By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The tale of Chicken Little, or Chicken Licken as he’s sometimes known, is a famous folk tale. But where did it come from, and what is the meaning of the Chicken Little story?
The term ‘Chicken Little’ has become almost synonymous with alarmism, with the term being used to describe people who needlessly stoke fear among people. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning and origin of this classic folk tale.
Chicken Little tale: plot summary
The basic story of Chicken Little varies in its details from telling to telling, but the essential plot tends to go something like this.
A chicken, often named Chicken Little (though as we’ve seen, she also goes under other names in different versions of the story), is walking in the woods when she is struck by an acorn falling from one of the trees.
Convinced that this is a sign the sky is falling in, Chicken Little rushes from the woods to go and warn the king.
On her way to see the king, she meets a number of her friends, who are also birds, usually with rhyming names: Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, and so on … you get the idea. As she meets each of them along her way, Chicken Little tells them that the sky is falling in, and that she has first-hand evidence of this.
All of these other birds join Chicken Little as she makes her way to the king, and soon there is a large group of them convinced that the sky is falling on them. They hasten their way, intent on delivering the news.
On their way, they come across Foxy Loxy (a fox, of course), who asks them why they’re in such a hurry. Chicken Little explains to him that the sky is falling and that they’re on their way to notify the king. Foxy Loxy offers to take them to the castle where they will find the king, and the birds agree to accompany him.
However, the cunning fox leads them not to the castle, but to his den, and the birds are never seen alive again.
Chicken Little tale: analysis
This simple tale with its short and rather straightforward, linear plot hides an impressive number of morals within its brief narrative. But what are those morals, and what is the meaning of the Chicken Little (or Chicken Licken) tale?
We might summarise the moral messages of the story as follows: 1) don’t form incorrect conclusions from insufficient data; 2) don’t stoke fear in others without good cause to do so; and 3) don’t take other people’s word for things, especially when those other people are making extraordinary claims (which should require extraordinary evidence).
Let’s take each of these morals in turn. First, Chicken Little is obviously wrong to draw the conclusion that the whole sky is falling in, simply because she has been hit on the head by an acorn. It’s a human failing to extrapolate our own (bad) experiences into somehow representing objective reality for everyone else, too: I read a book when I’m too busy or stressed to give it the attention it deserves, and confidently proclaim the book to be a load of overrated rubbish.
It works the other way, too: an affluent middle-class person on furlough with a big garden might have had a great 2020 despite what was going on in the world, but it doesn’t mean everyone else did. The fact that it’s something as small as an acorn which wrongfoots our avian (anti)heroine only makes her delusion all the more ridiculous.
The second and third morals are, of course, related, though they pertain to different characters in the tale. And, in many respects, the first point is related to the second. Chicken Little acts irresponsibly by spreading a false rumour, thus inciting fear among her friends. But she does so because she (stupidly) believes in her own scaremongering: she really does believe that the sky is falling in.
Whether this mitigates her irresponsible fearmongering or makes it worse (stupidity and misinformation) is hard to say, and open to discussion and interpretation.
But her friends must also take their fair share of the blame for following her so readily. In many ways, they’re worse than Chicken Little herself, because at least she had some physical ‘evidence’ (or what she took for evidence) for her claim. By contrast, Goosey Loosey and the others are content merely to take Chicken Little’s word for it, without questioning her evidence or her extraordinary claim in more detail.
The story obviously has parallels with the fable of the boy who cried wolf, although in the case of that story, the moral is more straightforward. With Chicken Little, several moral teachings coincide neatly into one narrative.
What are the origins of the Chicken Little fable? We can’t say for sure, though the story had found its way into print by the early nineteenth century. Indeed, a Danish folklorist and scholar, following the lead of the Brothers Grimm, published a version in 1823. It wasn’t Hans Christian Andersen (he wouldn’t begin writing his fairy tales until a short while later), but Just Mathias Thiele (1795-1874).
Thiele’s story contains many features of the story we mentioned in our plot summary above, although it’s a falling nut rather than an acorn which causes the chaos.
In America, however, the story had already been popularised by John Green Chandler, with the help of Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who is best-remembered for writing the rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and for campaigning to have Thanksgiving recognised as a national holiday in the United States. Together, Chandler and Hale ensured that millions of children were familiar with the Chicken Little story and with its moral warnings.
The Chicken Little story continued to enjoy popularity in the twentieth century, with Disney producing a short film in 1943 warning about mass hysteria, with specific reference to the Nazis. The 2005 Disney adaptation completely changes the plot (by adding aliens, whose spaceship, or parts of it, really do fall from the sky), and, in doing so, misses the moral message (or messages) of the fable: in this version, Chicken Little is right to spread mass fear among the townsfolk and is thus vindicated.