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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. Versions of the story go back more than 25 centuries, and it continues to be referenced in a variety of media.
The story is listed as Aarne-Thompson-Uther 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, commonly Chicken Licken or Chicken Little, Henny Penny or Hen-Len, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky or Ducky Daddles, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey or Goosey Poosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey and Foxy Loxy or Foxy Woxy.
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.
In the United States the most common name for the story is "Chicken Little", as attested by illustrated books for children going back to the early 19th century. Other names by which it is better known in Britain and its former colonies include "Henny Penny" and "Chicken Licken". These are also known in the U.S.[note 1], but used more rarely.
The names of the main characters in the fable - Chicken Little/Chicken Licken and Henny Penny - and the fable's central phrase - The sky is falling! - have been applied to people accused of being unreasonably afraid, or those trying to incite an unreasonable fear in those around them. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary records the first application of the name Chicken Little to 'one who warns of or predicts calamity, especially without justification’ as dating from 1895, although idiomatic use of the name significantly predates that attestation. Because of this association, the tale has become politicised.
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.
Walt Disney Pictures has made two animated versions of the story. The first was Chicken Little, an animated short released during World War II as one of a series produced at the request of the U.S. government for the purpose of discrediting Nazism. It tells a variant of the parable in which Foxy Loxy takes the advice of a book on psychology (on the original 1943 cut, it is Mein Kampf) by striking the least intelligent first. Dim-witted Chicken Little is convinced by him that the sky is falling and whips the farmyard into mass hysteria, which the unscrupulous fox manipulates for his own benefit. The dark comedy is used as an allegory for the idea that fear-mongering weakens the war effort and costs lives. It is also one of the versions of the story in which Chicken Little appears as a character distinct from Henny Penny.
The second Disney film was the very loosely adapted Chicken Little, released in 2005 as a computer-animated feature. It is an updated science fiction sequel to the original fable in which Chicken Little is partly justified in his fears. In this version, Foxy Loxy was changed from a male to a female, and from the main antagonist to a local bully.
Another film adaptation was the animated TV episode "Henny Penny" (1999), which was part of the series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. In this modern update the story is given a satirical and political interpretation.
On the sitcom The Golden Girls, there was a 1991 episode in which the characters perform a short musical based on the fable (here titled "Henny Panny") at a school recital. This was followed in 1998 by Joy Chaitin and Sarah Stevens-Estabrook's equally light-hearted musical version of the fable, "Henny Penny". Designed for between six and a hundred junior actors, it has additional characters as optional extras: Funky Monkey, Sheepy Weepy, Mama Llama, Pandy Handy and Giraffy Laughy (plus an aggressive oak-tree).
There have also been a number of musical settings. American composer Vincent Persichetti used the fable as the plot of his only opera The Sibyl: A Parable of Chicken Little (Parable XX), op. 135 (1976), which premiered in 1985. In 2007 American singer and composer Gary Bachlund set the text of Margaret Free’s reading version of “Chicken Little” (The Primer, 1910) for high voice and piano. In his note to the score Bachlund makes it clear that he intends a reference to alarmism and its tragic consequences.
In Singapore a more involved musical was performed in 2005. This was Brian Seward's The Acorn - the true story of Chicken Licken. It is a tale of mixed motivations as certain creatures (including some among the 'good guys') take advantage of the panic caused by Chicken Licken.
There are many novels, films, CDs and songs titled "The Sky is Falling", but the majority refer to the idiomatic use of the phrase rather than to the fable from which it derives. The following are some lyrics which genuinely refer or allude to the story:
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 (J 322). 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.
The Tibetan version of the Jataka tale has been told in rhyme by Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky in her book "The Terrible Plop" (2009), which has since been dramatised, using the original title "Plop!". In this, the animal stampede is halted by a bear, rather than a lion. The ending has been changed from the Tibetan original as well.
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.