The way I hear tell, there was this fox and this chicken walking along in the woods, and pretty soon they come up on this nice green clearing with a big, smooth, old tree stump smack-dab in the middle of it, just made for sitting and enjoying the cool of the day. Old Mr. Fox says, “Say, there, chicken, I’m getting mighty tired. Why don’t we rest here for a spell?”
Now, the chicken is way too smart for that. Says she, “Listen here, Mr. Fox, I’m way too smart for that. If we stop to rest, you’re gonna gobble me right up, feet and all!”
Well, now, that old fox just a-laughs and laughs, because dang it if the chicken don’t make an excellent point. So they just keep ambling along, and before you know it they happen on a tortoise just a-lying on its back in the sun. Now if you know anything about tortoises, you know they can’t get up real good once they’s laid out thataway.
“Turtle, you can’t be too comfortable laid out thataway,” says the chicken.
“Ain’t a turtle, I’m a tortoise,” the tortoise replies.
“I never did know the difference,” says the chicken.
“Then why don’t you go screw yourself?” the wily old tortoise suggests.
And do you know what? That’s exactly what the chicken did.
The fox couldn’t believe it. The fox was just standing there with his jaw hanging open like this. The fox was like, “Whoa.” The fox was all, “Society has collapsed.” The fox was like, “Nothing is worth this.” And he scampered off into a thicket, never to be seen again.
Now here’s the funny part: When the chicken took another look, there wasn’t a tortoise there at all! Why, it was nothing but a happy gnome.
Maybe he’ll grant me a wish, thought the chicken. But when the gnome opened his mouth, nothing came out but thousands of baby spiders.
A deceptively simple tale, yet rife with portent. What is it? One of those heady examples of magical hyper surrealism popular among our leading MFA students? Far from it. What we have here is a folktale in the oral tradition.
“Easy there, Einstein!” cautions the weary reader. “Lay off the mumbo jumbo, Shakespeare. Slow down, guy in a lab coat from NCIS: Los Angeles. How about putting that in English, Stanley Aronowitz, author of Crisis in Historical Materialism: Class, Politics, and Culture in Marxist Theory?”
Point taken. In layman’s terms, “a folktale in the oral tradition” means I stole it from some old lady and there’s nothing she can do about it. T
here was a time when folktales were handed down from generation to generation, like heart disease. With the rise of modern distractions such as Coca-Cola and brothels, the oral tradition dwindled, becoming the specialty of guys with salt-and-pepper beards and tweed jackets with leather patches on the sleeves. Many of these “folktale collectors” repaired their own eyeglasses with little pieces of wire they found on the ground, and refused to use antiperspirant because of some kind of political thing. They brought the old stories down from the hills and into “universities” where their “students” “fell asleep” during “classes.”
As valuable as such academic efforts may be, something more than mere preservation is demanded if we expect folkways to truly thrive. Otherwise, nothing less than extinction is threatened, and such a loss would be incalculable. Aside from the sheer fun of the telling and retelling, there is much these stories can teach us about our own lives. In the example related above, it should be easy to see that I am the chicken, my wife is the fox, the tortoise is my mother, and the woodcutter is my boyfriend. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the woodcutter. He was trying to chop down a tree but his ax kept turning to rubber in his hands.
Here’s a fun experiment you can try at home: Have you had a weird sexual dream that no one wants to hear? Tell everybody it’s a folktale you learned from an old, whiskery woman in a cabin with a cat on her lap. Suddenly your “boring problems” are “richly evocative.” Works every time!