Our Kids Are Singing About Child Sacrifice

by Claire Zlotnicki

girls_playing_london_bridge_1898

When my sisters and I were young, my dad used to sit one of us on his lap and thump on our back and chant “Hurley-burley, thumpety whack! Pretty good fellow, pretty good back! How many fingers do I hold up?” He would pause for us to guess a number, then resume the chant. “Two, she said, and three there were. Pretty good fellow to go to the war!”

Nobody I’ve talked to knows where this rhyme comes from—maybe it’s about sending child soldiers to war, or about the arbitrary nature of death. Often, those people tried to look  at simple nursery rhymes and try to find dark or scary origins for them. But most nursery rhymes, I’ve found, weren’t even created for children—they were the jumbled together songs and poems that tired mothers brought into the nursery, searching for anything to soothe a crying child. In fact, most nursery rhymes probably don’t mean anything, although one of the few that might have dark origins is “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Archeological evidence supports the claim that “London Bridge” is about human sacrifice—specifically, the practice of burying children in the foundations of a bridge to keep it standing. Though there are no findings of human remains in the current-day London Bridge, other old bridges have been found with human remains. Many of us have played the children’s game that goes with the song—two kids form an arch with their arms which falls to catch one of the others passing underneath. Maybe that “caught” person represents the victim of superstitious bridge-builders of the past.

But does the fact that this familiar chant might be about child sacrifice mean I shouldn’t tell it to my children one day? Or that I shouldn’t pass down my father’s rhyme? No, I think it means I should. Nobody knows what my father’s untraceable chant or “London Bridge” or “Ring Around the Rosie” are really about, but the world is still as dangerous a place as it was back then. We can make up our own stories as we go along, but the origins we give them today will be no better than the ones they might really have. Human nature hasn’t improved over the centuries. Old stories about children with candles who were killed to protect an ancient bridge aren’t fooling anyone that we’re better off today—not even our kids.


Claire Zlotnicki is pursuing a Women’s and Gender Studies degree at the College of Charleston. She graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Creative Writing. She is from Florence, South Carolina.

Editor’s Note: Not Capable of Not Grieving

I begin with a question: Why are goodbyes so absent in fairy tales?

She had no rest or peace until she set out secretly, and went forth into the wide world to trace out her brothers and set them free, let it cost what it might. She took nothing with her but a little ring belonging to her parents as a keepsake, a loaf of bread against hunger, a little pitcher of water against thirst, and a little chair as a provision against weariness.

And now she went continually onwards, far, far to the very end of the world.

— “The Seven Ravens” [1]

Every story, even each of our own, involves a departure from our homes, and our parents. How this happens is different for everyone, but the ending is the same.

I said goodbye to Madison, the place I was born, and to my favorite little woods in the city. I said goodbye to my mother, who cried as I packed inside the car with my wife and my dog and my cat [she cries every time I leave her, or she leaves me]. I said goodbye to my father [he always told me that if I didn’t leave the place I was raised I would always regret it, and he was right].

But when his youngest daughter came to sit next to him and be questioned, she said, “These and all other blessings are from Allah.” Angered, her father said, “Since you place so little value on what I can do for you, go and discover how many are the blessings of Allah!”

The girl tied a few clothes into a kerchief and, trusting herself to God’s protection, stepped out of her father’s house. She had no idea where to turn, so she walked in the direction that her face was pointing until she came to some ramshackle sheds.

— “The Girl Who Spoke Jasmines and Lilies” [2]

Unlike the girl, we had a destination: Tucson, a 1,700-mile drive, fairy-tale in its oddities: a Kansas hail storm, a hundred eager dust devils whipping the New Mexico border.

The fairy tale must leave out the goodbye as technique, as purposeful disconnect. It renders the world a little less real. Those who love fairy tales understand the idea of flatness: characters are unnamed, and receiving only an emotional silhouetting. Our dear Kate Bernheimer says fairy-tale characters “are not in psychological conflict.”[3] I don’t think all goodbyes have to be conflicted, but mine certainly are.

“In the name of Allah, I beg you to teach my child.” Fine. She left the boy and went home.

Then what did the magician do but push the boy into a large room, close the door, and lock him in.

— “The Boy Magician” [4]

In Arizona, I was asked to learn, and do work. There were times when graduate school felt like a locked room, but there have been plenty of magicians in the shape of friends, in the shape of mentors, in the many-shaped desert.

I said goodbye to knowing peace. I said goodbye to one unbroken wrist, and then the other. I said goodbye to the sensation of being cold. I almost said goodbye to my marriage [maybe it wasn’t that close, but it was the closest it has ever been].

“Just imagine: I asked him how he was planning to earn his bread, and he actually wanted to learn how to get the creeps.”

“If that’s all that’s wrong,” the sexton replied, “I can help him out. Send him over to my house, and I’ll shape him up.”

The father liked the idea, for he thought, “Maybe this will smooth his rough edges.”

The sexton took the boy in and gave him the job of ringing the church bells.

— “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear” [5]

Is fear the fulcrum? Outside of fairy tales, we fear that saying goodbye makes a departure real. It means that going back becomes impossible. Inside of fairy tales, saying goodbye must ruin the genre’s lovely happenstance of events, the chain of one thing happening, followed by another. It must introduce the idea of the protagonist someday reversing the narrative, returning to the point of goodbye. Maybe a goodbye is antithetical to abstraction. Maybe it is too logical.

A man of Wei named Tung Men-wu did not grieve when his son died. “You loved your son as no other father has in the world,” said his wife. “Now he has died, but you do not grieve. Why?”

“There was a time,” replied Tung Men-wu, “when I had never had a son. I did not grieve then. Now that he is dead, it is the same as when I had no son. What have I to grieve for?”

—“A Dead Son,” Lieh Tzu [6]

I have said some goodbyes in death.

I said goodbye to my pet rabbit, Georgie. I said goodbye to my mother’s father while holding my grandmother’s hand [what a responsibility, I thought later that night, for her memory of that long-term loss to be tied to my fingers, my hand, my body, my me].

I never said goodbye to my pet cat, Zelda. I never said goodbye to my pet cat, Spike. I never said goodbye to my father’s father, because he was gone before I arrived. I never said goodbye to my friend Steven, who disappeared from my life in the nine months before he committed suicide [for a semester, after getting surgery on both his knees, he convinced our Spanish teacher he needed help carrying his backpack, affording us an extra ten minutes of lunch (we ate in a stairwell, we had a name for ourselves, but I’ve said goodbye to the memory of that, too)].

Unlike the man with the dead son, I am not capable of not grieving.

One day a young man said, “This tale about everybody having to die doesn’t set too well with me. I will go in search of the land where one never dies.”

He bid father, mother, uncles, and cousins goodbye and departed. For days and months he walked, asking everybody he met if they could direct him to the place where one never dies.

—“The Land Where One Never Dies” 77-79 [7]

Even here, we are not wealthy in detail. There are no tears, there are no words spoken, he is not afraid. The young man finds a place where no one ever dies, but he wants to see his family again. He wants to reverse the narrative. Is it only because he said goodbye? Is it because he has depth?

On the way home, so much time has passed that a sea has turned into a prairie, a forest has turned into desert. A mountain, flattened, carted away rock by rock. But when the young man finds that his relatives have all died long ago, the story is abstract and brutal: “That was the end of it. ‘I might as well go back at once,’ he decided.” The return of flatness renders the goodbye into a motif, not a motivated act. It renders it meaningless.

This is what I find wonderful about fairy tales: they fascinate and horrify in equal measures. Goodbye or no goodbye, a fairy tale will do its finest to discomfort.

The lesson here is not that we should all promise to speak our goodbyes.

They are, indeed, meaningless in certain ways.

The lesson here is not that we should return to those places of departure, seeking comfort, or answers.

The landscape has already changed beyond our recognition.

We are, indeed, each venturing continually outwards, far, far to the end of our individual worlds. We are always at the envelope, the edge between. All we can do there, here, is know that there have been places behind us where we thought to say goodbye, or thought not to, or couldn’t, or didn’t, and that these are maybe our discomforts but they are also our definitions: we bring nothing with us but them; they are our little rings, our keepsakes, that can keep us going.


[1] The Grimm Reader, ed./trans. Maria Tartar

[2] Arab Folktales, ed./trans. Inea Bushnaq

[3] “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” by Kate Bernheimer, http://www.katebernheimer.com/images/Fairy%20Tale%20is%20Form.pdf

[4] Arab Folktales, ed./trans. Inea Bushnaq

[5] The Grimm Reader, ed./trans. Maria Tartar

[6] Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies, ed./trans. Moss Roberts

[7] Italian Folktales, ed. Italo Calvino, trans. George Martin


This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Managing Editor Joel Hans.