Saturday, March 28, 2020

StorySpotting: The farmer and the viper (Cloak & Dagger)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Where was the story spotted?

Cloak & Dagger, season 2, episode 5 (Alignment Chart)

What happens?

Leading up to a betrayal twist at the end of the episode, Tandy (Dagger) tells the story of a farmer who saves the viper's life, only to be bitten to death by the same viper later on. She narrates the tale throughout the episode, and in the end, she also talks about the different meanings this tale can have. Tandy reveals that she is telling this story not to talk about ungrateful people, but to highlight the kindness of the farmer who gives the dangerous animal a chance. She compares the good farmer to her best friend, Tyrone (Cloak).

What's the story?

This story is a very commonly known folktale type, numbered ATU 155 - The Ungrateful Snake Returned to Captivity. The title is a bit misleading, since in many versions, like the one used in Cloak & Dagger, the snake is not returned to captivity at all. Rather, the farmer finds the poor half-frozen serpent, warms it up on his chest under his clothes, and is bitten to death for his troubles.

The most popular version of the tale comes from Aesop's fables. It comes with various morals: "The wicked show no thanks," "Kindness will not bind the ungrateful," "Beware how you entertain traitors," or "No pity for a scoundrel." In some versions the farmer kills the snake just in time to protect himself and his family. Either way, the story carries a deep sense of hurt and betrayal.

In many other versions of the same tale type, the farmer/benefactor receives help. Most often, some wise man or animal comes along, and insists on making judgment after they have seen the original situation. The snake returns to the trap it had been in, and the judge advises the poor man to leave it right there, and not help it a second time.

This story is so commonly known in European folklore that it even became a proverb: "to nourish a serpent on your bosom" means to waste kindness on someone who is ungrateful.


It is an interesting twist for this show to use the story as an example of kindness (while also using it as a metaphor for betrayal). It is a nice contrast to the one billion movies and TV shows that love to use "The Scorpion and the Frog" (a tale so often mentioned I decided never to do StorySpotting for it) to prove that "some people are just born bad." In this one, Tandy decides to highlight how the kind the farmer was to pick the snake up in the first place, and the outcome doesn't change that.

1 comment:

  1. The moral of the story is not, I feel, that the snake is bad or ungrateful or that he 'betrays' the farmer, but that the farmer is unwise to not take into account the nature of a snake. One has to use wisdom in all one's actions; it is foolish to expect a wild animal to behave like a tame one. The tale of the scorpion is more moralistic because the scorpion assures the frog he will not bite him, so that could imply a betrayal, but since scorpion's can't talk the story is obviously anthropomorphic. But the snake is simply acting according to his nature.