By Franklin Burroughs
We began keeping chickens soon after we came to Maine about half a century ago. Over the years, we’ve lost a lot to predators, mostly raccoons. We never see them, only the carnage, but we see foxes in the vicinity pretty often. One trots up, usually late in the afternoon, sniffs briefly around the door and windows, then trots away, like a security guard making the rounds. These snowy mornings, we regularly find tracks from the night before. It’s as if they come by as a matter of ritual rather than with any real hope — about the way some of us go to church or Fenway Park. But their tradition antedates the Red Sox and other known religions by quite a stretch.
Chickens are domesticated jungle fowl, probably from Southeast Asia. Mitochondrial DNA tells that story, back from before the dawn of civilization. Ever since, they’ve gone wherever we’ve gone. And in the Northern Hemisphere, wherever chickens arrived, foxes were waiting. Stories about the likes of Foxy-Loxy and Henny-Penny (aka Chicken Little) go back through varied cultural traditions at least 25 centuries. For most of that time, chickens and owners led beleaguered lives. Farmers, their families, and their livestock withdrew into stockaded villages or towns at night. Hens roosted under eaves, on hay mangers, or inside, with the family.
Imagine the outer darkness of those nights: moors, wastelands, forests, and fens, places no one visited. Try to imagine the inner darkness as well — ignorance, isolation, xenophobia, with hunger a constant reminder that starvation was one failed crop or sick cow away. Witches, monsters, well-poisoners, marauders, ghouls, and trolls colonized the darkness beyond the walls and the psyches of the people inside them. Fear was endemic, one false alarm away from epidemic.
Only children know that kind of fear, so we tell them a version of the Chicken Little story to help free them from it. An acorn bonks you on the head, you think the sky is falling and race around telling everyone. But nothing bad happens. The world is safe — don’t be such a chicken-hearted cluck. Now goodnight, sleep tight, see you in the morning bright. That was how I heard it and how I told it.
The original version was different. Foxy-Loxy throws the acorn, beans Chicken Little, then persuades her the sky is falling and destruction is at hand. Soon the hens are in an uproar. Foxy calms them: You know how smart I am, right? He leads them to an underground shelter, ushers them in. There they find cubs and mother at the table, bibs tucked in, paws clutching forks and knives.
That story says that even in a dangerous world, fearmongering is a greater threat than monsters. Gullibility and the giddy, contagious thrill of scary stories create imaginary enemies and deliver us to real ones, sure as shooting.
Consider Walt Disney’s 1943 cartoon version of Chicken Little. Thwarted by a fence around the poultry yard, Foxy-Loxy consults a psychology text and applies its maxims. First: To influence the masses, aim for the least intelligent. Second: If you tell a lie, don’t tell a little one. Tell a big one. So he persuades Chicken Little the sky is falling. The story gains traction, but is pooh-poohed by Cocky-Locky, leader of the flock. Foxy returns to his text: Undermine the faith of the masses in their leaders. He starts a whispering campaign — Cocky-Locky has totalitarian ambitions. It works. The final maxim, Use flattery to make insignificant people look upon themselves as born leaders, takes us back to Chicken Little. With Foxy-Loxy coaching her from behind the fence, Chicken Little persuades the flock to flee to a cave, escaping destruction. Sure.
All Foxy’s textbook quotations are paraphrased from Mein Kampf.
The final scene shows Foxy, belly bulging, picking his teeth with a wishbone, then sticking it into a little graveyard, other wishbones lined up like tombstones. The narrator protests, Hey, that’s not the way it ends in my book!
Foxy grins and replies, Oh yeah? Don’t believe everything you read, brother.