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Little Miss Muffet

Little Miss Muffet

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet

Eateing her curds and whey

Along came an viper

Who sat down beside ‘er

But never scared miss Muffet away.

Ok, well it’s nothing like as prosaic as the original but for the purposes of this page it will have to do. Once a year I always look forward to receiving my copy of the annual ‘Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association. It is always full of interesting papers and articles many of which concern Dartmoor. This year’s edition was no exception and hence the following webpage which relates to an extraordinary report about a child and a adder.

Now  there is a great deal of folklore and legend surround the Dartmoor adder or ‘Long Cripple’ as it’s called on the moor. Therefore it was fascinating to read this story which notes that the story is Dartmoor’s version of ‘Little Miss Muffet’. The original report came from some papers given to Dr. Tom Greeves who then passed them on to to Dr. J. B. Smith who is the recorder for the folklore section of the Devonshire Association.

Apparently many years ago there was a family living in the small hamlet of Sherwell or Sherrill as it’s locally known and which is near to Widecombe-in-the-Moor. This family has a small daughter who at the time was around the age of 5 or 6 and for some reason or another she wasn’t growing as well as her friends. The mother became quite concerned about this as the little girl was always well fed and nourished but despite this she never seemed to blossom. It was noticed that on sunny days the girl had a habit of taking her morning bowl of porridge out into farmyard to eat. One might say that there wasn’t anything amiss with this, afterall what a nice way to start the day. However the thought did cross her mother’s mind that just perhaps she went out into the yard to surreptitiously throw away the porridge or feed it to the pigs. This certainly would explain why despite being given plenty of food she never seemed to grow.

One glorious sunny morning the little girl went wandering out into the farmyard along with her bowl of steaming porridge as was her want. Once she had disappeared out of site her mother secretly crept out behind her to see exactly what happened to the girl’s breakfast. As she rounded the corner she saw her little girls sat beside a large stone and then she saw to her horror than an adder was curled up on the stone. Slowly the serpent raised itself up and moved its head towards the bowl of porridge which was sat in the girl’s lap. Then the adder slowly slunk into the youngster’s lap when the girl then gently tapped her spoon on its head. In a soft voice she chastised the snake and told it to wait its turn before tucking into her breakfast. Silently the mother looked on as the child and the patient adder took turns in eating the porridge.

Despite the fact that the little girl was in no apparent danger of getting ‘stung‘ by the adder the conclusion was drawn that the venom from the serpent was dripping into the porridge as it ate. Therefore this was the very reason for their daughter’s unhealthy state, she was slowly being poisoned. So when the little girl was not around the snake was hunted down and quietly dispatched. According to the story from that day hence the little girl’s health slowly began to improve and overtime she grew much stronger. Report by Greeves, p. 332.

But how did such an implausible story come about? One theory may be that at some point somebody read a poem by Charles Lamb. Now Lamb was a poet who wrote a poem sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s called ‘The Boy and the Snake’. As you can see below it very much relates a similar tale

The Boy and the Snake

Charles Lamb

 

Henry was every morning fed
With a full mess of milk and bread.
One day the boy his breakfast took,
And eat it by a purling brook
Which through his mother’s orchard ran.
From that time ever when he can
Escape his mother’s eye, he there
Takes his food in th’ open air.
Finding the child delight to eat
Abroad, and make the grass his seat,
His mother lets him have his way.
With free leave Henry every day
Thither repairs, until she heard
Him talking of a fine grey bird.
This pretty bird, he said, indeed,
Came every day with him to feed,
And it loved him, and loved his milk
,
And it was smooth and soft like silk.
His mother thought she’d go and see
What sort of bird this same might be.
So the next morn she follows Harry,
And carefully she sees him carry
Through the long grass his heaped-up mess.
What was her terror and distress,
When she saw the infant take
His bread and milk close to a snake!

Upon the grass he spreads his feast,
And sits down by his frightful guest,
Who had waited for the treat;
And now they both begin to eat.
Fond mother! shriek not, O beware
The least small noise, O have a care-
The least small noise that may be made,
The wily snake will be afraid-
If he hear the lightest sound,
He will inflict th’ envenomed wound.
She speaks not, moves not, scarce does breathe,
As she stands the trees beneath;
No sound she utters; and she soon
Sees the child lift up its spoon,
And tap the snake upon the head,
Fearless of harm; and then he said,
As speaking to familiar mate
,
‘Keep on your own side, do, Grey Pate:’
The snake then to the other side,
As one rebukëd, seems to glide;
And now again advancing nigh,
Again she hears the infant cry,
Tapping the snake, ‘Keep further, do;
Mind, Grey Pate, what I say to you.’
The danger’s o’er-she sees the boy
(O what a change from fear to joy!)
Rise and bid the snake ‘good-bye;’
Says he, ‘Our breakfast’s done, and I
Will come again to-morrow day:’
Then, lightly tripping, ran away.

I cannot find the exact date when this poem was written which is a shame because in a letter which Lamb wrote in 1800 he recounts an encounter with a rattlesnake. It appears that there was an ‘exhibition’ in London of some live snakes to which Lamb paid a visit. In a small, dark candle-lit room he saw in the middle of the floor a low, crescent shaped wire enclosure in which slithered 10 snakes. One of these was a rattlesnake and for whatever reason Lamb put his finger to the wire. Immediately the rattlesnake lunged at him just narrowly missing taking a bite at his finger as he rapidly withdrew it to a safe distance. Lamb, p.140.

Could this encounter have inspired him to pen the snake poem? Did this poem then become adapted as a Dartmoor tale, clearly it could not include a rattlesnake but an adder is the nearest Dartmoor thing to one?

Little Miss Muffet

Lamb, C. 1837. The Works of Charles Lamb – Vol. 1 -2. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son.

Smith, J. B. 2015. The Child and the Snake on Dartmoor – TDA Vol. 146. Plymouth: Latimer, Trend & Co. Ltd.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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