Story Time with Papa Philosofik: As I Was Going to St. Ives

I’m a fan of old-school nursery rhymes, Grimm’s fairy tales, and other classic lit for kids. I keep starting to write a blog post about traditional children’s literature and how awful modern kids lit is by comparison, but I never finish it. Instead, upon Jen’s advice, I’m going to turn it a bit and examine how peculiar, nonsensical, and poorly constructed (some of) traditional children’s literature can be in a recurring series I’m calling, “Story Time with Papa Philosofik.” Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, but if you’re reading my posts out loud, I feel like this isn’t really for you.

Today, I’d like to examine the half-riddle, half-rhyme, “As I Was Going to St. Ives.”

As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks; each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

For starters, this isn’t going to end up on your Mensa application, but it is a nice riddle to see if your kids are listening. If you’re not sure of the answer, again, this isn’t really for you. But I’ll give it to you in the end, anyway.

St. Ives is an unassuming village in Cornwall. I don’t actually know if it’s still around, but as most things in that part of England are, I’ll assume it is. At the time of this rhyme’s probable publication (around 1730, but it could easily have pre-dated that), there was nothing especially notable about it, other than that it rhymes with “wives.” The reason for the narrator’s journey is quickly ruled unimportant as the incredible sight along this road certainly is more astonishing than anything St. Ives might have to offer.

One man with his seven wives, their seven sacks, and far too many cats and kittens are traveling together. One really has to wonder… why? If this polygamous family were traveling for pleasure, need they carry all* their 2,744 animals? I can certainly understand if they were unable to find a neighbor or friend willing to care for literally thousands of animals in a time when no journey of significant length took an insignificant amount of time. And yet, it could not possibly be as impractical as having seven women carry 343 cats each. The upper body strength alone would put these ladies in the pantheon of the strongest women in history. I have to assume that the purpose of their travel is necessity. It is no stretch to guess that their home became overridden with cat fur, decapitated “gifts,” and a yard so full of animal waste that the land was probably more poop than soil. Beyond this, can you imagine the sound of 2,744 cats at night? They could probably be heard from miles away. The only benefit to the family and their neighbors is that there would be no living vermin within a day’s travel in any direction. Their journey was probably equally necessitated by the need for a larger dwelling space, new sources of food for their truly ridiculous number of cats, and almost certain hatred and animosity from their neighbors who probably had not slept in quite some time. God help the man allergic to cats there. Well, God help his soul, anyway. He probably died before they left town. Maybe that’s why they left.

Look, I’ve seen “Hoarders” on TV, so I’m obviously something of an expert on the disorder. People collect weird things, they get attached to them, and they never get rid of them. I can logically move from that to cat hoarding, but at some point, this family of 8 had to recognize that things had gotten out of hand. The man’s polygamy aside**, one has to wonder what sort of lifestyle these folks were enjoying or enduring.

So, owning so many animals is impractical, at best. But more so is the method of transport chosen for the thousands of cats — bags. I can think of a lot of ways to move cats around, but putting 56 cats and kittens into a sack is about as awful as it gets. The size of the sack alone would be friggin’ huge, and then this poor lady has to carry 6 more of them.

I had two cats growing up — Friskey and Whiskers.*** Putting just the two of them into a carrier to get them to the veterinarian required several hours of lead time, and this only got worse as they got better at both fighting back and hiding. The last trip Friskey took to the vet required my dad to rip the floorboards off the foot of the stairs, and a sedative. This was getting two animals into a carrier with a locking gate on it. Stuffing more than fifty of these critters into a bag which probably only had a bit of twine to tie it shut boggles the mind. Never mind the challenges involved in holding or dragging seven bags full of pretty angry cats. If we’re fully committed to this scenario in which a fully-loaded bag large enough to hold 50+ cats can be held by a woman of, presumably, great strength, we can certainly say that she can hold six more.

The burning question, of course, is why bring the cats at all? I’m dubious that these eight people could have formed strong emotional attachments to 2,744 cats. It’s unlikely that, if any of them strayed, they’d be missed. Inconceivable is the notion of giving names to all of them. So again, why the need to bring along so many? If they’re really serious about keeping an ark full of felines, why not just bring the reproduction-age males and females and start a new cat colony at the end of the road?

So, of course, the answer. What’s at the end of that road where this unusual family wants to go? Well, it’s not St. Ives. The narrator meets this family on the way to St. Ives, but they’re headed in the opposite direction. Bloody hell.

*If this isn’t all their cats, what the hell is going on?
**Not that far aside, because the practice was basically unheard-of in eighteenth-century England.
***These creative names should tell you all you need to know about my capacity for original thought.

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