Category: children’s literature

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Books of cautionary stories for children were a popular Christmas gift in Victorian times. These tales of misbehaving children and the tragic consequences of their deeds, like the Krampus myth, served as not-so subtle reminders of parental expectations.

This episode consists mainly of readings by your host and Mrs. Karswell of these grim (and amusing) stories intended to be enjoyed along with a hot cup of cocoa, eggnog or the more dangerous adult concoctions of the season.

We begin with an example from Jane & Ann Taylor’s 1800 publication Original Poems for Infant Minds.  The Taylor sisters’ 1806 sequel to the book, Rhymes for the Nursery, happened to include a poem called “The Star,” providing the lyric to the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which we hear interpreted from a 2019 album called, naturally, Possessed Children: Creepy Nursery Rhymes.

From Taylor’s “Original Poems for Infant Minds”

We also hear a poem about a lad who embraces a hot poker as a toy, one from Elizabeth Turner’s 1807 collection The Daisy or, Cautionary Stories in Verse, adapted to Ideas of Children from Four to Eight Years Old 

Then we turn to the mother of all cautionary tales for children, known to many simply as “that scary German children’s book,” but actually titled Der Struwwelpeter, Merry Tales and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. Written in 1854 by Heinrich Hoffmann, Der Struwwelpeter (“un-groomed Peter”) pairs charmingly awkward drawings executed by the writer himself with tales of children who play with matches, refuse to eat, suck their thumbs, torment animals, or commit other childish misdemeanors meet ghastly fates. 

Created for Hoffmann’s three-year old son as a Christmas gift, Der Struwwelpeter’s opening page identifies the book as one specifically to be given at Christmas, to well-behaved children exclusively. 

Struwwelpeter opening page

We hear a clip of this introductory poem set to music by the British punk-cabaret artists The Tiger Lillies, as part of their 1998 opera Shockheaded Peter.

Der Struwwelpeter went on to inspire all manner of imitations in Germany, England, and particularly in America.  We hear a few examples of these including one from the most famous volume inspired by this book, Max and Moritz, A Tale of Seven Boyish Pranks, written and illustrated in 1865 by Wilhelm Busch. 

 Our last author in this genre, one whose intent was actually to exaggerate and parody the pedantic tone of the Victorians was Hilaire Belloc, a friend of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.  His first book of this type, whimsically illustrated by his friend Basil T. Blackwood, was The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), followed a year later by More Beasts (for Worse Children). Longer, more dreadful stories appear in the verses of his 1907 book, Cautionary Tales for Children, Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years, from which we hear a number of fine examples.  Edward Gorey recognized a kindred spirit in the collection illustrating a version published posthumously in 2002.

Gorey illustration
Gorey illustration for Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales”