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.
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.