The Boy Who Cried Wolf
Once upon a time, as chronicled by Aesop, there was a shepherd boy guarding his flock of sheep. In the fairy tale, the boy cries wolf when he does not really see a real wolf. At first, the villagers are alarmed and come to his rescue. However, because the boy does this cry out of a wolf so often, the villagers soon tire of his false claims. When a real wolf does appear in the story, the villagers pay no attention to the boy’s cries for help. He has conditioned them into a state of disbelieving his calls of alarm by making so many false claims.
History of the Boy Who Cried Wolf Story
There is no doubt that the fairy tale of the boy crying wolf is very old. The story is a classic tale of a moral dilemma. It was originally passed down by the oral tradition of Greek storytellers and then in the 15th century the fable was translated into Latin. There is controversy about whether Aesop really existed or whether Aesop’s tales are only a category of Greek fables and Aesop as an author, did not exist as a real person. The telling and re-telling of this story has modified it over time, but the moral message remains the same.
Even though most people know this story by its modern title of “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf,” it was not always called this. In fact, it had many different titles before, including:
- In 1484, Caxton called the story, “Of the Child Whiche Kepte the Sheep.”
- In 1574, Osius called this story, “The Boy Who Lied.”
- In 1687, Barlow called the story, “Of the Herd Boy and the Farmers.”
- In 1692, L’Estrange entitled the story, “A Boy and False Alarms.”
- In 1867, Fyler named it, “The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf.”
- It was not until the 1960s that the story became known by the title of, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf!” At that time, Edward Hughes made it the first of ten songs from Aesop’s fables and it was poetically presented by Peter Westmore.
It is fitting that a story about lying and making false alarms is a story named by many titles, and this only adds to its intrigue. The tale instructs children that lying creates a mistrust that sets up the situation of a person no longer being credible.
There is no definitive proof that Aesop existed, although there are many references to him in the writings of Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch. Historically, Aesop is thought to have lived during the period between 620 to 560 B.C. Many of the stories about Aesop, such as the “The Aesop Romance” describe Aesop as a slave that was so incredibly ugly, but rose to fame by being able to tell great stories. The storyteller Aesop is described as a hunchback, a Negro from Ethiopia, with a potbelly, and weird shaped head. It is said, that Aesop was able to get himself out of troubles, by telling clever stories to those in power over him. Based on his storytelling, Aesop rose to prominence. Whether or not he was an actual person, the Aesop fables have lasted for centuries.
Over seven-hundred fables are attributed to Aesop; besides the boy who cried were wolf or wolf. Many of the Aesop fables are examples of the earliest versions of Animism, where animals talk and take on human characteristics in the stories in order to help express the moral lesson. The “cry wolf” story does not have this context, but other stories of Aesop, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” are based on animals acting out like a representation of people’s behaviors.
An underlying theme in all of Aesop stories is the hidden code of how a weaker person may succeed against the more powerful persons by being clever. By telling stories, where the moral lesson is disguised, the Aesop fables were able to co-exist with the authoritarian rule of ancient Greek society. Essentially, because most of the stories involved animals, they were able to be told directly to those in power without offending them.
A vain, egotistical ruler might laugh at the animals in the stories and their foolish behaviors, while not at the same time recognizing the animals were an allegorical representation of themselves.
Moral Characteristics Conveyed by Storytelling
One fascinating aspect of this storytelling is that children exposed to the story of the boy who cried wolf are more likely to lie than others are. Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman examine this phenomenon in their book “Nurture Shock – New Thinking about Children,” pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-0-446-50412-6.
It turns out that children exposed to the boy who cried wolf story for kids, when compared to those exposed to the George Washington’s story about lying and cutting down the cheery tree have a markedly different reaction. In the George Washington story, the children understand that lying is wrong. There is an obvious benefit accomplished when young George Washington tells the truth. However, in the boy who cried wolf story, the moral message is less clear to children.
One explanation of this is that children may not perceive the lying as wrong in the “boy who cried wolf” story, only anticipatory of the dangerous events that actually do occur. In this way, the story fails to convey the proper message to children. On the other hand, adults can easily recognize the moral theme in the story.
Aesop’s fables were designed to entertain and also allow children to experience moral issues, through the guise of having others act them out. The point of view in Aesop’s fables is childlike, yet the morals conveyed in the fables are about adult issues.
Many of the most famous common sense sayings that survive to this day have their origins in Aesop’s fables such as:
- Appearances are sometimes deceptive. This theme comes from the Aesop fable of “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” where a wolf uses the disguise of a sheepskin to be able to get close enough to attack the other sheep.
- A bird in the hand is worth more than two birds in the bush. This theme comes from the Aesop fable of “The Hawk and the Nightingale.” where a nightingale tries to convince a hawk that it is too small to make a good meal and that the hawk should try to catch bigger birds. Nevertheless, the hawk refuses by concluding that releasing a bird already caught would be foolish in comparisons to those other birds he cannot see.
- Beauty is only skin-deep. This theme comes from the Aesop fable of “The Fox and the Leopard,” where the leopard claims to be more beautiful than the fox due to its spots, but the fox claims to be more beautiful due to its mind.
- Birds of a feather flock together. This theme comes from the Aesop fable of “The Farmer and the Stork,” where a stork is caught with crows in a net used by a farmer. Even, thought the stork pleads to be released, the farmer treats the stork as a thief, just like the crows.
- Every man for himself. This comes from the Aesop fable of “The Three Tradesmen,” where a bricklayer, a carpenter, and a leatherworker all claim the materials they use are the best for protection.
- Necessity is the mother of invention. This comes from the Aesop tale of “The Crow and the Pitcher,” where a crow puts stones into a pitcher of water so the water rises up to a level that the crow can drink the water without spilling it.
- Might makes right. This comes from the Aesop tale of “The Wild Ass and the Lion,” and tells the story of a greedy lion and how he will not share food with others.
- Liars cannot be trusted. This comes from the Aesop fable of “ The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf ,” and teaches that lying destroys credibility. To cry wolf is to break others trust in what is said.
As pointed out by many scholars of children’s literature, Aesop’s fables do not necessarily deliver a clear moral message. Although, Aesop’s fables are interesting and the stories are generally good, they may be confusing to children and the telling of these stories may have an unintended result. Therefore, the recommendation is to exercise caution when using them as teaching examples.