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

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

The Aesopian fable “The Man and the Snake” (Perry 176) is a warning 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 puts it a little differently, but the idea is the same:

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. 

Samuel Croxall’s version from 1722 is more violent and dramatic than L’Estrange’s.   Here the man rather foolishly brings the snake home to  warm it 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.

No remorse is wasted on the snake, who is about to receive its death’s blow.

Does the 2004 retelling by Toni Morrison and her son Slade depart significantly from the ones of their two most famous predecessors?  In some ways yes, in other more subtle ones, no.  Poppy and the Snake is the only one of their fable trilogy Who’s Got Game to feature Black characters and a setting associated with that community, a Louisiana bayou.   Expanding the fable to fill a 32-page picture book in the comic book format gives the co-authors and illustrator more opportunity to flesh out and individualize the story.  A fable revision of this kind is also known as a paraphrase and has a long, long history. 

An obvious change is the addition of a frame story about a grandfather and his grandson Nate.  One night after dinner, Nate confesses to his Poppy 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 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 himself by telling the fable of the man and the snake, in which the relationship between the two characters is more complicated than it was in L’Estrange and Croxall.

The snake’s sorry condition is actually Poppy’s fault, because he accidentally ran over it while parking his truck.  He doesn’t discover the reptile until he comes back from fishing.  Although badly hurt, the snake is plenty sassy and demands that Poppy free it, because he was responsible for nearly killing him.  As soon as he recognizes that it is a poisonous snake, Poppy’s guard goes up, but quickly convinces himself that the reptile wouldn’t swear to “never even think of biting” if  it weren’t decent deep down.  The snake still isn’t satisfied.  After it’s freed, it insists that it’s only decent that Poppy take him home for something to eat.  Within twenty-four hours, the goodhearted man agrees to give the snake a safe place to stay until it’s well again. 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 responds that he likes his own company, the tone of the snake’s rejoinder makes Poppy so uneasy that he makes a quick trip into town for something.  Before turning in, he notices that the sleeping snake has moved closer to his bed. Near dawn, he is awakened by a sharp pain in his arm: the snake has bitten him.  Does it feel guilty for breaking its promise the night it was hurt?  “Hey, man, I’m a snake. You knew that.”

Poppy lived to tell the story because he took the precaution of getting snake serum that evening.  By remembering the snake’s actual words when it was trapped under the truck’s tire–that it wouldn’t “think” of biting him–he figured that was no guarantee it wouldn’t “do” it and saved himself from the consequences of a well intentioned but foolish act of mercy. Instead of telling his grandson how he shut the snake’s fresh mouth forever, he puts his remembering boots on the table.  They are made of snake skin.  The story all wrapped up, 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 fable’s drift.As a postscript, it’s interesting to compare the Morrisons’s retelling to one by a Black man from the Black community in Kansas City, Missouri that’s posted on the USC Digital Folklore Archives. The teller, unlike the Morrisons, outlined several powerful cautions the fable illustrates: “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 had white scaly skin...  The language is modern, but the morals the same as the ones L’Estrange and Croxall articulated and the Morrisons drew indirectly.

How the Leopard Got His Spots Tangling with a Strong Female: An Ashanti Folk Tale Retold by Verna Aardema

Years ago I found this picture book of a West African folk tale at the going-out-of-business sale of a children’s book store.   Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki (Frederick Warne, 1979) may not be as popular as Verna Aardema’s other retellings of African stories such as  Who’s in Rabbit’s House, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, or Bringing the Rain to Kaputi Plain, but it’s impossible not to laugh at a story about a leopard, a fly the girls can’t get enough of, a dainty peanut, a cautious banana, and the righter of wrongs, a ball of cornmeal mush.  Half a ball, to be precise.

“I do not really mean that this story is true, “ the Ashanti storyteller begins, as if to prepare the audience for the absurd plot culminating in an epic battle.  Leopard invites Fly to go look for girls to marry, ignoring his friend’s warning that they will like him better.  He oils up his fur, puts on gold ornaments, and gives his dirty old sleeping blanket to Fly to carry, figuring no one will pay him any attention.  But Fly is greeted warmly when entering a village, while Leopard is driven out.   The mat must drive the girls crazy for Fly, Leopard supposes, so he shoulders the bundle and gives Fly his jewelry.  His luck does not improve in the third village, where he hears the girls whisper that Fly is so handsome they’d run away with him in a minute if their fathers wouldn’t beat them.

The spurned Leopard takes back his ornaments, then grabs Fly and ties him to a tree.  He guards his prisoner concealed in the bushes close by.   Nkatee the peanut comes down the path pip pip pip and calls out to the fly, who replies, “It’s I, the Fly, tied / By Leopard to this tree, / Because the girls hated him, / But they loved me.  / Oooo! Please come and set me free.”  Nkatee has no intention of letting Leopard making her into peanut soup and runs off. Tuk-pik, tuk-pik, Kwadu the banana passes by  and won’t help for fear of Leopard mashing her to a smooth paste.  (In the version Aardema retold from Akan-Ashanti Folktales (1930) collected by the early Africanist Captain R. S. Rattray, every vegetable in the garden passes by and ignores Fly’s plea for help, making the prospects for release nearly hopeless.)

Then Donkonfa, the half-a-ball of kenki comes rolling down the path singing her song.  She doesn’t waste any time setting Fly free, and the infuriated Leopard bursts out of his hiding place and challenges her to a fight.  She accepts and they build a big fire in the middle of the path so they will be able to see if the struggle goes on after dark.  When Leopard fails to get the better of his shapeshifting opponent after two rounds of wrestling, she gets serious and uses all her strength to pick him up and throw him in the fire.  He concedes and emerges from the fire a changed beast.  His once beautiful yellow coat has been transformed by black scorch marks where the burning wood touched it and white where the ashes settled.  To thank Donkonfa for saving their ancestor, flies never sit on balls of kenki, only the leaves in which they are wrapped.   The Ashanti storyteller closes with “This is my story.  If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some and let the rest come back to me.”  Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki would not be half as sweet or nearly as funny without Dianne Stanley’s vibrant illustrations  in which she took on the challenge of bringing to life a highly unlikely heroine—amorphous, powerful, and deliciously absurd at the same time.  And that’s that!