Subject: Folk Speech. Humor.
Collection: “There were two towns that ruled all of the land, and every year… similar to Thanksgiving, they would battle it out for a day. One day the Western Kingdom thought to lace the Eastern Kingdom with explosives while all the townspeople were asleep and then blow up the town the next day, ending the fight completely. The successfully laced the entire Kingdom and hooked up the explosives to a giant lever. However, in the morning the King of the East came over bearing food and gifts as a peace treaty. The King of the West accepted the peace treaty but felt bad because of the threats to blow up the other city, so he decided to declare peace and just not say anything about the bombs. The King decided he needed someone to guard the lever so that no radicals or youngsters would mess with it, but the guards stationed at the lever were lazy and didn’t want to be standing around the lever. They missed their families and their children, but one day a snake name Nate came up to a guard and told him that he will watch over the lever. At first the guy was skeptical, but Nate the Snake told him how there’s plenty of land around for him to live in and to catch mice and survive. So Nate became the new guardian. Nate became the hero of the town and was loved by all! People wore Nate the Snake Shirts, celebrated Nate the Snake Day, Nate became the most common name in all the land… Nate lived in this glorious state of love and pride for the work he was doing for his country. However, one night as Nate was doing his rounds at the lever, he saw a truck driving straight towards the lever. Nate thought and thought and thought of what he could do but nothing came to him. All he could do was sit helplessly watching as a truck came barreling towards the lever. At the last minute, however, the truck swerved and hit Nate the Snake. News of Nate’s death shocked the Kingdom but you know what they say… better Nate than Lever.”
Background Info: J. Ingraham is a freshman enrolled at Chapman University pursuing a Bachelor of the Fine Arts in Theater Performance. He attended Dana Hills High School and is still a permanent resident of Laguna Niguel, CA. This story entered my social sphere from a mutual friend who he and I shared performing arts classes with in high school. The first time he heard the story was backstage at a production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Context: I first heard this story in a car on a road trip to Big Bear, CA in December of 2016. It was relayed as friends jumped in to try to one up one another with their personal stories, and for general entertainment. The account of the story was given over email.
Analysis: This narrative builds up to the final punchline and is designed to allow the narrator to embellish as much or as little as they like, while remaining true to the story. I have heard telling in which the narrator went on a rant of all the different merchandise that the town people developed to celebrate Nate the Snake. Another teller gave an in-depth description of the last battle leading up to the Western kingdom lacing their enemy’s land with explosives. The goal is to make the story as absurd and intricate as possible so the simplicity of the punchline rhyming with the proverb, “Better late than never,” achieves its maximum potency.
The story features familiar troupes that locate the story securely in a Western society and one character that subverts expectations: Nate the Snake. First, the narrator locates itself as part of the Western kingdom which is painted as witty yet aggressive. The East, meanwhile, favors peace and gives the West lavish gifts from their land. This plays into ideas in classic literature of the East as languid and indulgent peoples while the West has discipline and democratic practices to keep them vigilant. Second, this was likely developed recently, since it contains references to explosives and a single trigger switch, making the references to kings and kingdoms somewhat out of place. However, I propose this is done to age the story and make it appear like a traditional piece of narrative folklore—playing off ideas of folklore as being something out of medieval Europe. One troupe that is not specific to a Western society is that of talking animals. Humanizing Nate the Snake and embedding him with intelligent thought and complex feeling causes his death to be more objectionable.
Lastly, the character of Nate the Snake is the hero of the story, which contrasts the traditional portrayal of the snake as a villain, or otherwise Satanic, in countries with histories of Abrahamic religions. This aesthetic modernizes the story as more and more people in America practice non-Abrahamic religions. I contend that Nate playing the role of protagonist comes as a surprise, since a snake is expected to be sneaky and deceptive, making the audience feel guilty for expecting Nate to be the villain and the punchline more ironic and shocking. Upon first hearing the story, I believed that the punchline was going to involve Nate betraying the Western kingdom, as snakes usually do. While snakes are animals so biases against them are not thought of as being objectionable, afterward I felt guilty for forcing my assumptions onto him. In this way, the content of Nate the Snake is built off traditional structures that then subvert to afford the joke its greatest effect.