Peter and the Wolf (Retold)

Wandering Reflections at the Symphony

Complete text by Sergei Prokofiev in bold

By Ben Herr

Early one morning Peter opened the gate and went out on a big green meadow, after checking to make sure his grandfather had not seen him go. It was a highly dangerous woods, you see, dangerous to the point that it need not be considered unbelievably rare should a fierce, reclusive predator such as a wolf suddenly show up near a human residence. Grandfather, you see, had warned Peter many times to say within the gated yard.

On the branch of a big tree sat a little bird, Peter’s friend. “All is quiet,” chirped the bird gaily, unaware that the human creature in front of it did not understand bird song. If Peter had, he would have replied by chirping back the question, “Doesn’t a quiet forest usually mean trouble is approaching?”

But as it was, the bird and the boy felt happy and safe in the meadow, enjoying watching each other. Since very few humans with children would live in such a dangerous part of the woods, this was the closest thing Peter had to a friend.

Soon a duck came waddling around. She was glad that Peter had not closed the gate, and decided to take a nice swim in the deep pond in the meadow.

“Humph!” Peter said with a sigh of exasperation. How would he catch the duck in the middle of the pond? If he didn’t get it back, grandpa would know he had opened the gate and gone to the meadow. “I must figure out a way to catch the duck or I will get in trouble for sure. Maybe if I had a rope …”

Seeing the duck, the little bird flew down upon the grass, settled next to the duck and shrugged her shoulders.

“What kind of bird are you, if you can’t fly!” said she. To this the duck replied: “What kind of bird are you, if you can’t swim!” and dived into the pond. You see, the duck had swum to the shore to make that reply, then jumped right back into the water to continue the argument, mostly for dramatic effect.

They argued and argued — the duck swimming in the pond, the little bird hopping along the shore.

“Actually, there are only 17 species of birds that can swim, but cannot fly … all of which are penguins,” said the bird. “So the real burden of proof lies with you, when it comes to the task of disproving a claim of one’s own abilities being more birdlike.”

“Back off, flight supremacist!” quacked the duck. “Ducks get our wings clipped so we can’t fly out of the yard. Don’t hold your flight privilege over me!”

“Don’t hate on me just cause I was born with the ability to fly and sing beautifully!” chirped back the bird in agitation. “Skillful flight takes HARD WORK! You don’t just pop out of the egg and start flying. You have to put in a lot of hours training your wings, and staying in flying shape. Not to mention you have to eat right. An herb-based diet is important, yet everyone wants to be able to fly while eating minimum sage.”

“Wow, you’re out of touch, my friend. What’s that saying about walking a mile in another bird’s webbed feet? It’s not easy! These feet are built for water! Trust me, I’d love to be able to put in the work required to fly, I just don’t have that opportunity!”

Suddenly something caught Peter’s attention. It didn’t take much, because the chirps and quacks of the strange interaction got old pretty quickly. He noticed a cat crawling through the grass.

The cat thought: “The bird is busy arguing. I’ll just grab her.” Stealthily she crept toward her on her velvet paws.

“All I’m saying,” the bird continued, with a wide gesture of its wings, “is that maybe if you ventured out here into the wild and stopped relying on handouts from Grandpapa, you’d realize how much more you could accomplish!”

“You really think that would work?” quacked the duck angrily. “Every time we —”

“Look out!” shouted Peter, and the bird immediately flew up into the tree. From the middle of the pond … the duck quacked angrily at the cat.

“Oh, come on! We were just getting to the point!” said the duck angrily. “Couldn’t you wait a bit to break us up?”

“See?” piped in the bird. “You can swim in the water. Water. The very thing cats hate. You have some advantages too! See, we can both be a little ethnocentric, blaming problems on the other guy.”

“Yeah. But still. I’m stuck in a pond.” The duck kept swimming in circles.

The cat crawled around the tree and thought: “Is it worth climbing up so high? By the time I get there, the bird will have flown away. Also, I’ll get stuck, and I don’t think this place is fire truck accessible, so how else will anyone manage rescue me? Also, why was I even pondering the first question. Of course the bird will fly away.”

Grandfather came out. He was angry because Peter had gone to the meadow. “It is a dangerous place. If a wolf should come out of the forest, then what would you do?” he said in a tone that was totally not in any way ominous foreshadowing.

Peter paid no attention to Grandfather’s words, ensuring that by having the protagonist disobey an authority figure in a children’s story, a lesson will be learned later. Also because he had taken the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” a little too much to heart and just couldn’t take Grandfather’s warnings very seriously.

Besides, boys, as he, are not afraid of wolves. But Grandfather took Peter by the hand, led him home and locked the gate. Peter now obeyed and went without a fuss, because boys, as he, are very afraid of spankings.

No sooner had Peter gone, than a big gray wolf came out of the forest. The gray wolf surveyed the meadow.

“I’ve been hunting down a pack elk of three days and have almost caught up,” it thought, “but I guess I can put that most urgent quest on hold to go after a little duck, or a cat, or perhaps a canary.”

In a twinkling, the cat climbed up the tree, because in the Rock, Paper, Scissors of things cats are afraid of, “Wolf” beats “Stuck in a Tree.” Which beats “The Fifth Second of Getting Rubbed on the Belly.”

The duck quacked, “OK, that’s it, I’m outta here! Wait … they locked the gate? Are you serious? How could they just leave me out here?!?” and in her excitement jumped out of the pond. The wolf chuckled and gave pursuit.

But no matter how hard the duck tried to run, she couldn’t escape the wolf. He was getting nearer … “Um … help?” quacked the duck. … nearer … “For real, someone help me! I’m about to get eaten by a wolf over here! Peter? Grandpa?” … catching up with her “Oh, come on, I bet if that bird were getting chased they’d come out and help it.” … and then he got her, and with one gulp swallowed her.

And now, to avoid the pesky task of actually writing a piece of story so complicated that it only contains a wolf walking from a pond to a tree, this is how things stood: the cat was sitting on one branch, trying to figure out how to safely rub the wolf’s belly for 5 seconds or more, the bird on another, not too close to the cat, because in order to be unified against this new enemy, they needed to be in the same tree, yet not so close as to tempt the cat into forgetting about defeating the wolf first … and the wolf walked around and around the tree looking at them with greedy eyes. Of course, from the wolf’s point of view, trying to catch three whole elk would have been greedy. Wanting more than just a little waddling duck seemed very reasonable.

In the meantime, Peter, without the slightest fear, stood behind the closed gate watching all that was going on. Having grown up in such isolation, being raised by only a cranky grandfather, he had no one in his life to tell him that having courage did NOT mean standing behind a wall in safety as your animal friends get hunted and eaten by a ravenous wolf. But since he cared a lot more about the bird than the duck, he ran home, took a strong rope and climbed up the high stone wall. One of the branches of the tree around which the wolf was walking, stretched out over the wall. A smarter boy would have beckoned to the cat to walk across the branch and into the safety of his home, and for the bird to fly over. But since his limited life experience made him a bit of a novice at heroic problem solving, he decided the best course of action was to play God and join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fire, except in a version of the story where Abednego was already dead, because everyone knows he was the annoying one in that group of friends. Grabbing hold of the branch, Peter lightly climbed over on to the tree. As they sat there making a plan, Peter wondered why grandfather was so upset. He had been in the meadow, but no farther away from the gate than the width of a tree. He could have run back inside in no time.

Peter said to the bird: “Fly down and circle around the wolf’s head, only take care that he doesn’t catch you.”

“And see if you can scratch its belly, too!” added the cat. A sudden and uncharacteristic sense of altruism and compassion came across the bird, and it followed Peter’s initiative, putting its life in great danger without having a clue why.

The bird almost touched the wolf’s head with her wings while the wolf snapped angrily at her from this side and that. How the bird did worry the wolf in the same way as a policeman is worried by a doughnut rolling down a hill away from him! How he wanted to catch her just like that gingerbread man! But the bird was cleverer, or “quicker” as a storyteller with less bias against the wolf might say, and the wolf simply couldn’t do anything about it.

Meanwhile, in no great rush in spite of his bird friend being in great danger, Peter made a lasso and carefully let it down. He had never used a lasso before, but he gave it his best shot, aimed for the wolf’s head and neck, and caught the wolf by the tail. A bit surprised, Peter decided to make do with the snare he had managed and pulled with all his might.

Feeling himself caught, the wolf began to jump wildly trying to get loose. “What did you manage to get yourself into?” wondered the wolf. “Especially considering this was supposed to be just a quick side snack.”

But Peter tied the other end of the rope to the tree, and the wolf’s jumping only made the rope around his tail tighter. The wolf was now very frustrated. He wasn’t caught, his tail was simply stuck tightly. He could have reached back and bitten the rope in two, freeing himself, but he worried that if he wasn’t able to the noose off of his tail, it would cut off circulation and he would lose his tail. He turned to Peter, and in a resolute and determined manner, delivered a speech that would sadly fall ununderstood by the human boy.

“I am Gray Wolf. Cousin of asphyxiated Big Bad Wolf. Second cousin of lumberjack- murdered other Big Bad Wolf. You ruined my hunt. You saved the lives of my snacks. You tricked me by giving me the bird. And now you caught my tail.

“I’m not leaving without that tail!”

Just then the hunters came out of the woods, following the wolf’s trail and shooting as they went. It has long since been a point of debate as to whether they were the world’s worst, noisiest animal trackers, or if one of them was a PETA member in disguise, tricking them into shooting at shadows, to ensure that they did not have a successful hunt. Skeptics of the reliability of the account given by Peter and the hunters point out that Peter, the wolf, the cat, or the bird would surely have heard the hunters coming long before they emerged from the forest, due to said gunfire.

When the hunters saw the wolf, they took aim, but Peter, sitting in the tree, cried: “Don’t shoot! Birdie and I have already caught the wolf! Now help us take him to the zoo.”

Perhaps it was because they realized they had wasted all of their bullets with their senseless shooting and were out of ammunition. Perhaps it was because they were embarrassed for having been unwittingly hunting and shooting so close to a residence where a young boy was playing outside. Perhaps it was because they respected the boy for doing with a rope what they had not been able to do with guns. Perhaps it was because they had a change of heart and decided that such a powerful and majestic creature should not be hunted, but should be admired by the masses while slouching around behind bars. But more likely, it was because they were so shocked and worried about the judgment and safety of a boy who thought he had corralled a powerful wolf by merely tying a rope around its tail, that they abandoned their hunt and agreed to escort the boy to the zoo.

The wolf, suddenly finding himself on the wrong end of several rifle barrels, lowered his head, amazed at his rotten luck.

And there, imagine the triumphant procession: Peter at the head, smiling broadly, and feeling rather proud of his antics and achievements, in the end, not having learned that lesson about heeding an authority figure’s warning … after him the hunters leading the wolf, who walked with his head low, mourning his fulfilled destiny of being a powerful, cunning fairy tale wolf who got captured by a far inferior and mostly inept foe thanks to some remarkably convenient occurrences … and winding up the procession, grandfather and the cat, who smiled, having achieved its ultimate goal of receiving a portion of the group’s glory, yet never having to lift so much as a paw or contribute anything.

Grandfather tossed his head, discontentedly, trying to instill the importance of what didn’t, but likely could have happened, with a vigor matched only by a parent whose child won big the first time they gambled: “Well, and if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”

Above them flew Birdie chirping merrily: “My, what fine ones we are, Peter and I! Look, what we have caught!” Fortunately for Birdie, the rather tense hunters, who were still guarding the wolf, could not understand bird song, or they may have shot the little birdie for taking credit for what was, in reality, the hunter’s achievement.

And if one would listen very carefully, he could hear the duck quacking in the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive. Since an ending like that is just daring the world to come up with a worse ending: Peter took out a packed lunch of onion rings. Birdie started fluttering down to eat with Peter, but was having difficulty landing on his shoulder. One of the hunters took off his hunting coat, revealing a “Members Only” jacket and started acting fidgety. Then Peter heard a twig snap, he looked up and —

 

PETER AND THE WOLF
By Sergei Prokofiev
© 1937 by G. Schirmer Inc. (ASCAP)

Translation by W. Blok, 1961

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