Lions fighting unicorns, and other rhymes

The book I remember with total clarity from my own childhood is one of nursery rhymes. My mum passed it along to me, and I’ve been reading it to Elliot.

I can see by the ancient price tag The Magic of Rhymes: A Collection of Nursery Rhymes was $2.40 from Woolworths, and it was printed by Brimax Books, Cambridge, England in 1976. The beautifully complicated illustrations seem to set most of the characters in the early 19th century, most with improbably long toes on their shoes.

It wasn’t until I mentioned knowing the full twelve verses to London Bridge is Falling Down when I was older, did I realise not everyone had grown up with this particular collection of nursery rhymes. If you’re curious, the rest of the verses detail how to rebuild the bridge and in what material, including the plan to have a man watch all night in case someone tries to steal the final sturdy bridge built of silver and gold.

Elliot has taken to the book as well, particularly to the one pictured above, whose text reads:

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.

Some gave them white bread
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
And drummed them out of town.

I, too, was fascinated by this one, with the fanciful creatures wearing old boxing gloves, and their pile of assorted baked goods. So many of the rhymes detail food and the eating of it – another favourite being:

The fiddler and his wife,
The piper and his mother,
Ate three half-cakes, three whole cakes,
And three-quarters of another.

It would begin a long obsession I had with ‘cakes’ described in English children’s books – from Alice in Wonderland to The Five Children and It.

I was vindicated when I started attending nursery rhyme singalongs at the local library in London when Elliot was about eight months old, in that I knew quite a few of the songs that hadn’t made it over to Canada. Though there were times it was me and the Polish ladies in the back row trying to mouth the words and raising our eyebrows at each other when we came to one we didn’t know.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite illustrations from the book, of the Man in the Moon. I was always fascinated by the labyrinthine tangle of his shoes. The rhyme that goes with it is:

The man in the moon
Came down too soon,
And asked his way to Norwich;
He went by the south,
And burnt his mouth
With supping cold plum porridge.

4 thoughts on “Lions fighting unicorns, and other rhymes”

  1. Donna M. McGann

    How very English ! My mum too recited nursery rhymes to us. Like the “Bells of London”. Apparently, many were political commentary. Tales of Puss in Boots & Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London. Later I questioned the relevance of Mother Goose et al but now I would give an arm and a leg for my children’s books. Rhythm, rhyme, cadence, humour, history and heritage.

    1. Ah! I was surprised the Bells of London wasn’t in this book actually. We used to live quite close to Shoreditch Church, and our community orchestra played many concerts there. There was a little sign outside letting people know it was part of the Oranges and Lemons rhyme.

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