"Babes in the Wood"

image via
That image of the dead children on the left margin of the site?  That's from "Babes in the Wood," illustrated by Joseph Martin Kronheim.  There's another famous version by Randolph Caldecott (yes, he of the eponymous Award), but I actually like the pictures better in this one.

Mother and Father are dying, and their will stipulates that their children should inherit their estate--but if their children die before they come of age, then the children's uncle will stand to inherit.

I want to pause a moment here to ask why children's tales, since time immemorial it seems, have to tap into kids' absolute worst fears.  Kids don't have that much to worry about in life--they don't have nightmares about mortgage payments, or the IRS, or a meeting with a new client, or how to divide holiday time with a significant other's family.

No, kids' biggest fears are things like letting go of your mom's hand and then not being able to find her again, or that that toy robot they accidentally broke won't be able to be fixed.  So, we up the ante-- "your toy is dead and guess what?  Your mother is dead too"-- and even give them things they didn't know they needed to worry about: "Even though you are a child, you are mortal and someday you will die.  (Now pray the Lord your soul to keep, and if you die before you wake, pray the Lord your soul to take.)"  Hmm.

Now what was I talking about?  Right, Babes in the Wood.  Their parents die, their uncle takes them in, and then he hires two ruffians to take the children out into the woods and kill them.  One of the ruffians grows softhearted and refuses to kill them, a scuffle ensues, and the "good" bad guy wins.  Things are finally looking up for our babes in the wood!

They are hungry, and the nice ruffian says he'll be right back to bring them bread.  He disappears to head off to town and is never seen again.  The poor children wander around aimlessly until they die.  They don't even get a burial; a robin covers their bodies with leaves.  The evil uncle apparently gets thrown into prison on unrelated charges and dies there, but we never do hear what happened to the ruffian.

I like to imagine he had zany misadventures, and maybe picked up a wisecracking gnome as his sidekick on his way out of the woods, and then in town he ducked into the pub and played a perfect game of darts so the next round was on him, boys, and then he remembered to get to the bakery before it closed, but accidentally picked up rye bread at first, until the gnome reminded him that the kids actually wanted pumpernickel, and he headed back to the woods with a song in his heart and laughter on his lips, just waiting to tell the kids the funny story once he saw them again.  Something like that.

Lesson learned:
If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself.

Kronheim, Joseph Martin.  My First Picture Book.  London and New York: Routledge, c. 1875. 
The Babes in the Wood, and The Milkmaid (Illustrated Edition) (Dodo Press)


  1. I swear I had a book when I was young that had this story in it, do you have any idea which book it was?... it was this version:
    My dear, do you know,
    How a long time ago,
    Two poor little children,
    Whose names I don't know,
    Were stolen away on a fine summer's day,
    And left in a wood, as I've heard people say.
    And when it was night,
    So sad was their plight!
    The sun it went down,
    And the moon gave no light!
    They sobbed and they sighed, and they bitterly cried
    And the poor little things, they lay down and died.
    And when they were dead,
    The robins so red,
    Brought strawberry-leaves
    And over them spread;
    And all the day long,
    They sung them this song:
    "Poor babes in the wood! Poor babes in the wood!
    Oh don't you remember the babes in the wood?"

    1. I don't know about the book, but when I was very young my mother and grandmother sang me a song with these words as a lullaby. Happily I didn't understand the words so I didn't find it traumatic.