Friday, May 22, 2015

The moral of The Three Little Pigs

It's taken me over half a century, but I just realized what the lesson of The Three Little Pigs is.

This is something that has bothered me. When I was in high school, one of the English teachers offered a class in children's literature. I'm not quite sure what syllabus should have covered. She got sick a week or two in and we had a substitute for about half of the class. Mostly, the sub just had us read and write the occasional book report. One she said something that has stuck with me for forty years. She told us she didn't like Dr. Seuss; They were just cute stories with no moral. She preferred the classic fairy tales. Unfortunately, I wasn't brave enough to challenge her or engage her on the subject.

The "I should have said" that has lurked in my mind all these years has been to compare Horton Hears a Who to The Three Little Pigs. Ask a kid the moral of Horton Hears a Who and almost all of them will say "A person's a person no matter how small." Ask a kid the moral of The Three Little Pigs and most of them will verbally stumble around for a few moments before coming up with "build brick houses?" And none of my high school friends could come up with a better explanation. We all knew the original version must have had a more coherent lesson, but the versions we were familiar with did not lend themselves to easy interpretation.

When the real teacher returned from the hospital and whatever put her there there were only about three weeks left in quarter. I gave her a little essay written by Lester K. Dent that included the formula that he used to write all the Doc Savage stories. She turned it into a nice lesson about the narrative arc. I also decided that the substitute had not read much Dr. Seuss.

So, what is the lesson of The Three Little Pigs? Again, I have never seen the original version. I can only speculate based on the versions I grew up with which were the product of two stages of bastardization. First, was the Victorian English stage of eliminating the more earth elements and, second, was the American stage of making it cute. After trying to strip those two layers away and imagine what the original looked like, I think the intended lesson was "plan ahead and don't take any shortcuts." Though it was probably more wordy and in High German. The first pig built his house out of straw, a substance that was cheap, easy to work with, and produced almost instant results. He was the first to pay for his actions. The second pig built his house out of sticks, a substance that was a little harder to come by (nobles owned the forests and there were very strict rules about collecting wood), a little harder to work with, and more time consuming to produce results. Destroying the second house was more difficult for the wolf. The third pig used bricks, a material that could not be found in nature. He either had to make them or work to make money to buy them.

The progression is probably also important. It says, life is not black and white. The pigs show a grey middle ground. It's isn't just "this is this is the right way and this the wrong way." The pigs choices are bad, better, and best.

Of course, the whole thing might just have been an infomercial by big brick.

Coming soon: What does Goldilocks teach us about breaking and entering?