The Circumference of Freethought by Ziauddin Sardar

‘This cannot happen again.’ Sprout just did not want to lay any more eggs. Inside her overcrowded coop she couldn’t move, flap her wings, or even sit on her own eggs, which were collected by the farmer’s wife who complained constantly that they were getting smaller and smaller. Even when allowed on the farm, she couldn’t stroll around and see the world flourishing outside the barnyard. She yearned for freedom. In her discontent, she became frail, unable to produce eggs. Disgusted, the farmer’s wife removed Sprout from the flock and threw her into the ‘Hole of Death’, to die or be devoured by the weasel. But Sprout survived; gathering enough energy to escape with the help of Straggler, a friendly mallard. When she returned to the barns, other animals shunned her for being different and having ideas above her station. Even to stay on the outskirts of the farm, she needed to follow the rules. ‘What if I don’t like the rules?’, she asked. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, she was told, ‘everyone follows the rules’.

Sprout decided to follow Straggler and another duck outside the farm; and she learned to find food, survive in the wild, and outwit the eager- eyed, lean and hungry weasel. When the other duck was killed by the weasel, Sprout found an abandoned egg. She decided to brood the egg, with Straggler standing watch for the deadly weasel and bringing food to keep her going. She continued to concentrate on keeping the egg warm, even after Straggler became another victim of the weasel. When the egg hatched and the ‘Baby’ turned  out to be a duckling, Sprout realised that her adopted son was the offspring of Straggler and his mate, the beautiful white duck that had fallen victim to the weasel. She raised her Baby with selfless devotion. Both mother and Baby were torn between their desires and natural inclination. Sprout tried to teach her Baby to fly but she knew she couldn’t fly. ‘Why can’t we fly anymore?’, she asked.

Sun-Mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a simple, moving, beautifully-written allegory, in the style of Charlotte’s Web and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. It is a story of family and love, devotion and sacrifice, courage and loss, and above all, the value of freethought in the face of conformity. The feisty Sprout wants to break out of her physical and mental confinement. Even the name she has chosen for herself symbolises freedom and hope: ‘Sprout is the best name in the world. A sprout grew into a leaf and embraced  the wind and the sun before falling and rotting and turning into mulch for bringing fragrant flowers to bloom.’ She knows there are other worlds – dangerous though they may be – beyond her own; she knows she can nurse and nourish other beings and other ideas besides those she has learned on the farm; and she knows that life and death are intrinsically linked. Death, as Sprout witnesses on the farm and in the wild, can be violent and cruel. But as she realises in her own case, it can also be meaningful and liberating when it serves to foster new life.

Freethinkers are a bit like Sprout. Restless and rebellious, eager to break out of convention, longing to be free from tradition that crushes individual and social creativity and spirit.