Run, Run, Run just as Fast as You Can! Better Get Away from the Gingerbread Man…

When I was fooling around with the idea of a Christmassy post about gingerbread, I was expecting to include “The Gingerbread Man,” the American version of the tale type about some kind of food (usually a pancake) that runs away from the people who made it for their meal, then a whole succession of other hungry creatures, only to be outsmarted by a fox   The most interesting stories I found featuring gingerbread men weren’t cut out with the same cutter, so I decided to let them out of the cookie jar after the holiday season had come and gone.  And for good reason…

Oh no, it’s Mr. Bill’s cousins!

In Northern Europe, molds and cutters for gingerbread cookies are available in more  sizes and shapes than the all-American little man with short chubby arms and legs.  Some of the gingerbread cookies that turn up in Scandinavian children’s books like Ottilia Adelborg’s Bilderbok (Stockholm: Albert Bonnier, 1907) are the stuff out of bad dreams, not visions of sugar plums.  The illustration below shows a brother and sister dreaming of a gingerbread troll after helping their mother with the Christmas baking.

The Brown Book or The Story of the Gingerbread Man illustrated by Florence Hardy (London: Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, 1909) looked perfectly innocent on the outside.  Little Timothy Brown so lusts for the gingerbread man in the village shop, that he asks the proprietress if he can have it and pay in three weekly installments.  When she refuses the offer, he goes home and throws a tantrum.  Suddenly a giant gingerbread man appears and says, “As you want me so much, you see I’ve come…But as you can’t pay in pence, you must pay me some other way.”  He marches the boy home, where he is forced to do hard labor, along with a band of forest creatures.  One night when his oppressor is fast asleep, the boy escapes from bondage, just ahead of the Gingerbread Man’s bullets.   But it’s all a bad dream and Timothy is presented with the coveted gingerbread man by his mother.  Wonder why he eats it immediately…

The Royal Baking Powder advertising brochure, The Little Gingerbread Man (1923), takes place in the kingdom of Jalapomp where there’s nothin’ lovin’ is comin’ from the oven, the royal cook being so incompetent that the king has banished all baking, including birthday cakes.  Informed of this draconian measure by the Flour Fairy, the Queen of neighboring Cooky Land calls for volunteers to airlift light, fresh, hot cakes and buns made properly with Royal Baking Powder to Jalapomp.  The smells alone are enough  to convince the king to restore the delights of baked goods to him and his subjects.  The motley posse of volunteers–a sugar cookie, buckwheat cake, doughnut, and muffin–led by Johnny Gingerbread do not look especially toothsome.   The simplest explanation for the heroes’ unappetizing appearance is that the artist Charles J. Coll could draw fairies, but not sweets.  Would a child see  every cookie on the dessert plate with hideous wrinkles and staring eyes?

But the piece de resistance is John Dough and the Cherub (1906).   M. Jules Grogrande, the French baker, goes into the shop at 3 am to make a nattily dressed gingerbread man as big as a fourteen-year-old boy to put in the window in honor of the 4th of July holiday.  He accidentally mixes diluted Elixir of Life, which his wife left in a bowl on the counter, into the dough.  I think you can figure out what happened next…

Gary Trousdale and the team responsible for Scared Shrekless, eat your hearts out. You thought you were the first to retell Frankenstein with gingerbread people?  L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and its Royal Illustrator John R. Neill, beat you to it in John Dough…

Gingy examining the freshly baked Sugar from “The Bride of Gingy” section of Scared Shrekless.


False Facts about Cock Robin Disproven when the Sparrow Tells all!

Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive  is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists.  Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books.  Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine.  With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection.  Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the  antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.”   The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate.  The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.

The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies:  The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment.  The title page spread  is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left.  Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.





When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren.  Take a second look at the title page spread.   The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.”  On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.

The Tragi-comic History  departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.”  Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff.  (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?)  Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.

The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.”  In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner.  Here is  Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.

The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.

Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.

The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.

Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away.  Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,”   being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story,  “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.”  The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.

A word about the artist is in order.  The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863).  In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin.  The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).

Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.”  Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above).  The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.

The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold  (he had been attentive during the wedding).  Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”  

Thank heavens in the little republic of children’s literature, it is possible with some close reading to establish the facts and nothing but the facts about this famous nursery crime…