INFORMANT: The informant is my fifteen-year-old sister, who lives in Washington, D.C. We both attended a french-language school until 2014, and this is one of the songs we used to sing as children.
CONTEXT: The informant heard this rhyme from one of her friends in the fourth grade when they started covering Napoleon in their class curriculum. According to her, this is a common rhyme taught to kids by other kids.
Original: “Napoléon est mort à Sainte-Hélène/Son fils Léon lui a crevé l’bidon/On l’a retrouvé assis sur une baleine/En train d’sucer des arêtes de poisson”
Translation: “Napoleon died at Sainte-Helene/His son Leon gutted his belly [informal]/They found him sitting on a whale/Sucking on fish bones”
I think this rhyme is a really interesting example of children’s lore. In general, kids seem to have the instinct to rebel against authority, and this often takes the form of mocking authority figures. In French classrooms, Napoleon is presented to children as somewhat of a legendary figure, so it would make sense that kids would create rhymes about Napoleon, given how venerated he is in French history. As someone who is seen as kind of a silly historical figure outside of France, Napoleon is also a fairly easy target for mockery (he inspired the term “Napoleon Complex,” used to describe people who try to compensate for their short height with overconfidence and ego). I think it also is interesting to observe the difference between what kids’ games and rhymes they learn from adults and what they teach each other; nursery rhymes and tales told and taught to children by adults tend to be more tame, while the things children pass down to other children usually to contain counter-hegemonic themes and seem to be more risqué or vulgar. This is somewhat reflected in the grammar of the rhyme as well. Grammar is an extremely important part of the French curriculum, and is constantly emphasized throughout both primary and secondary school. The use of contractions in the rhyme is another way that it is rebellious.
For another version of this rhyme, see “Napoleon” from Momes.net (http://www.momes.net/Comptines/Comptines-pour-rire/Napoleon)
The informant is my 19-year-old friend from my French high school. Though she currently lives in New York, she grew up in Germany, and her family is Moroccan. I asked her what games, songs, or rhymes she remembered from growing up, and she volunteered this hand game that is commonly played in French elementary schools. My friend did not know the name of this game, nor does she remember being taught it or teaching it to anyone, but she played it with her friends and most of the kids she grew up with also knew it.
“Okay, you start by saying, “Si tu perds t’auras un gage,” which means “if you lose, you’ll have a dare,” and then you start the game. Although, to be honest, I don’t think I ever actually did a dare after playing. So … [demonstrating with hand gestures] you clap your hands one time, then you clap once with the other person … diagonally, and then you clap your hands again. Then the same on the other side [demonstrating], then your hands again, then both of your hands with the other person’s hands. And you just do it faster and faster until someone messes up.”
Though my friend and I both went to french-language schools growing up, she grew up in Germany, and I lived in New York, which made it interesting to me that we both had played this game as children. This was another place I observed Dundes’s stipulation that folklore must have multiplicity. I also thought it was interesting that the game never really had a name; an interesting aspect of folklore is that things can be spread, reproduced, and taught to other people without having a specific name for what that thing is. I also thought that might have to do with the fact that it one of the things children teach each other, which might be it is so simple (no name, very easy to learn). Another thing I found interesting was that neither she nor I ever actually had to perform a dare after losing the game, because the fact that the song starts off with that line suggests that there was a time where that was a legitimate part of the game, and that over time it was eventually lost. I thought it was an interesting example of the fact that folklore is never static, because the game is so simple and has so few parts, and yet it has still changed over time.