Anne here, pondering the notion of cautionary tales. Cautionary tales are those which warn people against performing some kind of forbidden act or doing something dangerous. The focus of the tale then ignores this prohibition and as a result suffers some dreadful, often grisly fate.
Cautionary tales have been with us for centuries — King Midas, anyone? But mostly they seem to me to be aimed at women and children.
So many folk songs warn naiive maidens against opportunistic men, often soldiers. Don't for heaven's sake give them your grandad's clothing (Oh, soldier soldier won't you marry me, with your musket fife and drum? Song here.)
Don't invite in the bad neighbor when your husband is away (Beware of Long Lankin.) Don't try to fetch your ball from over the fence of another bad neighbor ( Little Sir Hugh — originally a nasty anti-semitic cautionary tale), and many others.
Here's a bit from a Scottish song I learned when I was eight — and had no idea what the reference to her "old tin can" really meant. (Here's an Irish version of the song)
Says I me bonny wee lassie listen to my advice
Never let a soldier laddie kiss you more than twice
For all the time he's kissing you, he's a fixing up a plan
How to get a wee-bit rattle at your old tin can.
Many of the songs also warn women about not being faithful to their men who've gone away to sea, sometimes for years. He might be drowned, he might have settled elsewhere, but woe betide the woman who dares to move on, for then he'll come back and you'll be dreadfully shamed.
But the cautionary tales I'm looking at today are those written specifically for children. There was a surge of them in the Victorian era, in English, German and other languages. Many of them warned of quite horrific punishments for what we think are mildly bad habits. Many of the fairy tales we were raised on gave me nightmares as a child. I still find the tale of the Red Shoes horrific – a little girl loses her feet for the sin of wanting some pretty shoes to dance in. Horrible stuff.
Here's the tale that goes with the illustration above, from the German Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman published in 1858.
Conrad, also known as Little Suck-a-Thumb
One day, Mamma said: "Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don't suck your thumb while I'm away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he's about.
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then,
You know, they never grow again."
Horribly gruesome, especially with the illustrations. Guaranteed to cause nightmares in any small insecure thumb-sucking little one whose mother is leaving him alone — and yet these tales were very popular. By 1876, over 100 editions of Der Struwwelpeter had been printed.
They were popular in America, too, and warned against all kinds of unwanted behavior. Most of the tales in this book — Little Miss Consequence, published in New York — are directed against girls. I'm not sure whether there was a boys' version, though both boys and girls appear on the cover and there is a boy pictured reading it.
See, it can even happen to people of the Best Families!
She slides on the ice with the boys (tut tut), she rushes off to listen to organ-grinders and their monkeys (shudder), she joins the boys in playing football (bring out the smelling salts!), she climbs trees (horrors!) even jumps ditches (not sure what a proper girl is supposed to do about a ditch, but clearly jumping them is shocking, my dears), and neglects her sewing. Utterly appaaaaalllling!
In 1907 Hillaire Belloc published an illustrated book of "Cautionary Tales for Children" which is still quite popular today. But there's a satirical tone to his tales, and they were more for entertainment than for the frightening of children.
The dreadful consequences of childish misbehavior in his tales make us laugh, rather than cringe.
He hadn’t gone a yard when—
Bang! With open Jaws, a Lion sprang.
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
Even my beloved AA Milne wrote at least one (albeit charmingly inverted) cautionary tale which he called DISOBEDIENCE.
James James Morrison Morrison Wetherby George Dupree,
Took great care of his mother, though he was only three.
James James said to his mother, "Mother" he said, said he,
"You must never go down to the end of the town if you don't go down with me."
To find out what happened to James James's naughty mother, click here. And while this has nothing to do with cautionary tales, while I was checking my memory for the poem above (I got it all right) I came across this 1928 recording of AA Milne reading a story from Winnie the Pooh, and thought you might find it interesting. The actual recording starts almost a minute in so if you want to skip the musical intro . .
I've barely touched on the possibilities of the topic, but perhaps I've whetted your appetite to dig up some more of these fascinating and often gruesome tales. So what about you — do you have a favorite cautionary tale? Or one you hated? And what about the modern era — are there cautionary tales that need to be written for today's fraught times? Perhaps one about using mobile phones . . .