The History Of Literature II

September 29, 2020 Category: History


Parables are stories that teach us lessons (or make statements) by using metaphor as a didactic tool.  In other words: they are ALLEGORICAL (rather than literal) in nature.  In our attempts to apprehend abstract ideas, we tend to think not in literal terms, but in metaphors.  Consequently, a CNV serves as a better heuristic than dry, turgid exposition. {12}

Parable has been a vehicle for explication since the Ancient Greek’s told the tale of “The Blind Man and the Lame”.  In the 8th century B.C., Hesiod recounted the fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale.  Then Aesop of Samos formalized the genre in the early 6th century B.C., first compiled by Demetrius of Phaleron in the 4th century B.C., then by various other writers of Classical Antiquity like the Syrian writer, Babrios and the Roman fabulist, Phaedrus.

The use of allegory as a didactic tool was pioneered by Lucius Apuleius of Madauros (Numidia) with is anthology of tales, the “Metamorphosis” [alt. rendered “Asinus Aureus”; “The Golden Ass”] c. 160 A.D.  Philo of Alexandria employed allegory to reconcile Greek Stoicism with Judaic lore–emphasizing the point that literal interpretations of the Hebrew Bible were specious.  Even Christians got in on the act–as with the collection of (Christian-themed) parables, the “Physiologus” from the 2nd century A.D.–originally written in Alexandria using Koine Greek, but then translated to Syriac, Ethiopic (Ge’ez), Armenian, and Vulgar Latin.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Samuel offers somewhat of a political parable; which was then adapted into the sacred history found in “Chronicles”.  Elsewhere in the Mikra, we find Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, Samson and Delilah, etc.  As “mashal”, these tales can be understood as allegorical (rather than as some attempt at historical documentation) without compromising their narrative heft.

In the New Testament, we find parables such as that of the Prodigal Son, the Visitor At Night, the Rich Fool, the Sower, and the Good Samaritan.  (We also find pithy allegories like the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl, the Mustard Seed, the Leaven Bread, and the casting of the first stone).  These are clearly allegorical; which is simply to say that they are presented for didactic purposes–as Jesus himself specified in chapter 13 of Matthew (verses 10-17).

During the Roman Empire, the great Syrian satirist, Lucian of Samosata penned “Philo-pseudes” [“Lover of Falsehoods”]–a tale that mocked those who are credulous and superstitious.  (I explore the role of satire throughout history in my essay: “In Defense Of Satire”.)  Later, Martianus Minnueus Felix Capella of Madauros (Numidia) employed allegory the epic prosimetrum, “De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii” [“On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury”] c. 410.

Even during the Dark Ages, parables were composed to teach moral lessons–as with the “Vaddaradhane” by the Kannada writer, Shiva-kotia Charya of Karnataka in the 9th century.  Poetry was also used to teach moral lessons–as with the didactic verse of Japanese writer, Yamanoue no Okura in the late 7th / early 8th century.

During the Enlightenment, Montesquieu used the epistolary novel to articulate his ideas–as with his tale of Persian noblemen, Usbek and Rica traveling through France in “Lettres Persanes”.  Meanwhile, José Cadalso provided commentary on Spanish society with “Cartas Marruecas”.

As discussed earlier, CNVs convey vital messages, make important points, and teach valuable lessons.  Let’s survey the incidence of parable around the world.  I will limit the scope primarily to the modern era.  Let’s begin with Russian literature–which offers some of the most notable examples:

  • Afanasyev’s “The Frog Princess” [a.k.a. “Vasilisa The Wise”]
  • Turgenev’s “Mumu”
  • Pushkin’s “Ruslan And Ludmila”
  • Gogol’s “Dead Souls” and “The Overcoat”
  • Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” and “The Idiot”
  • Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” and “The Kingdom Of God Is Within You”
  • Lermontov’s “The Song Of The Merchant Kalashnikov”
  • Bulgakov’s “Master & Margarita”
  • Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”
  • Chekhov’s “Nincompoop”
  • Zamyatin’s “We”

Here are examples from 34 other cultures–listed by the author’s ethnic background:

  • Coelho’s “The Alchemist” (Brasilian)
  • Llosa’s “The Time Of The Hero” and Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (Spanish-speaking Latin American)
  • Kierkegaard’s “The Seducer’s Diary” and Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (Danish)
  • Lagerkvist’s “Bödeln”, “Dvärgen”, and “Barabbas”; Lagerlöf’s “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils”; as well as Strindberg’s “The Red Room” (Swedish)
  • Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” (Norwegian)
  • Van Diest’s “Elckerlijc” (Dutch)
  • Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and “Narcissus & Goldmund”; as well as Gotthelf’s “The Black Spider” (Swiss German)
  • “The Fisherman and His Wife”; Lessing’s “Nathan The Wise”; Kleist’s “The Broken Jug”; Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”; Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”; and Brecht’s “The Good Person of Sichuan” (High German)
  • Yourcenar’s “L’Œuvre Au Noir” [a.k.a. “The Abyss”] (Belgian French)
  • Voltaire’s “Zadig” and “Micromégas”; Rabelais’ “The Life of Gargantua & Pantagruel”; Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”; Pizan’s “The Book of the City of Ladies”; as well as Molière’s “The Misanthrope”, “Tartuffe”, and “The School For Wives” (Parisian French)
  • Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (Tuscan Italian)
  • Boccaccio’s “Teseida” [from his “Decameron”] (Florentine Italian)
  • Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”; Ruiz’s “The Book of Good Love”; Calderon’s “Life Is A Dream”; and “The Life Of Lazarillo de Tormes [And Of His Fortunes And Adversities]” (Castilian Spanish)
  • Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and “The Castle” (Slavic Jewish)
  • Biernat of Lublin’s “Eden of the Soul” and Boleslaw Prus’ “Pharaoh” (Polish)
  • Kundera’s “The Joke” and “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” (Bohemian)
  • “The Knight In The Panther’s Skin” (Georgian)
  • Krasznohorkai’s “Satan-tango”;  Mikszath’s “Peter’s Umbrella”; and Tolnai’s “The New Lieutenant” (Hungarian)
  • “The Book of Dede Korkut” (Turkish)
  • Chortatzis’ “Erotokritos” and “Erophile” (modern Greek)
  • Rihani’s “The Book of Khalid”; and Gibran’s “The Prophet” (Lebanese)
  • Sa’di’s “Golestan”; as well as the “Samak-i Ayyar” (Persian)
  • Narayan’s “A Tiger For Malgudi”; “The Brahmin And The Mongoose”; as well as Ramdhari Singh’s “Hunkar”, “Kurukshetra”, and “Rashmirathi”  (Indian)
  • Ananthamurthy’s “Samskara” (Kannada)
  • Lahiri’s “The Real Durwan” (Bengali)
  • Kim Man-jung’s “The Cloud Dream of the Nine” (Korean)
  • Lu Xun’s “Call To Arms” (Chinese)
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” [originally written in English] (Vietnamese)
  • “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” [a.k.a. the tale of “Princess Kaguya”]; Ozaki Koyo’s “The Usurer” [a.k.a. “The Golden Demon”] (Japanese)
  • Matar’s “The Wedding of Zein” (Sudanese)
  • Fagunwa’s “A Brave Hunter In The Forest Of Demons”; Obioma’s “The Fisherman”; Soyinka’s “The Lion And The Jewel” (Yoruba)
  • Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (Igbo)
  • Ama Ata Aidoo’s “Anowa” (Ghanaian)
  • Ngugi’s “Weep Not, Child” (Kikuyu)

The examples go on and on.  Ibn Sahula’s “Meshal ha-Kadmoni(m)” [Parables of the Ancients] was an Andalusian classic.  Muju Dokyo’s “Shasekishu” was a collection of Buddhist morality tales.  In surveying such works, we find that the power of parable transcends ethnicity.

We might also note the great parables from Britain.  The oldest in English is (arguably) Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Troilus And Criseyde” from the 14th century.  Then came “Mankind”, “Mind, Will, and Understanding”, and “The Castle of Perseverance”–all from the 15th century.  Here are 33 more of the most notable:

  • William Langland’s “Piers Plowman”
  • Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”
  • Samuel Johnson’s “The History Of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia”
  • John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”
  • Oliver Goldsmith’s “Citizen Of The World”
  • Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”
  • John Dryden’s “The Hind And The Panther”
  • William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”
  • Alexander Pope’s “The Rape Of The Lock”
  • Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”
  • James Joyce’s “A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man”
  • Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”
  • David Lindsay’s “A Voyage To Arcturus”
  • William Godwin’s “The Adventures Of Caleb Williams”
  • Laurence Sterne’s “The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy”
  • Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus”
  • George Macdonald’s “Phantastes”
  • Charles Dickens’ “The Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit”
  • Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”
  • Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”
  • William Butler Yeats’ “The Herne’s Egg”
  • William James’ “The Beast In The Jungle”
  • William Morris’ “A Dream Of John Ball”
  • Oscar Wilde’s “A Picture Of Dorian Gray”
  • George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and “The Doctor’s Dilemma”
  • Henry Newbolt’s “Aladore”
  • David Lindsay’s “A Voyage To Arcturus”
  • Malcolm Lowry’s “Under The Volcano”
  • Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness At Noon”
  • Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse”
  • George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”
  • Aldous Huxley’s “Island”

Again, we find that the themes are timeless.  Even as they might lose some of the flavor when read in a language other than the one in which they were originally composed, a reader can procure a full appreciation of their merits.  Their brilliance, as it were, “shines through” after a competent translation is performed.  This is the case whether one is reading “Beowulf” or “The Sneetches”.

We do not need to read such tales in the original language to appreciate them.  Indeed, one can read any great work by British or American authors in languages other than English and still grasp their significance.  Ask a non-English speaker to read a classic tale initially written in English–like those listed above–in his native language.  One can even refer to more recent parables–such as Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane” and Richard Powers’ “The Overstory”.

In the U.S. / Canada, there have been many classic parables–most notably: Dr. Seuss’ “The Sneetches” (about the foibles of consumerism and tribalism) and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (about the importance of appreciation).  Here are twenty more of the most notable parables (sometimes morality tales, sometimes existential commentaries) from American literature:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline: A Tale Of Acadie”
  • Mark Twain’s “The Prince And The Pauper”
  • Herman Melville’s “Bartleby The Scrivener” and “The Confidence-Man”
  • Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt”
  • Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea”
  • Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”
  • John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”
  • James Baldwin’s “Blues For Mister Charlie”
  • Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”
  • John Updike’s “A&P”
  • Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King”
  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”
  • Philip K. Dick’s “The Penultimate Truth”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”
  • Robert Heinlein’s “Job: A Comedy Of Justice”
  • Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth”
  • Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers For Algernon”

Each is allegorical in nature.  That is: They are meant to be read as parable more than as literal accounts. {16}  Any one of these stories can be translated into virtually any language and retain its literary merits.  In each case, it is obvious that the parable IS A PARABLE.  Such tales can be translated into ANY language and not lose any of their charm or potency.  The merit of the writing shines through.

One will find that–pace an understanding of the respective native cultures–one can fully appreciate / understand EVERY ONE of these great works.  Their themes are universal.  They resonate across ethnic backgrounds.  Such is the nature of well-crafted parable.  Yet such is NOT the case with, say, Surah 12 of the Koran (the crudely-fashioned “parable” of Joseph) or Surah 18 (the crudely-fashioned “parable” of the cave based on “The Sleepers of Ephesus”).  Sometimes, attempts at parable are ham-fisted, their content utterly inane.

In assaying the history of parable–good and bad–we should bear in mind that stories THEMSELVES are not wisdom.  It is by perspicaciously interpreting those stories that wisdom can be gleaned.  The message is there for culling, but it’s up to the audience to bring his moral intuitions to bear.  After all, didactic tools are JUST TOOLS.  A tool is only as good as how astutely one makes use of it.

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