My search for the real “Three Little Pigs” began after viewing a disturbing puppet show. I had taken my two-year-old son Joe to a production of the classic tale at a nearby park. In this rendition, the moral of the story was not that hard work will be rewarded, but that the wolf had been woefully misunderstood.

The wolf, it seems, had actually been pursuing the pigs so he could encourage them to pick up their litter. In their panic, the narrow-minded pigs mistakenly thought that the wolf was shouting, “I’ll huff and I’ll huff and blow your house in,” when actually, it turns out, he was wheezing, “Enough, enough. I have to lay down.” The wolf was tired from having to pick up all those recyclables.

Part of the cause of the confusion may have been that the wolf delivered his message in verse, accompanied by rap music. I took this to mean not only that “pigs” were ruining the environment, but that minorities get a raw deal.

I left the show thinking, this is Bill Bennett’s worst nightmare. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with conservation and racial tolerance as lessons, but what was wrong with the old one about hard work and diligence?

I went to the library to find the “correct” version. In the first contemporary children’s edition I took home, written by Glen Rounds in 1992, the wolf was appropriately wicked but the pigs didn’t come close to getting their roles right. The third pig finds a brick house—already built. “It had a good strong door, and when the little pig went inside, he found there was even a fireplace and a big black kettle on the hearth?”

The moral of this story seemed to be the importance of using a good realtor. “Remember, son,” I could explain to Joe during a heartfelt father-son chat, “always remember to find out what conveys with the house.”

I went back to the library. This time I got an edition written by James Marshall in 1989. This came closer to my memory. The first two pigs were, in fact, warned by the merchants that straw and sticks were not ideal building materials for houses, and the pigs disregarded the warnings with suitable arrogance. “Oh pooh,” one said. “What would you know?”

But the author ruined it by making the third little pig a foppish chap with an elegant walking cane, derby, and British accent. “Capital idea my good fellow!” he said to the brick salesman. It was hard to admire the third pig. One suspected that he came to his fortune not by hard work but through good trust fund investments.

Enough is enough. Perhaps Bill Bennett was right. Perhaps we have to eschew the moral relativism of modern versions and return to the classics to get the good values. I found one from 19th century England, preserved more for students of folklore than modern toddlers.

But in this “original” version, no indication was given why pigs number one and two wanted to build the houses out of straw and sticks (i.e., they were frivolous and shortsighted). Nor did the merchants give any warning or advice; the pigs simply asked and got. Nor was there any mockery of the third pig. The moral of that story seemed to be the importance of using sound construction materials. (“Remember, son, always follow building codes…..”)

What’s more, about two-thirds of the tale was devoted to how the pig played mind games with the wolf by promising to meet him at the fair but getting there early and rolling at him with a butter churn, etc. The detail seemed mostly to prove that the pig was capable of being as devious as the wolf.

Another 19th century version from Scotland, “The Three Wee Pigs,” was also ethically ambigous. The protagonists were called Dennis, Biddy, and Rex, and they were kicked out of the old sow’s house because Dennis had accidentally stepped on one of the new piglets. They got caught in a horrible snow and rain storm; when Biddy saw a cart of straw he quickly built a house. Soon they bumped into a pig named Jimmie McLaughlin, “who was at school with Dennis.” Jimmie felt sorry for them and gave them some wooden slats. (“Son, school is where you’ll make the important connections.”) Finally, a man came by with bricks and Rex built a house out of them. After the requisite huffing and puffing, the wolf knocks down the first two houses but gets stuck in the chimney of the brick house. “So they hooked him down the chimney, and cut him up into collops, and roasted him for their supper.”

The story concludes confusedly. “But there are no houses up in the wood now, for the pigs were all taken to the old people’s houses, and there they died.” I’m not sure if that means the pigs were lovingly protected by the townspeople or shipped off to nursing homes to watch TV and play bingo. In any event, this version still didn’t have the proper moral differentiation, since each pig seemed to have an equally sensible reason for using those materials. If you’re in the middle of a snow storm and someone offers you some wood to build a house, you’d be quite sensible to accept. So much for the conservative notion that we can only reclaim sound values if we return to the wholesome morality of the classics.

At this point, I started to doubt my own childhood memories. Maybe there never was a version preaching hard work and humility.

Just as I was giving up, I stumbled upon the Disney version of the “Three Little Pigs”, produced in 1933. That was it! The first two pigs are explicitly depicted as frivolous. Pig number one, “Fifer Pig,” sings, “I build my house of straw, I build my house of hay, I toot my flute, I don’t give a hoot, I play around all day.” The “Fiddler Pig” sings, “I build my house of sticks, I build my house of twigs. With a hey diddle diddle I play my fiddle and dance all kinds of jigs.”

The dour third pig, named, none too subtly, “the Practical Pig,” sings, “I build my house of stone, I build my house of bricks. I have no chance to sing and dance, because work and play don’t mix.” Piper and Fiddler are openly contemptuous of their brother but he reacts with mature self-confidence, shaking his trowel at them and singing, “You can play and laugh and fiddle. Don’t think you can make me sore. I’ll be safe and you’ll be sorry when the wolf comes to your door?’ They mock him and then break into the famous rendition of the song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.”

This was the tale I remembered. It emphasized not only frugality and perseverance but humility, since the arrogance of the pigs made their shortsightedness even more contemptible. It seems a bit ironic, given the current discussion about the wickedness of Hollywood, that I found my moral compass from Walt Disney’s Hollywood studio.

How did Disney concoct this moralistic tale? It turns out there was at least one other “original” version of the “Three Little Pigs”, according to an authoritative collection called A Dictionary of British Folk Tales, edited by Katherine O. Briggs. In this version, also told at least as far back as 19th century England, the language was explicitly moralistic.

In this case, the three pigs were Browny, who “spent most of his time rolling and wallowing about in the mud,” Whitey, who was gluttonous and greedy, and “the youngest and best looking, Blacky,” who is “a good, nice little pig, neither dirty nor greedy. He had nice dainty ways (for a pig), and his skin was always as smooth and shining as black satin.”

One day the old sow tells her kids that before she dies she wants them to build houses and quizzes them on how they would do it. Browny says “a house of mud,” to mom’s disappointment. She asks Whitey. “A house of cabbage,’ answers Whitey, with a mouth full, and scarcely raising her snout out of the trough in which she was grubbing for some potato-parings.”

“Foolish, foolish child!” said the mother pig. Finally she asked Blacky, who says, “A house of brick, please mother, as it will be warm in winter and cool in summer, and safe all the year round!”

The predator in this version is a fox, not a wolf. The fox quickly burrows his way through the mudwalls—no huffing or puffing—and carries poor Browny “off with him to his den?’ The fox then eats through the cabbage walls and carries poor “trembling, shivering” Whitey away to join her brother.

When the fox fails to scratch through the brick wall, he goes down the chimney and gets captured, boiled, and eaten. The ending has a certain Silence of the Lambs quality, as Blacky goes to rescue his siblings. “As he approached the den he heard piteous grunts and squeals from his poor little brother and sister who lived in constant terror of the fox killing and eating them?’ He busts them out, they joyfully thank him, and they live happily ever after in Blacky’s brick house.

In case the moral is not yet clear, the story ends, “And Browny quite gave up rolling in the mud and Whitey ceased to be greedy, for they never forgot how nearly these faults had brought them to an untimely end.”

Disney, it seems, combined the basic plot devices of the first two 19th century versions—huffing, puffing, wolves, straw, sticks—with the clear moral dictates of the third.

Clearly, different generations and communities have adapted the tales to the moment. I can criticize the amorality of that first old version, but back in 19th century England, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, it was undoubtedly quite important to teach kids the value of intelligence, perhaps even more than hard work.

It is similarly significant that the Disney version was released in 1933, the heart of the Great Depression. In that moment, it made sense to emphasis not braininess (look at all those smart men jumping out of buildings on Wall Street) but frugality and self-restraint. Indeed, hard work and common sense were democratic virtues of the working class, in contrast to the gluttony and glitz that had failed the aristocracy in the roaring twenties.

Perhaps the 1980s and 1990s have spawned so many versions—so many of them amoral—because it is a period of relative affluence.’It’s a bit hard to see the downside of gluttony as we run up thousands of dollars of credit card debt without any obvious negative consequences.

But this attitude is ultimately no more sensible for us than it was for old mud-lovin’ Browny or cabbage-faced Whitey in the 1800s or “Fiddler Pig” in the Depression. In fact, as both national and consumer debt has grown, imposing ever greater burdens on the next generations, the lessons about frugality seem more, not less, important.

It’s obviously up to us, as parents, to decide which morals we want to emphasize. I’m playing it safe. In the version I tell my son, the pigs learn to: work hard; use durable construction materials; be nice to their siblings; be humble; and listen carefully to their mother sow. Of course, right now his favorite part is when I huff and puff and blow his hair off his forehead. I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps he simply recognizes that daddies, like fairy tales, are full of wisdom and hot air.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.