South Africa: Text Messages | the Value of Kindness

editorial

Children's fiction reminds us, amid ever more disturbing and dehumanising world events, of the importance of acknowledging the value of the gentler emotions.

There is much to be said for the curious Cape tradition of a second New Year's Day on 2 January. If the New Year is a good thing, to be welcomed by wild celebration, then why not double the joy and re-enact New Year a mere day after its arrival rather than wait 365 days (or 366 every fourth year).

The passing of the old and the coming of the new are adjacent phenomena, and whatever the sadness and regret of saying goodbye to what might have been the splendid old, the new brings fresh hope. In a world growing gloomier in prospect because of the climate emergency, lies playing as truth, rapidly rising ultra-nationalism and dictatorships masquerading as democracies, hope is needed more than ever.

Hope was the one element not lost when Pandora's box was opened. It remained then, and remains now, humankind's consolation and last resort. Perhaps, too, it is humankind's measure of first resort, as argued by children's fiction writer Katherine Rundell. In an essay in The Guardian newspaper, she wrote:

"Those of us who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps also, secretly, to arm adults against the necessary compromises and heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return ...

"Above all, children's fiction spoke to me, and still speaks to me, of hope. The books say: look, this is what bravery looks like. This is what generosity looks like. They tell me ... that this world we live in is a world of people who tell jokes and work and endure. Children's books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something, bravery will matter, wit, empathy, love will matter. These things may or may not be true. I hope that they are."

Classic tale

Among the stories of childhood, one that I always hoped was true was the Chinese tale of The Wolf and the Scholar. Here is my much abbreviated version of this classic children's story.

Dongguo the Scholar was known for being kind and gentle. He loved to read and study and improve his already fine calligraphy. One day, while walking home from a bookshop where he had bought many books, he saw a wolf loping towards him.

Dongguo moved aside to let the wolf pass, but instead the wolf stopped right in the scholar's path. The animal first knelt, and then bowed deeply.

"Distinguished Scholar, please help me," said the wolf.

"Why? What's the matter?" said the scholar.

"I am being chased by six hunters, who will shoot me with arrows and then chop me to pieces with their axes," said the wolf.

"Of course I will help you. What should I do?" asked the scholar.

"Hide me in that large sack you have on your shoulders. And then when the hunters come, say that you have not seen me," replied the wolf.

Setting down his sack, the scholar untied it and the wolf jumped in. The scholar covered him with the books and scrolls, retied the sack and hoisted it back on to his shoulders.

Soon, the hunters came running down the tree-lined road. They stopped and asked the scholar if he had seen a wolf running in his direction.

"No, not towards me," said Dongguo. "He raced that way, through the trees and up the hill."

The hunters ran off up the hill and when they were out of sight, the scholar lowered his sack, untied it and let the wolf out of the bag.

"There, my friend, you are safe," he said to the wolf.

"Thank you, honourable master," said the wolf. "Now that you have shown me your kindness, please be kind once more and save my life again."

"How could I do that?"

"The truth is, you see, I haven't eaten in days. Oh, only scraps here and there. But you, you are meaty. And I am very hungry."

"You want ... to ... eat ... me?"

"Yes! Of course. If not I'll die. And, as you are famed for being kind, you would be most unkind if you refused me."

Just as the wolf bared his teeth and sat back on his haunches to spring at the scholar's neck, a grey-bearded man emerged from the trees. Seeing the scholar's fright, the old man asked: "What's up here? Are you two quarrelling?"

The scholar explained what had happened. When he finished, the wolf said, "The scholar is a liar! He tried to kill me by tying me up and throwing me into that sack and then dropping heavy books on me. When that didn't work, he swung the bag on his shoulders and was taking me home to kill. Help me!"

The old man paused. "I see," he said, looking severely at the scholar. "Very well, wolf, but to prove your story, you must show me how this man tried to kill you. First, jump in again!"

Swiftly, the wolf obliged. Once his sleek greyness was in the bag, the old man tied it up as tightly as he could. Turning to Dongguo, he said, "Give me your knife."

"I don't have one. But surely you can't mean to kill the wolf?"

"Want him to get out of the bag and eat you?"

"No, but you shouldn't harm him," said Dongguo as he saw the old man reaching for the wolf's neck through the cotton of the sack.

"Scholar, you clearly have a very kind heart. But you are also very stupid."

"Being kind is not stupid."

Just then the wolf, regaining his voice, said, "The scholar did save my life. I lied. Please forgive me and spare my life yet again."

Instantly, the scholar prised the sack from the old man and untied the top, letting the wolf out. Crying, the wolf bowed deeply to both men and said, "Thank you, kindly masters, I have learned a lot from the scholar. I promise to behave better." He dashed off in the opposite direction to the way the hunters had gone.

The old man turned to the scholar and said, "I hope that you will be proved right about that wolf."

"It doesn't matter," said the scholar, "because being kind is always right."

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