Hey Diddle Diddle: embrace the nonsense

Hey Diddle Diddle: embrace the nonsense

This is my very own visual representation of a centuries old nursery rhyme that goes something like this:

"Hey diddle diddle, 
the cat and the fiddle,
the cow jumped over the moon; 
the little dog laughed to see such fun 
and the dish ran away with the spoon"

Most nursery rhymes like this one, even if quite old, are much like fairy tales, still a part of today's world. Each culture has its own particular songs. Hey Diddle Diddle is a fairly popular nursery rhyme within English speaking cultures, or at least it is in Britain. It was one of my favorite during my childhood, and as an adult I still enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.

This kind of weird nonsense is quite common in nursery rhymes, and many have tried to make sense of it by looking for specific hidden meanings, which has lead to mostly wild speculations. However, maybe there is a good reason as to why we enjoy nursery rhymes that are centuries old? I've had my own intuitions, fortunately other people have done some actual research on the subject. One of these people is professor of English Lucy Rollin, who wrote a book called "Cradle and All. A cultural and psychoanalytic study of nursery rhymes". It's a psychoanalytical approach to nursery rhymes, supplemented with material from cultural anthropology and history. 

The book makes for a good read, it's clear, thorough and insightful. There is much more to it than what I'm focusing on, but I'm only going to overview, in my own words, what I understood from the book that relates to this absurd nature of many nursery rhymes, like Hey Diddle Diddle. I'm probably simplifying what I've read for the sake of brevity, this whole post is not nearly as long as one single chapter of the book...

Nonsense is not without sense

It seems that many people tend to think of nursery rhymes and fairy tales as a single entity, and although they share similarities, nursery rhymes have more in common with poetry and with jokes. And these are closely linked to the workings of dreams. They operate symbolically, they make use of substitution, condensation, abbreviation, displacement, disguising hidden thoughts under a surface that seems absurd or nonsensical. And like with dreams, these processes give way to not one specific meaning but multiple levels of it, subject to interpretation.  

Dreams stem from the subconscious, where the rules of logic do not apply, and subconscious processes tend to push there way into consciousness. Our conscious mind can't really deal directly with our subconscious, it would go mad, instead it channels its chaotic nature into known structures, stories, that can also end up as jokes or poems, of which some become nursery rhymes. Much of the nonsense in nursery rhymes might just be so in that they are made up of what is beyond our conscious lives, contained in a more manageable form, surfaced but never revealed completely. It's like a necessary mask for the unknown and unspoken, allowing us to have a sort of conversation with our own illogical and contradictory nature, so we can be speak of it and share in it but without losing our minds. 

And to be able to speak it, language, is at the heart of the persistence of nursery rhymes. One specific thing they have in common with poetry is their rhythmic patterns and it's the kind of poetry that always rhymes. That which rhymes and has rhythm is easier to learn and remember, memorizing a song comes much more naturally than memorizing an entire paragraph of some book or article. And this is why it's a major tool in helping a child to understand language. A process most of us have gone through. We don't remember consciously that there was a time when we didn't speak or think, but in some remote place within us, we know of this pre-language state.  

So it could be that these illogical dream-like aspects of nursery rhymes, connected through rhyme, somehow express not only part of our natural internal chaos but also our scrambling minds trying to understand whilst growing up what all these adults around us were on about, like some kind of ancestral memory that adults share with children acknowledging the struggle in grasping the power of speech, knowing that some of the most fundamental things cannot be taught or learnt through logic or reason or in linear fashion. Such as love, for singing also channels affection, specially if sang by a loving mother or father figure, and this aids the child's learning tremendously so.

From childhood: then and now

These are the kinds of Hey Diddle Diddle illustrations I grew up with. They have their years on them, but I've kept them first because I forgot about them and then because I re-discovered them while spring-cleaning not too long ago, realizing these were some damn good books with beautiful illustrations that I would want to revisit every now and then.

My illustration above probably has influences in design from movies and cartoons but I certainly got the basic idea from these illustrations.

First of all, these versions have a more realistic approach in style and since this for me was the most common element in depictions of the nursery rhyme I wanted to go in the opposite direction, doing away with realism. However, the Hampson illustration does have more cartoonish elements, like giving more human characteristics to the plate and spoon, and also the moon. I definitely did the same for my plate and spoon but not for the moon, my version is not totally devoid of realism; I even gave the cow a little bit of a more proper relationship in size to the moon, and therefore drew it as a silhouette, like in the Kincaid illustration. Although I think his and Grahame Johnstone's versions did not take the cow jumping over the moon literally, but that maybe if the moon was low and you were at a certain angle and a cow jumped, it may seem like it's jumping over moon?

Other things present in the Hampson version which I have used in mine is the grinning cat and the use of text for the dog's laugh. The whole composition is more like a collage, with a completely abstract background, that changes suddenly when you get to the cat; he definitely got this more dream-like vibe of the nursery rhyme. My sky is also pretty abstract but I sort of combined it with the starry night of the Grahame Johnstone version. Her's and Kincaid's place the situation in a rural setting which gave me the idea to go for a more urban feel. Initially I wanted to have a city as background.

Unlike these three illustrations, I don't know if mine would be appropriate for a book meant for children, specially the littler ones who are still grasping the basics, but that's not the point, if anything it is more of a dialogue between my past and present, the Hey Diddle Diddle's of back then and what they mean to me now.

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