Apocalyptic Jackrabbits

I've just finished reading Robert Rankin's The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. I enjoyed his flippant, alliterated style, his sinister take on nursery rhymes and his unexpected political poke. I've only read one or two of his books before this one, so maybe I should have expected his barb. Dedicated Rankin fans should feel free to enlighten me.

Most of our western nursery rhymes have some historic background, and because of the figurative nature of the verses there is often some disagreement about the events that inspired them. I thought that urban myths about the origins of nursery rhymes and fairy tales were a recent trend. It seems the creation of fanciful tales has been practised for a long time. Take, for example, this excerpt from The Origins of English Verse, Edward Roberts, 1941 (pp 68-70).

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating of Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And cried, "What a good boy am I!"

The traditional story about hiding a title deed in a pie is a fanciful construction. Were I predisposed to gambling I'd wager this verse was penned late in the seventeenth century. After looking at several similar rhymes from that period I conclude that Little Jack Horner is but one verse from a humorous song about Christmas pageantry. It is instructive to examine Pretty Sue Piper, a verse that has fallen from the nursery's oral tradition.

Pretty Sue Piper
Tickled her viper
Round and around the Moon;
Her fingers did miss,
And serpent did hiss,
While Jack still spoke the tune.

The relationship of the Pretty Sue Piper verse to Little Jack Horner is unmistakable in their similar metre and rhyme, and also in their references to Jack. Reading both verses as part of one song yields a completely consistent interpretation as I shall now explain.

The "Jack Horner" is the crumhorn player in a chamber ensemble and "Sat in a corner" is a position at the back, a humble position. Harsh instruments such as the crumhorn were placed to the rear of an ensemble. "Eating of Christmas pie" meant the player was full of reverent Christian piety. This further emphasised the humility of his placement. To "put in his thumb" is to mute the sound of his crumhorn and soften its characteristic sharp buzzing, while "pulled out a plum" refers to the smooth timbre he produced.

The humour of the verse is revealed in the last line--"What a good boy am I!" This is the punch line to the verse as our previously pious player becomes an insufferable braggart. The one time he and his instrument produce a soft, harmonious tone, he cannot help but shout about it.

In the related verse, "Piper" is clearly a vocation rather than a surname. "Tickled her viper" is a reference to playing a serpent horn as is evident from the fifth line.

The phrase "Round and around the Moon" has caused some confusion because of its similarity to "The cow jumped over the moon" in Hey Diddle Diddle. Since many songs of the time were performed as rounds or canons, "The Moon" is possibly a reference to the Huron Carol "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime".

It is in the fifth line with "serpent did hiss" that the wit becomes evident. The hiss is a flatulent sound produced when a serpent (a difficult instrument at the best of times) is mis-fingered. This phrase creates a bawdy, comedic image but does so one line too early. The anticlimax of placing the spectacle on the second last line rather than the last might explain why this verse (and many of the others) didn't survive in popular culture as did Little Jack Horner.

Fictitious constructions of the origins of nursery rhymes and fairy tales have been created in the past and will continue to be created. Some people see archaic language as an open invitation to place their own interpretations on our cultural vestiges. As always, one should maintain a high degree of skepticism when reading any of these explanations.

Further reading: a traditional interpretation of Little Jack Horner, Huron Carol, Crumhorn, Serpent.