Questionable Scholars and Rhyming Pigs: J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps’ “The Three Little Pigs”

As I noted in part one of this “The Three Little Pigs” discussion, many of the first recorded versions of this tale lack something most fairy tale lovers would consider rather essential to a fairy tale about pigs: pigs. Oh, other aspects of the tale were there—the predator, the three houses made of different building materials, and the final death and entrapment of the predator.

Pigs, not so much—possibly why these pig-free tales tended to languish in near obscurity in academic works.

Fortunately, one scholar—James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820-1889)—had the sense to record a rhymed version for children, saving the tale for posterity.

It must be said that J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps holds a—how to put this—interesting place among scholars these days, largely because of his habit of buying up antique books and then cutting them up and pasting pages of them his own little scrapbooks. When not cutting up ancient books, he tended to scribble notes and his signature on them, much to the annoyance of archivists everywhere. The Folger Shakespeare Library has very kindly if perhaps a touch spitefully put some images of all of this up on their website, which include things like his signature and notes on how much the book cost on The Two Noble Kinsmen, and a note on an 1864 edition of Hamlet which according to the Folger says “The same hand that wrote on this title wrote/the same words on the ½ title of the “Dennis”/copy of 1709 Rowe” (I’m just going to take their word for it)—useful information to know, no doubt, but the sort of thing that the Folger wants you to write on a separate little notecard or scrapbook, not on an otherwise very nice and very rare 1684 edition.

And that was just what he did with books. His personal life was equally exciting. Born James Orchard Halliwell in London to a merchant family and educated at Cambridge, he published his first pamphlet, A Few Hints to Novices in Manuscript Literature, at the age of 19. On the strength of this and a later book, Reliquae Antiquae, he was invited to stay at the house of fellow book collector Sir Thomas Phillips—who just happened to have a beautiful daughter called Henrietta. Things progressed, but before they could progress too much, Halliwell-Phillipps was accused of stealing various manuscripts from Cambridge. It would not be the last time such an accusation was made—indeed, Sir Thomas would later accuse him of stealing a quarto of Hamlet—eventually leading to his permanent banishment from the library of the British Museum and other collections. It also led to Sir Thomas Phillipps forbidding the marriage in grand dramatic Victorian fashion, forcing the two to elope. The marriage was happy enough until a riding accident made Henrietta chronically ill, but Sir Thomas never reconciled himself to the marriage, and remained on terrible terms with his son-in-law, who was not about to let a few accusations of theft stop him from hunting down books and manuscripts—and allegedly taking some of those into his personal possession without exactly paying for them. Allegedly.

In between all this, and taking on “Phillipps” as a last name despite his issues with his father-in-law in hopes of an inheritance, he wrote books, biographies, and shorter articles on archaeology, various obscure figures of British history, folklore, and of course, Shakespeare. His obsession with collecting Shakespearean memorabilia—to the point of collecting bits of costumes from the great Shakespearean performers of the Victorian period—allowed him and later scholars construct a biography of the actor and playwright—not to mention helping to counter the arguments that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon. He also helped found what would eventually be a Shakespeare museum in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In the late 1870s, he built what he called a “rustic wigwam” or a “Hutt-entot village”—that is, a simple and certainly rustic building near Brighton, naming himself a “retired old lunatic.” His wife died in a nursing home in 1879, sending him into a severe depression that only lessened somewhat with his second marriage to a much younger woman. He told everyone that he had no intention of returning to literary studies, and continued to happily chop up books until his death in 1889.

His Nursery Rhymes of England first appeared in 1842. At first glance, the book is more or less what it says on the cover: a collection of English nursery rhymes, including well known rhymes like “The Lion and the Unicorn” and “Little Miss Mopsey” (or to some of you, “Little Miss Muffet”) and “Old Mother Hubbard,” to lesser known rhymes featuring some rather, er, eyebrow raising comments about the possible heritage of certain British royals. Those particular rhymes, along with some rhymes containing hints of adult sex, violence, and homosexuality, stress that despite the title and contents, Halliwell-Phillipps most definitely did not publish the book for children, but as a resource for adult scholars.

With that audience in mind, he chose to publish the book through the Percy Society, a loose knit group of antiquarians and scholars. The group largely consisted of men who had long been frustrated by the difficulty of doing research in scattered libraries—or worse, libraries owned by aristocrats who were not always inclined to let eager scholars peruse their collections. To counter this frustration, the Percy Society planned to release limited scholarly editions of rare texts and manuscripts.

Their plan might have gone just a touch better had their members not included Mr. Possible Thief and Definite Ripper of Pages Halliwell-Phillipps as well as John Payne Collier (1789-1889), then and now best known as “that guy who forged Shakespeare stuff.” The Percy Society also included more scrupulous scholars such as Thomas Croften Corker (1798-1854), who collected and published Irish legends later translated into German by the Brothers Grimm, and organist and musical editor Edward Francis Rimbault (1816-1876), particularly renowned for his work on editing and publishing Tudor and Elizabethan music, who somewhat elevated the group’s reputation and helped them publish several scholarly collections. Still the alleged thefts, forgeries and Shakespearean issues continued to cast a certain pall over the group. They disbanded in 1852.

A decade before that disbandment, however, the nursery rhyme collection seemed like just the thing. Halliwell-Phillipps carefully selected a group of nursery rhymes out of about 3000 contenders, dropping some thanks to potential copyright issues, and organized them by type: Historical, Tales, Jingles, and so on. Most, he noted, were from the oral tradition, although a few were taken from written texts. Some rhymes were preserved in their original state; some, like the long “The Story of Catskin,” were edited with “a few necessary additions and alterations.” He also included extensive footnotes and commentary, and, where needed, pointed out any and all possible references to Shakespeare, still an obsession.

And also, this:

Robin and Richard
Were two pretty men
They laid in bed
Until the clock struck ten.

That has nothing to do with “The Three Little Pigs,” but I just thought I’d include it.

In his preface and footnotes, Halliwell-Phillipps explained that whatever their contents, the rhymes were worth preserving in part because they were children’s rhymes, and thus, often used both intentionally and non-intentionally as instructional materials. The instructional material of the ancients—by which Halliwell-Phillipps meant Greece and Rome—had for the most part not been preserved, much to the regret of later scholars. Halliwell-Phillipps wanted to prevent any later regrets.

This is, if you think about it, an audacious argument. In that preface, Halliwell-Phillipps basically states, as proven fact, that at some future point, scholars would study 19th century British culture with the same intensity that his fellow scholars were then directing to classical literature. More than that, it was an argument that 19th century British culture was equal to, if not better, than classical culture. And that not only did its literature in general deserve attention, but that its anonymous rhymes and ditties and games and riddles, generally kept to the nursery, deserved and would one day receive serious scholarly study.

This, in an era that did accept the superiority of certain cultures.

More than this, Halliwell-Phillipps’ insistence that nursery rhymes deserved equal scholarly attention was also an insistence on the importance of childhood education. And, by including rhymes and ditties taken from what he considered middle and lower class sources, as well as rhymes focused on lower class issues and rhymes that could not exactly be said to be filled with praise towards aristocrats, Halliwell-Phillipps—who had attended university with aristocrats, but whose parents were merchants—was making a quiet and for the time still daring argument: that the literature from lower classes was also worth academic study.

In this, it was somewhat related to the argument that the considerably more racist James Anthony Froude made as part of reprinting a different version of this tale in Frazer’s Magazine. But where Froude argued for British superiority, Halliwell-Phillipps argued for equality. Well—social equality at least. It matched insistence that yes, yes, Shakespeare not only could have been, but was, not exactly from the upper classes—and his dedication to finding scraps of evidence to prove this.

Thus, the collection contained radical rhymes and arguments, a couple of long ballads, some riddles, and, yes, pigs.

Just not “The Three Little Pigs,” which does not appear in the first edition.

Despite that lack, the first edition was wildly popular, enough to allow second, third and fourth editions to appear in just three years, with the fourth edition appearing by 1845. By this time, Halliwell-Phillipps no longer needed the financial support of the Percy Society to publish his collection, which was eagerly printed instead by John Russell Smith. And by the third edition, Halliwell-Phillipps had to admit that, whatever the collection’s initial scholarly goals, the work was now being read by children. (He was in good company: the identical thing had happened to the Grimms.) That, alas, meant that certain of the more adult or mildly questionable poems needed to be discreetly removed, with Halliwell-Phillipps reassuring readers of this edition that:

….every allusion that could possibly offend the most fastidious reader has been carefully excluded, and rhymes founded on portions of the Scriptures have been altogether removed.

He added, with an almost audible sniff:

These facetious compositions frequently degenerate into mere vulgarities.

I am pleased to tell you that the bit about Robin and Richard remained in, although this time attached to a less murderous and more child-friendly second verse.

New poems were added to replace the objectionable material. One of the new poems containing anti-Semitic material, as a good indication of what 19th century British audiences would and would not tolerate in books that might be read by children. Illustrations were added. Halliwell-Phillipps also took the time to rearrange the poems, putting “Old King Cole” back into the historical section, and took the time to indignantly assure everyone that no, these nursery rhymes were absolutely, positively, not adaptations from Dutch rhymes (the very thought!), no matter what that Mr. Ker might be arguing. (The protest might have come off a bit better made by someone with a somewhat more pristine reputation himself.) The original scholarly preface was also removed: this new, cleaned up collection was, after all, aimed at a different audience—though Halliwell-Phillipps could not exactly bring himself to eliminate the footnotes. He also left in the rhymes criticizing aristocrats. Indeed, the whole thing smacks as less an attempt to create a child friendly book, and more an attempt to rebut his critics.

What it still did not contain was “The Three Little Pigs.”

That did not appear until the—considerably later—fifth edition, published a good forty years later, in 1886.

By then, Halliwell-Phillipps had retired to his primitive house, retreating as much as possible from life. He had no interest in assuring other scholars that nursery rhymes were worthy of study, or in attacking scholars who wanted to claim that the British had stolen their nursery rhymes from Dutch sources. He was tired, and the preface for this edition shows it: it contains something that might be a mild crack at Lewis Carroll (who had referred to some of the nursery rhymes in his own work) but that was all, and he assures readers that this particular book is meant for children. Some of the introductions and most of the footnotes were removed, though the book remains arranged in orderly chapters, grouped by type of nursery rhyme.

Which is one reason why “The Three Little Pigs” stands out so much in this collection. Oh, it appears in the right spot—in the “Third Class—Tales” chapter. And it has rhymes—this is the first appearance of that “No, no, by the hair of my chinny chin chin” bit that would become such a classic part of the tale. But apart from those rhymes—just a small part of the story—it is a prose story, not a nursery rhyme, and in this edition, ends with a heavy wall of text. A wall of text, moreover, that incorporates much of the text of the pixy/fox story used in the “Save our forests!” text from last week—suggesting that Halliwell-Phillipps, who had by this time retreated to his own woodland cottage of such, knew that text.

And it fits the purpose of this particular edition, which was, in Halliwell-Phillipps’ own words, intended for “soothing the misery of many an hour of infantine adversity.” As such, this is a text that recognizes that Life Is Pain and full of unfairness. The emphasis in later versions that the third pig is somehow morally superior for choosing a sturdy building material like brick is completely absent here: the pigs get their respective building materials by chance, not choice, and in each case, find themselves begging for the raw materials to build a house. Two of them are then eaten up; the third survives not because he was wise enough to build with brick instead of straw and wood, but through trickery. It both acknowledges that pigs—and children—have little control over what they are given, while also offering hope that they might be able to save themselves anyway. If they are clever.

Still. The addition of what is, even with rhymes, pretty clearly a folktale, and one which quotes—often verbatim—from a tale about pixies and foxes buried in a relatively obscure journal, along with Halliwell-Phillipps’ history of stealing and changing things, and his admission that he cleaned up the version of “Catskin” found in this collection, makes me wonder: just how much of an oral tale is this version of “Three Little Pigs,” and just how much was this Halliwell-Phillipps rewriting another story and turning pixies into friendly pigs?

Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs did not share my doubts. He used the Halliwell-Phillipps version for his 1890 collection, English Fairy Tales, with only a touch of editing here and there—primarily by separating the unreadable wall of text that ended the Halliwell-Phillipps tale into separate paragraphs.

Scholar and fairy tale collector Andrew Lang, however, did not follow Jacobs’ lead. Perhaps because of doubts about the authenticity of the Halliwell-Phillipps tale, or, more likely, because he did not think that, even with rhymes, that version was quite suitable for children. After all, that version ended with two dead pigs and a violently dead wolf, and quite failed to include any moral lessons.

So for his 1892 The Green Fairy Book, he chose another version: one featuring three pigs, Browny, Whitey, and Blacky. Browny is dirty, Whitey is greedy, and Blacky is a very good little pig. Browny wants a house of mud; Whitey wants a house of cabbage; and good, sensible little Blacky wants a house of bricks. It will probably not surprise you at all that the two bad little pigs end up captured and almost eaten by the fox, while the good little pig saves the day by… boiling water in a kettle that the fox falls into. Don’t wallow in mud or be greedy, kids, and you too can find yourselves boiling foxes that fall down your chimney.

In related moral lessons, if you desperately want to capture and eat a small pig, climbing down that pig’s chimney is probably not the best way to accomplish this.

But for once, Andrew Lang’s carefully curated moralistic tale did not become the popular accepted version. Perhaps because of the morals, or perhaps because, as the fourth book of the series, it did not enjoy quite the same popularity and success as the earlier books, or perhaps simply because it lacked the funny rhymes. Whatever the reason, the Halliwell-Phillipps/Joseph Jacobs version, with its “I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in,” and comparative lack of morals seized hold of the popular imagination.

It was left to animators to put that morality back in.

Coming up soon.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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