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Hopeful Monsters: A Darwinian Fairytale

Once upon a time, in the Long Long Ago, there were three Hopeful Monsters. The monsters did not know they were monsters, however. Each of them looked a little different from others of their kind, it was true, but it was the Long Long Ago and no-one in those days minded so much. Their mother loved them from the moment their eggs hatched, and that was all that mattered.

The three monsters lived in the Wide, Wild Wilderness, where their ancestors had dwelt since long before the Long Long Ago. At first they roamed the Wide, Wild Wilderness like their ancestors before them had done, scampering across the open plains, sheltering in the shady woods, and drinking from the deep deep pools and rivers. They ate lush, leafy plants, fruit fallen from trees, and any small slow-moving creature they could find, which they crunched in their sharp, pointy teeth. They hid in the bushes from the Hunting Beasts, who could run more swiftly than they, and who wanted to crunch them in turn. But, as they grew older, the monsters began to change their ways.

The first monster had sharp claws for climbing and a long tail for balancing. He spent his days in the sheltering forests, high up in the trees, looking for ripe fruit and calling to his kinfolk. He did not need to run from the Hunting Beasts because they could not climb. Life in the trees made him strong and agile, and he was sure he would have many children and be a leader of his tribe.

The second monster had broad feet and a long swishy tail. She spent all day in the water, hunting fishes and splashing her kinfolk when they came down to the river to drink. She did not need to run from the Hunting Beasts because they could not swim. Chasing the fishes made her strong and swift, and she was sure she would have many children and be a leader of her tribe.

The third monster had broad feet and sharp claws, but he had no tail at all. He spent all day digging underground, eating worms and roots, unseen by his kinfolk. He did not need to run from the Hunting Beasts because they could not dig. Building his labyrinthine tunnels made him strong and clever.  He thought that perhaps he might have many children and be a great leader one day, but then again, perhaps not.

The rest of their kinfolk paid the monsters little attention. They were used to younglings and their wild ways, and knew that most such adventures ended in tears. The first monster could fall to his death; the second would drown in strong currents; the third might be buried alive. It’s safer to stick to what you know, they said. But the monsters were hopeful, and did not listen.

Next summer, when the monsters were grown, they went looking for mates. It was hard for them to find mates who wanted to live with them, because most of their kind could not climb trees and did not like water or dark musty tunnels. The monsters wandered across the plains of the Wide, Wild Wilderness and through its forests and over its rivers from winter to summer and back again, and at last they found mates who were at least a little bit like themselves. The first monster built a nest for his mate in a low bush, the second monster found an island in the river for her mate, and the third monster dug a nesting chamber for his mate in the upper levels of his tunnels. The females laid their eggs, and after more days than a monster has toes, the eggs hatched into little monsters just like their parents.

But the next summer no rain fell in the Wide, Wild Wilderness, and the leafy plants shrivelled up and died. Most of the monsters’ kinfolk died, but the monsters and their mates and children survived. The first monster and his children ate fruit from the trees, and they stayed strong. The second monster and her children caught fish in the river, and they stayed strong. And the third monster and his children ate worms and old roots, and they stayed strong.

The next summer no rain fell again in the Wide, Wild Wilderness, and even the trees died. The monsters who had lived in the trees had nothing to eat and nowhere to hide from the Hunting Beasts, and they died one by one until there were no monsters left with long tails for balancing. The second monster and the third monster were sad at first, but by winter they had forgotten all about it. They were safe on their island and in their tunnels, and had plenty to eat, so they stayed strong.

The third summer no rain fell again in the Wide, Wild Wilderness, and the ponds and streams dried up and disappeared. The monsters living in the water had nothing to eat and nowhere to hide from the now-ravenous Hunting Beasts, and they died one by one until there were no monsters left with swishy tails. The third monster was sad at first, but by winter he had forgotten all about it. He and his family hid in their cool, deep tunnels and had plenty to eat, so they stayed strong.

The next summer it still did not rain in the Wide, Wild Wilderness, but the third monster did not care. He stayed in his tunnels with his faithful mate, and they laid more eggs that hatched into baby monsters, and their children had babies too. All of them had broad, clawed feet and no tail, just like the third monster, and soon the Wide, Wild Wilderness was full of them.

And because they were all the same, they weren’t monsters any more. So they all lived happily ever after … until the world changed again.

© 2010 Anne Lyle. All rights reserved.