A Fable for Our Time: Why Lemmings Jump Off Cliffs


Once upon a time there was a King of the Lemmings. At any rate, he said he was a king and he seemed like such a nice guy that nobody had the heart to argue with him. Besides, they didn’t really know what a “king” was. They noticed he had lots of food and was surrounded by lots of other lemmings who were well-known hoarders and also had lots of food, but what of it? Maybe a king was some kind of banker. And so what if there were rumors going around that during the Lemming Wars he had enlisted in the 16th Lemming Flying Corps and then hid in his hole so he couldn’t be called up to the Front? Nobody could prove it. So let him be a “king”. What harm could it do?

His first order of business as a “king” was to take all the food of the poorest lemmings and sell it. A few lemmings were concerned about this but he answered, “They have more food than they need and anyway, they’d have a lot more if they weren’t so lazy. Besides, my friends need it more than they do.”

“But your friends have more now than they’ll ever eat,” somebody objected.

“They need it,” King George replied (for that was his name), “so they can make sure the rest of you have enough food.”

Maybe his friends were going to give the food away, they thought, and George gave them each a leaf to prove it. “At least he didn’t take our food,” most of them agreed, and someone added, “And he gave us this leaf.”

But one lemming named Merridew scratched his head and muttered, “This doesn’t make sense.” And sure enough, the King’s friends kept the rest of it for themselves.

King George used the proceeds from the sale of the poor’s food to build himself a giant Golden Palace, and then he moved into it with all his friends. Whenever any of the other lemmings came to visit, a big burly lemming with a shotgun would yell, “Go away!” and shoot them in the face. “What happened to nice George?” they asked themselves. No one had an answer. They never saw him any more. He stayed in his Golden Palace most of the time until one day he appeared on his gold-encrusted balcony and gave a speech.

“I am the Decider,” he said, “and I have decided you should move closer to the cliffs where there’s more food.”

“There’s plenty of food around here,” Merridew called out. “At least there would be if your friends would stop hogging it all.”

“You will address me as ‘Your Decidedness’,” King George said with a smirk.

“Why?”

“Because I am the Decider and I’ve decided it would be an appropriate show of respect for the King – that’s me – if you said ‘Your Decidedness’ whenever you talked to me.”

“We never had to call anybody ‘Your Decidedness’ before,” Merridew protested. “We’re democratic.”

“You never had a king before. Now you do and you’re not democratic any more. This is now a republic–”

“What’s a republic?”

George smirked again. “Sort of a monarchy the way I play it. Anyway, the point is that you don’t get to question my decisions. I’m the Decider and you have to do whatever I decide you have to do and I’ve decided you’re going to move closer to the cliffs. Tomorrow.”

“What if we don’t want to move?” Merridew persisted.

“Then my enforcer – uh, my Vice-King -” he pointed to the burly man with the shotgun who was standing beside him “- will move among you and take down the names of the lemmings who won’t do what they’re told and we’ll throw them into secret prisons where they’ll be tortured until they tell us the names of the other lemmings who won’t do what they’re told and then he’ll shoot them in the face because clearly they must be Enemies of the State and deserve whatever they get.”

“Oooo!” said the crowd. “We wouldn’t like that.”

“You bet your sweet bippy you wouldn’t,” King George said, and the next morning everybody packed up their belongings and moved closer to the cliff.

There was more food there, but King George’s Vice-King, whose name was Dickie-Bird, waved his shotgun and all the King’s rich friends – who called themselves the “Oyl Magnets”, whatever that meant – took most of what everybody gathered and then sold it back to them at prices they could barely afford. Pretty soon that area was stripped, too, and King George appeared on the golden balcony once more.

“I am the Decider,” he said, “and I have decided to invade the area right on the edge of the cliffs. There’s more food there.”

“We can’t do that,” Merridew said. “There’s another colony of lemmings that live on the edge of the cliff. That area belongs to them.”

King George shrugged. “We must have food or we’ll die. Anyway, we have to attack them before they attack us. It’s only a matter of time. They’ll run out of food and when they do, they’ll try to take ours. It’s a matter of National Security. Are you against National Security? Then you’re a traitor!” He was getting quite excited and smirking a lot.

“But,” Merridew tried to interrupt, “they haven’t attacked us -”

“They did, too,” King George snapped. “Besides, what do you care about them? We are beautiful brown lemmings, sleek and pretty and proud, but they are gray lemmings – dirty gray, greasy gray – ugly little buggers. They deserve to die!” Dickie-Bird cocked his shotgun and aimed it at Merridew’s face. “You got a problem with that?” King George smirked.

“But who’s going to fight them, Your Decidedness?” asked a voice in the crowd. “We don’t know how to fight.”

“You won’t have to. I’ve decided to have my Vice-King round up all the poor young lemmings and pay them to do it. We’ll promise them an education or some food or something and tell them how they’re saving democracy and how the gray lemmings will be better off if we’re in charge. They’ll be proud to go.”

“Well,” the crowd said to itself, “at least we won’t have to fight.”

And so the war began. At first it all went well. The King’s army of the poor proved to be able fighters and swept into the center of the cliff colony with little difficulty. It was after they had taken control that things started to break down: the Grays went into hiding, emerging at night to burn the food stock King George’s friends were attempting to loot; food they left unburned they often poisoned, killing the troops who ate it; the troops did not speak Gray and couldn’t tell guerrillas from innocent civilians. The situation became chaotic.

In the Brown colony, questions were being raised and mutters of discouragement and dissent were spreading. Many of the poor lemmings were coming back in body bags or badly mutilated by sudden fires that caught them unawares. The food the King had promised never materialized, most of it having been burnt or poisoned and the rest gathered up and hoarded by the Oyl Magnets. There never seemed to be an end to the killing yet no progress was ever made. The King sent more and more poor lemmings to fight but the chaos only grew greater.

“This war was a mistake,” they said to one another. “We never should have started it. It’s time to bring the troops home. Let’s go tell the King.”

An enormous crowd gathered below the golden balcony of the Golden Palace and chanted, “Stop the War! Bring the troops home!” When the King didn’t appear, they began to hammer at the Palace gate. “Stop the war! Bring the troops home! We’ve had enough!”

Eventually the King came out onto the balcony and held up his hand for silence. The crowd stopped shouting and pounding on the gate so they could hear him.

“I am the Decider,” he announced, “and I have decided that there is only one way to end this war. You must charge the Gray colony and shove them off the cliffs. Then you must jump off after them and follow them down to make sure they can’t come back.”

“Jump off the cliffs? But we’ll die.”

“Your sacrifice is necessary to save our colony. Once you’re gone, we’ll erect statues to you in the public square. Won’t that be nice? Besides, jumping off cliffs is what lemmings do. At least this time you’ll be doing it for a Great Cause.”

“What are you talking about?” Merridew asked in confusion. “Lemmings don’t jump off cliffs.”

“Of course they do,” the King responded. “I saw it with my own eyes in The Lemming King.”

“That was a Disney movie,” Merridew said. “It wasn’t real.”

“Don’t be silly,” said King George. “Of course it was real. I saw it. Now off you go.”

“But we don’t want to jump off a cliff and die, Your Decidedness,” said the crowd.

“Then the terrist Grays will win!” the King shouted, banging the balcony rail with his fist. “Is that what you want? Failure is not an option. We must win the War against terrist Grays who burn our soldiers and poison our food and I have decided this is the best way to do it. This is my plan for Victory!”

“We don’t want victory, we want to live. We want our sons and daughters to live.”

“If you don’t die for our glorious colony,” the King answered, “you won’t have anything to live for.”

That statement baffled everybody, and while they were trying to figure out what he meant by it the King said, “Those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success. To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible.”

“But,” Merridew said, “we have a plan. Stop the war and bring the troops home.”

“That’s not a ‘plan’,” King George sneered. “That’s fuzzy-headed, traitorous librul surrender. And you didn’t say ‘Your Decidedness’.”

Well, everyone knows what happened then, don’t they?

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One response to “A Fable for Our Time: Why Lemmings Jump Off Cliffs

  1. Pingback: “I think it is almost lemming like …” – Judith Bunting for Newbury and West Berkshire

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