Henny Penny

Chicken Little

Henny Penny, also known as ‘Chicken Licken’ or ‘Chicken Little,’ is a folk tale with a moral in the form of a cumulative tale about a chicken who believes the world is coming to an end. The phrase ‘The sky is falling!’ features prominently in the story, and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent.

The story is listed in the Aarne–Thompson tale type index (a listing designed to help folklorists identify recurring plot patterns in the narrative structures of traditional folktales) as type 20C, which includes international examples of folktales that make light of paranoia and mass hysteria.

There are several Western versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chick that believes the sky is falling when an acorn falls on its head. The chick decides to tell the King and on its journey meets other animals (mostly other fowl) which join it in the quest. After this point, there are many endings. In the most familiar, a fox invites them to its lair and there eats them all. Alternatively, the last one, usually ‘Cocky Lockey,’ survives long enough to warn the chick, who escapes. In others all are rescued and finally speak to the King. In most retellings, the animals have rhyming names. The moral to be drawn changes, depending on the version. Where there is a ‘happy ending,’ the moral is not to be a ‘Chicken’ but to have courage. In other versions where the birds are eaten by the fox, the fable is interpreted as a warning not to believe everything you are told.

Fear mongering – whether justified or not – can sometimes elicit a societal response called ‘Chicken Little syndrome,’ described as ‘inferring catastrophic conclusions possibly resulting in paralysis.’ It has also been defined as ‘a sense of despair or passivity which blocks the audience from actions.’ The term began appearing in the 1950s and the phenomenon has been noted in many different societal contexts.

The first adaptation was an animated short released during World War II. It tells a variant of the parable in which Foxy Loxy takes the advice of a book on psychology by striking the least intelligent first and convinces dim-witted Chicken Little that the sky is falling. It was one of a series of four cartoons produced by the Walt Disney Studios at the request of the U.S. government during World War II for the purpose of discrediting totalitarianism in general and Nazism in particular. Its dark comedy is used as an allegory for the idea that fear-mongering weakens the war effort and costs lives. In it, Chicken Little jumps to a conclusion and whips the populace into mass hysteria, which the unscrupulous fox manipulates for his own benefit. The second Disney adaptation, released in 2005, is a feature-length computer-animated film. It tells an updated science fiction sequel to the original fable in which Chicken Little is partly justified in his fears.

A very early example containing the basic motif and many of the elements of the tale is some 25 centuries old and appears in the Buddhist scriptures as the ‘Daddabha Jataka.’ In it, the Buddha, on hearing about some particular religious practices, comments that there is no special merit in them, but rather that they are ‘like the noise the hare heard.’ He then tells the story of a hare disturbed by a falling fruit who believes that the earth is coming to an end. The hare starts a stampede among the other animals until a lion halts them, investigates the cause of the panic and restores calm. The fable teaches the necessity for deductive reasoning and subsequent investigation. There also exists a ‘Brer Rabbit’ story that is closer to the Eastern versions. In this story, Brer Rabbit initiates the panic but does not take part in the mass flight, although Brer Fox does. In this case it is Brer Terrapin that leads the animals back to question Brer Rabbit.

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