Fair maiden, white and red,
Comb me smooth and stroke my head
And thou shalt have some cockle bread.
Gently dip, but not too deep
For fear thou make the golden beard to weep.
Fair maid, white and red,
Comb me smooth and stroke my head;
And every hair a sheave shall be,
And every sheave a golden tree.
I first encountered that verse many years ago in an anthology and was intrigued. What could it mean? Then I located its source in George Peele's play The Old Wive's Tale, published in 1595. Peele was one of the 'University Wits', the generation of playwrights who preceded Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The play itself has received a mixed response. It is often dismissed as a jumble of folklore stitched haphazardly together. Others see the design as intentional and suggest we should see it in the context of this intent. Going further still, Northrop Frye found it "one of the loveliest plays in the language". The differences of opinion may reflect each critic's attitude to folklore itself.
Folklore may be regarded as the worthless and superficial entertainment of naive members of an otherwise uneducated populace, or it may be regarded as embodying a deep and archetypal wisdom of its own. It is possible that both of these things could simultaneously be true. Certainly the experience of reading a good many folk tales (as I have) often reveals a naive set of aspirations (poor folk invariably gain great wealth or marry a prince/princess as a result of performing some deed). They are often crudely constructed and, when given in the verbatim orally-collected 'pure' form, disconnected, though the published versions are often redacted to a more literary shape by the editors of collections of tales. But they also frequently contain motifs, images, and themes which recur with superficial variations across different tales and across many cultures. The Wicked Stepmother, the Ogrish Father, the Young Hero, the Helper on the Path might all be regarded in the light of primitive psychology, the tales as embodying psychic truths about life and the obstacles in the path of those who live it.
But where there are voices in wells, animal helpers and magical transformations, something deeper still seems to be going on. The tales themselves may at one level be little more than pre-literate versions of popular soap operas, but the material they manipulate, more or less skilfully, often speaks of things that resonate beyond the details of the plot or even their representative imagery. Is that what Northrop Frye finds so 'lovely' in the Old Wive's Tale?
A version of the story 'Three Golden Heads' upon which the verse is based can be found HERE
A good source for orally-collected tales, as well as many 'literary' versions is Katherine Brigg's four-volume Dictionary of British Folk Tales (Routledge, 1970)
Peele's play is available in a number of modern editions.