Nursery Rhymes, Fairy Stories and Children’s Games: An Appreciation of the Pioneering Work of Iona and Peter Opie

by | Nov 5, 2018 | IBBYLink Spring 2018

June Hopper Swain

It was while they were preparing for an exhibition on child life and literature that Iona Opie, who died on 23 October 2017 aged 94, and her husband Peter found, in either the original published English texts or in the earliest surviving texts, many of the 24 stories published as The Classic Fairy Tales in 1974.

These fairy stories come with the Opies’ copious notes on the possible origins of the stories and the contributions made to the genre by Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. The illustrations show how artists over the centuries have visualised these stories. These include the work of, among others, Thomas Bewick, Gustave Doré and Mervyn Peake.

Fairy tales and nursery rhymes seem to go hand in hand, and the way that the Opies were inspired to begin their researches on the latter had its own fairy-tale quality. It began when one of them took a ladybird on a finger and recited ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children all gone’. The ladybird did fly away but they were left wondering what exactly did the rhyme, and one that they had known since childhood, mean? They consulted Nursery Rhymes of England by James Orchard Halliwell (1842) in which they discovered several versions of the rhyme.

In the preface to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951), the Opies acknowledge their debt to Halliwell’s book as being an opening of ‘the gate to a fascinating field of research’. The research led to their also including in their studies children’s games, the lore and language of the playground, children’s songs and narrative verse, that was to occupy much of their lives.

Amassing a substantial collection of nursery rhymes, they published their first book on folklore I Saw Esau: Traditional Rhymes of Youth in 1947. These rhymes were those of the playground such as insults: ‘Tell her! Smell her! /Kick her down the cellar’ or ‘I slit a sheet/ A sheet I slit/ A new beslitten sheet was it’ that, if recited fast enough, sounded as if a rude word had been said. A new edition of this book, subtitled The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book, was published in 1992, and Iona was delighted with Maurice Sendak’s vigorous illustrations that, she felt, gave these verses ‘an extra dimension’.

Nursery rhymes are an integral part of our literary heritage. ‘Ring-a-ring-o’ Roses’, the popular rhyme chanted while small children hold hands in a circle, has been popularly believed to be a description of the symptoms (the rosy rash, the sneezing and the falling down) of the Great Plague that swept through Europe in the fourteenth century. Not so, the Opies tell us in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. It  was ‘would-be origin finders’ who have given modern English versions that interpretation. The Opies show that there are many variants of this rhyme in which ‘curtsy’ or ‘bow down’ appear rather than ‘fall’. Moreover, they discovered that there is a sequel rhyme, handed down in oral tradition, which instructs participants to ‘all get up again’. No fatalities there. Indeed, this book can prompt us to reassess those nursery rhymes that we thought weknew.

With the Opies considering what rhymes schoolchildren were reciting in the twentieth century, a vast survey was organised and Iona also visited the local school playground to tape record interviews with children from which the Opies produced their pioneering volumes of school lore. Before this, however, Iona edited Ditties for the Nursery(1954) and Iona and Peter were joint editors for The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955), with the Opies pointing out that in the oral tradition there are no ‘correct versions’, and Christmas Party Games (1957).

When the Opies’ scholarly volume on children at play The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), was published the headline of Penelope Mortimer’s review in the Evening Standard read: ‘Children – They’re All Little Savages’. This was in response to the catcalls, jeers and torments recorded in the book. Unfortunately, schoolchildren have a history of being beastly to each other. However, the Opies’ collection also includes jokes, beliefs and customs that are of a more amiable nature.

During her regular visits to Liss Junior School playground between 1978 and the end of the summer term 1980 as part of the fieldwork for what would eventually be her bookThe People in the Playground (1993), Iona proved to be a sensitive and tactful interviewer whom the children, who always referred to themselves as ’people’ hence the book’s title, took into their confidence. They explained to her the latest crazes and, in totally uninhibited language, thoroughly enjoyed telling her their ‘rude’ variations of rhymes, stories and jokes. Some of the stories and verses might seem rather crude and plain silly but, as Iona pointed out, in the playground punchy, direct verbal assaults have often seemed a necessary defence.

When Peter died Iona wanted to ‘astonish his obituarists’, who had assumed that on his death in 1982 she would retire. With The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse (1983) ready for publication, however, she went onto complete The Singing Game(1985), half-finished when Peter died, and what would be the final book by Iona and Peter Opie: Children’s Games with Things (1997), that traces the history of games like Marbles, Five Stones, and Throwing andCatching.

Iona and Peter were made honorary Masters of Art by Oxford University in 1962 while Iona was made an honorary Doctor of Literature by Southampton University (1987) and Nottingham University(1991). In 1989 Children and their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie was published with a foreword by Iona and edited by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs.

With frequent visits to the British Library and the London Library Iona was always the archivist, meticulously filing and sorting the material, while Peter was the writer, although they did collaborate on what was actually written. An endowment fund at the Bodleian Library in Oxford allows the work of conserving and adding to the Opie Collection of approximately 20,000 items, including chapbooks, toy books and games, to continue. Certainly the Opies’ pioneering research, and the bibliography below is by no means complete, has left us an extraordinary body of work for which we can be profoundly grateful.

Works cited

Avery, Gillian and Julia Briggs (eds). 1989. Children and their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie. London: Clarendon Press.

Halliwell, James Orchard (ed). 1842. Nursery Rhymes of England. London: Richards.

Opie, Iona and Peter (eds). 1947. I Saw Esau: Traditional Rhymes of Youth. London: Williams & Norgate.

Opie, Iona and Peter (eds).1992. I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book [new edition with Illustrations by Maurice Sendak]. London: Walker.

Opie, Iona and Peter (eds).1951. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. London: Clarendon Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter (eds).1955. The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book [additional woodcuts by Joan Hassall]. London: Clarendon Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter. 1957. Christmas Party Games. London: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter. 1959. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. London: Clarendon Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter (eds). 1974. The Classic Fairy Tales. London: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter (eds). 1983.The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse. London: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Peterr. 1985. The Singing Game. London: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter. 1997. Children’s Games with Things. London: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona (ed). 1954. Ditties for the Nursery. London: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona. 1993. The People in the Playground. London: Oxford University Press.

June Hopper Swain had been writing articles on children’s books for several years when she enrolled on the MA Children’s Literature Distance Learning Course at Roehampton University with Pat Pinsent as her tutor. She gained her degree in 2004. She has since written papers that have been published in the Journal of Children’s Literature Studies and the New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship. For IBBYLink she has written short articles, reports on exhibitions and reviews of children’s books.