Sunday, 7 August 2011

Old and New in Interpretation

There's a tale doing the rounds on Facebook and elsewhere, which is a fable:

"An old Cherokee told his grandson, "My son, there's a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy & truth. "
The boy thought about this & asked,
'Which wolf wins?'"
The old cherokee replied,
"The one you feed".

This is presented as part of Indian folklore, although there are several giveaways that it is not - namely the words "ego" and "empathy" which seem more likely to have come from Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. So here's a bit of source criticism...

In fact the story comes from a book by Wendy Mass, a children's writer who has written six books. The story seems to have become detached from its source, and also changed in the telling. But before the publication of Wendy's book in which it is told, it doesn't exist in any literary form, or on Facebook or elsewhere on the internet. She presents it as a story, and apparently an old Indian one (although her story differs markedly from that now doing the rounds), but those who have taken the story seem to forget that she is an author writing fiction - with all that implies - and the book is full of contrivances to explore "the meaning of life".

Wendy Mass is the author of six novels for young people, including A Mango-Shaped Space (which was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award by the American Library Association), Leap Day, the Twice Upon a Time fairy tale series, and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, which earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly magazine.

The story comes in the book Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life:

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is a 2006 children's novel by Wendy Mass. Set in present-day New York, the story follows twelve-year-old Jeremy Fink and his neighbor Lizzy Muldoun as they attempt to retrieve four keys that unlock a wooden box delivered one month before Jeremy's 13th birthday.

The summer he turns 13, Jeremy receives a mysterious box with the engraved words "the meaning of life: for Jeremy Fink on his thirteenth birthday." The box was left by his father, who has been dead for five years. It has four locks, but Jeremy finds no keys to open them. As Jeremy and his best friend, Lizzy, embark on a quest to find the keys, they travel across Manhattan from flea markets to fancy office buildings and museums, searching, as it turns out, not only for keys but also insights into science, religion, art, friendship, and family. The overlong plot lurches from one contrivance to another, and the end is a total setup, but readers will be hooked by the kids' fast, funny urban adventure, as well as by the quest and the "existential crisis." The many open-ended questions make this fun for group discussion: "Why are we here? Is that even the correct question?"

The story forms part of a sequence of other stories and sayings, and here is the original version, which just starts with "an old man" rather than "an old Cherokee":

"A fight is going on inside me," said an old man to his son. "It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. he is joy,
peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you." The son thought about it for a minute and then asked, "Which wolf will win?" The old man replied simply, "The one you feed."
- Wendy Mass (Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life)

There lots of other interesting quotations about from the book, and when I finally catch up with my reading list, I think I'll look for a copy:

"Do you ever think if people heard our conversations they'd lock us up?"
All the time."

"A wise man once remarked that we can count how many seeds are in the apple, but not how many apples are in the seed."

Life is desert first!"

"Reach for the stars and even if you miss you will land among the stars"

"Maybe some things aren't meant to be known. maybe there just meant to be accepted."

"The people on the train with me don't know it, but in my head I'm dancing."

"Did you ever notice how the colors seem brighter on the first day of summer vacation? The birds sing louder? The air is alive with possibility?

"The sunset will shine just as surely, just as colorfully, whether it is shining on a wedding or a war. So it would seem that the sunset itself doesn't
have meaning; it is just doing its job. If the sunset doesn't have meaning apart from what we give it, does a rock? Or a fish? Or life itself? But just because a park bench, for instance, doesn't always have meaning, that doesn't mean it doesn't have worth."

"All you have to do is be the most authentic you that you can be. Find out who you really are, find out why you are here, and you will find your
purpose. And with it, the meaning of life."