I was thinking back on the story, Three Little Pigs. Apparently, in the original story — dating to the 1840s — the wolf eats both the pigs in the substandard houses only to be boiled to death by the brick house building pig. But that isn’t the story that I heard growing up. For people of my generation, the story was probably based upon the 1933 Silly Symphony “Three Little Pigs.” In this telling, the pigs escape and eventually make it to the brick house. And the wolf only gets scalded and runs away.
Here is the whole cartoon:
In 1942, Merrie Melodies did a parody of it, “Pigs in a Polka.” And we got roughly the same thing:
The Merrie Melodies does not go in for the over moralizing of the Silly Symphony version. But clearly, Three Little Pigs is a fable and so is supposed to teach some moral lesson. And that lesson is that one should work hard else she will end up eaten by a wolf. It’s the kind of folk wisdom that Americans have learned a good deal too well. Americans work far too much, and it is a problem.
But I’m struck by the modern incarnation of the tale. Because it shows the power of social bonds. If the three pigs had been John Galt types who didn’t have any connections to other people, two of the pigs would be dead, as they were in the original telling of the story. In fact, even if the two shortsighted little pigs had gotten away, it isn’t clear that the John Galt pig in his brick house would have taken pity on the them.
The original story actually teaches at least one moral that is absolutely false: that we are alone in the world. Despite the ridiculous conservative idea of the rugged individualist, humans would have gone extinct long ago if they did not work in collectives. And this is why in natural economies — as opposed to the ones where power is wielded to create excessive inequality — one doesn’t see straw, stick, and brick houses right next together. But I remember very clearly taking the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and seeing people living in houses built of rotting wood and tarp within a mile of people living in skyscraper penthouses of a quality un-excelled in the world. So the modern world has allowed us to create a kind of Three Little Pig scenario.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the fable is the idea that the houses people choose to live in are based upon how hard they are willing to work. In the original Silly Symphony telling, the first pig chooses a straw house so he’ll have more time to play his flute. The second pig chooses a stick house so he’ll have more time to play his fiddle. But given that houses are a one time investment and the third pig has plenty of time to play his piano when his brick house is built, the story doesn’t speak to anyone’s moral character. It is just that the first two pigs are silly for the purpose of the plot.
Similarly, in an earthquake, the straw and stick houses are far superior to the brick one. So the implication is that what matters is not the result of the house but the amount of work that it takes. As I noted earlier, this is the American mentality. There is no time, as there is in the fable, for the pigs to finish their work and play their instruments. In this regard, the third pig is the least believable because he would never finish his house; he would just make it bigger and stronger and never have time to play that piano.
In the Silly Symphony version of the tale, the first two pigs never do learn their lesson. They take no part in getting rid of the wolf and are still hiding under the bed when the third pig knocks on the piano making them think the wolf is back. In the Merrie Melodies version, there is more of an equal outcome for the pigs — but still the first two pigs are silly. But in both cases, the silly pigs are safe because of the the care of the wiser pig. That is ultimately what we ought to learn from the story: we have to take care of each other. All the other lessons are either untrue (that we are alone) or obvious (that hard work has rewards).
Ultimately, we needn’t be afraid of the big bad wolf. We need to be afraid of being alone. And we live in a society that fetishizes the idea that aloneness is the natural state. Working alone, we can’t do much. Working together, we went to the moon.