Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pumpkinification II: Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater

This is the Mother Goose rhyme of Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, as it usually appears:

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

There is a second verse, that is sometimes appended:

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had another and didn't love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

It is not, perhaps, in this form, a very old rhyme. Its first recorded publication was in 1825, in Boston. There is, however, a Scottish variant, from 1868 Aberdeen, that goes:

Peter, my neeper,*
Had a wife,
And he couidna' keep her,
He pat her i' the wa',
And lat a' the mice eat her.

This suggests that the Pumpkin Eater rhyme might be adapted from this version to include the American vegetable, or even that both might be adapted from an even older, unrecorded version (it is not hard to imagine some sensational crime inspiring the revision into Peter My Neeper).

Modern readings of this little bit of whimsy tend to see ominous overtones in these simple lines. Some see Peter as a harsh and controlling husband, a jail "keeper," as it were, instead of trying to "keep" his wife in the old sense of taking care of and providing for her. Some, with very little historical sense and great imagination, see the wife as some kind of slut, sleeping around on her husband, and the "pumpkin shell" as a kind of chastity belt. The darkest imaginings have Peter as a kind of cannibal, putting his wife's body in a pumpkin shell to be consumed by the "Pumpkin Eater." This last may have been the origin of (or even inspired by) this Twisted Fairy Tales McFarlane action figure:

All a tribute to the "darker, edgier" trend of culture today, and perhaps a little overboard example of trying to find grim histories behind children's folklore and fairy tales.

*Neeper=Scottish dialect Neighbor.

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