“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...

Operator, Operator, Connect me to Signor Rodari for more Telephone Tales!

It is hard in just  a few selections to give an idea of the remarkable range of subjects, genres, and tone of the two hundred and two pieces in Rodari’s Telephone Tales.   The volume is supposed to be a collection of bedtime stories Signor Bianchi, an accountant from Varese, told to his little girl the six nights out of seven he was on the road selling pharmaceuticals all over Italy.  How did  he keep his promise to her?  He called home on a pay phone at precisely at 9:00 pm and told her  a new one.  The stories lasted just as long as the amount of time his coin bought

These three stories show Rodari s  visionary side.  They are more serious, but are still delightfully imaginative in the way feelings of altruism and hope are aroused without preaching.

Universal History

In the beginning, the Earth was all wrong, and making it habitable was quite a chore.  There were no bridges to get across rivers.  There were no trails to climb up mountains.  What if you wanted to sit down?  Not so much as a shadow of a bench.  And if you were dropping from exhaustion?  There was no such thing as a bed, nor shoes or boots to keep sharp stones from cutting your feet.  If your eyesight was weak, there were no eyeglasses.  If you wanted to play a game of soccer, there were no soccer balls.  And there was no pasta pot or fire for cooking macaroni.  In fact, now that I come to think of it, there wasn’t even any pasta.  There was nothing at all. Zero plus zero, and that’s it.  There were only human beings and strong arms with which to work, so the most serious lacks could be corrected.  But there are still plenty of things still to be set to rights, so roll up your sleeves!  There’s plenty of work left to be done!

The Sidewalk Conveyor

On the planet Beh, they’ve invented a moving sidewalk that runs all around the city.  It’s like an escalator, but instead of stairs, it’s a sidewalk, and it moves slowly to give people time to look at shop windows and to get on or off without losing their balance.  There are even benches on the sidewalk for people who want to travel sitting down, especially old people or women carrying their groceries,  When little old men grow tired of sitting in the park and staring at the same old tree, they often go for a ride on the sidewalks.  They sit there, content and happy  Some read newspapers, others smoke cigars, and they all relax comfortably.

Thanks to the invention of this sidewalk, trolley cars, electric buses, and cars have been abolished.  There are still streets, but they’re empty of vehicles, and children use them to play ball.  If a policeman even tries to confiscate the ball, then he has to pay a fine.

The Words: To Cry

This story hasn’t happened yet, but it will surely happen tomorrow.  Here is what it says.

Tomorrow a kind old schoolmistress will lead her pupils in a line, two by two, on a tour of the Museum of Bygone Times, which houses a vast collection of things that are no longer used, such as a king’s crown, a queen’s long silk train, the tram to Monza, and so on.

In a somewhat dusty display case are the words “To cry.”

The young pupils of tomorrow will read the sign, but they won’t understand it.

“Teacher, what does that mean?”

“Is it an antique jewel?”

“Did it once belong to the Etruscans, perhaps?”

The teacher will explain that once upon a time, that word was widely used, and it was very sorrowful.  She will show them a vial that contains old tears.  Who knows? Perhaps a person beaten up by another had shed them, or a homeless child had wept them.

“It looks like water,” says one of the pupils.

“But it scalded and burned,” says the teacher.

“Did they boil it before using,?”

The young pupils simply couldn’t understand.  In fact, they were already starting to get bored.  And so, the good school teacher took them to visit other sections of the museum, where there were easier things to see, such as prison bars, a watchdog, the tram to Monza, and so, on all tings in that happy land of tomorrow will no longer exist.