Babes in the Wood

Babes in the Wood
Colour plates from
Randolph Caldecott's book of the rhyme
The parents: so sick they were apt to die
"Now, brother", said the dying man, "look to my children dear"
With lips as cold as any stone, they kiss the children small
The parents being dead and gone, the children home he takes
Away then went those pretty babes, rejoicing at that tide
And he that was of mildest mood, did slaye the other there
These pretty babes, with hand in hand, went wandering up and down
In one another’s arms they died

Babes in the Wood is a traditional children's tale, as well as a popular pantomime subject. It has also been the name of some other unrelated works. The expression has passed into common language, referring to inexperienced innocents entering unawares into any potentially dangerous or hostile situation. A number of child murder cases have been referred to in the media as the Babes in the Wood murders.


Traditional tale

The traditional children's tale is of two children abandoned in a wood, who die and are covered with leaves by robins.

First published as an anonymous broadside ballad, printed by Thomas Millington in Norwich in 1595 with the title "The Norfolk gent his will and Testament and howe he Commytted the keepinge of his Children to his own brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it" (sic)[1]. The tale has been reworked in many forms; it frequently appears attributed as a Mother Goose rhyme. The anonymous ballad was illustrated by Randolph Caldecott in a book published in 1879.

The ballad tells of two small children left in the care of an uncle and aunt after their parents' death. The uncle gives the children to ruffians to be killed, in order to acquire their inheritance, telling his wife they are being sent to London for their upbringing. The murderers fall out and the "milder" of the two kills the other. He tells the children he will return with provisions, but they do not see him again. The children, wandering alone in the woods, die, and are covered by leaves by the birds. Unlike many morality tales, the story ends there; no retribution is described as happening to the uncle.[2] In sanitized versions, the children are bodily taken to Heaven.

The Walt Disney Company re-worked this tale for their 1932 short animated film Babes in the Woods, incorporating some material from Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, and adding a village of friendly elves (a feature not traditionally present in either tale) and a happy ending.

The story is also used as a basis for pantomimes. However, for various reasons including both the brevity of the original and the target pantomime audience of young children, modern pantomimes by this name usually combine this story with parts of the modern Robin Hood story (employing the supporting characters from it, such as Maid Marian, rather than Robin himself) to lengthen it.


Folklore has it that the events told in Babes in the Wood originally happened in Wayland Wood in Norfolk, England. It is said that the uncle lived at the nearby Griston Hall. The ghosts of the murdered children are said to haunt Wayland Wood. The village signs at Griston and nearby Watton depict the story.

The essence of the lore concerns two children. After the death of their parents, they are left in the care of an uncle. However, the uncle resents the task and pays two men to take the children into the woods and kill them. Finding themselves unable to go through with the act, the criminals abandon the children in the wood where, unable to fend for themselves, they eventually die.


  1. ^ Opie, I and Opie, P.: The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, Oxford University Press, 1983, page 387.
  2. ^ The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Babes in the Wood, illustrated by R. Caldecott


External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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