April 1, 2020

G is for Gotham

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl.
If the bowl had been stronger, my song would be longer.

        They were wise enough to learn from their mistake: the second time, they all wore life jackets.
        This is the first nursery rhyme illustration I did, and at the time I had no thought of illustrating a book, or even of doing other nursery rhymes.  I was not trying to please children or make nursery decor.  I did it for myself, because I thought it would be fun.  I’m not sure why I gave the men their long toes and caps, but when I later started to illustrate other nursery rhymes, I decided to stick with the theme.  I gave each man a different sort of tassel or pompom on the tip of his cap, and I kept that up, as well, throughout the entire series.
        Most illustrations of this nursery rhyme show the bowl floating along merrily before it sinks.  Some give it a sail.  Some show the three wise men fishing or otherwise looking like everything is going along smoothly.  To me, that’s sort of missing the important point!
        This rhyme belongs to a whole class of folk tales and songs about “wise” people who are ridiculously silly or stupid.  I think they’re primarily just for amusement, but they do also often lampoon “experts” and other learned people.  For that reason our wise men are often shown as academics or scholarly types, and they are often presented as old men with long beards.  In this post’s second illustration the man in the middle is wearing a clerical collar and robe.
        As for Gotham, it is a village in Nottinghamshire, England, and as early as the fifteenth century there were tales of the foolishness of Gotham’s wise men.  The legend, however, is that there was method in their madness: they were all feigning idiocy so that King John (reign 1199-1216) would decide that he didn’t want to build a hunting lodge in their village after all.  It was Washington Irving who called New York City “Gotham” in 1807 based on that combination of ingenuity and foolishness, giving rise, in turn, to the name of Batman’s city.
        The one nursery rhyme book from about 1760 includes the following moral with this rhyme, “It [the nursery rhyme] is long enough.  Never lament the loss of what is not worth having.”  Harsh!  I happen to be very fond of this rhyme, although I guess it’s true that if it were longer it would spoil the punch line.
        What do you think the three wise men should christen their vessel?
        A final note for impressionable children: Wear a life vest… and learn how to swim.

        Don’t forget that you can find the Master List of A-Z Challenge participants HERE.

[Pictures: Three Wise Men of Gotham, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998 (Image from my book);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Quarto of Nursery Rhymes published by McLoughlin Bros., nineteenth century (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from Internet Archive).]


Lisa said...

This must be the same men I know as the Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick maker! I always assumed they drowned!

David said...

I love your illustrations! They're absolutely perfect for the setting.

Not doing a 'proper' A2Z this year, instead trying to work through some blogs in an alphabetical order and giving people a shoutout. I've got you down for tomorrow.

Good luck with the rest of the month!

@Breakerofthings from
Fiction Can Be Fun
Calling by as an A2Z supporter

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Lisa, they are actually not the same men -- we'll get to those three later (spoiler!)
David, thanks so much for stopping by, and for the shoutout. I appreciate the support. =)

Stuart Nager said...

The rule of three lives throughout the folk tales and songs. Interesting choices here. I'm surprised to learn that these are not all stemming from the same rhyme.

Kathe W. said...

loVe these illustrations! And I'm curious about the identities of these three.....guess I'll just stay tuned !!!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Interestingly, your illustration seems to be the only one in which the three wise men’s bowl has broken up. Amusingly silly!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Stuart, you are right that threes appear everywhere in nursery rhymes (as well as all sorts of other traditional songs, folktales, etc.) It's kind of fun to see them all. Maybe I should count up how many threes show up through the course of my A-Z this year.

Sue, I don't know why no one ever seems to show the bowl breaking - it was the obvious moment of interest to me!

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I love your illustration! It is so fun, with all the details! :)

The Multicolored Diary

Jenny said...

I love the illustration! And it was fun to learn more about the history of Gotham, which I really just associated with Batman. But now I'm smarter! Thanks!

Jade Li said...

I really like how you did your print. The fish especially. Interesting about the name Gotham!

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Interesting post! Like your illustration :-)

An A-Z of Faerie: Gancanagh

James Pailly said...

"I did it for myself, because I thought it would be fun." Spoken like a true artist! Also, I always wondered what the connection between New York and Gotham City was. I learned something today!