Remembering the Raggedy Man at Halloween
By John Howell, Sr.
I hate to admit, but it was probably Halloween looming that got us to talking about elves. Our conversations get weirder with each passing week of COVID togetherness.
Elves — as in the plural of elf. What are they and where did they come from? (And what difference could it possibly make?)
Elves were among several mythical creatures I read about when I was growing up. They became visual aides to my imagination about what might be lurking around cemeteries and dark roadways this time of year.
Wikopedia said that elves were first cited in literature of Germanic language origins and appeared in assorted versions of other languages. The addition of elves to Santa Claus’ entourage was a late-comer.
But, as I read about the background of elves, I started recalling an even more fascinating creature from my memory of hobgoblins that usually came to my young awareness during late October — creatures that “swallers the’rselves.”
Now that’s scary.
The memory first led me to a poem by American poet and Indiana native James Whitcomb Riley, who rose to unusual prominence as a poet in the late 19th Century. “Little Orphant Annie” describes in four stanzas a fascinating hired girl in the household who carried out many of the chores, but who often entertained the children of the household with stories told around the fireplace.
“We set around the kitchen fire an’ hast the mostest fun
“A-list’nin to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about, …”
In one stanza she describes a “little boy wouldn’t say his prayers” and who was subsequently snatched away with little trace. Another describes a little girl who “mocked ‘em and shocked ‘em” when adult visitors came to the home. Then, “They wus two great Black Things a-standin’ by her side,” Riley’s Little Orphant Annie continues, who “snatched her through the ceiling’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!”
In the final stanza, Annie urges her listeners to mind teachers and parents, to cherish those who love you and to “dry the orphan’s tear.” Each stanza ends with Annie’s warning of the consequence of disregarding her warnings:
“An the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you Ef you Don’t Watch Out!”
But I was looking for something more specific than “Black Things” and Goblins. I found them listed in another of favorite Riley poems. What follows is the verse from Raggedy Man where the poet describes a complete assortment of creatures who sound like the sort of beings that once inhabited my imagination around Halloween.
An’ The Raggedy Man, he knows most rhymes,
An’ tells ’em, ef I be good, sometimes:
Knows ’bout Giunts, an’ Griffuns, an’ Elves,
An’ the Squidgicum-Squees ‘at swallers the’rselves:
An’, wite by the pump in our pasture-lot,
He showed me the hole ‘at the Wunks is got,
‘At lives ‘way deep in the ground, an’ can
Turn into me, er ‘Lizabuth Ann!
Er Ma, er Pa, er The Raggedy Man!
Ain’t he a funny old Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
“Squidgicum-Squees ‘at swallers the’reselves.” That’s a spook worthy of Steven Spielberg.
Write to John Howell, Sr., at firstname.lastname@example.org