The beginning of the end

April 15, 2008

My thoughts on Aarne Thompson tale type 20C and 2033:

People around the world are aware of the amazing similarities found in creation myths of various cultures, and we see a great deal of literature written on the subject. When I stumbled upon a cluster of “end of the world” tales (AT Type 20C and 2033) I thought “Huzzah! Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore the other side of that coin?”. Looking back, I had no clue what I was getting myself into.

“End of the world” tales are the cynical step-cousins of Creation Myths and, as I have become frustratingly aware, are grossly under-examined academically. I had no idea that these tales were so multi-faceted and that their complexity would not only drive me into my own apocalyptic hysteria (seriously, this was a close one for me!) but also exemplify the weakness of the AT Tale Type system.

Tales of type 2033 are known as formula tales, specifically cumulative tales. A + B, AB + C, ABC + D and so on. Henny Penny is the perfect example of a cumulative tale because she accumulates more fearful fowl as the story progresses and each time they meet someone new the formula is repeated in narration so that you really get a sense of how things become compounded.

So they went along, and they went along, and they went along, till they met Turkey-lurkey. “Where are you going, Henny-penny, Cocky- locky, Ducky-daddles, and Goosey-poosey?” says Turkey-lurkey. “Oh! we’re going to tell the king the sky’s a-falling,” said Henny-penny, Cocky-locky, Ducky-daddles and Goosey-poosey. “May I come with you? Henny-penny, Cocky-locky, Ducky-daddles and Goosey-poosey?” said Turkey-lurkey. “Why, certainly, Turkey-lurkey,” said Henny-penny, Cocky-locky, Ducky-daddles, and Goosey-poosey. So Henny-penny, Cocky- locky, Ducky-daddles, Goosey-poosey and Turkey-lurkey all went to tell the king the sky was a-falling. (Jacobs)

Type 20C denotes that the tales are animal tales. There are no humans in the tales or human interactions, however, you’ll begin to see a shift in the newer versions. The animals are humanized and interact with human objects or display human social behaviors. These things were absent from earlier versions of the tale in India and Tibet.

As I searched for different versions of these tales and began to think about their cultural influence, the question soon became “what exactly are these tales about?”. It was then that I realized the shallowness of the AT Type system (although any system of classification is hard pressed to be truly “objective”). The tales showcased on this site are much more than cumulative animal tales. They are reflective of mans struggle with mortality, insecurities about society and the future. They are fables, cautionary tales and parodies. With that in mind, please feel free to read the tales in: The Tales and Their Versions or take a gander at the short comparison charts.

What do you think the tales are “about”?


Part of studying folktales is finding patterns. Here’s a quick note on some of the trends I’ve noticed in the tales and their versions:

As you read (or watch) the tales, starting with the Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts and working your way down, you’ll notice that the focus begins to change from the hazards of overreaction and irrational fear to a focus on the rationalization of fear as a means of preparedness, especially in the recent Disney version. In the modern picturebook versions by Kellogg, and Scieska & Smith– the sky actually does fall, or the narrator says that Chicken Little was “half right”. Or in the case of the hen that flies to Dovrefjell, the reader is led to believe that the world has been saved because Henny Penny arrived safely, implying that her prophetic dream and stir of mass hysteria was legitimate (nevermind that two innocent birds perished).

Some Quick Points of Interest…