

The Red Shoes

Once upon a time, a little girl was sad. She was sad because her mother was dying. She sat outside the cottage, on the stoop, with her head in her hands feeling very, very sorry for herself. Why did her mother have to be so sick?

She watched the village children laughing and running in the square, but she could not join their fun because she was told to stay still and wait. Why did she have to stay still and wait all the day, day after day, while her friends played?

She could hear their happy voices calling to each other. They never called her name anymore. They knew she had to stay still and wait. Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait for her mother to die. But her mother didn’t die, she just coughed and coughed.

The little girl wished she could dance. She loved to dance. But she couldn’t dance, she had to stay still and wait. The little girl wished and wished and wished, three times, that she had a beautiful pair of red dancing slippers so she wouldn’t be sad. The crooked, old crone, who made the children laugh walked slowly past her cottage. The little girl thought she would like to throw a stone at the crooked, old crone. The little girl didn’t like the crooked old crone and thought about the beautiful red dancing slippers.

Her mother coughed and coughed all night. The little girl lay still and quiet in the darkness.  She wished and wished and wished again, three times, that she had a beautiful pair of red dancing slippers. In the morning her mother was very pale, and the kind neighbor told the little girl to go outside and stay still and wait.

The little girl went to the cottage stoop to stay still and wait. On the stoop was a tattered shawl. The tattered shawl the crooked, old crone wore. The little girl pushed it off the stoop so she could stay still and wait. Out of the tattered shawl fell a beautiful pair of red dancing slippers. The excited little girl put the slippers on her feet.

Her feet started to dance. They danced her away from the stoop and out into the lane. The little girl danced past the village children who were laughing and running in the square. They stopped to watch her wondering why she was not on the stoop. They knew she had to stay still and wait. Why was she dancing?

The little girl danced joyfully through the village until she was so tired, she danced home again. The kind neighbor was weeping on the cottage stoop. The little girl knew her mother was dead and wanted to kiss her cheek goodbye. She tried to take off the beautiful pair of red dancing slippers, but they would not come off. Her tired feet just kept on dancing.

The kind neighbor told her to stop dancing and be sad. The little girl was sad, but her feet would not stop dancing. The village people all came to the cottage and told the little girl to take off the beautiful red dancing slippers. But the slippers would not come off and her feet would not stop dancing.

The little girl danced behind her mother’s wooden coffin as it went into the church. The little girl danced down the church aisle and out the arch into the graveyard behind her dead mother’s wooden coffin. Her feet were so very tired, but they would not stop dancing.

She tore at the beautiful red dancing slippers, but they would not come off her feet.
All the villagers shook their heads saying the little girl was very naughty to dance when her mother was dead. But she could not stop. The sunset and the village went to sleep but the little girl was still dancing. Her feet were bloody now in the beautiful red dancing slippers and her tears blinded her eyes, but her feet kept dancing!

Farther and farther into the night the little girl danced and danced until she could dance no more and her little body fell dead and still. A dark figure moved out of the forest and slipped the beautiful red dancing slippers from the little girl’s bloody feet. As the crooked, old crone wrapped the beautiful red dancing slippers in her tattered shawl, she smiled

There are many variations of enchanted ‘Red Dancing Slippers.’ One of my favorites is the 1948 film “The Red Shoes”. starring Ballet dancer Moira Shearer who is driven mad, dancing out of control, by the red slippers gifted by a mysterious admirer. #

Poison Mushroom Fly Agaric

Some children’s rhymes may
even cause nightmares!
Take for instance…

Poor Polly Picklenose

“Polly, Polly, goodness gracious!
Now you quit that making faces.” 
Polly laughed at what they said, 
Cocked her nose and went to bed. 

But the big black Boog abo heard,
and he came without a word; 
Walked right in — you bet a nickel! 
In his hand a great, green pickle. 

Stalked along with steady pace, 
Stuck it right in Polly’s face, 
Pinned it fast, and there it grows— 
Poor Polly Picklenose!


Dear little Pat 
Was chasing the cat 
And kicking the kittens about. 
When mother said, “Quit!”
He ran off to sit on the top of the woodpile and pout. c.1895

‘Dear little Pat’ indeed!

Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the Cupboard,
To give the poor Dog a bone;
When she came there,
The Cupboard was bare,
And so the poor Dog had none.

She went to the Baker’s
To buy him some Bread;
When she came back
The Dog was dead!#
c. 1860

Jack and Jill
We all know this verse:
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.

But there’s more…
Up Jack got and home did trot
As fast as he could caper;
Put to bed they bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

When Jill came in her face a grin
To see Jack’s paper plaster;
Jack’s mother was vexed,
then whipped Jill next,
For causing jack’s disaster.

c. 1900

c. 1820
Remember ‘s’ looked like ‘f”.

c. 1820 (Bleck!)

c. 1850

Little brother Monk
Sat upon a trunk,
Eating a crust of bread,

There fell a hot coal,
which in his clothes
burnt a hole.
Now little Monk is dead.

Keep always from the fire,
If it catches your attire,
You too, like Monk,

will be dead.
Robin the Bobbin

Big-bellied Ben,

He ate more meat than fourscore men.

He ate a cow, he ate a calf,
He ate a butcher and a half;

He ate a church,
He ate a steeple,

Then for dessert he
ate the priest
and all the good people! #

Poison Ivy in the Autumn

Timothy Grady

Poor little Timothy Grady
Made a rude face

at a passing lady,
And, jiminy jack
his real face wouldn’t

come back.
The louder he hollered
The tighter it grew,
His eyes were all red
And his lips were all blue.
Oh, mercy me,

what will he do?
Poor little Timothy Grady!

The Little Mermaid

This charming Disney tale was inspired by a Danish Fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen and published in 1837. FYI: The original story makes no mention of the name ‘Ariel’ nor any reference to skin color of The Little Mermaid or The Prince.

The original Fairytale written for children was about a Little Mermaid, with a beautiful, singing voice, who saves a Prince from drowning. She falls madly in love with him although she lives under the Sea, and he is human. The Little Mermaid spends her days near the shore watching the humans dreaming about the handsome prince and her love for him. The Prince falls in love with her beautiful, singing voice not knowing it comes from the Little Mermaid just offshore.

Desperate for the love of The Prince the Little Mermaid seeks out a Dark Sea Witch. The Sea Witch offers her a magic potion that will change her mermaid tail into human legs. In payment, the Sea Witch cuts out her tongue making her mute and thus now possessing the Little Mermaid’s beautiful, singing voice.

The magic draught gives her human legs. She is told, “Your legs shall feel and bleed like you are walking on knife blades.” The Sea Witch tells the Little Mermaid she can never return to The Sea and must make The Prince love her and only then will she gain a human Soul. (Mermaids have no Soul to carry them to Heaven.)

The Little Mermaid struggles onto the shore and drinks the Sea Witches’ potion. Knowing she must somehow make The Prince fall in love and marry her. If he marries someone else, she will die of her broken heart and become nothing but seafoam at dawn on the day after the prince’s wedding. After a year The Prince marries someone else.

  Just before the dawn on the day after the Prince’s wedding, the Little Mermaid’s five sisters bring her a Magic Knife from the Dark Sea Witch. (The price for the Magic Knife was letting the Sea Witch cut off all their enchanted, mermaid hair.) “If you kill The Prince,” the (now bald) sisters say, “and let his warm, red blood spill down over your legs, The Sea Witches’ spell will be broken, and you can return with us to your home in the Sea!” But The Little Mermaid cannot kill The Prince (because she loves him) so she throws herself into the Sea knowing without her mermaid tail she will drown and become nothing but seafoam.
In its original fairytale ending, after The Little Mermaid dies and dissolves into green seafoam. She meets the ethereal Daughters of the Air who tell her that, because of her painful suffering on Land, she can now earn an Eternal Soul by doing good deeds for her entire 300-year lifespan.

“We may get there even sooner,” one Spirit whispered.  “Unseen, we fly into the homes of men, where there are children, and for every day on which we find a good child who pleases his parents and deserves their love, God shortens our days of trial. The child does not know when we float through his room, but when we smile at him in approval one year is taken from our three hundred. But if we see a naughty, mischievous child we must shed tears of sorrow, and each tear adds a day to the time of our trial.”#

Quote by H.C. Anderson

What a very subtle way to encourage children to behave. No Child would ever want to add even one day to the Little Mermaid’s trial.


The Red Toad

Once a man and his wife were sitting at a table by the back door, roast chicken in front of them, and were about to eat dinner. The man saw his father coming up the road toward them. He quickly grabbed the chicken and hid it because he did not want to give the old man any. The father came, had a drink, and went away.

As the son reached around to put the roasted chicken back on the table he found that it had turned into a Red Toad, which sprang to his face and would not leave him. When he tried to take it off it just clung. Everyone was soon afraid of the strange thing. They didn’t dare come around for fear the Red Toad might suddenly jump off and touch them too!

And so The Stingy Son ended up alone and having to feed the Red Toad every day. (Otherwise, he was sure, it would have eaten away part of his face.) #

‘Old Stories and Fairy Tales’ c. 1860
Older version of Little Red Riding Hood c 1850

Little Red Cap

(Better known as Little Red Ridinghood)

Once there was a pretty little girl much loved by her old grandmother who made for her a cap as red as her ruby lips. The little girl wore the cap everywhere and was soon called ‘Little Redcap’. One day her mother told Little Redcap her old grandmother was very weak and ill. The mother had prepared a basket of bread and wine saying, “The bread will give your old grandmother strength and the bottle of wine will cheer her up.
You take this basket straight to Grandmother’s cottage.
Do not speak to anyone or veer off the trodden way.”

Little Redcap skipped along the path when suddenly a wolf appeared leaning against a gnarled, old tree. Little Redcap knew nothing of the crafty wolf, so she was not fearful to speak to him. “Good day Master Wolf. Little Redcap said, (forgetting her mother’s command to, “speak to no one.”)
     “Where are you bound on this fine day?” Asked The Wolf.
     “I am bound for my old Granny’s cottage. She lives just beyond the three oak trees. She is very ill so I am bringing her a basket to make her strong again.” Said Little Redcap.
      The Wolf moved the napkin aside and looked inside the basket finding nothing to tempt a hungry wolf. “But this plump young maid,” The Wolf thought, “she will make me a tasty meal.”

      Figuring he would think of a way to delay her and race to Granny’s cottage, chomp down the old woman then wait for Little Redcap to arrive. “Oh, look a field of red poppies.” The Wolf said cheerfully. Shall you not bring your Granny a small nosegay to brighten her day?” Little Redcap ran off the path (Again breaking her mother’s commands) into the field of poppies. She wandered through the field of red flowers until she was overcome by the poppy’s sleepy scent. After a short nap, Little Redcap hurried back to her basket, her fist full of blooms, and wondered where The Wolf had gone off to…

The Wolf was currently peeking in through the grandmother’s cottage window.
The old woman looked very frail. The Wolf knocked on the old Granny’s door. “Who is it?” She called out weakly.
     “It’s your own dear, Little Redcap, “answered The Wolf in his sweetest voice.
     “The door is not locked for I am too weak to pull the bolt.” Hearing that The Wolf barged in through the door and gobbled up the old grandmother in one gulp and grabbed her bed-bonnet from her head before she disappeared down his greedy gullet. Just then he heard Little Redcap hurrying up the walkway. Putting on the old lady’s bed bonnet he quickly closed the shutters, darkening the room, then jumped into the old lady’s bed and pulled the quilt up to his nose just as he heard a light knock on the door.

     “Who is it? Asked The Wolf using his best ‘old grandmother’ voice.
     “Tis I.” Said Little Redcap. “Mother has sent a basket of bread and wine to make you well.”
     “Come in,” said The Wolf (His lips drooling at the thought of the tasty child’s bones.)
     “It is very dark in here?” said Little Redcap. “The sun is bright. Let me open the shutters.”
     “No!” Exclaimed the cagey wolf pulling the quilt up to hide his furry snout. “Come near so I can see you better.” Little Redcap obeyed the gruff sound of her grandmother’s voice. Nearing the edge of the bed little red cap said, “Granny what big, shining eyes you have!”
     “All the better to see you with, dear child”
     “What a big harry nose you have!”
     “All the better to smell the tasty bread and wine.”
      As the wolf nibbled a crust of bread Little Redcap gasped “What big teeth you have!”
     “All the better to eat you with!” With those words, The Wolf jumped from the bed and also gobbled Little Redcap down in one gulp.

She was screaming and pounding inside the wolf’s belly when a kindly Woodsman passed the old woman’s cottage and heard the faint screaming. “I had better check on the old Granny. There may be trouble.” In he went through the open door and saw Little Redcap’s hat sticking out of The Wolf’s mouth and he knew at once what had happened! The Woodsman hit The Wolf’s head with his strong, handled ax knocking him out. Then the Woodsman slit the Wolf’s belly open with his sharp ax and pulled Little Redcap out from the Wolf’s, tangled guts. The old Granny had died of shock stuck far down inside The Wolf’s and could not be saved.

“Quick! Grab some hot, glowing stones from the fire, ” Said the Woodsman, “and fill the beast’s open belly.” They loaded up his gut with many, heavy, hot stones. The Woodsman stitched his belly back together just as The Wolf woke up. The Wolf tried to flee but the heavy stones in his gut weighed him down. Then, suddenly, The Wolf began howling in pain as his belly full of red-hot stones started to cook him from the inside out. #  


A Sleeve for a Sleeve

A Sleeve for a Sleeve.
The Mean Old Witch surprised 10 brothers who were robbing her favorite, raspberry bushes. “Away with you!!” The Witch shouted swinging her broom in a wide, sweeping gesture towards the 10 brothers. Poking the air with her broom handle she walked slowly at The Brothers who were backed up to the lake with no path of escape! It was just then that the smallest whispered nervously, “We need wings”.

Why, yes! ! I think you do need wings!” The Mean Old Witch laughed staring straight at each Brother she said, “Fly Away! Now! Get out of my garden!” 

Within seconds all 10 brothers lifted off into the sky on strong, white wings!.
“Now SHOO!!”  She yelled, sweeping the 10 White Swans away with her broom.
A small sparrow, hiding nearby, saw what just happened and swooped down to snatch a straw from the Old Witch’s broom and quickly flew away after the 10 White Swans.

    The brothers were the same inside and remembered what happened with the Old Witch and being taken over by these great, white wings. They looked around at each other not recognizing who was who. Seeing only other swans all anxious to get home.

    ”What is this ruckus?” Sister yelled as she came through the thresh hold. (A solid, wooden spoon in her hand!) She was greeted by the sight of 10 White Swans racing towards her! Honking all together at once!
“Where did you come from? What are you here for?” Sister eagerly questioned. “Yours is certainly an important matter!.” One of the 10 swans stepped forward, unchallenged. It tried to gesture who they were and what had happened with the Mean Old Witch. But his new wings were awkward and and his voice was unable to tell her the tale. So they just stared blankly at each other!

    In the sudden silence the tiny sparrow few up with the single straw it had plucked from the Mean Old Witch’s broom. Sister looked at the piece of straw and looked up at all 10 of the eager White Swans. Suddenly she knew it! “You are my 10 brothers turned to swans by some Witchcraft?”
    “Yes!” They all began honking at once.
“Then I must leave at once for the the Mean Old Witch and beg to have a cure to break this feathered spell!
    After a short journey, and a very long wait the mean Mean Old Witch finally agreed to see Sister who was led to the same garden where the boys had been caught at the blackberry bushes. “I know what you want!” growled the Mean Old Witch.” What makes you think I will give it to you?”
    “ I will pay you with my work.” Sister said, “I am young but I am very skilled at knitting.”
    “ A skill useless to me!” said the Mean Old Witch. “No! Wait! Let me think… YES! I do need something from you. I want you to knit 10 shirts. One for each of your thieving brother’s. When those pesky white birds are covered with these shirts the spell will be broken and swans no more they’ll be.” Sister was so relieved by the Mean Old Witch’s easy demand that she hinted a smile as she turned to go. She could knit up 10 shirts in a week!

    The mean Old Witch had seen Sister’s face change so she added , “…and since this thievery is about my raspberries you will knit each shirt from the thorny, raspberry branches.” Sister’s head dropped. There was no question she would do this to save her brothers. “I will work slowly.” She thought, and use care handling the sharp thorny branches and then, letting my hands heal between each shirt.” Watching her thoughts the Mean Old Witch added, …and my 10 shirts must be completed by the next Full Moon’s midnight or all remains as it is!”

    Sister shared the story of today’s visit (with the Mean Old Witch) with The 10 Swan Brothers. (They could hear but could not talk.) They each knew they would remain 10 White Swans forever without Sister’s sacrifice. Which it was decided was the only possible path. Sister went each day to gather raspberry-branches and then she’d knit furiously at night. It was just hours before Sister’s hands were bleeding from the prick of raspberry-thorns and she hadn’t even finished one shirt yet!

    The 10 White Swans perched helplessly near Sister as she worked on the crude, cursed shirts.
Gentle Swans’ eyes watched as she let the thorns rip at her young hands and fingers! Her brothers flew above her as she visited the raspberry-bushes, (day after day) and carried back the thorny branches. The Full Moon was coming fast and she had only 9 shirts completely finished. The 10 White Swans never left her as she worked frantically on the last shirt. As evening fell on the Full Moon… still Sister knitted! She had the one last sleeve to finish. They all heard the the bells ring 11:00 pm on their final way to Full Moon midnight. Still Sister knitted on the sleeve as they all looked to see the last moments slide towards 12:pm

    Appearing in a thin, sulphury vapor The Mean Old Witch suddenly appeared in the garden. “Midnight’s toll approaches, she called out, “You there! Child!” Is my delivery ready?”( Sister wanted to take her bloody, swollen, thorn-torn fingers and put them before the witches runny eyes and say, “Could a child do this?” (Sister carried the pile of shirts. She suddenly thought of the final shirt that she was still knitting on! The one without a finished sleeve. “I will be one shirt sleeve short! Sister panicked! Maybe she won’t notice., I’ll put that shirt near the bottom..

    “What mean these painfully-crafted, thorny shirts to you?” Sister dared to ask
The Mean Old Witch.
    “They are nothing to me but everything to you.” The thorny shirts must be put, one each, on your precious Flock. Just as the clock strikes midnight! Not before, not after! Only while the bell gongs 12 times! “Only then can the ‘Swan Spell’ be lifted. Have you all forgotten why you’re here?” The old Witch smirked.

      When the clocktower bell gonged one, Sister grabbed the thorny shirts and raced towards the swans. Dressing a swan, (even a willing one) is no easy trick but by 7 gongs into the midnight bells, Sister had all 10 White Swans covered in their thorny, raspberry-branch shirts. Actually…all in but one Brother/Swan covered for he grabbed the shirt with out the left sleeve. (The last shirt that she had worked feverously on but hadn’t quite finished.) The shirt was done but for the sleeve. But where was the final sleeve she was just working on it? Had she set it down? She couldn’t remember. Maybe there was still time to sew it on.

That was 9 gongs before midnight. “Just three more gongs and it begins! “But where is that sleeve I have carried around all day she thought feeling her panic grow.“ Maybe I can pin the sleeve on somehow surely that would matter for something?” If I could only just find it. All 10 of the swan/brothers were herded near the raspberry bushes when the final midnight gong….gonged and the spell began to let go it’s thorny grasp. The brothers choked on the thick smoke as the white wings burned away from their human bodies.

    “Look, child! Said the Mean Old Witch. “Right there where part of my order Is missing! Sister knew at once it was about the unfinished sleeve of that last, thorny shirt. She had been discovered. She had failed!
    The Mean Old Witch pulled at something from under her heavy cloak and out came the missing prickly, raspberry, branch, shirt sleeve. (She had picked it up from where Sister lay it down.) ”I paid for 10 complete shirts. She twirled the thorny yarn about in her fingers. It is a pretty thing. I think I’ll keep it.  A sleeve for a sleeve!” She cackled hilariously and vanished off into a smelly exhaust.
    “A sleeve for a sleeve!” What does it mean? Sister panicked and ran at her brothers who were gathered around the elder. The brothers parted and Sister gasped out loud. There was her elder brother same as ever except where his left arm (meant to be covered by the unfinished thorny, shirt sleeve) should have been, was a great white swan’s wing.  “A sleeve for a sleeve!

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All images and text are copyright Mary Lee Mattison 1/8/1981 All rights Reserved.