Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jack and Jill: What Really Happened?

For some reason, "Jack and Jill" seems to be the main nursery-rhyme to have stuck in my memory since childhood. It's from the Mother Goose collection, of course. According to mothergoose.com . . . ,

The first collection of stories to bear the name "Mother Goose" was produced by Charles Perrault in 1697. His book of ten fairy tales was entitled Tales from the Past with Morals, and under the frontispiece picture of an old woman telling stories to children and a cat appeared a subtitle for the book: Contes de ma mère l'oye, or "Tales from My Mother Goose."

The name "Mother Goose" and the tales and rhymes seem to have sprung from France, although no one is sure about this. Apparently in the 800s, Queen Bertrada--mother of Charlemagne--was known as Bertrada Greatfoot and/or Queen Goosefoot. Really. And she was married to Pepin the Short, Chuck's dad. "Honey, do you want to meet Queen Goosefoot and Pepin the Short for coffee this weekend? They're in town for a few days."

But the connection between the big-footed queen and the Mother Goose collections is tenuous.

I do love the fact that in Perrault's book, the old woman is telling tales to children and a cat. Even back then, apparently, people knew cats liked a good story. The part with the pail of water must have terrified the cat.

To the matter of Jack and Jill, then:

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.

To people who read or write poetry, this is great stuff because of the meter (a mix of trochaic and iambic), the alliteration, the internal rhyming, and the half-rhyme (very modern!): water and after. Like all children, I just loved saying this rhyme, back in the day, and that was one part of Mother Goose's genius: it got children immersed in the play of language.

However, the plot of the nursery rhyme confused me then and confuses me now. Who sent Jack and Jill up the hill for water? Were they friends or brother and sister or cousins or what? Why was the water on a hill? Shouldn't it have been in a creek or a well or a pond? Who goes up a hill for water? As a child, I wondered whether Jack a) figuratively broke his crown and literally suffered major skull-trauma or b) literally broke a crown he was wearing. If b, where did he get the crown, why was he wearing it (for fun, for looks, or was he a prince?), why would the crown break when he fell (wouldn't it just fly off?), and why did he wear it on the water-run? If a, did he recover? This worried me, no end.

How and/or why did Jill tumble after? Did she stumble over Jack's body? Or was she shocked by Jack's tumble and did she then lose her footing? And did the pail of water spill? What is the moral of "Jack and Jill"? Don't go uphill for water? Leave the crown home? Boys are clumsier than girls? Don't send young children up a hill for water? Install indoor plumbing? These and other questions have been with me since childhood. You're right: I need a life.

Nonetheless, why hasn't there been more investigative reporting on the Jack and Jill story?! There's so much we don't know! In the meantime, I have sought to play a riff on the old n-rhyme:

Nursery Rhyme

Yet and Still
Went up a hill
To fetch
A connotation.

Yet met Fret,
A mongrel pet
Owned by
Procrastination.

Still fell ill
From sipping Nil,
Disgorging
Agitation.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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