133 – St. George and the Dragon

We went to the St. George’s Day celebrations in Leicester City to have some fun and learn a little bit about the very ancient story in which St. George slays a dragon to save a city from its really, really bad breath. Hear the original tale and find out why it still has good ideas to teach children today, even if it is very ancient and unfamiliar in some ways.

Are the parents in the story terrible? Why is St. George so cool? And what does this story have to do with Taylor Swift?

Translation of Chapter 56, “”De Sancto Gerogio” from the Legenda Aura: Vulgo Historia Lombardica Dicta by Jacobus de Voragine

by T.Q. Townsend

George was a Roman soldier originally from Greece, who arrived in a city named Silena, which was in the North African province of Libya. Next to the city there was an enormous lake, and in it lurked a horrible dragon. Anyone who was foolish enough to attack the dragon would just end up running away . . . or being eaten. The dragon’s breath was so foul that whenever it came near the city, anyone who breathed it would be infected and fall down dead.

To keep the dragon from coming to the city and killing everyone, the people would put two sheep outside the walls every day. But pretty soon, the people of Silena started to run out of sheep. So they started putting out just one sheep, and a child. They drew lots to see which sons and daughters would be given to the dragon, but soon enough only one child was left: the only daughter of the king.

At first the king refused to give up his beloved daughter, saying, “Take away all my gold and silver, and half my kingdom, but don’t take my little girl!” Well, then the townsfolk were pretty annoyed, and they shouted back:

“Look, King, why are you offering to give up your gold and silver now, after all of our children are dead? How come you only want to save YOUR daughter? Unless you give your daughter to the dragon like everybody else, we will throw you in your house, lock the door, and set it on fire.”

The princess then began to weep, and the King turned to his daughter, saying, “Alas, my sweet little daughter, what shall I do? What shall I say? I had hoped to see you grow up and get married one day.”

Then he turned to the people and said, “Can I have eight days with my daughter to say goodbye?”

The people said, “Well, all right.”

After eight days had passed the people came back in great anger, saying, “That dragon’s breath is LITERALLY killing us. Why are you letting us die just to protect your daughter?

Then the king saw that he could not save the princess. So he gave her fine royal robes to wear. Then he threw his arms around her and with tears running down his face said, “Alas, my sweetest daughter, I thought that one day I would be able to hug your children and help look after them as they grew up, but now you are going to be devoured by a dragon. Alas for me, my sweet darling. I would have invited great princes to your wedding, given you a palace decorated with pearls and filled with the music of drums and organs. But now you go to be devoured by a dragon.”

The king kissed her one last time and then let her go, saying, “Oh, my daughter, I wish I had died before this day so that I did not have to lose you like this.”

Then the princess fell at her father’s feet and asked him for a blessing. Her father blessed her with many tears, and then the princess bravely made her way to the lake. Just then George happened to be riding by, and when he saw the weeping girl he asked her what was wrong.

The princess only answered, “Noble young man, get on your horse quickly and get out of here, or you will die with me.”

But George answered, “Don’t be afraid, little one, but tell me, what are you doing here with the entire city watching?”

She replied, “I can see that you are a kind young man with a magnificent heart, but you really need to get out of here. Do you wish to die with me?”

But George refused to go, saying, “I won’t leave until you tell me what’s going on.”

The princess told her tale, and when George at last understood the situation he said, “Little one, don’t be afraid, for I will help you in the name of Christ.”

The princess replied, “You are a good soldier, but you should hurry and save yourself. Don’t die with me! I am already going to die, and if you try to save me you’ll just die too!”

And while the princess and the knight were speaking – behold! The horrible stinking dragon raised its head from the lake. The princess began to tremble and said, “Run away, my good lord! Run away fast!”

But George mounted his horse, made the sign of the cross to give himself courage, and boldly attacked the dragon as it charged toward him. He swung his lance mightily and trusted his soul to God. The knight and the dragon collided. George wounded the dragon grievously and threw him to the ground. The dragon was defeated, and now cowered at his feet like a tame dog.

George brought the dragon back to the city, and at first everyone began to head for the hills, saying, “Oh no! We’ll all die!”

But George called them back, saying, “Have no fear, for I was sent to you by the Lord to save you all from the dragon’s punishments. All you have to do is believe in Christ and be baptized, and I’ll kill this dragon.”

The King and all the people thought that sounded fine, so George killed the dragon with his sword and ordered it to be carried away from the city. Twenty thousand men and their families were baptized that day. The king offered an enormous pile of money to blessed George, who instantly refused and said it should be given to the poor. Then George instructed the king to take good care of churches, honor the priests, pay attention during church services, and always look after the poor. Then he kissed the king and left.

The End.

Oh, though in some books telling this tale it says that George killed the dragon before he told everyone to get baptized. Which I have to say seems a bit better to me.

105 – The Elves and the Shoemaker

“The Elves and the Shoemaker” was recorded by the Brothers Grimm and first published in their original 1812 book of folktales. It’s a story that tells of elves who choose to help a craftsman who is down on his luck despite his honest, hardworking ways. Economic hardship is, unfortunately, timeless. But on the bright side, so are kindness and generosity.

“The Elves and the Shoemaker” paints an ideal picture of charitable endeavors, showing that even good, hardworking people con sometimes be down on their luck, and that those who are able to offer help ought to. Once the shoemaker is back on his feet, he is then able to be the one who shows generosity. The story presents an encouraging cycle of kindness, with a subtle reminder that the Christmas season is a good time to revive our commitment to caring for one another.

Activity: Show Generosity

Around Christmastime, lots of people try to think of ways that they can be a “Secret Santa.” Have your kids plan a way to do what they can to provide help to someone who needs it. There may be someone you know in your community who needs direct aid, or perhaps a local charity is in need of money or resources. The most important thing the children should remember is that their acts of kindness should be performed anonymously and with no expectation of recognition or reward. If appropriate, have students write a reflection on why people should perform anonymous good deeds for one another.

65 – Audiobook: Aschenputtel (1812 First Edition)

This is a presentation of “Aschenputtel” as published in the 1812 first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Translated and performed by T.Q. Townsend. This audiobook may be freely used for non-profit educational purposes.

Illustration: Alexander Zick

The audiobook is also available on YouTube:

Aschenputtel (1812)
Translated by T.Q. Townsend

Once upon a time there was a rich man and his wife who lived happily together with their little daughter. But the woman became gravely ill, and before she died she said to called her daughter to her and said: “Dear child, I must leave you. But when I am in heaven I will watch over you. Plant a tree on my grave, and if you ever need anything, shake it. When you are in need I will send you help. All you must do is remain pious and good.” With these last words, she closed her eyes and died. The girl wept for a long time. But she remembered to plant a tree on her mother’s grave. She never needed to carry water to the tree, for her tears were enough.

The grave was covered in a white cloth of winter snow. Then the warm summer sun pulled the blanket away, and the tree became green for a second season. Then the man took another wife. The new stepmother had been a widow, and had two daughters who were fair of face but proud, wicked, and haughty in heart. As soon as the wedding was over and the three newcomers drove to the house, things went badly for the poor girl.

“What is this nasty useless thing doing in the house?” said the stepmother, taking the girl into the kitchen. “If she wants to eat bread she must earn it first. She can be our maid.”

The stepsisters took away her beautiful clothes and put an old gray gown on her.

“It looks good on you!” the stepsisters cackled.

The poor child had to do the heaviest work in the house. Every morning she rose early, carried water from the well, lit the fire, cooked, and washed. The stepsisters did all the could to mock her. Their favorite prank was to pour the peas and lentils into the ashes by the fireplace so that the girl would have to spend all day picking them out and cleaning them. At night she had no bed to lie in, so she would sleep in the ashes by the hearth to keep from freezing. And because she was constantly digging in the ashes and sleeping by the fire, she became very dusty and dirty. And so her stepsister gave her the name Aschenputtel.

Some time later, the King announced that there would be a splendid ball which would last for three days. It was time for his son to choose a wife. The two proud sisters were invited to attend. They bragged to Aschenputtel even as they made her serve them. “Come up,” they called. ‘Comb our hair. Brush our shoes and buckle them. We’re going to the Prince’s ball!” Aschenputtel did her chores faithfully, but the stepsisters still scolded her.

The stepsisters asked mockingly, “Aschenputtel, would you like to go to the ball?”

“Oh, yes,” Aschenputtel answered. “But how could I go? I have nothing to wear.”

“No indeed,” sneered the eldest stepsister. “That would be a fine thing if you showed up. We would be ashamed if people heard you were our sister. You belong in the kitchen. There you have your bowls of lentils. When we get back they must be properly sorted. Be careful not to leave any bad ones in, or you will regret it.”

And with that the stepsisters went away. Aschenputtel stood at the window and watched until the carriage vanished from her sight. When she could see them no more, she sadly went back to the kitchen and stared at the enormous heap of lentils that she had to sort.

“Oh,” she sighed. “I have to finish all of this work by midnight. No matter how my eyes hurt me, I can’t let them close. Oh, how I wish my mother knew of this!” She knelt before the stove next to the pile of lentils and was about to start sorting them when two white doves flew through the window and sat on the hearth beside her. They nodded their heads politely and asked “Aschenputtel, shall we help you pick through the lentils?”

“Oh, yes please!” Aschenputtel replied. “The bad ones in your crop, the good ones in the pot.”

And pick, pick! Pick, pick! The doves ate away the harder lentils, which they preferred, leaving the ones good for people. In just a quarter of an hour the good lentils were sorted and clean in the pot, with not a single bad one among them.

Then the doves said, “Aschenputtel, if you want to see your sisters dance with the Prince, climb up into the dovecote.” Aschenputtel followed the birds back to their little house. She climbed up to the top of the ladder and peered inside. She saw a vision of the great hall at the palace, and saw her sisters dancing with the prince. The palace glimmered and shone with thousands of lights that sparkled in her eyes. When she had seen enough, she came down from the dovecote with a heavy heart. Then she lay down in the ashes and fell asleep.

The next morning the stepsisters came to the kitchen, hoping to see her still at work sorting lentils so they could scold her. They were angry to see that the work was finished and that Aschenputtel had managed to get some sleep. So instead they decided to tell her all about the ball.

“Oh, it was such a pleasure to be at the ball. The Prince is so very handsome, and such a fine dancer!” They said. “One of us will certainly become his wife.”

“I saw it all,” said Aschenputtel. “The flickering lights were so splendid.”

“What?” the eldest stepsister cried. “How did you see anything?”

“I . . . saw it from the top of the dovecote,” Aschenputtel stammered.

The elder sister was outraged and instantly called for the servants and ordered them to tear down the dovecote. But the younger still had some small amount of pity in her heart, and when Aschenputtel came to wash and brush her hair, she whispered, “you can still try to see the palace from the window.” But the elder sister overheard and shouted, “No! That lazy servant has a sack full of peas to sort. Aschenputtel, tonight you will sort through them, and if you don’t finish before we return tonight I will throw them all in the ashes and you won’t get a bite to eat until you do the job all over again!”

The stepsisters flounced away to the second night at the ball, but as soon as they had gone, the doves returned and said kindly, “Aschenputtel, shall we sort out the sweet peas for you?

And once again Aschenputtel replied, “The bad ones in your crop, the good ones in the pot.”

Pick, pick! Pick, pick! The work went so quickly that it was as if twelve hands did the work. When everything was finished, the doves asked, “Aschenputtel, do you want to go to the ball and dance?”

“Goodness!” she gasped. “How can I go in these dirty clothes?”

“Go to the little tree on your mother’s grave,” cooed the doves. “Give it a shake and wish for a lovely gown. But you must return before midnight!”

Aschenputtel rushed out to the little tree and called out, “Shake, shake, O little tree! Throw down lovely clothes for me!”

As soon as she had spoken the words, a splendid silver dress lay before the tree. There were also pearls, silk stockings with silver gussets, silver slippers, and all of the right accessories. Aschenputtel carried everything back to the house, and after she was clean and dressed, she was as beautiful as a rose washed by the morning dew. As she stepped through the front door, she saw a carriage with six black horses adorned with feathers. Attendants in blue and silver livery lifted her inside, and off they went at a gallop to the King’s palace.

The Prince saw the carriage at the gate and imagined that some princess he had never met had arrived. He went down the stairs himself, and when he saw Aschenputtel he lifted her out and led her into the hall. When the splendor of all the lights fell upon her, everyone was amazed. The stepsisters stood and fumed because there was a woman at the ball more lovely than they were. Yet they never imagined that it could be Aschenputtel, who they imagined was laying in the ashes at home.

The prince danced with Aschenputtel all evening. He accorded her royal honor and thought to himself, “I don’t believe I could choose any bride more perfect than this one.” Although she had lived in ashes and sadness for so very long, Aschenputtel now felt only glorious joy.

But soon midnight came! Before the clock struck twelve, she bowed to the assembly and departed. The prince begged her to stay, but Aschenputtel hurried away, leaped into the waiting carriage, and it hurried off in the same splendor with which it had arrived.

As soon as she got back home, Aschenputtel went back to the little tree on her mother’s grave and sang out, “Shake, shake, O little tree! I return these clothes to thee!” And the tree accepted the clothes back again, returning Aschenputtel’s faded gray dress. The girl returned to the kitchen, smudged some dust on her face, and lay down to sleep among the ashes.

In the morning the stepsisters returned, sullen and silent. Aschenputtel asked meekly if they had enjoyed themselves at the ball.

“No,” the sisters pouted. “Some princess was there, and the Prince would only dance with her. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from.”

“Was it she who had the splendid carriage with six matching horses?” Aschenputtel asked.

“How did you know about that?” snapped the elder sister.

“I was standing by the front door when I saw her drive by,” Aschenputtel answered.

“Well, in the future stick to your chores instead of watching people on the road,” the eldest growled.

For a third time Aschenputtel had to dress and style her stepsisters for the ball, and as a reward they gave her another enormous sack of peas to sort and clean.

“Don’t you dare stop working,” the eldest snapped over her shoulder as she flounced out the door.

“I hope the doves don’t stay away,” thought Aschenputtel, and her heart quivered. But just as on the previous evenings, the doves came!

“Shall we sort the peas for you, Aschenputtel?” the little doves asked sweetly.

“The bad ones in your crop, the good ones in the pot!” Sang out Aschenputtel with a smile on her face.

In moments, the doves had sorted the peas, and then they said, “Go back to the tree and give it a shake. You will get even prettier things to wear tonight. Go to the ball, but be careful to come home before midnight!”

Aschenputtel hurried to the tree, shook it gently, and called out, “Shake, shake, O little tree! Throw down lovely clothes for me!”

Then a dress fell down to her, and it was indeed more magnificent than the one from the night before. It was made entirely of gold and precious stones, with gold-laced stockings and golden slippers. When Aschenputtel had put it on, it shone as brightly as the midday sun. An even more splendid carriage, stood by the door, pulled by six gray horses with tall white plumes on their proud heads. Smiling servants in red and gold livery lifted her inside and she was off to the palace.

When Aschenputtel arrived at the ball, the prince was waiting for her on the stairs. He took her by the hand and led her into the hall. Once again, everyone was amazed by her loveliness, and astonished that she was somehow even more beautiful than before. The stepsisters huddled in the corner, pale with envy. If they had known that Aschenputtel was not lying in the ashes at home but was in fact the enchanting woman standing before them, they might have died of their jealousy.

The prince was desperate to know who the unknown princess was. He wished to know where she came from and where she would go to after the ball, so he sent servants to watch for her carriage when it left. He also ordered that the stairs be spread with pitch, so that she could not run away so quickly all of a sudden.

Aschenputtel danced and danced with the prince. She was lost in so much happiness that she did not watch the clock. Suddenly, even as she was dancing, she heard the bells begin to ring. Recalling the warning of the doves, Aschenputtel fled from the ball. She flew down the stairs, but because they were coated in pitch, one of her golden slippers stuck fast. Too terrified to stop, Aschenputtel left the shoe behind. As she reached the final step, the clock struck twelve. The carriage and horses had disappeared. Gone was the magnificent golden gown. Aschenputtel stood alone in the street wearing her sooty gray clothes. She hurried away before anyone saw her.

The prince, hurrying after the mysterious princess, found the golden slipper on the stairs. He pulled it free, but by the time he reached the street, the maiden was gone. The guards he had put on watch could report nothing. They had not seen the golden carriage, nor the fine gray horses.

Aschenputtel was grateful things had not gone worse. She ran home, lit her little lamp, hung it up by the chimney and lay down in the ashes. Before long, the two stepsisters returned and shouted “Aschenputtel, get up and bring us some light.”

Aschenputtel yawned and pretended that she had been asleep. She brought her little lamp just as the elder sister complained, “Goodness knows who that dratted princess is! I hope she is buried in the ground! The prince would only dance with her, and when she disappeared he refused to stay any longer, so the whole party was ruined.”

“When she left, it was as if all the lights had been blown out,” agreed the younger sister.

Aschenputtel knew the answers to all of their questions, but she didn’t say a thing.

Back at the palace, the prince thought to himself that while all of his other efforts had failed, the slipper offered one last clue to help him find the woman he hoped to make his bride.

He put out a decree: “Let it be known,” the word went out, “That the one who fits this slipper will be the prince’s wife.”

And so all of the ladies in the land tried to wear it, but it was much too small for all of them. Some would not have been able to wear the shoe even if it were twice as big as it was.

At last the stepsisters were to have their chance. They were glad to try, for they both had pretty little feet. Each sister believed she would not fail.

But first, their mother spoke to them in secret. “Listen to me,” she whispered. “Here is a knife. If the slipper is too tight for you, cut off a bit of your foot. It might hurt, but that will pass soon enough.”

The eldest took the slipper into her room. She could get her toe in, but her heel was too big. So she took the knife and cut off a piece of her heel so that she could push her foot into the shoe. She went out to the prince, and when he saw that she was wearing the slipper, he declared her to be the bride he sought. The prince led the elder sister to the carriage and began to drive away. But just as he reached the gate, the doves called out to him”

“Turn and see! Turn and see!
A bloody shoe! How can that be?
The slipper doesn’t fit at all.
Go find your true bride from the ball!”

The prince bent down and examined the slipper. Blood spurted out from it. He realized he had been cheated. He turned the carriage around and returned the false bride to her home.

But the stepmother turned to her younger daughter and said, “Take the slipper. If it doesn’t fit, cut off the front of your toes.”

So the younger sister took the slipper too her room. Her foot was also too big, so she clenched her teeth, cut off a big piece of her toe, and quickly crammed her foot into the shoe. When she emerged from her room, the Prince thought he had at last found his bride. But once again, as his carriage reached the gate, the doves cried out their warning:

“Turn and see! Turn and see!
A bloody shoe! How can that be?
The slipper doesn’t fit at all.
Go find your true bride from the ball!”

The prince looked down, and saw that the girl’s white stockings were dyed red with blood that crept upwards from her foot. He turned the carriage around, brought the girl back to her mother, and said, “This isn’t my true love either. Are there no other daughters in this house?”

“No,” the mother replied. “There is only one nasty cinderwench here. She is sitting down in the ashes, and fine slippers will never fit her.”

Yet still the prince wished to see her. The stepmother refused to call for Aschenputtel until the prince insisted. At last, Aschenputtel was summoned. When she heard that the prince was at her home, she quickly washed her face and hands. As she came into the room, the prince offered her the slipper and said, “Try it on. If it fits, you can become my wife.”

Aschenputtel removed her heavy old shoe from her left foot and put on the golden slipper. It fit as if it were made for her. She bowed to the prince, but he looked her in the face and at last was able to recognize the beautiful princess. “It is you!” he cried. “My true bride!”

The stepmother and her two arrogant daughters turned pale with rage, but the prince led Aschenputtel away and lifted her into the carriage. As they drove through the gate, the doves sang out sweetly:

“Turn and see! Turn and see!
No blood in the shoe will be
The fit is perfect – can’t you tell?
Now there will be wedding bells!”

64 – Two Grimm Cinderellas

The original 1812 edition of “Aschenputtel” was changed by the Brothers Grimm for the 1819 edition. What did they change, and why? Should one or the other be considered the “official” version, or neither?

The first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by the Brothers Grimm was intended mainly for adults studying folklore. But over time, families and children became the main buyers of the book. With each edition, the Grimms altered the stories to make them more socially acceptable to 19th century parents, adding morality designed to teach children how to behave. Unlike the recent trend to posthumously censor the work of authors like Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl, Grimm’s tales were edited by their own authors. So readers can look at the multiple versions of their stories, notice what changed, and decide for themselves which version they prefer.

Accompanying this episode are two audiobooks, in which I perform my translations of the 1812 version and the 1819 version.

Activity: Two Grimm Cinderellas

This activity is best for students aged about twelve and up. Students can explain their answers in a group discussion, a short written response, or an essay.

Compare the 1812 and 1819 versions of “Aschenputtel” by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Write down a list of similarities and differences between the two stories. Then ask students to think about which version they prefer, paying extra attention to the ending of the story, the roles of the father and stepmother, and the punishment given to the stepsisters.

Students can consider questions such as:

  • Is it punishment enough to have the sisters watch Aschenputtel drive off with the prince as they stand on the front porch with their bleeding feet, or is it more satisfying to see the wrath of the almighty descend to take away their eyes?
  • How does the role of the father change in the two stories? Which version does a better job of showing his failings as a good father?
  • Do you think either of the versions should have showed the father and stepmother receiving some kind of punishment, or do you think the stories work well as they are?
  • Is it better for a story like “Aschenputtel” to realistically show what happens when people are cruel, with wickedness often going unnoticed, or is the story better for children when it shows good people being rewarded and bad people being punished?
  • Should either of these stories be considered the official version? If so, which one and why?

30 – A Cinderella Story from Ancient China

“Ye Xian” is a story first published over 1,000 years ago, but it follows the familiar pattern of Cinderella stories from all over the world. People often mistakenly think that Cinderella stories are just about pretty dresses, going to parties, and depending on a man instead of taking care of yourself. But what these stories are really about is social and economic power, featuring wise young women who make the best choices available to them to escape from a bad life into a better one.

This story contains many classic elements of a Cinderella tale — an orphaned young woman mistreated by abusive relatives, magical assistance to help her enter the world of the wealthy and powerful, and finally an escape from her desperate existence due to her own good virtues. There’s even a missing shoe!

The story can be understood easily by modern readers, but learning a little about traditional Chinese beliefs and the symbolism of certain colors and animals can help readers have a deeper appreciation for this charming story from long ago.

If your kids want to hear the story of “Ye Xian” on its own, it can be found on the Folk Tales page with other stories from around the world.

Activity: What Can Modern Builders Learn from a Yaodong?

As land grows more expensive, houses become more difficult and costly to build, and building materials have to be shipped ever longer distances,  home ownership becomes unrealistic for more and more people. We ought to consider ways that houses can be made less expensive, create less pollution, and cause less long-term damage to our world. Sometimes it helps to look back in order to know the best path forward.

The setting for “Ye Xian” is in an area where people lived in a type of home called a yaodong. The word directly means “house cave,” but these are not natural caves. They are comfortable homes cut from rock using very old and very effective engineering techniques. Students can investigate the ways a traditional Chinese yaodong might help builders create modern homes that are beautiful, comfortable, affordable, and don’t damage the environment.

Have students search for images of traditional and modern yaodongs. There are two styles, both usually cut from a kind of terrain called loess. The most common style is cut directly into a natural hillside. Another style involves excavating a square pit, shaping it into a courtyard, and then cutting caves into the walls. Students can research the engineering of both styles of yaodong, comparing the traits and advantages of each style. Students can learn about the following concepts in building:

Insulation – Cave homes keep a steady temperature because rock does not heat up or cool down quickly.
Energy efficiency – Cave homes use less fuel to keep people warm or cool because of the cave’s good insulation. This saves money and reduces pollution.
Soundproofing – Cave homes are quiet because sound waves don’t travel very well through rock.
Weatherproofing – Cave homes, when built correctly, do not let water or wind into the home.
Sustainable – Because cave homes are carved directly out of rock, very few building materials need to be brought in from other places. The excavated stone can be crushed into gravel for roads or used as building blocks for other structures. This saves money and means less pollution is created by making building materials and transporting them to construction sites. Fewer trees need to be cut down to build a yaodong, since wood might only be used for doors, window frames, or furniture.

The results of research can be shared in a written report, class presentation, video, or art project.

29 – A French Lesson with The Fables of La Fontaine

Generations of French children have grown up reading and memorizing the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, and these stories have had a huge impact on the French language.

You can’t really be fluent in any language unless you know certain stories, songs, and figures of speech, most of which are learned in childhood. Native speakers of French are almost automatically familiar with the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, who collected and retold 239 fables in twelve books. Each story contains pithy phrases and morals that show up repeatedly in common speech, news articles, political cartoons, and even scientific papers.

This episode takes a look at one of La Fontaine’s Fables — Les Animaux Malades de la Peste, or Animals Sick with the Plague. Originally written by Aesop, this is a deeply political tale that is sadly still relevant today with its moral warning that it is easy for the powerful to escape justice, instead heaping blame upon a weaker — and innocent — scapegoat.

Activity: The Moral of the Story . . .

Have students read one of the Fables of La Fontaine. If you or your kids are able to read French, the original versions can be found here:


A selection of the Fables translated into English can be found here:


After reading a fable, have students fill out this printable worksheet, which has spaces for the following:

      • Name of the fable
      • Origin of the fable (Aesop? Horace? A French folktale?)
      • Most interesting sentence in the fable
      • What is the moral of this story?
      • How can you use this moral to improve your life?

Students can then share their findings with one another.

Activity: Translating Important French Phrases from the Fables

This activity is appropriate for kids who are learning the French language and have enough ability to engage in short translations. Below is a list of some commonly quoted phrases from the Fables de La Fontaine. Alone, in pairs, or in small groups as appropriate, have students translate one or more of the phrases into their native language. Then, ask the students to try to figure out what the moral means. It may be necessary to read the fable from which the quote is derived in order to get good context. Students should then share their findings with one another.

Title of Fable – Book, Number Quotation
La Cigale et la Fourmi – I, 1 Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant.
Le Corbeau et le Renard – I, 2 Apprenez que tout flatteur, vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute.
Le Loup et l’Agneau – I, 10 La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure
Les Frelons et les Mouches à miel – I, 21 À l’œuvre on connaît l’artisan.
Le Lion et le Rat – II, 11 On a souvent besoin d’un plus petit que soi.
Le Renard et le Bouc – III, 5 En toute chose il faut considérer la fin.
Le Petit Poisson et le Pêcheur – V, 3 Petit poisson deviendra grand, pourvu que Dieu lui prête vie.
Le Petit Poisson et le Pêcheur – V, 3 Un Tiens vaut, ce dit-on, mieux que deux Tu l’auras.
Le Lièvre et la Tortue – VI, 10 Rien ne sert de courir; il faut partir à point.
Le Chartier embourbé – VI, 18 Aide-toi, le Ciel t’aidera.
Le Lion amoureux – IV, 1 Amour, Amour, quand tu nous tiens, on peut bien dire: Adieu prudence.
L’Ours et les Deux Compagnons – V, 20 Il m’a dit qu’il ne faut jamais, vendre la peau de l’ours qu’on ne l’ait mis par terre.
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste – VII, 1 Ils ne mouraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés.
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste – VII, 1 Crier Haro sur le baudet.
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste – VII, 1 Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable, les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir.
Les Lapins – X, 15 Mais les ouvrages les plus courts sont toujours les meilleurs.
Le Milan et le Rossignol – IX, 18 Ventre affamé n’a point d’oreilles.

10 – A Ukrainian Folktale Turned Modern Parable

The Ukrainian folktale of “The Crow and The Snake” is not one that’s well known in the West. Very little information exists about it in English, and I’ve had trouble discovering anything about its origins or publication history. But it has turned out to be a remarkably poignant story in light of the current war being waged by Russia against the nation and people of Ukraine.

Corvus cornix, the Hooded Crow, which is commonly seen in Ukraine. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Original file found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_cornix_2019-08-02.jpg

“The Crow and the Snake” can be seen as a parable or allegory of the invasion and subsequent war, which makes it useful to parents and teachers who are at a loss for ways to explain what’s going on to their children.

You can hear the entire folktale here:

Activity: Should the Fox have helped more?

In “The Crow and The Snake” a Crow is attacked by her neighbor, a  Snake who eats up her children. The Crow never considers fleeing from her home, choosing instead to defend it. A passing Fox offers advice to the Crow, which ends up working, and the Snake is killed. The morality of the Fox’s actions are worth considering.

Have students engage with the following questions. This could be in a class discussion, in written essays, or in small group conferences.

    • Why do you think the Crow didn’t try to fight the Snake herself?
    • Why do you think the Fox gave advice to the Crow?
    • Can you think of any reasons the Fox should have offered direct help to the Crow?
    • Can you think of any reasons why the Fox would not have wanted to offer direct help to the Crow?
    • If you were the Crow, would you have abandoned your nest or stayed behind to fight for your home?

9 – The Crow and The Snake: A Ukrainian Folktale

This audio version of “The Crow and The Snake” pairs with the episode “A Ukrainian Folktale Turned Modern Parable.” It can be freely used by parents, teachers, and other educators for non-profit purposes.

I don’t have a great degree of familiarity with the folklore of Eastern Europe, but recent events have led me to look for stories from Ukraine as a way to learn more about the culture of a nation that is fighting for its survival. Unfortunately I can find very little English-language scholarship on Ukrainian folklore. If any listeners have tips for me about reliable sources for research, please send a message to letters@childrensliteraturepodcast.com.

8 – Ricky the Racer

“Ricky the Racer” is a tale that has been in TQ Townsend’s family for four generations. It was written by her grandfather, E. Harlow Mortensen, and originally had the title “Dick and the Racetrack.” It’s been modified and added to over the years, so what is presented here is an expanded retelling. A few details have been changed from the original, but it’s mainly the same story that was first told almost 70 years ago.

The folk history of this tale:

This story was first made up in the mid-1950’s. The cars in the original version of the story were Volkswagen Bugs. Dick was the driver of a blue bug, and to the best of my memory the other bugs were green, red, and white. I believe the sounds the cars made were “ZEEEEEEE,” “BWAAAAAA,” and “BUH-BUH-BUH-BUH.” But it’s hard to remember exactly because it’s been so long.

I have changed the name of the main character from Dick to Ricky because, in the years after this story was first written, this nickname has acquired a vulgar connotation and I don’t want my kids to accidentally get in trouble for innocently saying a word that will get them in trouble at school. Also, when my oldest daughter heard this story she wanted to hear about a female protagonist, so when I tell it to her, Ricky becomes Ricki and she saves Lucky the Puppy.