Gypsies In Classic Children’s Literature

What did Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit have in common? Apart from a dislike of only children and a shared love of ginger beer, they both wrote stories about groups of children going out into the countryside and finding adventure. In these natural environments the children came across good people and bad people (policemen, shopkeepers etc, smugglers etc.) and then there were ‘gypsies’, who readers understood were instant opponents.

The four children encounter gypsies in chapter 3 of Five Children and It. They get sick of their baby brother and wish someone, anyone, would take him. So the Psammead arranges for that to happen, and no they can’t take the wish back. But since the wishes only last until sunset, this chapter gives E. Nesbit a chance to dismantle a popular anglo belief at the time: That gypsies stole children. Much like the Elf on the Shelf, who it was said kept an eye on children even in parental absence, if children did not do as required it was often said that if they were not careful the gypsies would come and get them.

Even today it’s thought that gypsies abduct children. The high profile Madeleine McCann case is a good example.

See The Legend of the Child Snatching Gypsies.

Thomas Acton, a renowned Professor of Romani Studies, says that there is no documented case of Roma or Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.

Peter McGuire
Thomas Gainsborough Landscape with Gipsies c.1753–4
Thomas Gainsborough Landscape with Gipsies c.1753–4

In Shadow The Sheepdog we see that gypsies came in useful as an archetype for missing dogs, too. Johnny is required to enter a gypsy caravan, where he finds the drugged Shadow inside a bag.

Madeline and the Gypsies is one of the few children’s book from the Second Golden Age of Children’s Literature to portray a gypsy as a rounded, caring and responsible individual.

WANDERERS NOT GYPSIES

  • Today, calling the Roma or the Irish Travellers ‘gypsies’ is very similar to calling Native Americans ‘Indian’. The word ‘Gypsy’ is often used in a derogatory way and is based on the mistaken idea that gypsies came from Egypt.
  • There are two main, distinct groups of travellers — the Roma and the Irish travellers. They are both nomadic but are separate. Romany gypsies have roots in India but Irish Travellers are, well, Irish.
  • Irish travellers speak a language called Cant, Gammon or Shelta. The hit UKTV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding focuses on a group of Irish Travellers and is considered to be a poor representation of travellers. Back in the 1940s these people were called ‘Tinkers’. They became travellers due to a history of discrimination against the Irish, and may have had land taken from them.
  • The Romani language is based on Punjabi/Hindi.
  • The word ‘Romani’ has nothing to do, by the way, with the country Romania, or the Ancient Romans.
  • Australia has its own Romani population, who first came to Australia in the early 1900s from Greece.
  • Meanwhile in America, these wanderers might be referred to as hobos.
Alfred Vickers - A gypsy encampment in the Isle of Wight
Alfred Vickers – A gypsy encampment in the Isle of Wight

POPULAR WESTERN BOGEYMEN

No matter how safe childhood becomes, modern folklore still requires bogeymen. Apart from the Roma, we’ve also had:

  1. Fairies — originally fairies were used as the bogeyman: “Be good or the fairies will take you!”
  2. Jews — It was thought Jews abduct Christian children and use them as sacrifice in strange rituals.
  3. Witches — as portrayed in Roald Dahl’s middle grade novel, in which he explains witches look like everyday women.
  4. Black cars — in Estonia black cars were supposed to be especially dangerous because they contained people who wanted to kidnap you for your organs. Black cars are also suspicious in the West.
black car mystic river
the black car from Mystic River

And now we have men in white vans.

from Silence Of The Lambs

Although the word ‘gypsy’ is increasingly widely recognised as a slur, we are still seeing contemporary novels making use of the word. The marketing copy of Gypsy Blood lists a number of other insulting terms, but all of them fictional.

I’m not all that special, really. Or uncommon. I’m sure there are a lot of girls with old gypsy blood who see the dead, have killer cults hunting their family, and turn into something that gets scary when they panic. Yep. Completely unoriginal, if I do say so myself.
Move along. Nothing to see here. Nope. I’m just an ordinary girl.

I wish people would believe that.

I’ve been labeled as one thing or another for most of my life:
Death Girl.
Crazy Gypsy Girl.
Gothic Chick.
Monster…

It took my mother’s death for me to finally start getting answers about what’s really been going on. Unfortunately, most of the answers come from men…who aren’t just men. Somehow, I’ve gone and landed myself in a world truly filled with monsters, and I’m starting to think this is where I should have been all along.

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Header painting: Samuel David Colkett – A Gypsy Encampment

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