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Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such craft
And the dish ran away with the spoon!

 

Don’t wrack your brains trying to figure out what kind of creep would advocate diddling the cat; this psycho also wants us to diddle the fiddle.  Compelling though it is to imagine the subject of this poem as some kind of genital musical genius, we must consider that the popular usage of “diddle” involving genital stimulation has only existed since the 1950’s.  Given that various sources give this poem a life-span of nearly a thousand years, our investigation is better served when we apply the earliest definition of diddle: “To cheat, or swindle.”

Our narrator begins with a greeting that sounds playful and affectionate – “Hey Diddle Diddle!”  The nickname suggests a shared criminal history, fondly remembered between subject and speaker.  The second line is similar in tone: a sentence fragment, evidently referencing an event of such singular significance to both as to require no elaboration.  There was only one cat and fiddle worth remembering.

The remaining lines build on this flashback – a simple sentence follows the fragment, followed by a compound alluding to previous lines.  Typical of memory-sharing between old friends, an initial shorthand reference spontaneously blossoms into a more colorful accounting.  We have clues enough, by the end, to reconstruct their joint narrative.

The scene they set is agrarian.  A fiddle, a cow, a picturesque moon.  Mention of a cat and dog suggest a small-scale, family farm.  Curiously, the dining utensils mentioned are sufficient for only one person.  The farmer is certainly single, and seems to be living in dire isolation; there is no mention of dining instruments set aside for guests, or even hired help.  He doesn’t seem unfriendly, however; the two swindlers have a cozy knowledge of the inside of his home, including his musical preference and pets’ behavior.

What could they possibly swindle from a lone farmer with barely a dish to his name?  It had to be something good; isolated as that farm seems to have been, the cheats would have to make a special excursion, on purpose, to visit.  Meaning, also, they would have heard about the place by reputation.

Now consider every peculiar line in light of the criminals’ trickery; they put on a show of intoxicating splendor for that one lonely guy.  They pulled out all stops by the sound of it – they made the dog laugh, the cat play the fiddle, and the cow jump over the moon.  The farmer was sure to be mesmerized.  It was the perfect cover.

And what did they steal?

What line ends the poem for us?  Which of the farmer’s belongings finally ran away?  Not the fiddle, not the cow, nothing like money or jewels.  Just a dish and a freaking spoon.

If you think that’s a bizarre haul for a couple of world-class con artists, you’re probably not alone.  The farmer would have kept a closer eye if he thought those things were valuable.  Instead he let the swindlers in, enjoyed the magic show, and watched his dinnerware run off, without a clue that he was being fleeced.  By the sound of it, no one ever tried to rob him before.

How is it that he could have been famous to a pair of talented illusionists, and yet have no inkling of his own fame?  By what rules of universal order could an ordinary plate and spoon be worth so much trouble?  How do you run a farm – even a very small one – without any help at all?  And how in every hell do you let someone convince you that your cow just jumped over the moon?

I’ll tell you how.  By being a giant Cyclops.

Going back to Odysseus, there’s a long history of Cylops living alone and quietly tending their livestock, until such a time as human swindlers come around to harass them.  It stands to reason that anything giant is worth a lot.  Imagine a silver spoon big enough to hide a crook as she’s running away.  Or a plate of good porcelain just a little bigger.

Humans, of course, would have good reason for reporting to each other the whereabouts of giant men, regardless of how rich or poor they were.  And a giant who was poor by his own standards could certainly be thought worth robbing by human standards – providing the humans are not terribly risk-averse.  Consider the precedent set by Jack and his giant beanstalk.

Our crooks are much more cunning than Jack.  Knowing how giants can be about their musical instruments, they didn’t try to take his fiddle.  Taking full advantage of the Cyclops’ stilted depth perception, our magicians rigged up a few tricks to make it look as if the cow were jumping higher than the moon while his cat was playing music, and the laughing sound was coming from the dog.

Their last trick was to grab the utensils and run away.  The good-natured giant was probably having so much fun at that point he just let the pests have what they came for.  It probably wasn’t real silver, anyway.  So it is that nobody overhearing the tricksters’ fond memories know what it is they’re talking about.  Smarter than Jack, less flashy than Jack, they never became as famous as Jack.

And our narrator, at least, seems to regret it.  Laughing so hard she can only reminisce in sentence fragments, really hammering on the camaraderie, we can read between the lines that she’s gathering steam to propose another heist.  Especially as a slightly later definition of “diddle” is to “waste time” – she’s teasing a schemester who’s also getting lazy.

Given the fact that there is no second stanza, it’s fair to assume the once-swindled giant was never swindled again.  Those thieves who nearly killed magic for the lonely one-eyed farmer tried again, with a giant less gentle, and were promptly chomped in half.

Case regretfully closed.