CHILDREN’S GAMES. The study of traditional games has in recent years become an important branch of folklore research in England, and has contributed not a little towards elucidating many unrecorded facts in early history. These games may be broadly divided into two kinds—dramatic games, and games of skill and chance. These differ materially in their object. Games of skill and chance are played for the purpose of winning property from a less fortunate player. The dramatic games consist of non-singing and singing games; they are divided between boys’ games and girls’ games. Boys’ games are mostly of a contest character, girls’ of a more domestic type. The boys’ dramatic games have preserved some interesting beliefs and customs, but the tendency in these games, such as “prisoner’s base,” has been to drop the words and tune and to preserve only that part (action) which tends best for exercise and use in school playgrounds. The girls’ singing-games have not developed on these lines, and have therefore not lost so much of their early characteristics. The singing games consist of words, tune and action. The words, in verse, express ideas contained in customs not now in vogue, and they may be traced back to events taking place between men and women and between people of different villages. The tunes are simple, and the same tune is frequently used for different games. The actions are illustrative of the ideas to be expressed. The players represent various objects—animals, villages and people. The singing game is therefore not a game in the usual sense of the word. There is no element of “gambling” or playing “to win” in it—no one is richer or poorer for it; it also requires a number of children to play together. It is really a “play,” and has survived because it has handed down some instances of custom and belief which were deeply rooted and which made a strong appeal to the imagination of our ancestors. The singing games represent in dramatic form the survival of those ceremonial dances common to people in early stages of development. These dances celebrated events which served to bind the people together and to give them a common interest in matters affecting their welfare. They were dramatic in character, singing and action forming a part of them, and their performers were connected by ties of place or kindred. They are probably survivals of what we might call folk drama. In these times it was held imperative to perform religious ceremonies periodically; at sowing and harvesting to ensure good crops; in the care of cattle and on occasions of marriage, birth and death. These were matters affecting the welfare of the whole community. Events were celebrated with dance, song and feasting, and no event was too trivial to be unconnected with some belief which rendered ceremony necessary.
At first these ceremonial dances had deep religious feeling for their basis, but in process of time they became purely secular and were performed at certain seasons only, because it was the custom to do so. They then became recognized as beautiful or pleasing things in the life of the people, and so continued, altering somewhat in ideas but retaining their old dramatic forms. They were danced by old and young at festivals and holidays, these being held about the same time of year as that at which the previous religious ceremonies had been held.
Singing games are danced principally in one of two methods, “line” and “circle.” These represent two of the early forms of dramatic action. The “line” form (two lines of players standing opposite each other having a space of ground between them, advancing and retiring in turn) represents two different and opposing parties engaged in a struggle or contest. This method is used in all cases where contest is involved. The “circle” form, on the other hand, where all players join hands, represents those occasions when all the people of one place were engaged in celebrating events in which all were interested. Thus games celebrating sowing and harvest, and those associated with love and marriage, are played in this form. Both these methods allow of development. The circle varies from examples where all perform the same actions and say the same words to that where two or more players have principal parts, the others only singing or acting in dumb show, to examples where the singing has disappeared. The form or method of play and the actions constitute the oldest remaining parts of the game (the words being subject to alterations and loss through ignorance of their meaning), and it is to this form or method, the actions and the accompaniment of song, that they owe their survival, appealing as they do to the strong dramatic instinct of children and of uncultured folk.
It will be convenient to give a few instances of the best-known singing games. In “line” form, a fighting game is “We are the Rovers.” The words tell us of two opposing parties fighting for their land; both sides alternately deride one another and end by fighting until one side is victorious. Two other “line” games, “Nuts in May” and “Here come three dukes a-riding,” are also games of contest, but not for territory. These show an early custom of obtaining wives. They represent marriage by capture, and are played in “line” form because of the element of contest contained in the custom. Another form, the “arch,” is also used to indicate contest.
Circle games, on the contrary, show such customs as harvest and marriage, with love and courting, and a ceremony and sanction by assembled friends. “Oats and beans and barley” and “Sally Water” are typical of this form. The large majority of circle games deal with love or marriage and domestic life. The customs surviving in these games deal with tribal life and take us back to “foundation sacrifice,” “well worship,” “sacredness of fire,” besides marriage and funeral customs.
Details may be found in the periodical publications of the Folk-lore Society, and particularly in the following works:—A. B. Gomme’s Traditional Games of Great Britain (2 vols., Nutt, 1894–1898); Gomme’s Children’s Singing Games (Nutt, 1904.); Eckenstein’s Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes (Duckworth, 1906); Maclagan, Games of Argyllshire, Folk-lore Society (1900); Newell’s Games of American Children (Harper Bros., New York, 1884). In Mrs Gomme’s Traditional Games, several versions of each game, together with a short account of the suggested origin and of the custom or belief indicated, are given for each game. In vol. ii. (pp. 458-531) a memoir of the history of games is given, and the customs and beliefs which originated them, reviewing the whole subject from the anthropological point of view, and showing the place which games occupy among the evidences of early man. In Miss Eckenstein’s comparative study of nursery rhymes suggested origins are given for many of these, and an attempt made to localize certain of the customs and events. In several of the publications of the Folk-lore Society local collections of games are given, all of which may be studied with advantage. Stubbes and other early writers give many instances of boys’ games in their days, many of which still exist. Tylor and other writers on anthropology, in dealing with savage custom, confirm the views here expressed. For nursery rhymes see Halliwell, Nursery Rhymes (1845), and Chambers’s Popular Rhymes (first printed 1841, reprinted in 1870). The recently collected Morris Dances by Mr Cecil Sharp should also be consulted. One of the morris dances, bean-setting, evidently dealing with planting or harvest, is danced in circle form, while others indicating fighting or rivalry are danced in line form, each line dancing in circle before crossing over to the opposite, side, and thus conforming to the laws already shown to exist in the more ordinary game. (A. B. G.*)