Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Skinny: Slovenly Peter

When I was little, I used to love going to the public library. (I still do, but that's beside the point.) In the children's room, they had a big yellow ferris wheel with books in all of the cars, and my favorite thing was to make it spin and then pick a book at random. This is how I ended up with Slovenly Peter.

I have always loved Mother Goose and fairy tales, and this book, at first glance, looked like more of the same. Then, I found this picture:

In case you couldn't tell what is happening, a scary man is cutting off a little boy's thumbs with giant scissors. Here is the actual rhyme:
The door flew open, in he ran
The great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor's come
And caught out little Suck-A-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out "Oh! Oh! Oh!"
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

The book was originally published in Germany in 1845 by Heinrich Hoffman, although the first printing was under "Anonymous." The title Der Struwwelpeter actually means "Shaggy Peter," in reference to a rhyme about a disgustingly filthy boy with wild hair and creepily long, grimy fingernails.

The entire book is a collection of rhymes about bad children and unlucky animals, with an implied moral to each--basically a combination of Aesop's Fables and the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books (on a side note, I happen to collect fables, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Slovenly Peter whenever I can...). Like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's adventures, the stories caution children against bad behavior, but unfortunately, Hoffman's children always learn their lesson the hard (and irreversible way). Like Aesop's tales, these stories absolutely allow bad things to happen to the protagonist. Aesop drowns a greedy dog. Hoffman has a scary man maim a thumb-sucking child.

In "Cruel Frederick," a boy kills birds, maims a kitten, and beats his dog. The dog, however, has the last laugh--he bites Frederick, who gets an infection, and the dog is allowed to take his place at supper and eat fine pies. In "The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup," Augustus refuses to eat what his mother has cooked for him for five straight days, and dies of starvation and stubbornness. "The Story of Flying Robert" tells of a boy who will not stay inside on a stormy day, but insists that walking with his umbrella is better than being good and playing with his toys. A strong gust of wind picks him up and blows him away, never to be seen again. Of course, we know what happened to Conrad, who sucked his thumb (see above), but there is also "The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches." Can you guess what happened to Harriet?

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