‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is one of the most famous fables attributed to the classical writer Aesop: it gave us the popular idiom to cry wolf, meaning to raise a false alarm. But although the moral meaning of the fable is fairly clear, the story’s effectiveness as a moral fable is less obvious, as we will explore below. But before we offer an analysis of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, here’s a quick reminder of the fable.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf: summary
A shepherd-boy looks after his master’s sheep in the meadow, not far from the village where he lived. A forest was nearby. The work was easy. It was, however, also very dull, and the boy had nothing to do as he tended the flock all day.
Then, on a particularly boring day as he sat watching the sheep, as he sat watching the sheep and the nearby forest, the boy wondered what he would do if a wolf suddenly appeared out of the forest. Would he cry for help?
And then, he had an idea – an idea for how to amuse himself during those dull days spent watching the sheep.
The boy recalled that his master, the shepherd, had instructed him to cry for help if a wolf ever turned up and attacked the sheep. The villagers would come when they heard him crying for help, and they would chase the wolf away.
The boy grinned and suddenly got up and ran towards the village, crying, ‘Wolf! A wolf!’
Sure enough, the villagers who had heard him crying ‘wolf!’ ran from the village and out into the meadow. But when they reached him, they found the boy sitting there and laughing, and they realised that the boy had tricked them.
The boy was so pleased that his trick had worked that, a few days later, he did it again, crying, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ Once again, the villagers ran from the village to help him against the wolf, only to discover there was no wolf and he’d duped them again. Angrily, they returned to the village.
One evening a short while later, as evening arrived and the sun began to set, the boy was watching the sheep when – to his horror – a wolf really did appear from the forest and attacked the sheep.
Terrified, the boy ran toward the village shouting, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ to try to get help.
The villagers heard his cry, but as they’d been fooled twice by a false alarm, none of them ran to help him, believing he was trying to trick them again.
The wolf killed a great many of the sheep before slinking back into the forest.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf: analysis
The moral of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is usually summarised in one sentence: Liars are not believed – even when they speak the truth.
Fables are short stories designed to teach morals, but the curious and surprising thing about ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is that it has been shown to have the opposite effect: children actually lied more when they had been told the story than before. In their book Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman analyse why this might be. They cite a study which showed that the famous story of George Washington telling the truth to his father (over chopping down the family’s cherry tree) – a story which is as grounded in reality as ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ likely ever was – was considerably more effective in convincing children that it was a bad idea to lie.
The George Washington story, according to this study, reduced lying by 75% in boys and 50% in girls. The researcher who carried out the experiment even anonymised the central figure, in case the reputation of George Washington was a contributing factor, but even when the boy was made just an ordinary child rather than the future President of the United States, the story was still more effective in discouraging lying in children. Indeed, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ even encouraged lying in its respondents. Why is this?
After all, the boy in Aesop’s fable suffers a terrible punishment: in the most extreme versions of the story he is eaten by the wolf himself, so his lies cost him his life, but even in the more mainstream version cited above, he still ends up in serious trouble with his master, because his actions lead to the wolf getting away with attacking the flock.
But as Bronson and Merriman observe, the fact that liars get punished when their lies are found out is not news to children. So the moral weight of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ carries no shock value and imparts no new warning to them. For small children, the main worry with telling a lie is not losing people’s trust (although of course this is a factor in Aesop’s story) but in getting punished for your lies. But the story of George Washington and the cherry tree is more effective in encouraging honest behaviour among children because the young George receives positive praise and respect for telling the truth. In other words, the study suggests that what children require is not a reminder of the threat of punishment for telling lies, but affirmation that telling the truth carries the promise of reward. It is not enough to teach children that lying is wrong, and this is where the limitations of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ show themselves. Teachers and parents need to teach children that honesty is valued.
Aesop wasn’t the first person to write animal fables. Several centuries earlier, Hesiod – who is now best-known for his two poems, Theogony and Works and Days (a fascinating poem which we have analysed here) – had written one about a hawk and a nightingale, while a poet named Archilochus penned several, including one about an eagle and a vixen, and one about a fox and a monkey.
But Aesop would turn the fable into a popular form. William Caxton printed the first English translation of the Fables in 1484, enabling such phrases as ‘sour grapes’ and ‘to cry wolf’ to enter the language.
As with Homer, we can’t be sure an ‘Aesop’ ever actually existed. If he did, it was probably in around the sixth century BCE, several centuries after Homer, if Homer himself ever existed. Aesop’s Fables may have been the work of many hands, part of an oral tradition that gradually accumulated. Nevertheless, legends grew up around the storyteller. One commentator claimed that Aesop fought at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, but since by then he had been dead for nearly a century one can’t imagine he was much help.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.