Fable versus Parable

Fable versus Parable - Narratology, criticism, and folkstudies give us plenty of rubrics by which to determine what is or is not a certain type of traditional story. For example, according to Wikipedia, a fable is “a brief story that features animals, plants, objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates a moral lesson,” a lesson perhaps expressed via a conclusive “pithy maxim.” Further, fables can’t be parables, strictly speaking, because parables exclude talking animals and plants and winds and such and focus on moralizing humans.

Very good.  Two types of traditional story, one typified by Aesop (“The Lion and the Mouse“) and Pixar (Wall-e), the other by Chaucer (“The Friar’s Tale“) and Adam Sandler (Bedtime Stories). In the combined fable–parable, we learn a lesson, but the story must be important and interesting as well.

Ignoring the medieval apologue, an archaic type of fable–parable, in which the story is only tangentially relevant, serving as a mere stage upon which the moralist lectures us on sin and redemption, we still have the problem of the anecdote, which is an allegorical story whose foundation rests in biographical–historical “fact.” The anecdote moralizes and does so via a vivid, convincing little story—like the fable–parable. The difference between fable–parable and anecdote is their level of “biographical” vitality: In an Adam Sandler, film, we are never made to think that, say, Happy Gilmore is a real person. We know that he is an allegorical stand-in for a type of real person. He feels real, because Mr. Sandler is a fine actor (in this mythologist’s opinion); yet his feeling-real-ness is important not on its own (a la “true” or “high” or “pure art,” work that fulfills Joyce’s mythic agenda), but in relation to the ability of his story’s moral to strike us deeply and lastingly. Better, funnier Sandler-acting = deeper moral conviction. The two essential elements of allegory (story and moral) work together in the fable–parable.

The anecdote is no different in that last respect.  It simply adds, to the narrative–moral mix, an element of pseudo-historical gravitas. (Or simply historical: We construct history; history is man-made; history is a set of fabrications and stories.) Take the story of Alexander the Great, lost in the deserts of the East. He has with him a dozen of his loyalest murderers (we now use the term “generals”), and they are all out of water. One scout returns, his helmet carried carefully upside down. “Sir,” he says, “There was only enough water for you… Please drink it, so that we may die knowing there is some hope for our great King of Kings.” But Alexander refuses, dashing the helmet to the ground, spilling the life-saving aqua. The young leader knows that he needs not a half-day’s draught but an oasis and a quick way out of the desert: He knows he needs his men’s desperation and utter obedience. By going thirsty, he saves them all as they follow him a half-day’s march further, and somehow make it back to civilization. The details of the anecdote I’ve just related are entirely unimportant, historically speaking. In fact, the Alexander story falls well below the level of a myth; it cannot serve us cosmologically, social-politically (unless we are brutal despots), psychologically (unless we are brutal despots), or mystically (unless we are dying of thirst… or are brutal despots).

But the anecdote does something that the other demi-myths do not, even when the fables and parables serve one or more mythic function. The anecdote typifies a single person or small number of persons in such a way that he or they are raised close to the god-heroes (who feel real, whose stories teach morals that serve mythic functions). They are not mythologized properly, true, but their outer aspects begin to mirror, say, Christ’s or Superman’s. Alexander here is not just a historical king (just a name, a representative of a culture and time period); he is not yet a hero (not Homer’s Odysseus or Stan Lee’s Wolverine, though other stories about him may try to make him so). He is an allegorical, anecdotal figure of focus, the lens through which we can now view some moral or almost-moral—a moral drawn not from religious-creative tradition but from history, from experience. In the anecdote, a character undergoes “real” (seeming, feeling, rooted) emotion and arrives at a “real” conclusion. If the character of “Happy Gilmore” had a closer relationship to a real golfer who’d endured real hardships to reach real fame, Sandler’s movie might transcend fable-parable into fable–parable–anecdote, the complete allegory.

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