These four walls

I may have read this book once or twice.

As far as kid-me was concerned, The Three Little Pigs was the fairy tale. Cinderella, nah. Too princessy. Rapunzel—ugh, all that hair. Dashing heroes, terrifying hijinks? Nope, just give me the hero who builds his house out of bricks.

This copy of the book is so familiar to me: the trio of worms cutting the Big Bad Wolf’s fishing line, the fish flipping out of his frypan, the angle of the little pigs’ feet on the path. I put in some serious page-gazing hours here.

But it’s not the most exciting, disciple-creating story, is it? Three pigs go out into the world, build their houses out of different stuff, the wolf gets two of them, the third one’s too clever for that. By the end of the story, the wolf’s pretty unhappy (or eaten, depending on which version you’re looking at), and the third pig’s won. So far, so ho-hum.

As folklore scholar Maria Tatar puts it, the The Three Little Pigs ‘hasn’t entered the folkloric bloodstream’ in the same way that Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella have. But it is well-known and frequently adapted. Disney’s 1933 cartoon of the story was very popular (it won an Academy Award), and according to Tatar, in 2000 there were more than 50 English versions of the story in print.

So I’m not the only one.

Well then, what’s the appeal? Obviously, it’s a cautionary tale about not being crap. Or, as Tatar puts it, the risk of ‘indolence and lack of foresight’. She says the Disney film became a rallying cry against the Depression, and quotes Walt Disney saying the moral is that ‘wisdom along with courage is enough to defeat big bad wolves’. In other words: work hard, and don’t sit around eating snacks all day (even if they are delicious).

But child-me was motivated by something more base, I think: the desire to be right. In my copy of the book, the Third Little Pig looks distinctly pre-victory dance when he’s boiling (yes, boiling) the wolf. I wanted to be that pig. I wanted to foresee the dangers, make the right choice, and triumph. It didn’t bother me much that the other pigs got eaten (though I note that in other versions, including Disney’s, they survive). Because: victorious! Pig was boring and smug and pig survived.

And there was something else. I was fascinated by the actual bricks, the way they were layered and stuck together to make those impermeable walls. They’re the embodiment of safety, right? Our ability to shut out the rest of the world—to own our own security. That was definitely in my long-term plan (along with the occasional self-righteous victory dance).

But reading the story now, something niggles. The hero of the The Three Little Pigs is the guy who makes the right choices, and therefore deserves to be safe. Too bad for those others. But adult-me knows that sometimes people work hard and make good choices, and still their (metaphorical) house gets blown down. Maybe you eat well and exercise like a demon, but you’re still considered overweight: too bad. Your fault. Or perhaps you were born in a country where there isn’t enough food to eat. Well, we’re sorry for you, but we can only do so much. We’re fine over here, thanks. I mean, where you’re born isn’t exactly your fault, but … you were involved somehow.

Now I’m not saying we should abolish private property and national borders. But I do think something interesting happens when we find our safe place, and close the door. We believe we deserve it. And maybe, by definition, some others don’t. Or at least, not as much. They need to make the right choices, like us (insert chest-puff). And like everything, bits of this are true. We do have to earn what we have, contribute to the greater good. Look after our own. And it’s sensible to teach the idea that hard work and sensible choices are rewarded. But we’re not all working with the same toolbox. People who succeed are often hard-working and lucky.

I was reminded of this when I sat in an inflatable boat at a Médecins Sans Frontières exhibition recently, listening to the guide talk about the chemical burns children get from leaking fuel. And when she showed us the sachets of protein and vitamins they hand out to parents, to feed their children on the run. And when I stood in the tent which would house two families in a refugee camp. There were two mattresses, a small cooking stove. I was moved. I thought about what I could do. And then I retreated behind these four walls.

Okay, then, fairy-tale wisdom: what does the little pig do now?