The Cow Jumped Over The Moon

In a strange way, story elements of Twin Peaks can be either vitally important to the ongoing story or oddly random, with no readily apparent connection to the plot at all. Often we, as fans, analyze all elements equally, diving into theories that end up going nowhere (as is possibly the case with Dr. Jacoby’s golden shit shovels) with the same intense fervor that we apply to theories that eventually become more meaningful in the end. With The Return, it is hard to know where the line can be drawn, as we are less than 1/3 of the way through the entire story as of press time. But, as with anything, some story arcs are rising to the top, and one of those things seems to be the cryptic line delivered by Mr. C during his prison phone call at the end of Part 5. This could be a throwaway line—“The cow jumped over the moon”—but it could signify something deeper and more mystical, related to themes of astrology and Western folk traditions, which are both things that have come up throughout the course of previous seasons. It is my hope to dive into this potential theory here from within a folklore framework.

The poem that Mr. C recites is an old English nursery rhyme called “Hey Diddle Diddle”. Most people are familiar with it:

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed,
To see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

This version was recorded in the 1765 book Mother Goose’s Melodies but parts of it have been referenced as far back as sixteenth century in printed works in some form or another, which likely means that it existed for some time before that in oral culture. As with most nursery rhymes, it seems to be a fairly straightforward nonsense verse for children comprised of personified household items and animals. The imagery is fun and silly and perfect for the active imaginations of little children. But as with so much in the history of literature, these elements can be read metaphorically.

From a scholarly standpoint, folk songs (and nursery rhymes in particular) are interesting and challenging. They are often passed down in oral traditions and have no definite origin or meaning (unlike published novels, books of poetry, or dramatic works), which forces us to speculate and make educated guesses about the song or poem’s origins and meanings. They are sometimes referenced as pieces of commentary on events of the day; such is the case with the way “Ring Around the Rosie”/”Ring a Ring of Rosies” is now commonly assumed to be about the plague. Nursery rhymes have also long been presumed to be a form of political commentary, a sneaky way for the rabble to make fun of their betters using coded words and phrases disguised as innocuous children’s verse. Such is the case with “Hey Diddle Diddle”. Various theories abound about the meaning behind the verses, and there is a surprising amount of debate about this subject.

The meaning of “Hey Diddle Diddle” that I was taught as “fact” by one Folklore professor many years ago was that this was a comment on the scandals of the Elizabethan court. In this interpretation, “Hey Diddle Diddle” becomes a metaphor for romantic intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I involving the Queen (the cat) and her love of dancing (the fiddle) with Robert Dudley (the little dog), while Edward Earl of Hertford and Lady Katherine Grey (the dish and the spoon, so named for the jobs at court as taster of royal meals and bringer of royal flatware, respectively), fell in love and eloped.

Another potential meaning involves the scandalous romance between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester, and the mysterious death of Dudley’s wife, which was rumoured to have been murder most foul planned by Dudley so that he could marry Elizabeth instead. That plan backfired and Dudley lost considerable favour in the court.

There is also an interpretation based in Ancient Greek or Egyptian mythology and a rather convoluted theory about Richard III and his seizure of power.

An argument could be made for any or all of these interpretations as being the “right” one, in much the same way that the argument could be made that this was simply a nonsense rhyme Mr. C recites to hearken back to the childlike state of Dougie-Cooper as he plods his way through the preschool years of his reawakening. And that’s a theory I particularly like because it doesn’t do my head in same the way some of the other convoluted theories that I tend to hitch my wagon to usually do. But there is one fascinating interpretation based in astrology and astronomy that holds more water when you look at it more deeply, and which matches up very nicely with the story we find ourselves in within The Return. This is an interpretation that we briefly touched on in our Part 5 episode recap of The Return over on our podcast but here are the broader details.

Another theory about nursery rhymes is that they were oral mnemonic devices employed by pre-literate cultures to help them with important tasks: in this case, the timing of the most important months of the year. The characters we meet in “Hey Diddle Diddle” match up with several known constellations that appear in the northern hemisphere during the late winter/early spring months of the year: Leo (the cat), Lyra (the fiddle), Taurus (the cow), Canis Minor (the little dog), Crater (the dish) and Ursa Major (the spoon). It goes without saying that people all over the world have cast their eyes heavenward for millennia for everything from fortune telling to myth building; obviously, they used the stars for practical purposes as well. These six constellations are in close proximity in the sky during the early spring months could very likely have been an indication to farmers that planting season would begin soon.

The phrase “Hey Diddle Diddle” itself seems to be an evolution of the phrase “Hey nonny nonny” which was a popular phrase going back before Shakespeare’s time; in all likelihood the phrase existed in the popular vernacular for a long time before this, only bubbling up into printed works after it had already been established. We know the term “nonny” likely meant “fool”, and in many cases a nonsense phrase like “Hey nonny nonny” or “Hey nonny-no”—which would later become “Hey diddle diddle”—would have been delivered in the spirit of foolish joy, such as what one might feel when the cruel winter has abated and spring is in the air. With reference to Shakespeare, he wrote the phrase into at least two of his plays (As You Like It [V.iii.15-38] and Much Ado About Nothing [II,iii,60-72]), and both times it is meant to refer to rites of spring time, such a courtship. So the fact that this rhyme begins with “Hey Diddle Diddle” might be another big clue that the poem itself is talking about something taking place in the spring, since the association between these lines and the spring season seems properly ingrained.

What purpose would this particular springtime astrological interpretation of an old English nursery rhyme serve for a Lodge denizen like Mr. C stuck in a modern South Dakota prison? We know from his past conversations that he is looking for coordinates, a place in space where something is supposed to happen. It’s been theorized that Mr. C is in the same prison as Ray, the man from whom he was to receive the coordinates from. Could he have gotten the information he wants? Could “the cow jumped over the moon” be an indication of the time when that something is going to happen? And are we talking about a period in time when the moon is in Taurus (literally, when the cow is jumping over the moon)? 

The numerous references to numbers comes to mind as well at this juncture. Dougie Jones’s car features a registration sticker with the number 03 on it. What many (myself included) assumed to be the year of expiration is actually the month of expiration. Is March, the third month of the year, going to play a role here? March is the month when farming begins; it is also fully within the time frame when these constellations would be in close proximity to one another. The month of March is itself an interesting one as well. It is named after Mars, the Roman god of war, whose symbol is commonly used to represent the male gender and is seen as aggressive and wild. In fact, Mars may have originally emerged as a god of the wild—and what do we know about the wild “out there” in Twin Peaks? Mars is virile and strong, but he is also an agricultural guardian, a figure who uses his energies to produce crops and ward off natural disasters. Are we about to see a war break out between good and evil? Is it important to note that almost the entirety of the original run of Twin Peaks takes place in the month of March as well?

But maybe that’s all a tremendous stretch…

There is considerable clout lent to this theory when one considers that we’ve seen constellations and astrological symbols weaving their way through Twin Peaks in the past—the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that indicated the time when the doors to the Lodge were opening. So it is not a tremendous stretch to assume that Mr. C is giving an approximate date (or a window in time) during early spring, when the moon is in Taurus or when these constellations are aligned in the sky, for some cosmic or celestial or Lodge-like event to occur. Since no time frame, no months, no dates have been given at all thus far in Twin Peaks: The Return, I would not be at all surprised to learn that some of the events will be taking place in the spring, generally, or within the month of March, specifically.

What are your theories?

Lindsay Stamhuis

Written by Lindsay Stamhuis

Lindsay Stamhuis is a writer and English teacher who also moonlights as 25YL Site's Executive Editor and Style Manager. In addition to editing and writing about TV and Film, she is the co-host of The Bicks Pod, a podcast currently deep-diving into the collected works of William Shakespeare. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner Aidan, their three cats, and a potted pothos that refuses to grow more than one vine.

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