Posted on November 14, 2011
The Mystery of “Tinker, Tailor…”
In TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Control (John Hurt) informs George Smiley (Gary Oldman) about a possible mole at the heart of the Circus, the code name for the British Intelligence Service. To highlight possible suspects, Control gives them code names -- “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Smiley later tapes the photos of the possible suspects to chess pieces, a gesture that turns out to be more resonant with the film’s title poem than one might imagine. The simple children's nursery rhyme “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor” has a long cultural history that connects it to the game of chess, among other things.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Pawn
A woodcut illustration of a pawn/trade from de Cessolis' tract.
The rhyme, which lists a series of professions, goes all the way back to a 12th century treatise by the Dominican monk Jacopo de Cessolis. An avid chess player, de Cessolis wanted to use his favorite game to illustrate church doctrine and ethical behavior. So his tract Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum (or in English, Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess) did just that. In it, de Cessolis laid out not only the role of the monarchy and the church (king, queen, bishop) but also the role of tradesmen (doctors, notaries, blacksmiths, and artisans), which were represented by the pawns. The inspiration for this list might have actually gone back to the 1261 Treaty of Nyphaeum, in which representatives from Genoa signed their agreement by listing their guilds: “an innkeeper, a spicer, a draper, a dyer, a butcher, a barber, a cutler, and a smith.” In 1474, William Caxton, often considered the father of English printing, brought this list into the English language when he translated de Cessolis’ work under the name The Game and Playe of Chess. Here the list became “Labourer, Smith, Clerk, Merchant, Physician, Taverner, Guard and Ribald."
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Singer
When these job titles reappeared in a ballad sung in William Congreve’s 1695 comedy “Love for Love,” the list had moved from morality and chess to less high-minded suggestions. Performed with music by composer John Eccles, the song became a popular ditty. Here the professions, rather than being solid trade guilds, each had a taint of impropriety. Indeed the tinker, who was in essence a roving merchant, had become stock popular figure, not unlike our modern traveling salesman.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wife
By the 18th century, the list had grown into a nursery rhyme, with different variations emphasizing various uses. Often, it was used as a simple counting song, much like "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe." A later version served as a call-and-response game, often chanted by little girls as a way of imagining their matrimonial futures. One girl would call out the question, and the others would count out the responses.
Q: When shall I marry?
Q: What will my husband be?
Q: What will I be?
Q: What shall I wear?
Q: How shall I get it?
Q: How shall I get to church?
Q: Where shall I live?
AA Milne Picks up the Rhyme
A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, played with the rhyme in one his famous books of children’s verse, Now We Are Six. Illustrated by E. H. Shepard, Milne’s poem “Cherry Stones” has fun with the famous nursery rhyme, and its infinite set of questions. The title itself refers to the use of the rhyme as a counting song with cherry stones being one of the most common things counted out.
Modern Tinkers and Tailors
In the 20th century, before and after the publication of John le Carré’s novel, the term has enjoyed strong popular currency. It has been picked up in mystery novels, like Ellery Queen's Double, Double and Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Taylors, as well as more modernist works like Virginia Woolf’s Between The Acts and Janet Frame’s short story “Keel and Kool.” More recently it graced the cover of a comic book featuring X-Men’s Mystique, bearing the title, “Tinker, Tailor, Mutant, Spy.” In addition, a number of British bands, like The Yardbirds, Jethro Tull, Supertramp and Queen, have used the rhyme, or variations of it, in their lyrics.
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