Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 4.29.10

Fowl On a Mission
Is Chicken Licken a fable for our time?
By Anita Sullivan

My husband and I were trading childhood memories about the Chicken Little story where the foolish little fowl mistakes an acorn (or something) falling from a tree as a piece of the sky and rushes off to warn the king by shouting, “The sky is falling!”

My husband remembered a slightly different version of the tale than I did. For him, it was not Chicken Little, but Chicken Licken, and there was no king involved. We looked it up online.

Early versions of the story tell about bunch of birds on their way to warn the king that the sky is falling. The birds believe this because one day, “Whack! An acorn fell from a tree onto Chicken Licken’s head,” and he started a Bird Movement, a bunch of ducks and turkeys on their way to warn the king. But the birds weren’t in a panic; they were very orderly as they went along together. They thought they were doing the right thing. They were not acting on fear alone, on self-preservation; they had some community spirit.

However, they did fail to check the evidence. The story seems to be a fable about how fragile the order that binds together the world is, and it is up to each person to pay close attention to what’s really going on, or else we each will step into a danger zone, of which there are many. In this version of the story, the birds end up being eaten, every one, by the fox and his family, and so they fail in their quest. This is a story about failure.

So, how were people 100 years ago (or more) supposed to receive this silly and entertaining little fable that seems to reinforce the fact that the smart and the powerful will always overcome the foolish and the weak, and they deserve it? The emphasis of this original story seems to be permission to feel glee in seeing “these foolish birds” get eaten by the fox. The story allows a kind of balance between identifying with the birds or identifying with the fox. If you’re feeling powerful, it can be a “stomp on the weak” story. If you’re feeling weak, it can be a “you can’t win” story. By modern standards this hardly qualifies as a moral tale; rather it’s kind of a dead end either way and thus, not very interesting. 

In modern times we see it as an example of how everybody should check the evidence carefully before issuing a general panic call because everybody can be hurt, rather than just the birds. This was not in the original story. The fox wasn’t hurt, nor was anybody else (except the weak and foolish birds).

How do you tell the difference between scientific evidence and poetic fancy? Early peoples (such as the people who wrote the creation stories in the Old Testament Book of Genesis) did believe that the sky was a solid, and thus could break. Today, we modern folks think we “know the facts” about the sky, so if we speak about “pieces of the sky,” this would be a metaphor, a poetic use of language.

What kind of story could we tell now? We could tell a story about a volcano erupting or an earthquake. Some people say that global warming is a Chicken Licken story not because it can’t happen but because these people believe humans can’t influence these naturally occurring cycles of climate change. That point of view would be like believing the sky actually is a solid piece that can break but that it almost never does. We know climate change does happen, but we’ve never been faced with the full, scientifically accurate, biological consequences of the behavior patterns of our species. We’re in the position of being Chicken Licken writing his own story!

Anita Sullivan is a Eugene resident.