Thursday, August 14, 2008

Enfeebled Fables

Once upon a time a hare saw a tortoise walking slowly along and began to laugh and mock him. The tortoise challenged the hare to a race and the hare, thinking himself the fastest animal around, accepted. They agreed on a route and started off the race. The hare shot ahead and ran briskly for some time. Then seeing that he was far ahead of the tortoise, he thought he'd sit under a tree for some time and relax before continuing the race.

He sat under the tree and soon fell asleep. The tortoise, plodding on, overtook him and closed in on the end of the race. The hare woke up and realized that he had been passed. He dashed off as fast as he could towards the finish line only to reach his goal together with the tortoise. Unsure of who had won, the hare looked up at the officials' table.

Both competitors were promptly presented with identical, generic, appreciation medals. The head race official then announced "Today there are no losers. Everyone is a winner and we were able to raise money for a great cause."

What is wrong with the above story? Let me tell you: it has no teeth! Fables, parables, and fairy tales are supposed to teach moral lessons about life. However, when you change the story around to make it more pleasant or to give it a happy ending, you often remove the part that contained the vital lesson. What are you left with then? Can we say that the above story even has a moral anymore? I would say no. The appropriate response to the above story is to ask "So what's the point?" The Moral of the original fable has been stolen.

Speaking of the Moral of the original fable, I need to briefly digress so that I may rant a bit on a related topic. What is the Moral of the original fable? You've probably been taught, just like every-frickin-body else, that it's "Slow and steady wins the race."

That may be the stated Moral of the story, but it's certainly NOT the actual Moral! That's not what the original fable taught us. Let's be clear here, slow and steady does not win the race. Fast and steady wins the race. Smart and steady wins the race. (Or, in bicycle racing, positioning oneself well for the final sprint wins the race.) The tortoise didn't win by racing slow and steady; he won because the hare screwed up! If the hare races a smart race, he wins EVERY time!

The stated Moral for the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare is simply wrong. The actual Moral of the story is "Hubris loses the race." I'm amazed that more people don't see that.

Now that I've got that out of the way, it's time to return to our regularly scheduled rant. You see, what I just did above to the Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare (to make my point) has actually been done (and successfully) to other famous stories. What you end up with is a pointless, feel-good story that bears an eerie resemblance to a story that actually had a message. I consider this a sin because it's a dumbing down of the narrative--albeit with good intentions--leading to less honed thinking skills for our children. Even if you disagree with the Moral of a particular story, dumbing it down is not the answer. You could, for example, rewrite the story so that the Moral reflects more contemporary values. But don't eviscerate it! You can also just read the story as is then discuss with the child what they think about the Moral (kids can be pretty smart, you know). But when the Moral is pretty much removed from the story, or watered down to the point of being functionally dead, I must step up and object.

My next example is The Tale of The Three Little Pigs. I'm assuming all of you know the more familiar, Disney-fied version of the story. Below is a six minute video of me reading the original version. See if you can spot the differences (besides my creative use of food props) between it and the diluted version.

If you just watched the video, then surely you noticed the the first two little piggies got eaten by the big bad wolf. (This story also made it clear that the third little pig didn't only plan better than the other two, but he wasn't lazy or gluttonous like them either.) Some of you may think that that's a bit rough for kids, but the Moral here is lucidly explicit--unlike the familiar version. What is the Moral of the tale's modern incarnation? "Make sure you work hard and plan well, but if you don't, don't worry because everything will work out in the end."?? Huh???

It's a sin I tell you! A sin!!

I might not be so bothered by a pointless children's story if it wasn't for the fact that it has supplanted its ancestor that actually had a real message (for what it's worth).

Anyway, I'll leave you on an upbeat note (that was meant to be taken musically, not figuratively). I've always liked The Devil Went Down To Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band. It's a catchy, danceable song that's hard not to like. The lyrics, however, are a complete corruption of the FAUST legend. See if you can figure out how (IMO) they disemboweled that classic storyline of its Moral. (hint: Accepting the golden gift is the DEFINITION of "selling out".)