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...