Davy and the Goblin rides again
This past August, while listening to Paul Vincent O'Connor of the Oregon Shakesperian Festival read an article on puns to our Senior Ventures group, I was reminded of my days as an Assistant Professor at Case-Western Reserve University. A colleague of mine, William Umbach, was a lexicographer
engaged in revising the etymologies for a new edition of a collegiate dictionary; this gave him the opportunity for some excellent puns. One day he announced, "Well, I've been in 'ell all week." And a few days later: "I've just done murder!" That, in turn, reminded me of my bound volumes of St. Nicholas...
[quoteright]The earliest volume of St. Nicholas in my collection is Volume XII, Part 1 (November 1884 - April 1885). Its title page calls it "An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks Conducted by Mary Mapes Dodge." It was the best known and most successful magazine for children of that period - but it clearly could have that kind of success only in an age when there were no movies, radio, or TV. It sponsored the Agassiz Association, a club devoted to the study of all branches of biology. Its monthly Riddle Box contained a varied set of word puzzles, most of them at least as difficult as those found in the [San Francisco Regional Mensa] Intelligencer.
But the main reason I recalled this volume of St. Nicholas was a marvelous fantasy, published in four installments, titled "Davy and the Goblin, or What Followed Reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Charles Edward Carryl, the author, was a New York stockbroker. His story details the travels of Davy and a little goblin who suddenly appears on one of the andirons while Davy is staring into the fireplace. They sail out the window in the case of a grandfather clock, visiting lands every bit as strange as those Alice encountered in her pursuit of the White Rabbit. Carryl was a master punster. Here are some samples from this work, which seems to be sadly neglected today.
After being asked, by the Cow With a Crumpled Horn, if he had heard of "Jack and the Beanstalk," Davy replies: "Oh, yes indeed! I should like to see the bean-stalk." "You can't see the beans talk," said the Cow, gravely. "You might hear them talk, if they had anything to say and you listened long enough."
Noting a sign above a shop in the Moving Forest, Davy inquires of the tall figure dressed in Lincoln green in the doorway, "Venison is deer, isn't it?" "Not at all," said Robin Hood promptly. "It's the cheapest meat about here."
But the finest exchange of all takes place when Davy meets Robinson Crusoe and his talking animals. Robinson is conducting an arithmetic class:
Robinson: "How many halves are there in a whole?"
There was a dead silence. Then the Cat said, gravely, "What kind of hole?"
"That has nothing to do with it," said Robinson, impatiently.
"Oh, hasn't it though!" exclaimed the Dog, scornfully. "I should think a big hole would have more halves in it than a little one."
Here the Goat, who had been thinking over the matter, said: "Must all the halves be of the same size?"
"Certainly not," said Robinson, promptly; then, nudging Davy, he whispered, "He's bringing his mind to bear on it. He's prodigious when he gets started!"
Who taught him arithmetic?" said Davy, beginning to think Robinson didn't know much about it himself.
"Well, the fact is," said Robinson confidentially, "he picked it up from an old Adder he met in the woods."
After the Goat asks if all the halves need to be of the same shape and receives a negative reply, he and all the other animals give up. Davy calls them all stupid, and they depart.
Robinson then inquires, "What's the right answer? Tell us, like a good fellow."
"Two of course," said Davy.
"Is that all?" exclaimed Robinson in astonishment.
"Certainly," said Davy, who began to feel very proud of his learning. "Don't you know that when they divide a whole into four parts they call them fourths, and when they divide it into two parts they call them halves?"
"Why don't they call them tooths?" said Robinson, obstinately. "The fact is, they ought to call 'em teeth. That's what puzzled the Goat. Next time, I'll say, 'How many teeth in a whole?'"
"Then the Cat will ask if it's a rat-hole," said Davy, laughing at the idea.
"You positively convulse me, you're so humorous," said Robinson, without the vestige of a smile. "You're almost as droll as Friday was. He used to call the Goat 'Pat,' because, he said, he was a little butter. I told him he was altogether too funny for a lonely place like this, and he went away and joined the minstrels."
Older readers will surely remember one of the favorites of high school glee clubs, which Sinbad the Sailor sings for Davy:
A capital ship for an ocean trip
Was the 'Walloping Window Blind;'
No gale that blew dismayed her crew
Or troubled the captain's mind.
The man at the wheel was taught to feel
Contempt for the wildest blow,
And it often appeared, when the weather had cleared,
That he'd been in his bunk below.
The boatswain's mate was very sedate,
Yet fond of amusement, too;
And he played hop-scotch with the starboard watch
While the captain tickled the crew.
And the gunner we had was apparently mad,
For he sat on the after-rail,
And fired salutes with the captain's boots,
In the teeth of a booming gale."
"A Capital Ship" includes four more verses and one of Edmund Bensell's attractive drawings. It is a pity that the compilers of The Golden Book of Favorite Songs could do no better than designate this ballad as "an old English folk song"; perhaps the chorus does not have a known author, but the verses certainly do. It seems mean-spirited indeed to deny Charles Carryl the credit.
At the end of "Davy and the Goblin," Davy, like Alice, wakes up as his grandmother calls him to dinner.
The Century Company not only published St. Nicholas but bound the magazine, six issues per volume, in beautiful embossed cloth covers, with the lettering and border design done in gold. The pages of my copy are somewhat smudged and the cloth cover is threadbare along the spine - but I would not trade this volume for the most expensive child's book in print today.
Note: A facsimile edition of "Davy and the Goblin," originally published in book form by Ticknor & Co., is available from Xerox University Microfilms as part of the Legacy Library.
Paul W. Healy, the polymath of the Contra Costa eggheads, is a retired mathematician, film critic, devoted orrery polisher, and methodical magazine maniac.
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