Nursery Rhymes and Once Upon A Time
By Teresa Martin-- @Teresa__Martin
Nursery Rhymes are a form of verse that after hundreds of years still permeate the lives of little children. One can go to just about any pre-school in the English-speaking world and start singing the first line of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and immediately the children as one will start belting it out like the chorus of U2’s “In the Name of Love.” Then, when they reach the line “three bags full,” you’ll likely behold a sea of three little fingers raised with the gusto of Katniss saluting Rue.
Yet, as familiar as nursery rhymes are, finding the origins of them is elusive. Little is certain from where they came except the fact that they have been a staple of children’s lives for as far back as ten generations. This is credibly asserted by Iona and Peter Opie, authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1). In this work it is hypothesized that nursery rhymes are “fragments of ballads or of folk songs, . . . . remnants of ancient custom and ritual” and “last echoes of long-forgotten evil.” Like fairy tales, the source materials were likely not intended for children (3).
The corpus of nursery rhymes today “are the rhyming alphabets, the infant amusements (verses which accompany a game) and the lullabies” (4, 11-17). Primarily they were orally transmitted through such games and songs, and only written down later. The first of these collections were published in 1744’s Tommy Thumb’s Little Song Book and later, approximately 1765, Mother Goose’s Melody (29,32).
The rhymes’ persistence in use among children is testimony to their natural suitability to the young child’s perception of pitch and cadence of speech. Hence they serve a pedagogical purpose in both the language arts and music since they are helpful in developing accurate note recognition and healthy vocal skills. It is common advice given to parents to saturate their children with nursery rhymes . . . from the womb. Once born, it is not long before, with the parent moving the arms of the child, a baby can with glee participate in “Patty-cake,” an infant singing game recorded as early as 1698 (404). Such parent-baby interaction was adorably demonstrated on Once in the episode “The Snow Queen” wherein Ella, Aurora, Snow and other Storybrooke moms use a child’s familiar tune to sing goodbye to their babies. “Peek-a-boo,” another favorite infant game, has its origins in “Little Bo-Peep,” featured in “White Out.”
To play “bo peep” was originally “the act of looking out and then drawing back as if frightened, or with the purpose to fright another.” The earliest reference to “playing bo-peep” can be traced to 1364, while later a passing reference to “playing bo peep” can be found in Shakespeare’s work King Lear. Act One, Scene Four:
Then they for sudden joy did weep
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep
And go the fools among.
Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie.
I would fain learn to lie (106,7).
Relevant to the current version of “Little Bo Peep”, the oldest example of rhyming “Bo Peep” with the word “sheep” is found in the Elizabethan era: “Half England is naught now but shepe/ In everye corner they play boe-pepe” (108).
And so playing and singing “bo peep” is fun and common among English speakers, yet attempts to find deeper socio or political meaning behind the rhyme are inconclusive. There is however a consensus that the final, most familiar version serves as a cautionary rhyme about neglecting one’s duties. The full text is as follows:
Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep, And doesn't know where to find them;
Leave them alone, And they'll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them.
Little and asleep, And dreamt she heard them bleating;
But when she awoke, she found it a joke, For they were still a-fleeting.
Then up she took her little crook, Determined for to find them;
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they'd left their tails behind them.
It happened one day,
as Bo-peep did stray Into a meadow hard by,
There she espied their tails side by side, All hung on a tree to dry.
She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye, And over the hillocks went rambling,
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
To tack each again to its lambkin (107).
Once, like the rhyme, uses the character Bo Peep to teach. The lesson in “White Out” though centers not on neglect, but bullying, and how the characters Anna and Charming respond to it effectively. But before examining Once’s Bo Peep, it is perhaps necessary, bullying often getting infused with other topics, to revisit the the bare bones of what bullying actually is. Bullying is a form of abuse that uses power to control others. Its tools are threats or actions to harm a person physically, mentally, or financially. The victim is called a target, one weaker in power. The process by which the bully chooses and initiates aggressive actions is called targeting. For bullying to thrive, willing and complicit participants in the aggression are required. Since bullying is a method, any person or group with any agenda can practice it.
As aptly demonstrated in Once from the beginning.
Season One Regina is a classic example of a bully: charismatic and ruthless. The beautiful queen was hurt, so she used her magic to curse the kingdom and perpetuate the harm through political power in Storybrooke. She bullied for revenge. Zelena also falls into this category. To redress past hurts, she targets Storybrooke, and takes control of Rumple, forcing him, through magic, to carry out her goals. Another bully is Rumplestiltskin, the type who, paradoxically, to stop himself from being bullied, becomes one. He applies the very tactics previously used against him to target anyone he perceives as a threat. Perhaps even Bo Peep was like Rumplestiltskin originally and had a “good reason” for becoming a controlling warlord. She could have a background of being powerless based on her status as respects to gender or socio-economic status. Perhaps she became bitter and, like Rumple, lost sight of what was right and talked herself into becoming what she originally despised. One can sympathize. Who hasn’t fantasized about using power to control others to “make things better” or advance something important to them? Yet it is never ok to make that choice.
A person’s conscience can be an ally in responding to bullying. Once’s sorely missed conscience, Dr. Hopper, gives a magnificent example of how to stand up to such aggressors in “That Still Small Voice.” He confronts Regina and dares her to challenge him, reminding her that she is ultimately on shaky ground, as most bullies legally are. This often works, especially when one has a lawyer on call. Charming also effectively fights the bully, literally, and that can put an end to it. But there is a chance of “standing fast even at the risk of being heroes.” It can end badly (humanity doesn’t have statues to people who have lost their lives in doing the right thing for nothing) and as Dumbledore aptly tells Harry Potter: “There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Yet the opposite is too horrific to comprehend: losing one’s soul.
One heck of a price to pay.
And that is the magic of Once. By using traditional tales, the show illustrates universal messages which are accessible from the very young to those who are . . . older, without any distracting baggage.
Once entertains, but also teaches.
So it is fitting that nursery rhymes, naturally attracting all, like fairy tales, are used by the Once writers to teach within the framework of their larger story. Lessons about neglecting duties, defending oneself from bullies, and preventing oneself from becoming one . . . these are deep themes. And while Charming solved his issues through a simple sword fight, all know it is always more complicated than that. Yet as audience members reflect, whether consciously or unconsciously, they can find inspiration to solve moral dilemmas through this form of entertainment.
Opie, Peter, and Iona Opie. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
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