The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out

Underneath (or, perhaps, to the side of) adult culture sits an often poorly documented culture for children alone. There are, of course, many songs and stories directed by adults to children, but true child culture consists of games, riddles, songs, stories, and rules directed from children to other children.

A rather dark example, largely specific to North America, is the Hearse Song below (the video gives a more complete version, but I must warn my readers – it’s really very gross, and not at all suitable for adults):

Don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by
For you may be the next to die
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks …
And the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out
The worms play pinochle on your snout …

The song is essentially a form of gallows humour picked up by children at around age 10 – about the age that children first come to grips with the inevitably of death (although it is rather surprising, given that the US is a majority-Christian society, that Christian views of death barely appear in the song at all). The excellent article on the song by Charles Doyle also reports military versions of the song from World War I recorded by Carl Sandburg and John J. Niles, but those appear to draw on earlier childhood versions.

I’ve been experimenting with a textual analysis focussing on song snippets containing lines devoted to interment (2 to 6 lines, depending on the version). I compared versions with a variation of the Levenshtein distance at the word level, using a table of related words, and allowing for permuted lines. The multi-dimensional scaling diagram below collapses the calculated distances into two dimensions. The phrase “Doyle var” refers to variants listed by Doyle (e.g. “They put you in a big white shirt / And cover you up with rocks and dirt”), whereas “Alternate” refers to versions I have collected myself on the Internet (e.g. “They wrap you up in a bloody black sheet / And throw you down a thousand feet”). A large amount of mishearing and misremembering seems to be going on.

The numbers in brackets on the chart indicate the number of lines in each snippet. The 2-line child versions form a visible cluster in the diagram, with 4-line versions by modern bands (Harp Twins and Rusty Cage) a little more distant, and the World War I versions on the periphery all quite different:

Distances can also be visualised as an UPGMA tree. However, this cannot really be interpreted as an evolutionary tree, in that the 4-line band versions seem to be combining lines from multiple 2-line versions. Indeed, there seems to be a large pool of rhyming pairs within the culture that is assembled and reassembled in various ways, rather than any canonical song. Perhaps this reflects the character of the verbally innovative child culture in which the song (or, rather, song family) dwells.

Colour in children’s novels

Following up on the children’s literature theme again, here is an analysis of colour words in three quite different books:

About 0.57% of the words in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (after excluding stop words) are colour words, with a wide variety being used (“the finback whale, yellowish brown, the swiftest of all cetaceans” and “Portuguese men-of-war that let their ultramarine tentacles drift in their wakes, medusas whose milky white or dainty pink parasols were festooned with azure tassels”):

In contrast, Five Go Adventuring Again only has about 0.25% colour words, mostly used in clichéd ways (“Anne went very red” and “her blue eyes glinting”). The one use of “scarlet” refers to “scarlet fever,” rather than to a colour:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz mentions colour even more than the other two books, with about 1.21% colour words. Green and yellow are particularly common, given the storyline:

On children’s novels

Having previously mentioned children’s fantasy literature, I thought I might follow up the theme a little more. In one kind of children’s novel, a group of child protagonists resolve some serious dilemma with little or no adult assistance (generally, the plot involves adventure of some kind). Such a story prompts the child reader to ask: “How would I handle a problem like that?” Of course, such a story also requires a reason for the lack of adult help. There appear to be four main possibilities, which I list below. Can my readers think of any others?

1: Complicit Adults

One common reason for the children to act independently is that the adults are complicit in an evil that the protagonists struggle against. A classic example is The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967). Thirteen-year-old Will is looking forward to his coming-of-age ceremony, until he discovers that this involves a mind-control device being implanted in his brain by the aliens who control the Earth. This kind of novel inevitably focuses on escape – in Will’s case, a dramatic journey on foot from England to the “White Mountains” of the title.

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967).

2: The Desert Island

Another option involves stranding the protagonists in a location without helpful adults. The journey to this location can be undertaken through either physical or magical means, and the focus of the novel is on achieving some goal(s) and then returning home. A famous example is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The “desert island” option can be combined with option #1 – that is, there are adults on the island, but they are pirates (or evil in some other way). An example would be the planet Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).

3: The Unbelievable Story

Another way of ruling out adult help is by making the dilemma completely unbelievable, as in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962). “‘The Chief of Police,’ Will said. ‘He’d listen to us—’ ‘Yeah,’ said Jim. ‘He’d wake just long enough to send for the butterfly net. Hell, William, hell, even I don’t believe what’s happened the last twenty-four hours.’

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962).

A somewhat less satisfactory variation of this option is simply to make the adults too busy to pay attention. Alternatively, the “unbelievable story” option can be combined with the first two. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) combines elements of all three options.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950).

4: The All-Out War

Finally, the dilemma can involve a conflict which is so serious that it forces the recruitment of what are essentially child soldiers. The City of Gold and Lead (John Christopher, 1968) and The Pool of Fire (John Christopher, 1968), the sequels to The White Mountains, are two examples.

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher (1968).

Other examples of this option include Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card, 1985) and Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden, 1993).

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985).

Of course, there are many other kinds of children’s literature, and protagonists may also be adults, talking animals, hobbits, or other creatures. But exploring those is out of scope for this post, which is already an odd one for a science blog.

On fairy tales

“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952. The wiseacre of our time seems to be Richard Dawkins who, two years ago, told the world that fairy tales could be harmful because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” (he had said similar things in 2008). In a later clarification, he added that fairy tales could “be wonderful” and that they “are part of childhood, they are stretching the imagination of children” – provided some helpful adult emphasises that “Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t.”

But many scientists grew up with, and were inspired by, fantasy literature. For example, Jane Goodall tells of growing up with the novel The Story of Doctor Dolittle (as I did!). In fact, many science students and professional scientists avidly read fantasy literature even as adults (as they should). The booksthatmakeyoudumb website lists, among the top 10 novels read at CalTech and MIT, Harry Potter, Dune, and The Lord of the Rings. And Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician.

This is a science blog, so I have a strong emphasis on scientific truth, which tells us many important ecological and physiological facts about, for example, frogs. Without science, we’d all still be struggling subsistence farmers. But there is actually more than scientific truth out there.

There is also mathematical truth. Are the links in this frog network all equivalent? Yes, they are – but that is decided by mathematical proof, not by scientific experiment. It is in fact a purely abstract mathematical question – the background picture of the frog is actually irrelevant.

And there is ethical truth. Is it OK to eat frog’s legs? Science does not give us the answer to this (although logic can help us decide if our answer is consistent with our other beliefs), but fantasy literature often helps us to explore such ethical questions. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one superb example. Would you “snare an orc with a falsehood”? Would you attempt to take the One Ring and “go forth to victory”?

There is metaphorical truth. A frog may, in spite of what Dawkins says, be a handsome prince – there’s more to the universe than can be seen at first glance. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Children often learn this important fact from fairy tales.

And there is even religious and philosophical truth. Does the frog-goddess Heqet exist, for example? Does the universe exist? Is there a spoon? The methods of philosophy are different from the methods of science, and some amateur philosophers simply state their beliefs without actually justifying them, but philosophy is actually very important. Science itself is based on certain philosophical beliefs about reality.