“Who’s Got Game: Poppy or the Snake:” Toni and Slade Morrison’s Retelling of Aesop

Heinrich Steinhowel’s illustration of The Man and the Snake first published in 1479.

The terse Aesopian fable “The Man and the Snake” (Perry 176) warns that it’s a risky business to assume the best of someone unlikely to return a favor.  Sir Roger L’Estrange’s retelling from the 1690s is written as if the end were a foregone conclusion:

A countryman happen’d in a hard winter to spy a snake under a hedge, that was half frozen to death. The man was good natur’d and took it up, and kept it in his bosom till the warmth brought it to life again; and so soon as e’er it was in condition to do mischief, it bit the very man that sav’d the life on’t. Ah thou ungrateful wretch! says he, is that venomous ill nature of  thine to be satisfi’d with nothing less that the ruine of thy preserver. 

More violent and dramatic is Samuel Croxall’s version from 1722, in which the man brings the snake home to warm up by the fire. As soon as it had thawed out,

It began to erect itself, and fly at his wife and children, filling the whole cottage with dreadful hissings. The Countryman hearing an outcry, and perceiving what the matter was, catched up a mattock, and soon dispatched the ingrate, upbraiding him at the same time in these words: Is this, vile wretch, the reward you make to him that saved your life? Die, as you deserve; but a single death is too good for you.

 The 2004 retelling by Toni Morrison and her son Slade is significantly different from those of their two most famous predecessors in English.  With Black characters living in a Louisiana bayou, the 32-page picture book give them more opportunities to spin out the story in more words and more of Pascal Lemaitre’s pictures.  One major change is that the fable is presented within a frame story about a grandfather and his grandson Nate, which opens with a serious conversation between them after dinner one evening. The boy confesses that he isn’t paying attention in school because there are so many other things he’d rather be doing.  Couldn’t he stay on with Poppy after school starts?  Poppy does some thinking, then takes out a pair of boots, and puts them on. He explains to Nate that these are his remembering boots and “right now they’re helping me remember that paying attention is just a way of taking yourself seriously.”  Nate is confused, so Poppy explains his meaning by telling  a story.–the fable of the man and the snake, in which the relationship between the two characters is developed more fully than is usually the case. Poppy accidentally runs over a snake when he parks his truck to go fishing, but doesn’t discover the creature until he comes back to the truck. Still sassy although badly hurt, it demands that Poppy free it, because he was responsible for nearly killing it.  Seeing that it’s a poisonous snake, Poppy’s guard is up, but convinces himself that the reptile wouldn’t swear to “never even think of biting” if  it weren’t decent deep down.  Once released, the snake insists that Poppy take him home for something to eat.  Within a day, the snake has a safe place to stay until it can be nursed back to health, another condition to which the good-hearted Poppy agrees. Things work out for a while, but the snake gets impatient with Poppy’s quiet ways.  One evening while they’re playing cards, the snake suggests rather nastily that the place needs a radio. When Poppy tells it he likes his own company, the tone of the snake’s response makes Poppy so uneasy that he makes a quick trip into town for something. Before turning in, he notices that the snake is sleeping closer to his bed than usual.   Near dawn, he is awakened by a sharp pain in his arm: the snake has bitten him but doesn’t feel at all guilty for having broken his promise. “Hey, man, I’m a snake. You knew that.”

But Poppy lives to tell the story because he took the precaution of getting snake serum that evening.   By having paying attention to the snake’s actual words when it was trapped under the truck’s tire–that it wouldn’t “think” of biting him, he saved himself from the consequences of a well intentioned but foolish act of kindness. Poppy doesn’t describe how the snake was dispatched, instead showing Nate the remembering boots made from its skin. After Poppy finishes the story, the two go off and celebrate by making music with a man who just might be Robert Johnson. The Morrisons end it there, trusting to Nate and their readers to understand the implied morals. It’s interesting to compare the Morrisons’ retelling to one by a Black man from the Black community in Kansas City, Missouri posted on the USC Digital Folklore Archives. The teller, unlike the Morrisons, outlined several powerful cautions illustrated in the fable: “You should not offer your help, your aid, to someone or something that you know to be dangerous….not to trust the promises of a desperate man, and to be wary of those who might stab you in the back.” The informant recalled that his mother told it frequently to him when he was growing up and one wonders if sometimes the snake was white...

Heads, Bodies, Legs: A Handmade Version of the Game from the early 1800s

From the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Heads, Bodies, Legs is a chain game for three, popular with children and adults (especially artists) that requires pencil and paper.   The group is supposed to produce a drawing together without any player seeing what the others have created. The first player takes a sheet of paper and draws a head and neck as detailed or simple as desired.  Player 1 folds down the paper so only a little of the drawing’s bottom can be seen.  Player 2 draws a body from the waist up consulting only his or her imagination, then folds the paper to cover his work.  The legs will be drawn by the last player.  Once the drawing is completed, the three players unfold the sheet to see what the figure looks like—the sillier or stranger, the better. The drawing on the left was made by artists James Guthrie, Edward Arthur Walton, and Joseph Crawhall, who frequently played the game the summer of 1879.

Also known as Picture Consequences, Heads, Bodies, Legs is played at children’s birthday celebrations or family parties.  This familiar game, which has no winners or losers, has been repackaged as a type of moveable book sometimes called a horizontal flap transformation.   The illustrator designs a series of figures to be printed on pages of cardboard, which are divided horizontally into three sections—the head on the upper third, the body on the middle, the legs on the lower.  The reader/player can make new figures by recombining any three sections into a different one.  The pages are frequently comb-bound to facilitate the process of mismatching the heads, bodies, and legs into peculiar people with unlikely physiques and gender-bending clothes, as in this double-page spread from Walter Trier’s 8192 Crazy People in One Book (London: Atrium, {ca. 1949] Cotsen 1605).  Mixing in characters famous in popular culture, caricatures, national, and racial stereotypes is also common. 

Text can added to the sections, as Helen Oxenbury did in 729 Puzzle People  (London: Methuen/Walker Books, c. 1980, Cotsen 26110), which provides a nonsensical scenario for every figure in the same spirit as Exquisite Corpse, a game the Surrealists found delectable.  This one on the left reads “All dressed up I waddle to build up my body.”

Before the twentieth century, what appear to be variant versions of Heads, Bodies, Legs turn up on the antiquarian market. Cotsen acquired a set ca. 1810  of 1 hat, 14 heads, 18 torsos, and 22 limbs drawn on heavy paper with watercolor washes, apparently drawn by one person.  It may have been made to be played as a parlor game, similar to one of a supplement to an old Boy’s Own Paper around 1880. “Some Social Transformations” has nine figures on the sheet, each to be cut in thirds and the resulting strips mounted on card.  All the strips were to be shuffled, then dealt to the group.  Player one lays down a pair of legs, then player two a body, and player three the head.

The figures that can be created  from this early nineteenth century set’s selections of heads, bodies, and legs are not anywhere as wacky as the modern ones because both sexes were required to cover the legs most of the time!  The gentleman in the black breeches with red slashings is wearing Elizabethan fancy dress, but his companion’s clothing is a mystery to me. Below them is a figure assembled from man wearing in the turban, a torso of another declaiming from a book, and the skirt of a pigeon-toed girl. The same thing holds for Metamorphosesn fuer Kinder= Metamorphoses pour les enfans=Child’s metamorphosis=Metamorfosi per fanciullia, a set manufactured in Germany for distribution across Western Europe between 1815 and 1825 (Cotsen in process).  although we have to concede the possibility that it could have been as titillating even shocking–for people then to see girls in trousers or boys in dresses as it is for us to see a chinless man in a frilly fairy’s tutu and saggy black tights with holes.