I took this blog down after publishing it, as I wasn’t happy with it – but folowing a massive Twitter campaign (by @ChangeContinuum) it has been digitally re-mastered from previously lost tapes….
In over four years of sourcing and reading children’s stories, most have seemed to offer a fairly acceptable and benign morality. At that age, discussion of contentious moral questions is of limited appeal.
But one book has caused me considerable angst – The Rainbow Fish. It was no surprise when I started doing a little digging that its interpretation has been varied and controversial.
The Rainbow Fish, the most beautiful in the ocean, is covered in wonderful shiny scales. It is proud, and protective of its gift. One day a small insignificantly-adorned blue fish approaches it and asks for a scale. It receives short shrift from the technicolor porpoise and so spreads the word of its treatment, and secures an ostracism. The Rainbow Fish visits a “wise” octopus, whose guidance is for the shimmery one to give its scales away, in order to find true happiness. When the blue fish asks again, it reluctantly gives it a scale – and just like a free latte at Starbucks, soon every fish wants one and it is giving them all away – bar one. The ocean is filled with fish with a single shiny scale, and of course the Rainbow Fish is welcomed back into the fold, relieved (and relieved of what made it special).
Is it a cautionary tale of the dangers of vanity and selfishness, and the happiness and acceptance that comes from sharing – or a submission to envy, and justification of bullying and the use of emotional blackmail? Is it teaching children the value of sacrifice and selfless generosity – or encouraging them to give away their gifts in order to fit in, submitting themselves to the safety and insignificance of the mediocracy? Is the story really about attributes, or attitude?
The most ridiculous interpretation is that the octopus is a rampant socialist, and is encouraging homogeneity as an end in itself. This clearly ignores Marx’s recognition of the necessity of diverse talents and abilities, and the contribution to society they are able to make, in the famous phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” from his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875. You will notice from the story summary that the blue fish didn’t need a scale. It just wanted one.
What, therefore, of recognising the gifts you have, seeking to make the best of them for both your own and a wider good, while preserving and displaying a generosity of spirit, recognising that we necessarily all bring something different?
So two questions for you to ponder:
- You are the wise octopus – what would you have told the Rainbow Fish?
- Witnessing the incident, what would you have subsequently told the octopus about its advice?
My view? Let’s just say, the book is in the paper recycling. There is already enough mediocrity in the world. Next, we’ll be told it’s the taking part that counts.