The true stories behind nursery rhymes are often historical, political, or just downright dark. With a little research, any of these delightful ditties can lead you to a compelling story idea.
I’ll delve into five particularly juicy rhymes here and give you some resources at the end to further your research.
1) Ring Around the Rosy
I think I was in grade seven or eight when I first heard the story behind the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosy.” I was fascinated. The chant I’d innocently danced to as a child was about the bubonic plague (!) The disease first hit London in the 1300’s, but the Great Plague was in 1665.
Ring around the rosy,
A pocketful of posies,
We all fall down.
The titular ring referred to the round red rash that the people infected developed. The pocket full of posies was to ward off the smell of the sick and dying. The third line, which may also be “a-husha, a-husha,” refers to either the final breath sounds of people with the plague, or the fact that to prevent the spread of the disease, the corpses were burned. Finally, with a death rate of 60%, people did, literally, all fall down.
The bubonic plague has been fertile ground for stories for years. Consider the tale of a pagan healer trying to defeat the disease (and not get burned as a witch) or the story of the only survivor of a family (rich or poor) trying to pick up the pieces after the disease begins to recede.
So much for a cherished childhood memory.
2) London Bridge is Falling Down
I won’t copy the full nursery rhyme here because it’s fairly lengthy, but it’s also a fascinating historical tale.
The earliest iteration of London Bridge (there have been several) was made of wood and clay. This fell to Viking invaders in the 11th Century. Each time the bridge fell, it was rebuilt with improved materials. While clay was replaced with stone and eventually steel, wood remained a main component of London Bridge, and it succumbed to a number of fires.
The first stone bridge was constructed in 1176 by Peter Colechurch and included water wheels for grinding grain. In the 1300’s, the bridge contained 140 shops. Though London Bridge survived the Great Fire of London in 1660, its foundations were weakened and it had to be reinforced again.
In 1820, a new London Bridge was constructed north of the old. In the 1960’s, yet another bridge was built and the one built in 1820 was moved, stone by stone, to Lake Havasu, Arizona.
Any of the versions of the bridge could spawn a story. The builders or engineers could be great protagonists, if the political context is supplied. The rulers who paid for the bridge had control over its construction. The Viking invasion could be an awesome story, or the Great Fire of London from the perspective of a shopkeeper on the bridge. London Bridge was also part of the path traveled by those heading to the Tower of London for imprisonment or execution. What about the odyssey of transporting the old London Bridge from London to Arizona in an alternate reality in which the feat was accomplished by magic?
3) Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
This nursery rhyme refers to Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary, who reigned after her father, Henry VIII, died. She was a staunch Catholic and longed to return England to Catholicism after her father’s (deviant, in Mary’s opinion) institution of the Anglican Church.
Protestantism was outlawed and anyone caught practising was tortured into conversion or executed. Silver bells refers to thumb screws and the cockle shells to some other torture device that was applied to the genitals (yikes!). The pretty maids were the English equivalent of the guillotine. For the worst offenders, Mary reserved the worst punishment: burning at the stake.
While the Tudors have been written about before—and a lot—telling the tale from a bit player’s perspective might add fresh perspective. Think about a Catholic/Protestant Romeo and Juliet (or Romeo and Romeo, for that matter). Move Tudor England to a secondary world fantasy setting and play with the historical detail. Mary killed fewer people than her father and is said to be unfairly vilified because of her gender. Could you reclaim Mary’s story?
4) Oranges and Lemons
“Oranges and lemons” say the Bells of St. Clement’s.
“You owe me five farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s.
“When will you pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey.
“When I grow rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch.
“When will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney.
“I do not know” say the Great Bells of Bow.
Here comes a Candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
Chip-chop, chip-chop—the last man is dead.
In this nursery rhyme, the meaning’s not hidden at all!
Executions used to be great entertainment in London. When the crowds became too large to accommodate at the Tyburn Gallows, the site was moved to Newgate Prison, which held a large number of debtors (hence the lines about money). The procession to Newgate passed by a number of churches and all the bells would toll on execution days.
This rhyme features in George Orwell’s 1984 as a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s capture, torture, and, yes, execution (sorry for the spoiler). You can try the same trick with this, or any nursery rhyme. See where the rhythm takes you. Work it into a critical part of your story.
You could go in a completely different direction. Write a short story from the perspective of the bells (maybe they really are talking), or from the perspective of the child who can understand them.
5) Jack and Jill
This nursery rhyme takes us away from jolly old England and to the French Revolution.
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Jack and Jill are actually King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette who were beheaded in the Reign of Terror in 1793.
Lines were later added to diffuse the potential horror:
Up got Jack, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.
The French Revolution is another well-trod story ground, but once again, by focusing on the plight of a common person in the midst of these great events, more riveting tales can be told. Is there anything in the added lines that inspires you? Could you write the story of Jack and Jill without the revolutionary subtext?
Taking it to the page
I’ve peppered each nursery rhyme explanation with suggestions to get you started.
Here are some nursery rhyme links to help deepen your research:
If none of that tickles your fancy, try a freewriting exercise. Start by writing out your chosen nursery rhyme in full, and then set a timer for twenty minutes. Riff on the lines, free associate images, write a character sketch, or run with the setting.
You never know, a nursery rhyme may be start of your next story!
Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at https://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.