What the Three Little Pigs Should Fear

Three Little Pigs - 1933I 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “What the Three Little Pigs Should Fear

  1. I distinguish between folk tales and the propaganda of a ruling elite. There’s something to be said for the “watch your ass” aspect of folk tales. “The Little Mermaid,” for example, can be seen as a cautionary fable about peasant girls falling for silver-tongued feudal lords, and that’s a damn good lesson for peasant girls to learn. (Maybe Hardy’s Tess didn’t know that story!)

    I could imagine “Three Pigs,” if it comes from a very old tradition, being similar to “Mermaid.” Don’t trust the wolf who promises nice things; he’s going to eat you. AKA, don’t trust get-rich-quick schemes, because the people selling those are going to eat you. (Maybe customers taking out H&R Block “refund anticipation loans” don’t know that story.)

    Of course you’re right about what the fable means to the modern world; more bootstrap-bullshit. (When hurricanes and earthquakes hit Haiti and Cuba, which country’s citizens suffer more? Not the ones with those awful socialist government-regulated building codes.) Most of the Western fables we know today are along these lines (besides Jesus, and he’s really Eastern.) “The Ant And The Grasshopper” is another terrible example.

    We must have had “peasants stand together” fables that have been erased by our culture; I can’t think of any offhand that survive. Lysistrata, maybe, but that hasn’t been a folk fable for thousands of years, you only learn it if you go to the right schools. Same for Androcles & the lion.

    • Yeah, I’m not sure Lysistrata really qualifies because it is really just about sex. But holding the coalition together is a big part of it — especially that one woman who really liked sex. Better would be Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna. In general, Lope’s plays are much more about that kind of thing. Shakespeare is mostly very aristocratic-centered, which is why the British Empire used it all those years as a form of cultural imperialism.

      • I’m a dope who knows nothing about stories not in English. I will definitely have to check de Vega out. I do really like Androcles, though. Once in a blue moon, kindness to others pays off . . .

        • If you click on the link above, there is a short video of scenes from what some group did with Fuente Overjuna — turning it into a kind of musical revue, which looks great. But it isn’t hard to find English translations of the play. Here is the translation that I have read:

          Fuente Ovejuna

          I haven’t read many Spanish Gold Age plays because they aren’t widely translated. But of the comedies I’ve read, they move along briskly. Cervantes’ The Cave of Salamanca is also a lot of fun. I get the impression that the early 17th century Spaniards were a hell of a lot more fun than the British.

          I don’t understand why Lope hasn’t gotten better treatment in English. Shakespeare is so overrated. But even if you like him (and I do), you must be bored with him by now. I think a big issue with Shakespeare — apart from his use as cultural imperialism — is the fact that his best plays are tragedies. Lope pretty much only wrote comedies. Even today, there is a great prejudice against comedies. And Shakespeare never wrote a comedy that worked fully. One of the reasons may be that he was writing for men and boys in drag. Lope got to write for actual women, and so the characters tend to be deeper.

          I knew the story of Androcles, of course — I think everyone is taught it in grammar school. But I just looked at it on Wikipedia and there was more to it than I had remembered. It is a lovely story. I’m also very fond of Aesop’s fables. (I have to like the Greeks more than the Romans!) But I think the modern (or postmodern) version of Androcles would be that a slave boy is walking through the mountains and comes upon a rich boy who, through some idiocy, broke his leg. The slave sets it and the two form a great bond. Years later, the rich boy has become emperor and the slave boy has been captured. He is to be put to death. The emperor sees that his old friend is to be put to death and does nothing about it at all. The moral of the story is that lions have a whole lot more morality and humanity than the rich.

          • Stop adding to my library list, I’ve already got more books than I can possibly read! (Just kidding. Please, keep, adding to all of our library lists — the great thing about the library is you have to turn the book back in for others to read, and you can always check it out again after they’re done with it.)

  2. @JMF – Ha! I happen to know that you (a) read fast and (b) are a reading addict! Anyway, Fuente Ovejuna can probably be read in a half hour. And The Cave of Salamanca is perhaps a 15 minute long play that can be read much faster than that. So I expect them both read by tomorrow with a full reporting here!

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