Chicken Licken & the Morbidity of Classic Nursery Rhymes

We were given a whole bunch of kids books the other day and the boys were so excited as they love story time and what’s better than a whole pile of new books to get mummy to read! So I picked up the one on the top of the pile which was called Chicken Licken and started to read it. Let this be a lesson to all!

Do not read a story to your children without having read it first!

For those who don’t know the story, Chicken Licken has an acorn fall on his head so decides he must go and find the Queen to tell her the sky is falling. Along the way he meets up with Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Daddles, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey and Foxy Woxy. They all decide to tag along with Chicken Licken to tell the Queen the sky is falling. Which is great. Who doesn’t need friends right? But Foxy Woxy leads them into his dark lair and then he turns around and bites off Henny Penny’s head (I believe the words used in the book were ‘SNAP, he bites off her head!’) then Cocky Locky and all the birds in turn until only Chicken Licken remains and he runs away and never gets to tell the Queen the sky is falling.

Now, it’s interesting to note that there are different versions of this story and we just happened to get the version that painted the picture in a particularly callous way which is fine I guess, except that we had a chicken who lived across the road in the front yard and the boys became very attached to watching her out their bedroom window. This chicken literally lived in the front yard and didn’t have an owner so would hang out on the road, narrowly avoiding death on a daily basis. It was an emotional rollercoaster every time you would look out the window as this stupid chicken would just be back and forth on the road with no regard for it’s safety.

It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’.

It got to the point my husband would sometimes run onto the road to usher it off back into the safety of the Pohutakawa tree it would sleep in, but of course 2 minutes later she’d be back in the middle of the road!

It all came to a head on Christmas day when we were standing on our back deck which overlooks the road from the side and we see the stupid chicken about to be run over by a truck so we all were just a bit ‘Oh no, this is it!’ but of course this chicken had a million lives and survived the ordeal. However 20 second later we see our 4 year old son charging into the middle of the road to chase the STUPID chicken off the road (notice the chicken gets stupider as the story goes on). Needless to say, we dragged him back inside and gave him a stern talking to about his life being far more precious than the life of a really stupid chicken with a death wish and straight away put a top latch on the door because clearly he had no issue unlocking it himself!

The next day we caught that damn chicken (with a fishing net no less, was great entertainment for the neighbours!) and she’s gone to live at my step-dads house with his 2 ducks, 2 other chickens and 2 Flemish Giant rabbits. Last I heard she was enjoying life sleeping 4 metres up the neighbours peach tree but coming home for dinner time and hanging out with the ducks (she doesn’t like other chickens which is probably why she was all alone in a random front yard in suburbia).

We also had two ‘pet’ ducks who would come to our house daily to be fed and the highlight of their little lives (my children, not the ducks) was leaving our house one morning to see two big roosters walking up the steps to our neighbours house to their front door (I have no explanation for this, one of the most random things I have ever seen!).

The point to all this is that my children have a very loving affiliation to chickens, ducks and roosters and were therefore mightily distraught that foxy woxy the ‘friendly’ fox had bitten off their heads and killed them.

Bad mummy.

The tale of Chicken Licken actually goes all the way back to a folk tale told in the early 1800’s and has since been published in many different versions with slightly different endings. Sometimes the fox only kills Chicken Licken, sometimes all, sometimes he bites off their heads, sometimes he eats them, sometimes the fox’s children eat them and sometimes they all escape and live happily ever after. Given it is a folk tale, there are of course meaning behind the story. Where there is a ‘happy ending’ the moral is not to be a ‘Chicken’ but to have courage. In the other versions where the birds are eaten by the fox (or having their heads bitten off!) the fable is interpreted as a warning not to believe everything one is told.

The traumatic experience of reading this book (ha!) got me thinking about the morbidity of so many of the kids classic nursery rhymes. I never gave them too much thought as a child when as little girls we would link arms and dance around in a circle singing Ring around the rosy. But as an adult singing them to my own babies, it suddenly occurred to me that these words are not actually that pretty, though the rhyme itself is sung as sweet as a lullaby! If you would like to hang onto the illuisions you have of these sweet old rhymes then stop reading here because I am about to smash them to pieces! But think about it, are the words really that pleasant?

Here are 6 Nursery Rhymes and the bizarre and morbid meanings behind them!


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.


Humpty is portrayed as a large egg, often dressed as a little boy who falls of a big wall and breaks into a thousand pieces and can’t be put back together! That’s not very nice! Apparently the real story behind this nursery rhyme though is that Humpty was a huge canon atop a huge wall that was hit by enemy canon fire and fell down and could not be fixed. How the canon became an egg I have no idea!


Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
“Ashes, Ashes”
We all fall down!

Hands up who sang this one as a little girl, holding hands and swinging around in a circle before falling to the ground amid a sea of giggles?


This rhyme dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665. The symptoms of bubonic plague included a rosy red ring-shaped rash, which was what inspired the first line of the rhyme. It was believed that the disease was carried by bad smells, so people frequently carried pockets full of fresh herbs, or ‘posies’ to counteract that. The ‘ashes, ashes’ line is believed to refer to the cremation of the bodies of those who died from the plague of which there were millions (the plague killed 75-200 million people between 1346 and 1353).

So that sweet song you used to sing? Yeah, not so sweet after all!


Rock-a-bye, baby,
In the tree top.
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will come baby,
Cradle and all.

Yep, so the baby is asleep in a cradle hanging from a tree and the wind blows the cradle falls out of the tree with the baby in it. Yep, so comforting that one!


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

So pretty much Peter had a wife who was a prostitute. Since he couldn’t keep her from having sexual affairs with other men, he decided to kill her and he hid her body in an absurdly large pumpkin.



Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown;
And Jill came tumbling after.

What is it with nursery rhymes and people getting hurt? No one quite knows the meaning behind this one though there are a few theories of a French King being beheaded while their Queen came tumbling (was beheaded) afterwards or the story of an affair between ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’ in some small English town in 1697 and after the sordid affair Jill gets pregnant and Jack falls down a hill caving his skull in on a rock and Jill dies in childbirth. Moral of the story? Don’t have an affair.


Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.


Do you think this one is about pretty flowers growing in a garden? Think again! This is actually about Queen Mary I – ‘silver bells’, ‘cockle shells’, and ‘maids’ are actually all just instruments of torture and death. Silver bells are thumbscrews; cockleshells were attached to the genitals (ouch!) and ‘maids’ was actually a device called The Maiden used to behead people! The ‘garden’ refers to the increasing number of cemeteries popping up to bury all the protestants she was murdering using these torture methods. Shall we all sing this one together now? On the count of 3 …

Have you read Chicken Licken to your children? Were you aware of the meanings behind these seemingly innocent nursery rhymes?

Linking up with #IBOT @ Essentially Jess

You Baby Me Mummy

53 thoughts on “Chicken Licken & the Morbidity of Classic Nursery Rhymes

    1. Funny how you don’t think about it until later. As a kid you’re just too innocent to take any notice and really, ones like Mary Mary and Ring around the Rosy are not noticeably morbid until you know the meaning behind them!

  1. Argh! Why are we reading about these awful things and why do nursery rhymes make them sound like something pretty when they’re really not. It’s all fascinating though. I lived in Colchester in the UK for a while and was told Humpty Dumpty was written about a canon on Colchester’s great wall. (It’s the oldest British town in Roman History) and twinkle twinkle also originated in Colchester. So interesting. Poor chicken licken and your poor boys 🙁
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    1. The bloody chicken! We visited her on the weekend and my dads ducks have had ‘ducklings’ which are now as big as damn geese and like geese, they waddle along together and there’s the damn chicken waddling along with them thinking he’s a duck and the other two chickens watching on in disgust. Haha.

  2. I loved Chicken Licken – I also loved the Little Match Girl and the Little Mermaid (and I HATE what Disney did to it – the whole point was she changed herself for a guy who didn’t know or care she existed, and then when she dies he happily strolls off into the sunset with another chick). I kind of think we’ve gone a bit nutty on the happily ever after….I also thought Humpty Dumpty was one of the kings who was a little war crazy…can’t remember which one tho….

    1. I think Chicken Licken would have been fine without the ‘pet’ chicken and ducks which made the story too close to home! Haha. I didn’t know that about The Little Mermaid, interesting!

    1. I got given quite a few beautifully illustrated nursery rhyme books when the boys were babies. It’s crazy how many hidden meanings they have. 3 Blind Mice is another one to do with murder!

  3. They are terrible aren’t they?
    I remember being haunted by Doctor Foster when I was a kid.
    Doctor Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain
    He stepped in a puddle
    Right up to his middle
    And was never seen again.

    That’s tragic even without any hidden meaning!
    Interestingly too, I’ve always sung Ring a Rosie with ‘a tissue, a tissue we all fall down.’
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    1. Now that you mention it Jess, so did I! Did the plague cause people to sneeze too? I’ve never heard the Doctor Foster one before, it would scare kids out of jumping in puddles!

  4. Three blind mice, three blind mice … oh yes, I have often wondered how I made it through childhood unscathed when there was pain, torture and detailitation of mice around every corner! I knew all of those stories except Mary Mary. She is quite contrary! Seems so sweet and innocent, and then POW! Torture. Great post. x

    1. It’s actually pain and torture of noblemen at the hand of Queen Mary I but you didn’t need to have it tainted further … oops, sorry! No pain and torture, just burning them at the stake. You know, same old. Why did they write rhymes about this shit?!

  5. Nursery rhymes are pretty brutal when you learn the hidden meaning! Like Jess we used to sing ‘a tissue, a tissue’ for Ring a Rosy too and I was told that having a cold was the last symptom before you died of the plague. Also a little side tidbit, the saying ‘saved by the bell’ came from the times of the plague. Apparently sometimes they accidentally buried people that were actually in comas and so they would put a long piece of string into the grave that was attached to a bell. A family member would sit beside the grave (which was where graveyard shift come from) and listen for the bell.
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    1. Oh wow, I didn’t know that Tegan, that is some crazy shit! I’ll have to google more about that, that’s super fascinating! Morbid AND fascinating.

  6. Our family, now grown kids, have discussed the morbidity of nursery rhymes and the real tales – before Disney – and it is quite interesting. Don’t forget ‘Rock A Bye Baby’. Yikes, the kid falling from the tree….hhhmmm.

  7. Thank you for an enlightening and very entertaining post. I knew some of the backgrounds, but Peter Peter completely floored me. Who knew, right? I think death was such a constant part of life back in the days these were written it must have been natural to sing about it. I know Chicken Licken as Chicken Little. I totally forgot about the fox! Wow! And to think you have your own reckless chicken is just fantastic. Except the part about your boy getting outside. Glad you caught him! Awesome post. I hope I get to read more in the future. Liking on Facebook.😀 #WAYWOW

  8. haha nooo! childhood ruined! who has a random chicken in their road! that’s both amazingly cool and very strange :p we just have dogs and cats in our neighbourhood! great post cx

  9. Oh my goodness! I actually did think as we sang along to ‘Jack and Jill’ in our sing and sign class last week that the words were a bit odd, it obviously never crossed my mind when I was little! We sing humpty dumpty too, I didn’t realise the meaning of any of them! I think i’ll steer clear of Chicken Licken! I’m glad your chicken has a safe new home 🙂 x

  10. Isn’t it funny how we never thought about these lyrics until we started singing/reading them to our kids? I was walking through the grocery store one day singing a song popular when I was in school that was playing in the store, and my daughter looked at me and said, “Mama, what ARE you singing about??” It was only then that I realized just exactly what I had just said! oops! As for “Rock a bye, Baby,” we changed those words to “…and God will protect you, baby and all!” Interesting post!
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  11. I never really put a lot of thought into the words of the nursery rhymes, just the sing-songy cadence of them. This is really creepy, and kinda funny. Not laughing at the horrendous outcome of the chickens and other animals in Chicken Little, that had to be really horrid for your kids! I had heard about the creepiness of fairy tales, such as the step-sisters in Cinderella cutting off their toes to fit in the glass slipper. Our ancestors had a really weird sense of humor????!!!!
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  12. When you say, “Do not tell a story to the children without reading it first.”, I totally agree with this! I had a funny experience of this one and it really feels awkward. LOL

  13. I knew some nursery rhymes had other meanings but was not aware of all of these. I think I will continue to be blissfully ignorant. Lol.
    I will definitely take a leaf out of your book though and read the story before reading them to my kids.

  14. Hah! I had a similar incident recently when a neighbour donated a load of old books. The girls picked out Little Red Riding Hood and without thinking, I read it out straight away. This older version was violent and graphic even showing a picture of RR Hood’s father cutting open the wolf with an axe to rescue RR Hood and her grandmother! I was horrified but weirdly the kids just took it all in their stride, completely unperturbed. Seems a lot of the earlier versions of old stories are far more graphic and we’ve toned them down over the years. I find the old folk stories and nursery rhymes fascinating!! #TheList

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