The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

August 31, 2015

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Fables of Fragility
James Matthew Wilson (from IR 44:01, Spring 2009)
Cry Wolf: A Political Fable by Paul Lake (Dallas: Benbella Books, Inc., 2008)

By the time George Orwell’s Animal Farm appeared in August of 1945, its readers were well prepared to sift the animals that constitute its cast of characters for their real-life analogues. The atrocities of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime had come sufficiently to light that even leftist sympathizers and card-carrying Communists like Orwell could no longer ignore them. Orwell’s fairy story, as he subtitled it, depicts the revolution of the animal “class” on Manor Farm. They seize the state by sending their master, Jones, into permanent exile and in their jubilation erect a communistic state founded on egalitarianism. The intellectual architects behind this largely spontaneous revolution—the pigs on the farm—naturally take positions of leadership afterwards. And here, of course, begins the decline of a wonderful unrealized socialist utopia into a corrupt tyranny worse even than the days of Jones. Napoleon, the most politically astute pig, rules with an ever more ferrous fist and, as importantly, manipulates the axioms and rather fuzzy collective memory of the animals to transform an egalitarian society into a terrorized fiefdom. The chilling closing scene shows the animals looking in the kitchen window of the farm house to see Napoleon playing poker with neighboring—human—farmers: it has become impossible to tell the difference between pig and man.

Orwell’s delightful, brief narrative acts as a fable: its animal characters allow us to see afresh well-worn and conventional truths. The fable warns us of what we already know, but must learn again and again if we are not to be fooled into historical optimism. Furthermore, a fable’s warning comes primarily through the brief, easily recounted actions of personified animals, so that we see the consequences of foolishness, vanity, and greed in a manner that convinces us as the most well-reasoned and systematic eloquence may not.

Paul Lake’s astonishing Cry Wolf is subtitled “A Political Fable,” but that does not seem adequate to its achievement. The animals of Green Pastures Farm have come into its possession after its former owner, Grover, has died in old age. They develop a tightly organized agrarian society, where each animal has an assigned occupation. They live in obedience to four commandments: “No Trespassing,” “Walk by Day, Not by Night,” “Do Not Kill,” and “Walk in the Ways of Man.” They also have a constitution that divides power between the Animal Council, whose head is Kit, the stallion (perhaps a sardonic nod to Orwell, since the horses in Animal Farm had hearts of gold but heads of wood), and a combined judiciary and priesthood occupied by Ike the ram. For an unexplained reason, most other farms have all died off, and so Green Pastures stands alone, inside a literal fence. Outside is ungoverned wilderness. As is appropriate to a fable, these aspects of the world Lake has imagined are diminutive; they seem to carve a clarity and simplicity out of the sprawling complexity of actual historical societies.

After Lake has set his scene, he allows its history to unfold through a series of events that challenge the constitutional identity of the farm and call into question all of the assumptions that made it sustainable. And here lies the fascination of this book. Lake may at first seem to offer us a modest political fable, but the fable explodes with all the complications of history, forcing us to weight arguments to which there may be no easy or happy solution. As such, this fable develops into a genuine novel of ideas: a political morality tale that grapples in a compelling way with the role of prudence in moral and political life.

What initially appears a rather arbitrary first commandment on the farm—“No Trespassing”—we soon learn was canonized by passive and active tradition. Grover had posted “No Trespassing” signs on the borders of his property, which the animals merely inherited. In the early days after the animals had taken over the farm, however, it was attacked by a bear from the forest, and the ensuing battle forged the consciousness of the animals as tame and, consequently, as dependent upon each other for their mutual defense and the cultivation of a society distinct from the fearsome, formless wilderness beyond. The animals thus acquire a sense of their common identity not in mere opposition to the exogenous, the alien, but as a fragile reality that comes into being naturally and which can only be maintained though choices codified as law. Society is nature organized, and law is society cultivated.

Giving meaning to this encounter of the domestic with the wild is a civil religion that endows their fragile achievement of a society with a telos. Ike the ram offers, in what we quickly understand is a Christmas sermon, a mythology of animal life. Mankind was once brute like the animals, but by harnessing the distinct abilities of dogs, then horses, then cows, man gained in power. Man then has a dream of a “man-shepherd” who tames man as man had tamed the animals; he learns to use an axe, first to cut firewood, and then to build fences. Within the confines of the fence, animals cooperate with man, subordinate to him.

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