NOTE: This post is unlike others. It is a paper written for Authors Club. The assignment was to review The Little Red Hen, via a written paper with an accompanying powerpoint to be read aloud, timed (30 minutes), and then to field questions/critiques. I’m posting it here for my own records and to share with those who’ve asked for it.
– Authors Club February 5, 2020 Drexel Guzy
Madame president, fellow authors, and captive (though not necessarily captivated) listeners, I am honored to be among you. This is my freshman year at Authors Club, and I enjoy and appreciate your presentations, your insights, your intellect, and your writing and critiquing skills.
I appreciate your warm welcome and your willingness to listen to whatever it is I have to say – especially today as we explore the simple, the subtle, and the substantive truths taught in the classic fable of The Little Red Hen.
This book choice duly reflects my place, feeling a bit out of place, among you. Most of my youth wasn’t spent with my head in a book – it was mowing a lawn or chasing, throwing or catching some ball. My presentation isn’t Austen or Dickens; or Lewis or Lee; or Frankl or Faulkner; not Shakespeare or Stowe, Twain or Tolstoy – all widely recognized and celebrated literary giants whose works have been or will be presented by the rest of you.
Compared to those, this book seems both simple and simplistic. I’m confident my tome is the only one selected that could be read aloud in its entirety and still leave over 25 minutes for group discussion.
In fact, a single sentence in Absalom Absalom (as Jean Marshall taught us earlier) contains more words than all of Paul Galdone’s version of The Little Red Hen. I know because I counted Galdone’s. It’s 557 to 1288.
So why The Little Red Hen?
According to Wikipedia, you know, the ultimate, irrefutable research resource, The Little Red Hen is a timeless “moralistic tale of the importance of hard work and the shame, as well as consequences, of laziness.”
It’s a lesson of industry vs indolence.
How, when and where the story originated remains unclear. Some claim it is a Russian folktale; others a merger of two Irish tales A Wonderful Cake and the tale of a hen’s capture by and escape from a hungry fox by cutting a hole in her sack prison. At least three variations appeared in periodicals in the late 1800s and Margaret Free and Harriette Taylor Treadwell included it in their first primer printed in 1910.
Since then scores of new editions have appeared regularly – including at least 10 per decade from the 1980s to the 2010s
Typically the story and the moral remain the same, regardless of the specific animals and culinary choices and cultures and palates represented.
Some divergent variations include:
The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza
The Little Red Hen Makes Tacos
Holy Squawkamole – The Little Red Hen Makes Guacamole
The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah
and Armadilly Chili – starring an armadillo, a tarantula, a mockingbird and a horned toad.
Because the story is so popular and malleable other versions have emerged addressing social/economic/political contests regarding: Individual rights & responsibilities, (Reagan)
Socialistic approaches, Environmental impacts, (The Little Green Hen)
and Corporate greed. (Out of the Egg)
If you’ve never read it you can cheat and watch the Walt Disney cartoon – but like everything else — the book is better (haha)
Regardless of the variations….you all know the original story – how the little red hen finds some wheat and determines to capitalize on her good fortune and turn it into bread or cake. All throughout the planting & watering & reaping & grinding & mixing & baking & waiting, she asks the other animals “Who will help me?”
Their response never varies. “Not I” say the dog or the cat or the mouse or the rat.
But, undaunted, she simply replies “Then I will do it myself!” And she does.
When at long last the labor is over and the fruits of it are to be enjoyed she asks:
“Who will help me eat the cake?” This time, suddenly, and miraculously, everyone’s calendars are clear and their availability uncompromised.
“I will!” cried the cat.
“I will!” cried the dog.
“I will!” cried the mouse.
But the little red hen said,
“All by myself I planted the wheat,
I tended the wheat,
I cut the wheat,
I took the wheat to the mill to be ground into flour.
All by myself I gathered the sticks,
I built the fire,
I mixed the cake.
And all by myself
I am going to eat it!’’
And she did, to the very last crumb.
Does that seem harsh to you? Especially in a children’s book? Especially in the culture and climate of 2020? Isn’t the highest good to share? Isn’t it bad parenting or greediness to teach ourselves or our children that the fruits of the labor go to the laborer? (2 Tim 2:6)
But the purpose of the story is to teach the moral; the principle; the lesson. The lesson to be learned is that bread doesn’t come from a store, gas doesn’t come from a pump, and electricity doesn’t come from a wall. Everything that sustains or enriches all of our lives is the result of labor – our labor or someone else’s – requiring multiple steps and a great deal of patience, determination and effort. At the end of the fable, the animals (unlike some children and some adults) GET IT.
The story concludes with:
“After that, whenever there was work to be done, the little red hen had three very eager helpers.”
By contrast, a 2007 variation authored by Tina Matthews titled Out of the Egg takes an alternate approach. In this version the hen, living in a “very black-looking world” finds a green seed. She plants, cares for, and protects it until it becomes a large shade tree.
Along the way the lazy cat, dog, rat, mouse of the classic versions are instead represented (quite intentionally) as a “fat cat”, a “dirty rat” and a “greedy pig”.
When the red hen has a chick of her own they enjoy playing in the shade of the hen’s tree. Then the chick wants to invite a little cat, a little rat and a little pig to play in the shade with her.
The hen hesitates, and doesn’t include the others. Her little chick responds with “Mom that’s mean!!” The hen rethinks and asks the chick if she should ask them to join her? “No! I will ask them myself!” says the chick. So she did.
At the conclusion of this story the hen gives each of the young animals a green seed of their own and the very black-looking world becomes greener.
So which of these approaches is the moral one? One? Both? Neither?
What are the lessons being taught here?
Why has the classical tale remained relevant for so long? And why do different variations of it continue to be penned and published?
In the classic edition should the little hen have freely shared?
Is she being greedy?
In the Matthews version were the fruits of the hen’s labors the chick’s to give?
Does the chick understand that food and time and land are finite?
Charitable giving and philanthropy is virtuous, but so is industry, hard work, and self-reliance. None should rob the other.
My observation is that it is very easy to be charitable with other peoples’ time and money. Even in organizations comprised entirely of willing volunteers.
While it is noble to give of ourselves, it is theft to give that which belongs to another.
It is also covetous to desire that which belongs to another – whether our intent is to acquire it for ourselves or so that we may gift it to someone else.
You may agree or disagree with my observations. It is your prerogative to draw your own conclusions just as it is mine.
What does history teach us about it?
Imagine with me that it’s May 14, 1607 and each of us here is one of 104 men and boys who have just landed near the mouth of the James River in Virginia. We are adventure seekers here under the charter of The Virginia Company of London, hoping to find a water passageway to the Pacific Ocean, and to spread English colonization, but honestly primarily to find gold. Many perished on the voyage here and those of us who survived find conditions in untamed Virginia harsh, and we are woefully unprepared. Most of us don’t know how to hunt or fish or farm. Despite help from local Indians, many more of us die from disease, malnutrition, and starvation. Our spirits and leadership wane.
Our leader, Capitan John Smith, summarized our situation this way:
“At this time were most of our chiefest men either sick or discontented, the rest being in such despair that they would rather starve and rot with idleness than do anything for their own relief without constraint.” –John Smith
There have already been two failed attempts at Roanoke. The first returned to England and the second simply disappeared. If we, the men of Jamestown, are to survive and thrive, something about our current condition has to change.
Consequently Captain Smith provides needed leadership and implements a rule that “He that will not work, shall not eat.” The winter of 1609-1610 is known as “The Starving Time” and ultimately only about 60 of the 400 of us who have inhabited Jamestown survive. Gold is virtually nonexistent, but ultimately the production and sale of tobacco allows Jamestown to prosper and it becomes the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Now imagine it is ten years later, 1620, and we are pilgrims who’ve just landed at Plymouth Rock. We are 40 devout Christian separatists among the 104 passengers who arrived on the Mayflower. Unlike the men of Jamestown, we’ve come to the New World seeking not gold, but religious freedom. First we fled to Holland and then while en route to America our leader William Bradford established “The Mayflower Compact” – providing equal and just laws to all, irrespective, of religious beliefs.
At Plymouth here too we are met with brutally harsh conditions. During the first winter, half of us – including Bradford’s own wife – die of starvation, sickness, or exposure. Again indigenous Indians assist us and teach us how to plant corn, fish for cod, and skin beavers for coats.
But that alone isn’t what will turn our situation around.
In 2008 Economist Benjamin Powell summarized our story this way: here: (Independent Institute – Nov 25, 2008)
Quote: “Many people believe that after suffering through a severe winter, shortages were resolved the following spring when the Native Americans taught them to plant corn and a Thanksgiving celebration resulted. In fact, the pilgrims continued to face chronic food shortages for three years until the harvest of 1623. Bad weather or lack of farming knowledge did not cause the pilgrims’ shortages. Bad economic incentives did.
In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food.
Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system ‘was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort’.
The problem was that ‘young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.’
Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.
Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves….
This change, Bradford wrote, ‘had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.’
Powell summarizes: Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior….” Close quote
Why did the Pilgrim’s previous efforts fail – especially among these unified cloistered Christians who were committed to God and to each other? Christians who were undoubtably familiar with and governed by Biblical references related to the necessity and dignity of work? ….Of the lifelong responsibility and joy that emanates from being producers, not just consumers?
It failed because — they learned firsthand there’s something ennobling and dignifying about earning our own way. And we deny not only the motivation, but also that dignity and satisfaction to those who can support themselves but choose not to.
They learned firsthand the lessons taught in Biblical passages including:
2 Thessalonians 3:10 “if any would not work, neither should he eat’
Proverbs 19:15 “An idle soul shall suffer hunger”
And Genesis 3:19 “In the sweat of thy face (brow) shalt thou eat bread, til thou return unto the ground…”
That Genesis verse is alluded to in Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith”:
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands.
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long;
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
The Pilgrims knew the Biblical verses. And striving to be even better and live even higher, they embraced the premise of all for one and one for all. But in spite of their pure motives and complete commitment to the principle and to each other and to God, they couldn’t escape a universal truth. Bradford summed it up with it’s– “as if they were wiser than God.”
Please excuse my multiple Biblical references, but they cannot be divorced from the fable of The Little Red Hen. Biblical lessons and principles are what it and others like it were written about and founded upon. These fables taught those Biblical lessons in simplified, relatable ways – so well-crafted that even young children could grasp them. And that accomplishment is to be commended and appreciated – not overlooked.
Perhaps it’s wise for all of us to pause and acknowledge that sometimes the most gifted writing, the most skilled writing, is that which is simple, succinct, and easily understood.
While they are definitely skills to be cultivated and appreciated, maybe it’s not always the breadth of our vocabularies, or the depth of our ability to weave lyrical narratives or to surgically articulate critical thinking, that reaches the greatest audience or has the longest-lasting impact.
Even Shakespeare acknowledged the power and beauty of distilling truths down to their stark realities. It’s both brilliant and ironic that Polonius of all people (who Freud aptly referred to as “the old chatterbox”) prefaces his report to Gertrude regarding Hamlet with “brevity is the soul of wit” and then just blurts out ‘Your noble son is mad!!’
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)
If Shakespeare and Polonius are correct, and brevity is indeed the greatest indicator of gifted communication, perhaps brevity, including harsh brevity, is not only the soul of wit, but also the soul of wisdom.
For which prepares both children and adults to better navigate, subjugate, and succeed in the world in which we live: lessons filled with hard simple truths, or those filled with soft flowery lies?
Now one more applicable Biblical passage. Please indulge me.
Proverbs 31:27 “She looketh well to the way of her household and eateth not the bread of idleness”
This verse is part of a longer passage in Proverbs 31 (Proverbs 31:10-31) which describes the qualities and characteristics of a ‘virtuous woman’.
A woman whose price is above rubies.
To me, this passage is a description of The Little Red Hen.
I may be mistaken, but it was my understanding that the books we submitted to be presented this year were to be among those that had ‘greatly influenced our lives’ or something to that effect. I chose The Little Red Hen because its lesson is simple, straight-forward, and enduring. I chose The Little Red Hen because it and this passage in Proverbs personify my mother. It is who she was and who she taught me to be.
This is she.
Proverbs 31:10-31 (KJV)
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
By the world’s standards, my mother was a nobody. Other than a couple of years while my dad earned his engineering degree, and decades later as a missionary, she lived out her entire 94 years in roughly a 30-40 mile radius in Idaho’s Upper Snake River Valley. And to be honest, she spent the majority of that in about a 6-foot radius in her kitchen.
My mother was never published. She had no degrees but made certain all six of her children did. She had no athletic trophies; she never worked outside our home – instead she created a home. She had no medals, held no public office; she was never a guest speaker, she left behind no vast volumes of journals, she had no social media likes or followers. To my knowledge she never even read, let alone posted a blog – but her powerful, lasting, influence on me and on my siblings, and hopefully on our children and grandchildren, had greater effect on us than all our teachers, professors, employers, governors or presidents combined.
Many seek to be influential and succeed at wielding shallow, paper-thin influence in a national, global, or online sphere — but my mother was pleased and content to wield influence that, though seemingly small, was incredibly deep.
Like the little red hen, my mother was a homemaker. A housewife. And a darn good one. She found that role important and fulfilling, not demeaning or derogatory And if you agree with and enjoy the wisdom and insight of CS Lewis like I do, you’ll see that her title, in reality, is the grandest one of all.
Purportedly Lewis said:
“The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only and that is to support this ultimate career.” — CS Lewis
What he actually said, referring to a housewife’s work was:
“It is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?
As Dr. Johnson said,… ‘To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour’. (1st to be happy to prepare for being happy in our own real home hereafter: 2nd in the meantime to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So (your)[(the housewife’s] job is the one for which all others exist …” (pg 447-Letter of CS Lewis 1988 ed.)
In other words, homes and families don’t exist to support careers. Careers exist to support homes and families.
This is among the first books I learned to read – in my mother’s lap. In it, the little red hen is a homemaker, a baker, a seamstress, a producer, a survivor, and a teacher. It was my introduction to the world of literature and learning. I loved being able to ‘read’ along by recognizing the pictorials long before I recognized the words.
Everything about this book reminds me of my mother. And because through her labors I was fed, warmed and safe in our home, I was given wings to fly. It and she taught me lessons of thrift, initiative, planning ahead, hard work, self-reliance, acquired skills, persistence, ignoring naysayers, earning rewards, fairness, and zero sense of entitlement.
One of the first lessons of The Little Red Hen is thrift. The hen made the most of what she had. The grain she found had been discarded or overlooked by others, but she knew its value. She was resourceful. She knew that with enough hard work, grain could become bread or even cake.
My mother was a fantastic cook. No one could make a better cake or pie. And each week her cooking filled our home with the smells, and our bellies with the substance, of delicious homemade bread. I brought some for each of you today.
She was an early riser and a tireless worker. She kept a beautiful garden, a manicured yard and a spotless car and home. She had high expectations of herself and of us, and others. She was charitable with her time, labor, and resources. Her relationship with my father was complementary, not competitive. Everything she did was for the betterment of others. And by serving others she bettered herself. Both she and my father were wise and honest and bequeathed upon me and upon my siblings a name and a reputation of which we could always be proud.
Maybe her only weakness was her love for beautiful clothes and beautiful shoes long before she could afford them. To complicate matters her foot was incredibly narrow – a AAAA (quad A) –consequently only expensive shoes fit her. Since she couldn’t make shoes, she taught herself to sew. She made her own clothes and ours. We all looked fabulous, and she looked even better. And the money saved provided the funds for her beloved shoes.
The suit I’m wearing is one she made for herself.
Only another seamstress can appreciate its exactness and perfection. And other seamstresses did, because with it she won the Idaho State ‘Make It With Wool’ Competition. The jacket even has weights sewn in it’s lining — so it will fall flawlessly.
It’s my privilege to wear it today. And in today’s context, I love that it is RED. I love that it is hers. I love that I can put it on and be reminded of her smell and her skills and her sacrifices and her lessons and her legacy.
And I can only hope that my children and their children learn from me as I did from her, the wonderful lessons she taught via her example and embodiment of The Little Red Hen – whose ultimate worth is well beyond rubies — even though it may go unrecognized and uncelebrated by the world.
Because in the end, example is not just the best teacher, it is the only teacher.