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Old 04 April 2017, 11:39 AM
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Richard W Richard W is offline
Join Date: 19 February 2000
Location: High Wycombe, UK
Posts: 26,443

I've been reading the complete collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales on-and-off for a few years now (it's hard to read more than a few at a time, so I'll read the odd one or two every once in a while, and then put them aside again). People generally seem to think that the Grimms collected these by talking to simple peasants, but apart from some that they found in other books or that were written down and sent to them, they actually got most of them from the middle- or upper- classes. This is from one of the introductions to the Vintage Classics edition:

Contrary to popular belief, the Grimms did not collect their tales by visiting peasants in the countryside and writing down the tales that they heard. Their primary method was to invite storytellers to their home and then have them tell the tales aloud, which the Grimms either noted down on first hearing or after a couple of hearings. Most of the storytellers during this period were educated young women from the middle class or aristocracy.
(The introduction then lists a few groups of young women who are known to have provided stories, which were typically a mother and a set of daughters). These people
... used to meed regularly [with the Grimms] to relate tales they had heard from their nursemaids, governesses, and servants.
The Grimms also sometimes spliced together different versions of the same story.

As I've said before, although some of the stories are coherent, a lot of them read pretty much like Axe Cop, as though they were being made up on the spot by "young ladies" who were at the rather younger end of the group that could be described by that term. They're made up of things that would have been standard folk tale tropes at that time, but very jumbled and often quite silly. They were children's tales - in fact another misconception is that the Grimms version is unsanitised; there are one or two cases where the Grimms themselves cleaned up a story in later versions (like removing references to Rapunzel becoming pregnant) because perhaps they felt attitudes were changing.

If you read the Opies' stuff about children's playground rhymes, they found similar versions of the same rhymes all over the place but with local differences. It's still very interesting how some of them would have spread - since they're often rhymes that wouldn't have been handed around by parents ("Jingle Bells, Batman Smells..." and that sort of thing, although I believe that one was a little late for them to have included - it was current during my childhood which was right at the end of their active period). But there really doesn't seem to be any indication that they can be "about" anything in particular, because there's no real way for that supposed coded knowledge to be there.

More standard nursery rhymes were probably created and passed around in a similar way before being written down (when they weren't made up by somebody known), so except in rare cases it seems unlikely that they would have these hidden meanings, unless those are added later. There might be scraps of meaning in some of them where a standard signifier has been absorbed, I suppose.

Last edited by Richard W; 04 April 2017 at 11:45 AM.