Unlike the story on paper designed to be read and re-read as the same story, the oral tale is always on the move. An oral rendering of a story is a living experience that is transformed by the heart-and-soul and the world view/experience of each teller.
Each time a tale is told, each time it moves from oral to oral or from page to performance, it changes - sometimes in accord with the mood (or memory) or personal perspective of the teller and sometimes to fit the needs and age of a particular audience.
A folktale told is essentially a story of/for the folk present - its essence, its vitality derives from the cultures that developed it - and as it travels from place to place it may pick up a different emphasis or gather a new focus and disregard parts of the old.
Take for example, the English folktake: ’Chicken Licken’ recorded by Joseph Jacobs (1942)
... that begins with Chicken Licken scratching around in the dirt as chickens are wont to do, when unexpectedly an acorn falls from the tree and hits poor Chicken Licken on the head.
Nothing like this has ever happened before - and Chicken Licken assumes the worst. To her the only explanation: the sky is falling. And being the good citizen that she is: there’s only one thing for her to do - to go and tell the king.
So she sets out ... on the way encountering a succession of other animals ... and persuading each in turn that ’while scratching around in the dirt that morning the sky fell upon her poor little head and now she/we is/are going to tell the king.
Then they meet con artist, Fox Lox who lures them all to his den and he and his family devour them all.
A number of variants of this tale are to be found around the world. Not all have the trickster ending. In an earlier tale from Tibet called PLOP it is a wild apple that falls in the lake where six rabbits are feeding. The rabbit scramble away crying: "Run for your life! The great Plop is after us!" Various creatures join the affray until their yelling and chattering and honking and thumping makes such a noise it wakes Owl.
"Whooose making all that noise?"
The animals try to explain all at once. But Owl calls them to order and asks the animals one by one to tell him what’s going on. They lead Owl back to the lake - and just as they arrive, another wild apple falls "Plop!" into the water. Owl tells them what he thinks of their foolishness - and flies back to his branch, hooting, "Maybe now I can get some sleep!"
Folklorist Stith Thompson (1966) devised a categorization system for identifying Tale Types of the Folk Tale, and has documented thousands of folktales from around the world using such colourful labels as: Tale type 2033 ’A nut hits the cock’s head’. Despite our familiarity with the Henny Penny versions, the story actually stems from a much older tale titled "The Flight of the Animals" in the Jataka Tales, a collection of early stories about the Buddha that date back to 500BC.
As you will see, told from within the Buddhist tradition, the story that follows is a story about facing and overcoming fear. The later adaptations tend to lose this core meaning and the story becomes more about "laughing at" rather that "laughing with" the fearful.
Within our own cultural and/or faith traditions, now might be the appropriate time to reconstruct a version of the tale that restores the ’core’ message of facing and overcoming fear.
The Flight of The Animals
Jewish and Christian traditions are familiar with the "Lion of Judah". In Buddhism the Bodisat (the Buddha-to-be, a former incarnation of the Buddha) can appear in the form of a young lion.
Not far from the Bay of Bengal, in a grove of coconut palms and carob trees, lived a short-eared rabbit so timorous that he searched for food at night and rarely left his burrow in the daylight.
One day the rabbit came hesitantly out of his dwelling, looking quickly to the right and to the left of him for any sight of an enemy. Reassured there was nothing dangerous in the neighbourhood, he stretched out to bask in the sun near a tall carob tree.
He lay there contentedly looking up at the oval leaves so densely interwoven that not even a pinpoint of sky could be seen through them. Here and there among the branches hung the ripening dark-brown, sickle-shaped seed pods, swaying in the breeze. They were a pleasant sight to the rabbit, for he well knew how honey-sweet their pulp was when they began to fall to the ground.
Suddenly, as he lay there, an alarming thought struck the faint-hearted rabbit: What would happen to him if the earth began to cave in? Where would he go for safety? The more he thought of it, the more alarmed he became ... until his heart nearly burst with terror.
Just then, behind his head a ripe coconut fell upon a dry palm leaf with a thundering crash. The rabbit jumped up in panic without a single look behind and scampered off as fast as his legs would carry him.
As he ran he passed a long-eared hare.
"Where are you running so fast?" called out the hare.
But the rabbit dared not pause to answer. The hare caught up with him and ran alongside, repeating his question.
The fleeing rabbit panted: "The earth is caving in behind us!"
The hare, just as frightened, followed the short-eared rabbit, and soon they were joined by hundreds and thousands of other hares and rabbits, all trying to flee from the place where the earth was caving in.
A doe and a deer in a clearing were startled by the sight of so many hares and rabbits in flight and asked the cause of their alarm. And when they were told that the earth was caving in, they too joined the stampede.
As they fled on their way, they encountered a rhinoceros, who asked the same question and received the same answer. And he, too, joined them.
Before long the stampede included bears and elks, wild oxen and gnus, jackals and monkeys, tapirs and camels, tigers, and even elephants.
A young lion at the foot of a mountain saw the animals in flight. He climbed to the top of a high rock and roared three times, his voice reverberating through the valley like a clap of thunder. All the animals stopped in their tracks. They were more frightened by the roar of their king than by the fear of the earth breaking up behind them.
"Why are you all running away?" asked the king of the beasts (who was really the Bodisat in the form of a young lion).
"The earth is caving in behind us," they all replied together.
"Who saw it caving in?" asked the lion.
"Ask the tigers, they know," replied the elephants.
But the tigers said: "We didn’t see it, but the wild boars told us so."
And the wild boars said: "We didn’t see it but the camels know all about it."
And the camels pointed to the tapirs, who pointed to the deer, who pointed to the hares, who pointed to the rabbits.
When the lion questioned the rabbits one by one, he finally came to the short-eared rabbit who had started the flight of the animals.
"Are you the one who saw the earth cave in?" asked the lion, fixing his fierce eyes upon the little rabbit, who was now more terrified than ever."
"Y-y-yes, Your Majesty," stuttered the rabbit.
"Where did you see this?" asked the lion.
"Near my house, in a grove of coconut palms and carob trees. I was lying there in the sun, thinking of what would happen to me if the earth suddenly began to cave in, and just then I heard the crash of the earth breaking up right behind me. And I fled."
"Come, show me the spot where you heard the earth breaking up," said the lion.
"Your Majesty, I am afraid to go near it," said the rabbit.
"Do not fear anything when you are with me," said the lion. "Jump upon my back and I will carry you there."
Together they returned to the spot where the rabbit had basked in the sun. And there upon the palm frond the lion saw the coconut that had fallen and frightened the rabbit.
The lion returned to the other animals to tell them what he had discovered.
Then each returned peacefully to his home.
But had it not been for the young lion, the Bodisat, the stampeding animals would surely have been rushed into the ocean, and all would have perished.