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Friday, January 1, 2021

Ransome - Who Lived in the Skull? - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

As we enter 2021, I resolved to respond to a reaction to last year's posting of a story from Arthur Ransome's book Old Peter's Russian Tales.  Thanks, Jeannie!  Comments are moderated here, but also my email's posted here and have a page on Facebook where both this site and personal notes appear.  In the past week I read the title of a story in Ransome's book and that it was humorous.  Hmmm.  Checked the book and didn't see it.  Thought a Bear was in the title.  Looked at a short story there and believe I found it!  My book is a 1971 edition of the 1916 book. I also love his note to the 1938 edition, saying:

Fashions change in stories of adventure, but fairy stories (especially those in which there are no fairies or hardly any) live for ever, with a life of their own which depends very little on the mere editors (like me) who pass them on.

Because the illustrations in my edition are under copyright, I went to the 100% Public Domain edition on and discovered it includes illustrations, some in color, by Dmitri Mitrokin.  What it doesn't include is any difference in today's title except my edition's illustration.  The title remains the same!  I guess I'll just have to chalk it up to my memory.  That is, after all, a part of the folk process as stories travel from one storyteller to another.  (After the story I will give a modern example of the story which actually is quite sensible.)  My copy of Ransome's story opens with a horse skull illustration having a mouse atop it.  Can't give that, but will open with a photograph of a real horse skull.

Museum of Veterinary Anatomy FMVZ USP / name of the photographer when stated, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Decorative Image

Once upon a time a horse's skull lay on the open plain. It had been picked clean by the ants, and shone white in the sunlight.

Little Burrowing Mouse came along, twirling his whiskers and looking at the world. He saw the white skull, and thought it was as good as a palace. He stood up in front of it and called out,—

"Little house, little house! Who lives in the little house?"

No one answered, for there was no one inside.

"I will live there myself," says little Burrowing Mouse, and in he went, and set up house in the horse's skull.

Croaking Frog came along, a jump, three long strides, and a jump again.

"Little house, little house! Who lives in the little house?"

"I am Burrowing Mouse; who are you?"

"I am Croaking Frog."

"Come in and make yourself at home."

So the frog went in, and they began to live, the two of them together.

Hare Hide-in-the-Hill came running by.

"Little house, little house! Who lives in the little house?"

"Burrowing Mouse and Croaking Frog. Who are you?"

"I am Hare Hide-in-the-Hill."

"Come along in."

So the hare put his ears down and went in, and they began to live, the three of them together.

Then the fox came running by.

"Little house, little house! Who lives in the little house?"

"Burrowing Mouse and Croaking Frog and Hare Hide-in-the-Hill. Who are you?"

"I am Fox Run-about-Everywhere."

"Come along in; we've room for you."

So the fox went in, and they began to live, the four of them together.

Then the wolf came prowling by, and saw the skull.

"Little house, little house! Who lives in the little house?"

"Burrowing Mouse, and Croaking Frog, and Hare Hide-in-the-Hill, and Fox Run-about-Everywhere. Who are you?"

"I am Wolf Leap-out-of-the-Bushes."

"Come in then."

So the wolf went in, and they began to live, the five of them together.

And then there came along the Bear. He was very slow and very heavy.

"Little house, little house! Who lives in the little house?"

"Burrowing Mouse, and Croaking Frog, and Hare Hide-in-the-Hill, and Fox Run-about-Everywhere, and Wolf Leap-out-of-the-Bushes. Who are you?"

"I am Bear Squash-the-Lot."

And the Bear sat down on the horse's skull, and squashed the whole lot of them.

The way to tell that story is to make one hand the skull, and the fingers and thumb of the other hand the animals that go in one by one. At least that was the way old Peter told it; and when it came to the end, and the Bear came along, why, the Bear was old Peter himself, who squashed both little hands, and Vanya or Maroosia, whichever it was, all together in one big hug.


I love Ransome's note about the telling of the story!  If you are like me and know children's literature, I'm sure you right away recognized this story has appeared as a picture book.

It was both by Alvin Tresselt, with illustrations by Yaroslava, in 1964 and twenty-five years later by artist, Jan Brett in 1989, with the same title of The Mitten.  A mitten is admittedly a more believable home for several animals. YouTube also has various videos of each book if you choose to search for it there.

Whether you use your hands, a mitten, a book, or video, may you enjoy a big hug from all who have loved and told this story.










This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown -
         - Richard Martin -
         - Spirit of Trees -
         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - 
           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!

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