Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).
I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.
Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?
STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE
This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes.
Chicken Little is all of the birds. The weakness of the birds is that they jump to conclusions, easily become hysterical and don’t question facts.
This is the sort of fable which leads to the mistaken idea that birds are ‘bird brained’, whereas in fact birds have more recently been shown to be far more intelligent than humans have traditionally given them credit for. (Keep an eye out for documentaries about the kea, an especially intelligent New Zealand parrot.)
The birds want to tell the King the sky is falling, assuming he’ll do something about it. (Another message here: Our politicians and leaders are basically gods and can be relied upon to fix natural disasters.)
The first opponent is nature. But a more ‘human’ opponent soon comes along — the hungry fox.
The birds have no counter plan at this point, which is their exact downfall. The fox concocts a plan on the spot, or has perhaps been trailing them, working out what the real deal is, Rosie’s Walk style. He lies to the birds that he knows where the king is, and leads them back to his den for a family dinner.
Since this fable really only occurs in picture books for young readers I have never seen the actual blood fest illustrated on the page. If you’ve ever seen (or heard) a fox in a chicken coop, it’s really quite disturbing. In my Ladybird easy reader version we see a den of satisfied foxes grinning with complicity at ‘the camera’.
The characters have no revelation but the reader should, in the form of a moral:
- Don’t jump to conclusions
- Don’t believe everything you hear
- Question facts
The birds are dead and the foxes are satiated.
But sometimes there is a happier ending. One of the birds gets away and manages to alert the King. The birds are saved. (The foxes go hungry.)
The Disney film went with a happy ending. Wherever there is a happy ending to this category of folk tale, the moral morphs into ‘be brave’, with not much said about the earlier, ahem, misunderstanding.
THE ENDING AND THE MORAL OF CHICKEN LITTLE
Sticking with the tragic ending for a minute, in these stories Chicken Little — as an archetype — is the flipside of Greek goddess Cassandra.
Cassandra was a princess of Troy. For whatever reason, could see into the future. Problem is, no one believed her. This weighed heavily on her because she knew that Troy was going to be destroyed by Greeks during the Trojan War. She saw the big wooden horse and knew that bringing it inside the gates would be the end of them. The phrase “Beware of Danaos (Greeks) bearing gifts” is attributed to Cassandra. In the end, she learns to shut her mouth. Or rather, she’s abducted as a concubine then murdered. Cassandra’s is not a happy tale.
Chicken Little does not have any psychic gifts, nor intellectual ones, nor life experience. He runs around telling all his birdy friends the sky is falling when it actually isn’t.
The tragic version of Chicken Little discourages its audience from reporting what they believe to be true. What happens when we teach little kids to keep quiet? I propose that Chicken Little’s main issue is not that he told everyone the sky is falling; it’s that no one told him he was wrong.
At the other end of the spectrum, we end up with Cassandras, who are sometimes right about the doom and gloom they see, but know from having read Chicken Little as a wee one to shut the hell up about it or risk end up looking like a fool (at best).
And if the world is run by Cassandras, we end up with a world run like this:
Before Bernie Madoff got caught, before Hurricane Katrina and Fukushima devastated cities, and before ISIS formed, there was an expert for each one of those events warning people in power that it would happen. What did those powerful people do? Absolutely nothing. These experts are called ‘Cassandras’ in hindsight, because as global security expert Richard A. Clarke explains in a previous Big Think video: “Cassandra in Greek mythology was a woman cursed by the gods. The curse was that she could accurately see the future. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize the second part of the curse, which was no one would ever believe her. And because she could see the future and no one was paying attention to her, she went mad.” So how can we graduate from sheepishly identifying Cassandras in hindsight, to recognizing and acting on their real predictions before the impending chaos hits? It’s tough because everyone and their uncle is trying to get in on the prediction game. Who can you trust?
It’s called the “Cassandra Predicament” or the “Cassandra Dilemma”. In literary terms, it’s a metaphor. The Cassandra metaphor is applied by some psychologists to individuals who experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions, and who are disbelieved when they attempt to share the cause of their suffering with others, in which case it’s “Cassandra Syndrome”.
Cassandra Metaphor As Horror Trope
Emily Asher-Perrin describes the problem with this trope at Tor.com:
Some of [the lessons of horror stories] are cautionary, which explains all the teenaged kids making bad spring break choices. But some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.
I hate this trope more than anything, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Or perhaps because it asks the most basic question of all, one that our society struggles to answer even to this day:
Why didn’t you believe her?
She told you she heard something, or saw it out of the corner of her eye. She told you she was scared, that she didn’t want to go into that boarded up house or creaky old cabin, that she didn’t want to keep making out, that she didn’t like this corner of the woods. She told you she was scared and you laughed at her. She told you she had a bad feeling and you thought it was adorable. She whined at you and she tugged at your sleeve and sometimes she even begged you to leave it, to just go home deal with it all later. You thought that made her a wet blanket, or worse, a tease. As though that somehow mattered more than the sanctity of her life. Or yours.
But she was right. And you were wrong. And if you had just listened….
Every woman knows what this feels like, they know what it means. They know how hard the world works not to believe them. And this particular narrative device always feels like a pointed jab, a great big spotlight on that precise problem.
What does this hackneyed, sexist horror trope have to do with Chicken Little?
These fables each exist at the extreme end of a continuum. Let’s call it the Continuum of Disbelief. While Chicken Little sees danger where there is none, and everyone believes him without questioning, Sarah Connor sees horror within the storyworld of The Terminator, is correct, and no one believes her. She ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
They do have something in common: The stars of the story meet a sorry end, or in ‘happy’ versions they win a pyrrhic victory.
But if we, as individuals, don’t voice our concerns, the Cassandras keep quiet. There is only one useful takeaway moral in Chicken Little fables, and it is not ‘Keep quiet when the world alarms you’. It is ‘Question what you see, feel and hear’.