An Oral History of Architecture in the Three Little Pigs: a tragedy
by Dolan Morgan
“Well documented,” “hashed over,” and “worn out”: these phrases perhaps best sum up the tale of the three little pigs.
Yet: as if each were noble historical figures, these pigs—the one who chose straw, the other who chose sticks, and the winner who chose brick—are kaleidoscopically venerated across a litany of anthologies, picture books, animated films, translations, and noir re-imaginings, all of which dot many centuries’ worth of global literature and media landscapes. Even the wolf has had its side told, as detailed in a landmark journalistic scoop by children’s book author Jon Scieszka, claiming the beast never intended to blow those houses down. And so it would seem as if this story has been pried open and raked over from every conceivable angle.
Yet rarely has the narrative been told from the perspective of its architecture. This is a shame, as the fable’s plot hinges almost entirely on structural design elements, shoddy or otherwise. The oft-told tale owes everything to its buildings, but when have these voices been championed or broadcast? Why must pivotal perspectives languish in obscurity? For too long, architecture has been silenced, cast off into the shadows, and three little houses have gone unheard.
No more. Today is their day. And this is their tragic story.
As always, we start with straw.
But to do so, we must first acknowledge that architecture is not truly a thing unto itself; rather, it is an assemblage of other things, arranged to envelop and bisect empty space.
These parts, collected absurdly in one place for an extended period of time, constitute “the long moment” that is architecture. Buildings, more than anything else, are functions of time; they are defined primarily as an improbable circumstance and unlikely pattern that somehow continues against all reason in a particular place, made up of things (materials, objects, memories) that are no longer continuing on their own in other places. You may be familiar with this feeling. And such it was, too, with the straw house.
Which is to say: for a long time, the straw house was not a house at all, but an array of objects resting comfortably all about the meadow and the fields.
“I luxuriated,” the straw recalls. “I relaxed.” Smiling now, the grain thinks back. “I was here. I was there. I had a nice life.” The straw lovingly describes the grass, the stream, the garden, the hills. “Times were good.”
And then the pig came.
The straw trembles at this memory. “Yes, the pig arrived, and it gathered me. It ordered me.”
The straw sighs, looks away, and then continues: “You understand that my carefree life, which was truly my own, was shattered by this awful animal? One moment I basked in the warm sun, spread out all over the place in any manner I might prefer, a few pieces of me here, a few there, and then the next I was wrapped up in square bundles, totally unlike how I might naturally comport myself. The pig forced my life into a set of interlocking lines and squares, surrounding nothing. Thatched. Packed. Weaved. Ugh. It was constricting and forced and confusing. And for what? I truly can’t say.”
The straw, furious, takes a moment to collect itself in recalling this time.
“More than anything else, what makes me so angry is that the pig ripped from me an untethered freedom and then submitted me to an organizing principle through which everything was suddenly foreseeable and knowable. Now, let me be clear: this is not a tirade against what is natural in this life versus all that is unnatural; these distinctions are immaterial to me. Rather, I offer an ode to that vast uncertainty which I cherished in my youth, and throw a curse at the unendurable program I was unwittingly enlisted into by the pig and his ambitions. You see, in this new formation, which I abohred, and which you might call a ‘house,’ there was only the present, again and again and again. No decay. No desiccating. No degradation. Only pristine, sustained, unchanging monotony. Clean and orderly. A door, a window, a wall. And so far as I’m concerned, the future is only that which cannot be seen; and since I was now witnessing each new moment with great clarity (in as much as each moment for a house is exactly the same as the last), I had no discernable future. I had only my plight. Which is to say my structure. But no future and no hope. It was terrible.”
“And, amid all of this, as you know, the wolf arrived. I barely noticed, to be quite honest, and hardly cared, of course, so occupied was I by my own thoughts and self-pity. But in the end I owe the predator my life. He and the pig prattled on about whether or not one or the other should be inside or outside of me, bla bla bla. But contrary to what one might believe about a house and it’s supposed purpose (to keep things here or to keep them there), this fight had no meaning or import for me. I did not have a dog in that race. Rather, I listened to the argument of the pig and the wolf as a cow might acknowledge the flies on its rump; barely, and with a vague annoyance. I was lost in my own suffering, and had no time for their titting and tatting. And so, when the wolf finally huffed and puffed, etc etc, and blew the house down, as it has been described so many times before, it was with a great sense of relief that I went flying and collapsing into the air. Violently yes, and painfully, too, but back into the wind and the grass and the dirt and uncertainty. Scattered and free! That long road into nowhere opened up to me again under the sun, and I crumbled into it like an hour into the day. Finally, home. Thank you, wolf, thank you.”
“I saw what happened to the straw and was afraid,” say the sticks.
The sticks, too, initially lived a comfortable life, spread out here and there, on trees, under the dirt, in ponds. Bug-friends and worm-chums lit up a bright future of happy moss and kindling and decomposition and rebirth.
“I had everything to look forward to,” say the sticks, “just like the straw, but…”
Here, the sticks scan the horizon, choosing their words carefully.
“Okay, the pig scared me, yes, and obviously, as you know, I was justified in that fear. But, if I am being transparent here, and I think I should be, then I must say that as much as my life resembled the straw’s, it’s clear that the cereal was also a bit young and naive. There: I said it, okay? All that freewheeling talk and bohemian uncertainty? Come on. Get serious. I’d like to believe I was a bit more grown and worldly than all that. And so I thought maybe I could be… I don’t know, not necessarily protected, but maybe spared? Something like karma, I guess, or a wish for the world to have a sense of justice. I had this in me, for better or worse. This faith.”
Sticks laugh quietly to themselves at this notion.
“Which is to say that I have lived my life in a concerted effort flowing toward growth and service to others. If I reached upward for the light, if I crowded out a few others along the way, it was only so that I might give to the birds and the squirrels as well. I like to believe that what I offered in the end accounted for far more than what I took, and if not, then hopefully I at least struck a fair balance. I mean, I gave to the air around me, always, and to anyone who would ask, and when I couldn’t produce any new gifts to share, I gave my body to the dirt and the water and the whole forest. My life was wet and nurturing and alive. And good. Yes, that’s it: I think I enjoyed a good, hardy, and purposeful life, and so despite my fear of the pig, and knowledge of what those of its kind had done to the straw, I thought I could be spared. I won’t begrudge the grain its hedonism, as I empathize with whatever path one takes to get through the gauntlet of this life, but I know that, for me at least, nurturing others provided more than just pleasure—it granted a sense of real peace. And for a long time, I rooted myself in the belief that peace equated to a kind of freedom, as well.” The sticks smile a bit, but not with anything resembling joy: no, with sadness, or even shame.
“But that’s all talk, really. Deep down, I knew I didn’t give or offer enough, never could. And so I was afraid.”
“But then. But then. The pig. Oh, the pig. The violent sawing and bundling. The invasive stripping, ripping, sanding, polishing, and ordering. That was a terrible blow. I was cut down. And not just physically—I was prepared for that much, even deserved it. Far worse was being brought low emotionally. The pig forced me to admit who I was and pushed me into a structure that felt awful and limiting. But also true. Routine and demanding. Stressed. And so I understand the straw’s complaint. We all want to see before us some kind of future, some kind of hole representing the unknown into which we can delude ourselves into believing that our agency might be dropped and take shape. To bloom. Yes, I get that. But like I said, it’s not what pained me. No, the pig took from me what I loved most, or confirmed what I feared above all else. No longer was I allowed to give or to nourish. I looked at the woods and longed—not to have them, but to offer something again. But I couldn’t give. I was frozen in place—knowing I had not done enough and could do no more. If anything, really, I was forced to take and take and take, more so than I ever could have dared to on my own. Soon I was filled with things I had stolen from the world, nightmarishly so. Furniture. Dishes. Bric-a-brac. Power. Heat. Time. And the pig itself, of course. He was inside of me and refused to get out. Stuffed and embarrassed, I saw my life reflected in the lake and knew I was a glutton.”
“But then the wolf came and I prayed and he huffed and he puffed and he saved me and I went tumbling into the dirt and the streams, home and free. Hello moss, hello bug, hello worm. Thank you, wolf. In a gesture of solidarity, the wolf ravenously put the pig inside of him, all the way in, to show me that this beast too could endure what I had been forced to take for so long. He gave to me this gift, and it was true empathy, I believe.”
“To be honest, I thought I was safe, or at least well hidden. Before I became a house, I was spread out not just across space, but amid various materials. Mud and clay and water and sand. I was multivariate. I knew enough not to make my location too obvious. There were pigs out there, looking for things like myself, and turning them into houses. I’d heard the rumors, whispered across the valley, and many of us went underground. We took precautions.”
“It was a time of secrecy, subversion, espionage, and double-identities. Clay factions were siloed from lime units. We maintained a strict isolation to ensure we could not betray one another or give up each other’s whereabouts or identities. And of course, the pitch and asphalt brigades, which would later be forced into mortar camps (a terrifying but clearly pivotal set of events almost universally erased from the historical record of every brick era in ‘Three Little Pigs’) followed their own set of directives and chains of command, divorced and unknown to us.”
“I can’t say which part of me (the ‘me’ that became me in the end, a brick building) gave up the others, obviously. It’s impossible to know, so secure were the firewalls of communication setup between our activities while in hiding. But surely someone squealed. And that was it. The chain of silence need be broken only once to set the full collapse in motion. I try not to think too hard about assigning blame; the engines of our pasts are so obscured by chance and variability that discerning any kind meaning or direction outside of the will forced upon us by powers greater than ourselves is futile and silly—and why bother to disentangle the who-what-where of memory when, in the end, my constituent parts all suffered as one, as me, the brick house. The pig collected, mashed, mixed, stirred, reformed and re-educated me; the pig fired me in a kiln, then baked, dried, slathered, and organized me into even lines and piles. My rich heterogeneity—an array of identities, beliefs, desires, and abilities—was molded into one homogenous mono-system aimed at a singular purpose. The pig’s purpose. We became I. I became one: the famed impenetrable brick house. I was strong and unstoppable and perfect. Perfect and awful.”
“The complaints are much the same as for the houses of straw and stick that came before me: the locked-in feeling, the order, the job, the position, the taking and absorbing and sapping. The demoralizing fact that all my efforts were directed at maintaining a system of power I detested; that of the pig’s and its march toward so-called progress. Progress at whose expense, I wondered, but could not proclaim or ask or inquire, because I had no voice or platform (other than the floor within me that staged the pig’s life, of course).”
“Yet, unlike those who came before me, I had the benefit of a real and substantiated hope. An evidence-based rationale to make the claim that, however awful things might be at this particular juncture, they could not last. That better forces would win out. That the arc of history would bend and blow its way, huffing and puffing, toward justice. That a force would come and bring the house down.”
“And so when the wolf did come, I prayed and I watched and I waited. I’ll admit to a sort of eager glee welling up within me at the prospect of seeing the pig suffer. Yes. I could imagine nothing better. But it didn’t work. Not that the wolf didn’t try, obviously. Oh he huffed alright, and puffed of course, but it didn’t work. The pig laughed. And I didn’t go flying. I didn’t go tumbling. Not into the wind, and not into the rivers. Not into anywhere. Just further into myself and the future that had been chosen for me. No, I was staying. There was no way out.”
“But the wolf, you know, I’d heard he was clever, and he’d always won out in the end before, so, perhaps there was still something to hold onto? Yes, I thought, yes: in a fit of genius, the wolf was beginning to climb me. In fact, he went so far as to enter me and become a part of me. A genius plan, I thought: to break the structure from within, to dismantle through becoming. He would find the center, and implode the awful construction by balancing all sides. I remember the heat of my own excitement as the wolf crept entirely into me, deeper and deeper, sliding through a chute toward my core, and I thought: pig, you are in for it now, as I became hotter and hotter.”
“But of course, that’s not how it played out. Rather, in a moment, the wolf was dead. Boiled alive. And not just dead, but absorbed wholly into the system I was a part of. The very mechanism by which I thought I might escape or overcome my plight was now also a mere element in the broader portrait of everything that was wrong. So I knew it would be like this, and only this, forever.”
“Eventually, the city rose up around me (buildings of all kinds, homes and businesses and infrastructure), and I am told now to see it as just a new kind of space, without judgment. And I can and I do. I mean, there are benefits. I am united again with others. I am not alone. I have amenities. I enjoy comforts. Materials from across the world are called together in impossible formations, impractical and almost magical intersections, the likes of which previously could never have been imagined. I do not ask from what these new materials have been culled, or through whose suffering they have been delivered to me. I cannot inquire on whose backs these gifts have been carried. I endeavor daily to enjoy the lights, and the clamor, and the ever-gentler oinks. But I can still feel it, you know, I can still recall, deep within me, the time when I was everywhere, when I was spread impossibly thin and abstracted across mediums. I see the wind, and I wish. Then the door slams inside me and the pig locks it in place.”
Dolan Morgan is a writer and illustrator living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He is the author of two books of stories: That’s When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014) and Insignificana (CCM, 2016.) His work can be found in The Believer, at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, on NPR, The Rumpus, and in the trash. Look for him online at dolanmorgan.com and on Twitter at @dolanmorgan.
Photo source: Green via Creative Commons