Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mini-Lecture: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Today's mini-lecture is about one of the most famous of Aesop's fables - the story of the boy who cried wolf. This Aesop's fable got its start in the Greek storytelling tradition, and you can find it recorded in the ancient Greek prose collections of Aesop's fables, dating back to around two thousand years ago.

If you are looking for the oldest version of the story in Latin, you will not find it in the ancient or medieval collections of Aesop's fables. Instead, you have to wait for Steinhowel's Aesop in the 15th century for the story of "the boy who cried wolf" to become part of the Latin tradition of Aesop's fables (Steinhowel got his version from a Renaissance scholar named Ranutio d'Arezzo, also known by his Latin name, Remicius, who translated some of the fables from the Greek Aesop into Latin). Thanks to Steinhowel, whose edition of Aesop became famous all over Europe, you can find many examples of the story of the boy who cried wolf in English, beginning with Caxton's English Aesop, first published in the year 1484.

The story of the boy who cried wolf teaches its lesson by means of a negative example. That is, the story is about a character who makes a foolish mistake, and who then suffers some kind of punishment as a result. The idea is that we should learn from this negative example to avoid making the same foolish mistake ourselves!

The mistake that the shepherd's boy makes, of course, is that he jokes about the presence of danger - just for fun, he cries, "Wolf!" so that people come running to help him - and the boy thinks this is very funny indeed. He plays this joke on the people over and over again. Then, the wolf actually does show up! The boy cries, "Wolf!" but no one comes running to help him, and the wolf is able to devastate the boy's flock of sheep.

As a result of his foolish mistake, the boy suffers a terrible loss - and, by observing his punishment, we are supposed to learn to avoid making this same mistake ourselves. Don't be like the boy who cried wolf; instead, you should always tell the truth. That is what the fable teaches.

The story teaches this moral as a kind of practical lesson, showing you the actual value of telling the truth: you should always tell the truth, because if you lie, then people will not believe you, even when you are telling the truth! The fable does not simply impose some kind of value judgment absolutely and out of context, commanding you to tell the truth because this is a good thing to do or the right thing to do. Instead, this fable presents a kind of argument or demonstration that is intended to convince you of the value of telling the truth. It is important to always tell the truth because that is the only way you can be sure that people will believe you in a moment of real need. When the wolf shows up - when you are in trouble for any kind of reason - you want to be sure that people will listen to your cries for help, and the only way you can be sure of that is to start telling the truth right now.

The metaphor of "the wolf" is a great way to express all the possible dangers that might turn up unexpectedly in your life. The wolf's arrival is a metaphor for any kind of crisis when you find yourself in trouble and need other people to come help you. Just to take one example, the wolf could be a symbol of an illness: if someone complains all the time about imaginary aches and pains, then the doctor will be less likely to believe that patient when he is suffering from a real illness.

You can also apply the fable on a larger scale, to the world of politics, where some politicians manipulate people's imaginary fears - and then, when there is some real and imminent danger, the people are no longer willing to rise to the occasion, having been duped so many times before. This is the approach which Samuel Croxall takes in his edition of Aesop's fables in 1805, which supplies this political moral to the story - and I quote - "When we are alarmed with imaginary dangers in respect of the public, till the cry grows quite stale and threadbare, how can it be expected we should know when to guard ourselves against real ones?" So, for Croxall, the story of the boy who cried wolf is not just a story about personal morality; it also has a political message. In using the fable for political purposes, Croxall is carrying on a long tradition - dating back to ancient Greece and Rome - of reading Aesop's fables as political commentary.

Here you can see just why Aesop's fables have appealed to so many different audiences for so many different reasons for thousands of years: even a very simple story can express a whole range of meanings, teaching lessons to little children, and also to the leaders of our government! That is because the story is a symbol, a polyvalent symbol, you might say, that is, a symbol with many possible meanings. Yet, at the same time, it is also a story: an exciting little story about a boy, and a wolf.

If you look at the illustration for this fable by Francis Barlow, it conveys all the excitement and anguish of the story's climax, when the wolf has arrived and has ravaged the flock.

You can see the desperate expression on the boy's face as he chases after the wolf. He has his shepherd's crook in his hand, and there is even a loyal sheepdog who is also chasing after the wolf - but the wolf has one of the sheep firmly gripped in his teeth and it doesn't look like there is anything the boy can do to stop him. Meanwhile, off in the distance, you can see the farmers plowing the field with their horses, unconcerned. You can also see the rest of the sheep nibbling on the grass in the meadow, oblivious to what is going on. The boy and his dog are facing the wolf alone, and there is nothing they can do to rescue the poor sheep who is being carried off in the jaws of the beast. Barlow has made that poor sheep look especially pathetic; you can almost hear the plaintive bleats coming from its open mouth as the wolf grips it firmly by the throat.

Think about that for a minute - could that sheep be trying to say something? One unusual feature of this story is that the animals do not talk, as animals usually do in Aesop's fables. The wolf, for example, does not make fun of the boy as he runs away with the sheep. Of course, you could very easily create a version of this story with talking animals: it's easy to imagine that the wolf might say something to the boy, adding insult to injury, as he runs away with the sheep in its mouth.

Or it could be the sheep who pronounces the moral of the story, since the wolf might find it hard to speak since his mouth is already full. In fact, I am sure that the sheep would have something to say about this situation, since the sheep is actually the character who has paid the highest price for the boy's bad behavior. So, take a look at the sheep there in Barlow's illustration, as it struggles in the grip of the wolf: can you hear what the sheep might be saying? Here are the words I hear the sheep saying: "It was just a joke for you, kid, but for me it has turned out to be a matter of life and death!" Or, if the sheep were to speak Latin, she just might say: O nugator, causa ioci tui, sic moritura sum.

Questions? Comments? You can leave comments here at the blog, or visit the Discussion Forum for this fable at the Aesopus Ning.

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