I recently read Liesl Shurtliff’s series of fairytale retellings for children. The books retell, in order, Rumpelstiltskin (Rump), Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack), Red Riding Hood (Red), and Snow White (Grump). However, they bring in elements of multiple other fairytales. So for instance, Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is Rose Red from the less-retold tale of “Snow White and Rose Red.” All four books take place in the same fantasy world, with interconnected characters.
My personal favorites were Red – particularly the friendship between Red and Goldilocks - and Grump, with its worldbuilding of a dwarf society. Another interesting element was how we see the point of view swap of Rumpelstiltskin – first in Rump from the title character in Rump, then in Jack from the queen who bargained with him, who is rather foolish but also manages to be sympathetic.
I was also delighted by just how many stories Shurtliff combined to create Jack, and how creatively and seamlessly it came together. It borrows from “Tom Thumb” and “Thumbelina,” and maybe I'm reading into it but I even recognized a touch of “Thumbling the Giant” with the Tom Thumb character being kidnapped by a giant.
Shurtliff is great at setting up endearing characters and readable stories. I felt the character of Jack was hardest to get invested in. Shurtliff was clearly going for a depiction of a troublesome young boy, but he was a little too obnoxious and dumb for me to really enjoy his point of view.
Also, this is more personal, but one of my pet peeves is when fairytale retellings focus on the Disney renditions. Grump has several nods to Disney's 1937 animated film – most notably including Grumpy the dwarf. However, Shurtliff shows off plenty of knowledge of the original tales, such as the apple being half red and half white as in the Grimm story. And I liked the story enough to forgive the Disney references.
Overall, these books are simple, quick reads that I found to be enjoyable and creative adaptations. A great series for middle-grade readers.
Time for another examination of an obscure fairy legend! Who is the character "Nanny Button-cap"? Is there a real tradition to be found here?
The name "Nanny Button-cap" first appeared in Sidney Oldall Addy's Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Sheffield, published in 1888 for the English Dialect Society. Addy says only that “Nanny Button-cap” is “the name of a fairy” and that “The following lines are repeated by children”:
The moon shines bright,
The stars give light,
And little Nanny Button-cap
Will come to-morrow night.
After this nursery rhyme, Addy includes a note on the Norse goddess Nanna, who he describes as a moon goddess. This would tie in well with a nighttime fairy associated with moon and stars, and the implication is that the goddess Nanna is the source of the fairy Nanny.
The problem is, it’s actually not clear what Nanna was the goddess of. Her role was simply being wife to the god Baldr. She is certainly credited by various sources as a moon deity, but this may have been confusion with the Mesopotamian Nanna (who is a male moon deity) as well as various other similarly-named deities like Inanna. For his information on Nanna, Addy cites Viktor Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology – specifically, a section which is mainly conjecture and hypothesis. Addy does not include any of this context, making it sound like an accepted fact.
The link from Nanna to Nanny is equally suspicious, reeking of the approach that anything with a similar sound must be the same word.
Anyway, the nursery rhyme was reprinted in various books. It appeared in phonetic dialect in "Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1673-1915) and traditional poems," by F. W. Moorman (1917), and was credited as anonymous in Tom Tiddler's Ground: A Book of Poetry for Children (1932).
At the same time, Nanny Button-cap's name began to appear in a few lists of fairies. In 1913, Elizabeth Mary Wright wrote:
“It is difficult to classify all the supernatural beings known to dialect lore, otherwise than very roughly, for even a cursory glance at the whole mass of superstitions and fancies regarding them shows that there is great confusion of idea between fairies and witches, bogies and goblins... The following may, however, rank as Fairies...”
Among various other beings, she lists Nanny Button-cap, and reprints the nursery rhyme as given by Addy.
There follows a clear trail of one person quoting another. In 1976, Katharine Briggs - citing Wright - mentioned the character in her Dictionary of Fairies as “A little West Yorkshire spirit. Not much is known about her, but she is a good fairy.”
Briggs’ only other contribution was to categorize the character under the Aarne-Thompson motif F403, which refers to helpful spirits. Other creatures Briggs listed were “brownie,” “lazy Laurence,” and “seelie court.”
Next was Carol Rose in Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Rose cited Briggs, but went rogue with a totally new description:
"This is the name of a fairy or nursery spirit in the folklore of Yorkshire, England. She behaves in much the same way as Wee Willie Winkie, ensuring that all young children are safe and warm in their beds, ready to go to sleep." (p. 231)
Where on earth did this come from? It bears no resemblance to Briggs' description. The song is about moon and stars and nighttime, but why would a fairy that brings sleep be described as coming tomorrow night? Wouldn't she be there every night? (Compare Wee Willie Winkie, whose rhyme takes place in the present tense - "it's past ten o' clock.")
I am also skeptical that Wee Willie Winkie was ever a fairy. However, that at least did come from Briggs, who connected the nursery rhyme to a Lancashire sleep-personification named Billy Winker. Nonetheless, Rose's version of Nanny Button-cap is out there in the cultural consciousness now. Ah, Dictionary of Fairies, mother of a thousand misunderstandings.
Nanny Button-cap's most unique claim to fame was appearing in the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story, played by Norma Cohen. There was also a tie-in doll line, and Nanny was part of the "Royal Collection," which came in more elaborate boxes with more accessories. The white, blonde doll was dressed in a gauzy white outfit and butterfly headdress. The box explains that "This merry little fairy skips about the glen tidying the flowers! From the sparkle in her eye to the shimmer in her wings, Nanny Buttoncap’s goodness shines through! Mirth and merriment are the gifts she shares! If you’re very lucky, you may glimpse her as she sweetly dances on the honeysuckle blossoms."
The description of her "goodness" makes me think this was also drawn from Briggs.
Going back to the beginning: there’s nothing to indicate why Addy categorized Nanny Button-cap as a fairy. All he provides are (a) a nursery rhyme with no obvious fairy connections and (b) a painfully forced connection to the Norse goddess Nanna. It’s possible he based this entry on personal knowledge or stories he had heard. Maybe it’s just one of those things people accept but that’s not necessarily explicit in the rhyme, like Humpty Dumpty being an egg. But Addy didn’t give any details, so we have nothing to work with except his say-so.
A few details about Nanny Button-cap are comparable to fairy stories. She is "little" and associated with nighttime. Fairies are often described wearing caps, and in some stories grabbing their caps can even put them in a human's power. Some fairies have hat names, like the Anglo-Scottish redcaps, Scottish thrummy-caps, or German hodekin (“little hat”).
"Button Cap's room" was a reputedly haunted room in a Northamptonshire house. 19th-century clergyman Charles Kingsley stayed there as a child, and years later, in 1864, he described the spirit Button Cap as the ghost of a dishonest and greedy man who wore "a cap with a button on it.” This Button Cap was a poltergeist who would roll barrels around in the cellar but return them all to their places by morning.
As for the Nanny Button-cap nursery rhyme itself, the couplet about the moon and stars appears in several other songs as well. There are probably many more, but here are three that stood out to me:
One old English song with many variants begins:
The Moon shines bright, and the Stars give light,
A little before it was day,
A Christmas version continues:
Our Lord, our God, he called on us,
And bid us awake and pray.
Alternately, a version associated with Maying runs:
So God bless you all, both great and small
And send you a joyful May.
There's also a song titled "The Mermaid," about a group of sailors who encounter a mermaid and are lost in a storm -
Oh, the moon shines bright, and the stars give light;
Oh, my mother'll be looking for me;
She may look, she may weep, she may look to the deep,
She may look to the bottom of the sea. (Hayes 15)
Finally there's an esoteric 1831 novel, Raphael's Witch!!! Or the Oracle of the Future, which features a "Fairy Song."
When the moon shines bright,
When the stars give light,
When the meadows are green,
When the glow-worm is seen...
The chorus runs:
Then we fairies appear,
And roam far and near,
Till the day-star is near!
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much. The moon/stars couplet does seem to be old, but it's also an obvious rhyme.
So, is Nanny Button-cap a survival of an ancient Norse moon goddess? Absolutely not.
Is Nanny Button-cap a personification of sleep? No.
Is Nanny Button-cap a fairy from the folklore of Yorkshire? . . . Maybe? Lacking any other information from Addy, we're kind of stuck. Personally, I'm skeptical. If you have any information, comment below!
Tinker Bell isn’t the only famous pixie. Another is Joan the Wad, from Cornwall . . . Queen Joan. When I looked into the history of this character, I found a faint remnant of a Cornish tradition. I also found a whole lot of advertising for mass-produced good luck charms. Also a libel case.
A wad is a torch or bundle of straw; Joan the Wad’s name classifies her as a spirit similar to the Will o’ the Wisp, a wandering light which leads people astray. This apparition is often attributed to fairies, and in Cornwall it's "pixie-light" or people are "pixie-led." As James Orchard Halliwell wrote in 1861:
A clergyman, whose veracity is unquestionable, assured me that many of the inhabitants of Paul to this day believe devoutly that the piskies control the mists, and can, when so disposed, cast a thick veil over the traveller. Sometimes the fairies throw a light before his face that completely dazzles him, and leads him backwards and forwards, without allowing him to make any progress in his journey. This is called being pixy-laden; and a man lately going from Newlyn to Paul, as straight a country road as can well be imagined, was thus teased by the fairies, and it was not until he thought of turning his coat inside out that he escaped the effects of their influence.
Another popular term is Jack o' Lantern, today especially associated with Halloween and the souls of the wandering dead. An Irish folktale runs that he's a spirit locked out of both Heaven and Hell, left to wander with a light inside a turnip (or pumpkin). Kit with the Canstick (Candlestick) was another one. As for wads, Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad appeared in the Denham Tracts around the 1850s.
The first recorded mention of Joan the Wad was in an 1855 letter from Thomas Q. Couch, a native of Polperro, a large village in Cornwall. Discussing local traditions of piskies and pisky-leading, Couch mentions that he had heard the following rhyme invoking two piskies by name:
That tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad.
Unlike most will o’ the wisp or pixie-led stories, this implies that these spirits were invoked for guidance. Or perhaps this was a plea to beings which usually led people to ruin. It's unusual to see Jack o' Lantern (or Jack-the-lantern in this case) labeled as a pixie, although as already seen, there is overlap.
The tickling refers to the idea that fairies pinched lazy maids, often hard enough to leave bruises. As in Drayton’s Nymphidia:
“These make our girls their sluttery rue,
By pinching them both black and blue...”
Or Herrick’s Hesperides:
“ Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe."
After Couch's work was published, a few works listed Joan-the-Wad or Joan in the wad as a fairy name. Joan's most prominent outing was in 1899, when the Cornish Magazine published the poem “Joan o’ the Wad: A Pisky Song” by Nora Hopper. In this poem, Joan torments countryfolk and animals, blights fruit, steals milk, and seduces young men.
So far, so good. But this Joan is not a queen, just a generic will o' the wisp.
Here we come to an entrepreneur named F. T. Nettleinghame, who moved to Cornwall in 1923. He began publishing postcards and several short books, but ran into business trouble, declaring bankruptcy in 1931 and also getting a divorce. This didn't stop him; in March 1932, he registered trademarks for 'Joan the Wad' and 'Jack o' Lantern'. And then he started advertising. He sold small brass charms of Joan the Wad, “Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskeys." Joan "sees all, hears all, does all" and brings "Wonderful Luck in the way of Health, Wealth and Happiness." "Substitutes are not effective." "No one is allowed to have Joan the Wad unless they have previously possessed the History of the Lucky Cornish Piskey Folk" (a booklet also provided by the business).
Also, the charms had to be dipped in "the Lucky Saints' Well" in Polperro in order to be effective. This was a major part of the business’s mythology. The reality was a little less romantic; the charms were manufactured in Birmingham, then taken to a well in Cornwall where they were put into cages for dipping in bulk.
There were also charms of Jack o’ Lantern, now Joan's consort. And plenty of other merchandise including china plates and pamphlets of pixie stories. People could order by mail from “Joan’s Cottage” in Bodmin, Cornwall. Advertisements ran in magazines, with testimonials from satisfied customers writing in that they had won lotteries, miraculously recovered from illnesses, or married millionaires. Or that they'd lost their charms, were having awful luck and desperately needed new ones. This marketing approach was apparently quite successful. Business boomed to the point where Nettleinghame had a whole chain of shops in Devon and Cornwall.
(We know a little more about business operations because in 1934, a couple of years in, Nettleinghame’s business partner Douglas Sargeant sued a newspaper for libel. One of the various allegations was that he and Nettleinghame asked sweepstakes winners to give credit to Joan the Wad for their success - the sweepstakes in question was actually run by Sargeant.)
Even after Nettleinghame stepped back from the charm business, he was still able to live comfortably and explore other business ventures. Joan and Jack were joined by other characters like "Billy Bucca, Duke Of The Buccas" and "Sam Spriggan, Prince of the Spriggans." Other businesses saw an opportunity to piggyback, and in the 1950s, competitors included “Glama, the oriental charm of luck and love,” Lady Luck, Beppo’s Little Man, and quite a few others. Even today, there are still businesses selling Joan the Wad charms.
Joan the Wad, as a pointy-headed metal figure crouched on a mushroom, became a familiar sight in advertisements for British readers. She may even have made her way into folklore in some fashion. In the 1980s, Cornish gardener Den Tuthill told a story about the Devil invading Cornwall. Jack, King of the Giants, and Joan-the-Wad, Queen of the Piskies, teamed up to trick the Devil with the gift of an enchanted walking stick which forced him to walk away from Cornwall and never return. Considering Joan's history, it seems very appropriate that this story was part of Tuthill's advertising for his own handmade walking sticks under the brand name Kellywyck. (Williams pp. 93-95)
So, Joan the Wad may have once been an obscure name along the lines of Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad, but was reinvented as fairy royalty in a wildly successful marketing campaign. If you’ve heard of the pixies having a Queen Joan, it’s because of F. T. Nettleinghame.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.