Henny Penny

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"Henny Penny", more commonly known in the United States as "Chicken Little" and sometimes as "Chicken Licken", is a European folk tale with a moral in the form of a cumulative tale about a chicken who believes that the world is coming to an end. The phrase "The sky is falling!" features prominently in the story, and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. Similar stories go back more than 25 centuries[1] and "Henny Penny" continues to be referred to in a variety of media.

The story and its name[edit]

Illustration for the story "Chicken Little", 1916

The story is listed as Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index type 20C, which includes international examples of folktales that make light of paranoia and mass hysteria.[2] There are several Western versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chick which believes that the sky is falling when an acorn falls on its head. The chick decides to tell the king and, on its journey, meets other animals which join it in the quest. After this point, there are many endings. In the most familiar, a fox invites them to its lair and then eats them all.

In most retellings, the animals have rhyming names, commonly Chicken Licken or Chicken Little, Henny Penny or Hen-Len, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky or Ducky Daddles, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey or Goosey Poosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey, and Foxy Loxy or Foxy Woxy.

In the United States, the most common name for the story is "Chicken Little", as attested by illustrated books for children dating from the early 19th century. In Britain, it is best known as "Henny Penny" and "Chicken Licken".


"There was once a little chick named Kluk": beginning of the 1823 Danish version of the story.

The story was part of the oral folk tradition and only began to appear in print after the Brothers Grimm had set a European example with their collection of German tales in the early years of the 19th century. One of the earliest to collect tales from Scandinavian sources was Just Mathias Thiele, who in 1823 published an early version of the Henny Penny story in the Danish language.[3] The names of the characters there are Kylling Kluk,[note 1] Høne Pøne,[note 2] Hane Pane,[note 3] And Svand,[note 4] Gaase Paase,[note 5] and Ræv Skræv.[note 6] In Thiele's untitled account, a nut falls on Kylling Kluk's back and knocks him over. He then goes to each of the other characters, proclaiming that "I think all the world is falling" and setting them all running. The fox Ræv Skræv joins in the flight and, when they reach the wood, counts them over from behind and eats them one by one. Eventually the tale was translated into English by Benjamin Thorpe after several other versions had appeared.

Once the story began to appear in the English language, the titles by which they went varied considerably and have continued to do so. John Greene Chandler (1815-1879), an illustrator and wood engraver from Petersham, Massachusetts, published an illustrated children's book titled The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little in 1840.[4][5][6] In this American version of the story, the characters' names are Chicken Little, Hen-Pen, Duck-Luck, Goose-Loose, and Fox-Lox; Chicken Little is frightened by a leaf falling on her tail.[7]

First pages of The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little (1840)

A Scots version of the tale is found in Robert Chambers's Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland of 1842.[8] It appeared among the "Fireside Nursery Stories" and was titled "The hen and her fellow travellers". The characters included Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Daddles, Goosie Poosie, and an unnamed tod (fox). Henny Penny became convinced that "the lifts were faun" (the heavens were falling) when a pea fell on her head.

In 1849, a "very different" English version was published under the title "The Story of Chicken-Licken" by James Orchard Halliwell.[9] In this Chicken-licken was startled when "an acorn fell on her bald pate" and encounters the characters Hen-len, Cock-lock, Duck-luck, Drake-lake, Goose-loose, Gander-lander, Turkey-lurkey and Fox-lox.

It was followed in 1850 by "The wonderful story of Henny Penny" in Joseph Cundall's compilation, The Treasury of pleasure books for young children.[10] Each story there is presented as if it were a separate book, and in this case had two illustrations by Harrison Weir. In reality the story is a repetition of the Chambers narration in standard English, except that the dialect phrase "so she gaed, and she gaed, and she gaed" is retained and the cause of panic is mistranslated as "the clouds are falling".

Benjamin Thorpe's translation of Thiele's Danish story was published in 1853 and given the title "The Little Chicken Kluk and his companions".[11] Thorpe describes the tale there as "a pendant to the Scottish story…printed in Chambers" (see above) and gives the characters approximately the same names as in Chambers.

Comparing the different versions, we find that in the Scots and English stories the animals want "to tell the king" that the skies are falling; while in the American story, as in the Danish, they are not given any specific motivation. In all versions they are eaten by the fox, although in different circumstances.

Comparison of early publications
Source Title Main character Other characters Initial event Fear Motivation Fate
Thiele, 1823 [untitled] Kylling Kluk[note 1] Høne Pøne[note 2]
Hane Pane[note 3]
And Svand[note 4]
Gaase Paase[note 5]
Ræv Skræv[note 6]
A nut falls on Kylling Kluk's back All the world is falling (al Verden falder) So let us run (Saa lad os løbe) Raev Skraev runs with them into the wood and eats them one by one
Chandler, 1840 The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little Chicken Little Hen Pen
Duck Luck
Goose Loose
Turkey Lurkey
Fox Lox
The leaf of a rose-bush falls on Chicken Little's tail The sky is falling None given, except that Chicken Little is frightened Fox Lox invites the animals into his den, kills the others, and eats Chicken Little
Chambers, 1842 The Hen and Her Fellow-Travellers henny-penny cocky-locky
unnamed tod (fox)
A pea falls on henny-penny's head "The lifts were faun" (the heavens were falling) To tell the king about it A tod (fox) takes them to his hole, forces them inside, then he and his young ones eat them
Halliwell, 1849 The Story of Chicken-licken Chicken-licken Hen-len
An acorn falls upon Chicken-licken's bald pate The sky had fallen To tell the king Fox-lox takes them to his hole, then he and his young ones eat them
Thorpe, 1853 (translation of Thiele 1823) The Little Chicken Kluk and His Companions Chicken Kluk Henny Penny
Cocky Locky
Ducky Lucky
Goosy Poosy
Foxy Coxy
A nut falls on Chicken Kluk's back All the world is falling Then let us run Foxy Coxy runs with them into the wood and eats them one by one

Idiomatic usage[edit]

Title page of The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little

The name "Chicken Little" and the fable's central phrase The sky is falling! have been applied to people accused of being unreasonably afraid, or those trying to incite an unreasonable fear in those around them.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary shows 1895 as the first use of the name "Chicken Little" to refer to "one who warns of or predicts calamity, especially without justification".[12] However, an oration delivered to the city of Boston on July 4, 1844 contains the passage:

To hear their harangues on the eve of the election, one would suppose that the fable of Chicken Little was about to become a truth, and that the sky was actually falling.[13]

Fear mongering can sometimes elicit a response called Chicken Little syndrome, described as "inferring catastrophic conclusions possibly resulting in paralysis".[14] It has also been defined as "a sense of despair or passivity which blocks the audience from actions".[15] The term began appearing in the 1950s[16] and the phenomenon has been noted in many different societal contexts.


Walt Disney Animation Studios has made two versions of the story. The first was Chicken Little,[17] a 1943 animated short released during World War II as one of a series produced at the request of the U.S. government for the purpose of discrediting Nazism. It tells a variant of the parable in which Foxy Loxy takes the advice of a book on psychology (on the original 1943 cut, it is Mein Kampf) by striking the least intelligent first. Dim-witted Chicken Little is convinced by him that the sky is falling and whips the farmyard into mass hysteria, which the unscrupulous fox manipulates for his own benefit. The dark comedy is used as an allegory for the idea that fear-mongering weakens the war effort and costs lives. It is also one of the versions of the story in which Chicken Little appears as a character distinct from Henny Penny.

The second Disney film was the very loosely adapted Chicken Little, released in 2005 as an animated feature. It is an updated science fiction sequel to the original fable in which Chicken Little is partly justified in his fears. In this version, Foxy Loxy is changed from a male to a female, and from the main antagonist to a local bully. Another film adaptation was the animated TV episode "Henny Penny" (1999), which was part of the HBO series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. In this modern update, the story is given a satirical and political interpretation.

There have also been a number of musical settings. American composer Vincent Persichetti used the fable as the plot of his only opera The Sibyl: A Parable of Chicken Little (Parable XX), op. 135 (1976), which premiered in 1985. In 1998, there was Joy Chaitin and Sarah Stevens-Estabrook's light-hearted musical version of the fable, "Henny Penny".[18] Designed for between six and a hundred junior actors, it has additional characters as optional extras: Funky Monkey, Sheepy Weepy, Mama Llama, Pandy Handy and Giraffy Laughy (plus an aggressive oak tree).

In Singapore, a more involved musical was performed in 2005. This was Brian Seward's The Acorn - the true story of Chicken Licken.[19] It is a tale of mixed motivations as certain creatures (including some among the 'good guys') take advantage of the panic caused by Chicken Licken.[20] In 2007 American singer and composer Gary Bachlund set the text of Margaret Free's reading version of "Chicken Little" (The Primer, 1910) for high voice and piano. In his note to the score Bachlund makes it clear that he intends a reference to alarmism and its tragic consequences.[21]

Popular references[edit]

There are many CDs, films, novels, and songs titled "The Sky is Falling", but the majority refer to the idiomatic use of the phrase rather than to the fable from which it derives. The following are some lyrics which genuinely refer or allude to the story:

  • The song "Chicken Little", from the album Fancy (1997) by the California avantrock band Idiot Flesh, contains the lyric: "The sky is falling, gotta tell the king".[22]
  • The song "Livin' on the Edge", from the album Get a Grip (1993) by Aerosmith, includes the lyrics: "If Chicken Little tells you that the sky is falling, Even if it wasn't would you still come crawling back again?"[23]
  • The song "Moving in with", from the album Bummed (1986) by the British band Happy Mondays, includes the lyrics: "Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky, Chicken Little, It seems they are all on the move when the sun is falling in".[24]
  • The song "The Sky Is Falling", from Owsley's 1999 self-titled debut album, includes the lyric: "Chicken Little had a big day today".[25]
  • The song "Chicken Little Was Right", from the album The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (1968) by The Turtles, includes the lyrics: "Did ya hear what happened to the world today? Somebody came an' they took it away".[26]
  • In Season 6, Episode 26 of the Golden Girls, "Henny Penny — Straight, No Chaser" (May 4, 1991), Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia perform a musical of the folk tale.[27][28][29]

Related stories[edit]

A very early example containing the basic motif and many of the elements of the tale is some 25 centuries old and appears in the Buddhist scriptures as the Daddabha Jataka (J 322).[1] In it, the Buddha, upon hearing about some particular religious practices, comments that there is no special merit in them, but rather that they are "like the noise the hare heard." He then tells the story of a hare disturbed by a falling fruit who believes that the earth is coming to an end. The hare starts a stampede among the other animals until a lion halts them, investigates the cause of the panic and restores calm.[1] The fable teaches the necessity for deductive reasoning and subsequent investigation.

The Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky tells the Tibetan version of the Jataka tale in rhyme, in her book The Terrible Plop (2009), which has since been dramatised, using the original title Plop!.[30] In this version, the animal stampede is halted by a bear, rather than a lion, and the ending has been changed from the Tibetan original.[31]

The Br'er Rabbit story, "Brother Rabbit Takes Some Exercise", is closer to the Eastern versions. In this story, Br'er Rabbit initiates the panic but does not take part in the mass flight, although Br'er Fox does. In this case it is Br'er Terrapin that leads the animals back to question Br'er Rabbit.[32][33]


  1. ^ a b Kylling means "chick" (baby chicken); Kluk is an onomatopoeic representation of a chicken's vocalization, similar to English "cluck"
  2. ^ a b Høne means "hen"; Pøne means "penny"
  3. ^ a b Hane means "cock"/"rooster"
  4. ^ a b And means "duck"
  5. ^ a b Gaase (modern Danish Gåse) means "goose"
  6. ^ a b Ræv means "fox"


  1. ^ a b c "Jataka Tales of the Buddha, Part III, retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki". Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  2. ^ The End of the World The Sky Is Falling, folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 20C (including former type 2033), in which storytellers from around the world make light of paranoia and mass hysteria, selected and edited by D. L. Ashliman, 1999
  3. ^ Thiele, J. M. (1823). Danske folkesagn. Vol. 4. Copenhagen: A. Seidelin. pp. 165–167. hdl:2027/hvd.hwslqu. OCLC 458278434.
  4. ^ Chandler, John Greene (1840). The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little. Roxbury, MA: J.G. Chandler. OCLC 191238925.
  5. ^ "Chicken Little – A View at the Bicentennial". Archived from the original on 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2014-10-21.
  6. ^ Chandler, John Greene. "Self-Portrait" – via arcade.nyarc.org Library Catalog.
  7. ^ The text of the story is reprinted in Fowle, William Bentley (1856). The Mind and Heart, Or, School and Fireside Reading for Children. Boston, MA: Morris Cotton. pp. 121–122. OCLC 27730411.
  8. ^ Chambers, Robert (1842). Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland. Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers. pp. 51–52. OCLC 316602150.
  9. ^ Halliwell, James Orchard (1849). Popular rhymes and nursery tales: a sequel to the Nursery rhymes of England. London: John Russell Smith. pp. 29–30. OCLC 3155930.
  10. ^ "The Treasury of pleasure books for young children". W.G. Baker. 1 January 1850 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Thorpe, Benjamin, ed. (1853). Yule-Tide Stories: a collection of Scandinavian and North German popular tales and traditions. London: Henry G. Bohn. pp. 421–422. OCLC 877309110.
  12. ^ Merriam-Webster (2004). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. ISBN 9780877798095. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  13. ^ Chandler, Peleg W. (1844). The Morals of Freedom: An Oration delivered Before the Authorities of the City of Boston July 4, 1844. Boston, MA: John H. Eastburn. pp. 29. OCLC 982157.
  14. ^ Landry, John R. (1998). Can Mission Statements Plant the "Seeds" of Dysfunctional Behaviors in an Organization's Memory? in Proceedings of the Thirty-First Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. p. 169. CiteSeerX
  15. ^ Li, Xinghua, "Communicating the "incommunicable green": a comparative study of the structures of desire in environmental advertising in the United States and China", PhD diss., p.81, University of Iowa, 2010.
  16. ^ See, e.g., Audio Visual Communication Review, v.3-4, pp. 226-227, National Education Association of the United States Dept. of Audiovisual Instruction, 1955
  17. ^ Walt Disney (1943), available at Youtube
  18. ^ Chaitin, Joy; Stevens-Estabrook, Sarah (1999). Henny Penny: A Play with Optional Music. ISBN 9780871299161. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  19. ^ "Brian Seward - Playwright". Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  20. ^ "The True Story of Chicken Licken". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  21. ^ "Chicken Little (2007), Margaret Free and Harriette Taylor Treadwell, originally for high voice and piano". Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  22. ^ Idiot Flesh (1997). "Chicken Little". Idiot Flesh. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  23. ^ Aerosmith (1993). "Livin' On The Edge (Lyrics)". Get a Grip. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  24. ^ Happy Mondays (1986). "Moving In With". Bummed. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  25. ^ The Semantics (1999). "The Sky Is Falling". Owsley. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  26. ^ The Turtles (1968). "Chicken Little Was Right". The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 26 August 2020.
  27. ^ Arthur, Bea; White, Betty; McClanahan, Rue; Getty, Estelle (May 4, 1991). "Henny Penny — Straight, No Chaser". Golden Girls. NBC.
  28. ^ Sewell, Claire (July 16, 2018). "Fine Feathered Friends". goldengirlsfashion.com. Retrieved April 4, 2022. Categories: Season 6
  29. ^ Judy Pioli (2018). "Henny Penny - Straight No Chaser". Golden Girls. Archived from the original on 2022-04-04. Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  30. ^ "The New Victory Theater: Plop!". Archived from the original on 2012-05-11. Retrieved 2012-07-03.
  31. ^ "We heart Books: The Terrible Plop". Archived from the original on 2010-12-26. Retrieved 2011-02-04.
  32. ^ Harris, Joel Chandler (1883). "Brother Rabbit Takes Some Exercise". Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation (20). Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company: 108–13.
  33. ^ D. L. Ashliman, ed. (1999). "Brother Rabbit Takes Some Exercise". The End of the World The Sky Is Falling, folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 20C (including former type 2033), in which storytellers from around the world make light of paranoia and mass hysteria.

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