by Claire Zlotnicki
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.