AppLit Home Appalachian Tales of Strong Women Tina L. Hanlon

"Babes in the Woods" and "The Two Lost Babes" and "Hansel and Gretel"


Lost Babes Tales and Songs

Related Tales from Other Regions

"The Babes in the Woods." Collected by James Taylor Adams, Big Laurel, Virginia, 1940. James Taylor Adams Collection. Full text in this web site. Similar to "Hansel and Gretel" without the house covered with good things to eat. The stepmother in this tale seems even more cruel than in "Hansel and Gretel," since she actually hides the family's food to pretend they are starving, as an excuse for getting rid of the children. She pretends they are going "a sanging" when they take the children into the woods. This is a reference to collecting the herb ginseng, as families have often done in southern Appalachia.

"The Little Babes in the Woods." Collected by James M. Hylton, Wise, Virginia, 1942. James Taylor Adams Collection. Full text in this web site. In this tale the twins abandoned at the instigation of their stepmother are saved by an old woman in the woods and raised by two different strangers. Their parents are never able to find them. Hylton gives a detailed description of the storyteller Mrs. Mary Dockery, who lived near Wise.

"Two Lost Babes" by R. Rex Stephenson. Dramatization by the Ferrum College Jack Tale Players. This is a folktale adaptation first performed in the Jack Tale Players' summer tour, 2006, with revisions and new music by Emily Rose Tucker in 2009. Study guide by Thomas Townsend at this link. This adaptation is based on Richard Chase's retelling and the versions from the James Taylor Adams Collection, listed below. It also contains some contemporary and comical Stories My Kinfolk Told to Me performance photo 2017details about children's food and good and bad eating habits. Two witches who try to fatten the children up are defeated but do not get killed in this adaptation.

Stories My Kinfolk Told to Me is play by R. Rex Stephenson about family storytelling, in which "Catskins" and "Two Lost Babes" are dramatized. This unpublished play won the Floyd Community Theatre Guild playwriting competition in 2017. Earlier in 2017, Todd Necessary’s drama class did a reading of the play at Marion High School, and it was produced by students at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, under the direction of former Jack Tale Player Lori Spitzer-Wilk. The performance photo at right was published in this article by Delia Engstrom: "Forest Park Students Perform Original Children's Play 'Stories My Kinfolk Told To Me.'" The Fauquier Times/Prince William Times [Warrenton, VA], 6 Apr. 2017.

"The Two Lost Babes." In Richard Chase. Grandfather Tales. Boston: Houghton, 1948, pp. 162-69. With one drawing of the children jumping a mile high to escape, by Berkeley William, Jr. This tale says the parents came from England in the early days of settlers' families getting scattered through the wilderness in the United States, where this family cannot produce enough to eat from farming and hunting. The children are named Buck and Bess. Buck listens to the parents talk about abandoning the children and drops rocks or "white flints" on the trail. The next day he drops grains of corn but the animals eat them.  Bess is afraid of the wolves and "pan'ters" they can hear, so Buck carries her. In an old woman's house (not made of food), they meet another boy named Cocklepea, who tells that this witch keeps him to cut firewood but kills all other travelers. The woman whets her knife for some time and then slashes the children's bed, but they have escaped out the roof.  The next morning the witch sniffs them out and puts on her "clip-boots that went a mile at a clip." She lays siege to the children hiding in a cave but when she falls asleep, the children push her in a briar thicket and steal her boots. Cocklepea wears them and holds the others around the waist so they leap to a lowland settlement, where the sheriff says he needs evidence of murders by the witch. Cocklepea takes the sheriff to a witch meeting, where the witch brags about her thirty-year-secret, that she's been pouring lead in travelers' ears, robbing them, and eating them. Among many black cats that jump out, Cocklepea shakes one, which is the old woman. After she is captured and the sheriff and children testify against her, she is hanged. Buck clears land, while Bess marries Cocklepea, has twelve children, and keeps house for both men, "and they all done well." Chase identifies this "Hansel and Gretel" tale from the Ward and Hicks families as Type 327.

"Cucklepea and His Sister." Told by Stanley Hicks. Ray Hicks and Stanley Hicks, Audiocassette 6152, 19 May 1984, side 2. Also on Stanley Hicks, Vilas, N. C., 6 July 1981: tape 1 of 2, Audiocassette 6153. Cheryl Oxford Collection, Southern Folklife Collection. Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both are digitized in library web site. This version says the father and mother who live "back in the mountains" don't want Cucklepea and his sister to starve at home. Cucklepea drops rocks to find his way home, and his parents have some food when they return. Later on when they have nothing and the parents send them away again, Cucklepea has cornbread he tries to use to mark the way home but the birds eat that and they can't find the way the next morning. Cucklepea carries his sister part of the way. Then they come to a giant's house where the giant's wife warns them and hides them. The giant says "Fee Fo Fum I smell the blood of an Englishman" (like in "Jack and the Beanstalk"). While the giant tries to fatten the children to eat them, Cucklepea exchanges their black caps for the red caps on the giant's children's heads, so while he and his sister escape, the giant cuts his children's heads off. He has clip boots that can "step a mile at a clip," but he can't reach the children hiding under a rock. When the giant sleeps, Cucklepea takes the giant's knife and "hacked his head off." He takes the clip boots to go back for the giant's money. He talks the giant's wife into giving him riches to bail the giant out of jail. The children return home and the family lives happily. Stanley Hicks' two retellings on these field tapes are very similar. In 1984, he told the collector that his grandparents would tell tales all night but this is one he hadn't heard lately. In 1981 he pointed out that this is a Grandfather Tale, not a Jack Tale.

"Cuckle Pea and His Sister." Told by Hattie Hicks Presnell. Far in the Mountains: Vols 3 & 4 of Mike Yates' 1979-83 Appalachian Collection. Vol. 4. CD. Musical Traditions, 2002. The CD booklet is reproduced at this link. It says, "Hattie's version of the Hansel and Gretal [sic] story is very similar to the version printed as The Man and Woman with too Many Children in John Sampson's Gypsy Folk Tales (1933, reprinted). In Scotland the story is known as Mally Whuppie. Part of the tale also appears as The Two Lost Babes in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase (1948, reprinted). Chase had the story from Stanley Hicks and other Beech Mountain story tellers." In vol. 3, Presnell tells "Jack and the King's Chest," which is reprinted on this page with information about Presnell, who was born into the Hicks family in 1907.

Davenport, Tom. Hansel and Gretel: An Appalachian Version. Davenport Films, 1975. 16 minutes. Davenport's first live-action fairy tale film sets the European tale in Appalachia during the Great Depression. See AppLit's Bibliography of Davenport's Fairy Tale Films and information with photos at The film is now available to stream for free (or a donation) at From the Brothers Grimm.

"Babes in the Woods." Ballad recorded by Cecil Sharp in English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Reprinted with audio and other versions of the well-known nursery rhyme/song at The Mudcat Café. The sentimental rhyme by this name is about a boy and girl lost or stolen in the woods, who die pathetically (don't return home as in the tales above). In some versions they are the victims of a heartless uncle who wants their inheritance. Also known as "The Children in the Woods," one of the best known English ballads in print in North America since the eighteenth century. (In "Tavern Music" by Ed Crews, Colonial Williamsburg, VA, it is mentioned as one of three ballads described in a 1765 letter by Benjamin Franklin.)

"Babes in the Woods" is sung by Almeda Riddle on Songcatcher II: The Tradition that Inspired the Movie. CD. Santa Monica, CA: Vanguard Records, 2002. This CD is based on the 2001 film Songcatcher, directed by Maggie Greenwald, with older recordings of folk songs going back to the 1960s.

Roberts, Elizabeth Madox. "Babes in the Woods." Under the Tree. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1922. Poem by Kentucky author. In four quatrains, the poem tells of a "good little robin" that brings leaves to cover up the dead babes. It also imagines the long-dead babes watching nature, hearing the bees talk and the ants walk. This book of children's poems is available online at

Dan Dutton's Ballad Project contains lyrics, background, and original art for "Babes in the Woods" and other ballads. Dutton is a multimedia artist in Pulaski County, KY (link not functioning 6/11/20).

Reference Source: Some of these tales are discussed in "Babes in the Woods" by Nancy Snell Griffith, in American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore, edited by Christopher Fee and Jeffrey Webb. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2016, pp. 65-67.

quilt square Related Appalachian Tales

Two Orphans. Song collected by Emory L. Hamilton, Wise County, VA, 1938, about two children dying in the cold after their mother has died. JTA-9331. James Taylor Adams Collection. Full text in this web site.

The Two Babes. Song collected by Emory L. Hamilton, Wise County, VA, 1938, about two children killed when their house burned. JTA-9330. James Taylor Adams Collection. Full text in this web site.

The Babes Who Were Stolen Away. Song collected by James M. Hylton, Wise County, VA, 1942, about three dead children appearing to their mother. JTA-9455. James Taylor Adams Collection. Full text in this web site.

Mutsmag and her sisters take shelter while wandering in the woods in a house that turns out to be inhabited by a witch and giant that Mutsmag ultimately destroys. There are parallels in the children's ability to eavesdrop on adults who try to harm them and escape from the witch's house during the night to avoid being murdered. The variants called "Cuckelpea and His Sister," above, are especially similar to "Mutsmag." For a college student's comparison, see "Mutsmag" vs. "Hansel and Gretel."

“The Nest.” 1948 short story by major Appalachian author James Still. This is a realistic story about a lost six-year-old girl, with echoes of folktales and ballads about lost children. Reprinted in Pattern of a Man and Other Stories. Lexington, KY: Gnomon, 1976. 25th anniversary edition 2001.

quilt square Related Tales from Other Regions

Many variants of "Hansel and Gretel" in European folktales. An annotated version by Heidi Anne Heiner is at, with lists of variants, modern interpretations and spin-offs, illustrations, and related information.

"The Babes in the Woods." From English Fairy Tales, retold by Flora Annie Steel. 1918. The Macmillan Company, 1962. Reprinted in The Baldwin Online Children's Literature Project, 2000-2008. Long version of the ballad about orphaned boy and girl whose uncle tries to have them murdered to take their money, a year after their parents die. His assassins end up fighting each other and abandoning the babes instead of murdering them, and they die in the woods. All the wicked are punished and the final verses warn other executors for orphans to do the right thing. This is similar to "The Children in the Wood" published earlier by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales, available at this link in Project Gutenberg. Jacobs's notes call it "a nursery classic," citing a source in Percy's Reliques and a parallel in R. Yarrington's Two Lamentable Tragedies, 1601.

A 1932 Disney animated short film, Babes in the Woods, is "loosely based on the" British folktale and Grimms' "Hansel and Gretel." It is about two lost Dutch children who are helped by elves. A Silly Symphony Mickey Mouse film. The Babes in the Woods is also the title of a 1917 silent film based on "Hansel and Gretel," directed by Chester M. Franklin and Sidney Franklin, incorporating several fairy tales and a story within a story. Background on filming with photo of local children is in "On Location in Santa Cruz County" by Ann Young, Santa Cruz Public Libraries, CA, 1998.

Hansel and Gretel is a well-loved German Märchenoper (fairy-tale opera, 1891-93) by Engelbert Humperdinck, with a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette. Its beautiful music includes "Abendsegen" ("Evening Benediction"), a lullaby that is often performed by children's choirs, about fourteen angels guarding the children as they sleep in the woods. The children perform folk songs and dances such as "Suse, liebe Suse" (sung in English as "Goosey Goosey Gander") and "Ein Männlein steht im Walde" ("A Dwarf Stood in the Forest"). In this opera the mother is stern but she does not deliberately abandon the hungry children when she sends them out for strawberries. A Sandman and a Dew Fairy make appearances to sing the children on their way as they wander deeper into the fairy tale woods. A synopsis and video and audio recordings are available from The Metropolitan Opera.

"Babes in the Woods" is an anonymous poem featured on The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, read by Keillor on National Public Radio, May 31, 2008. American Public Media. The nameless babes "were stolen away" and "left in a wood," where they died.

"Babes in the Woods." Background on the regional English ghost story about abandoned children and the "wailing woods" was at (On 6/15/20 this page was available only in the Wayback Machine archive.)

This page created: 7/17/05   |   Links checked 6/15/20   |   Top of Page   |   Last update: 6/15/20


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