Literature Fables Parables Term Paper

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Myth to Reality

The Hidden Meanings of Fables and Parables

Since earliest times, human beings have sought to improve the world in which they live. As Man is a social creature, the day-to-day interactions between himself and his fellows take on at least as much importance as his contacts with the natural world. Certain standards of ethics and morality must be maintained if a society is to function smoothly. While the particular standards may vary somewhat from culture to culture, the necessity of upholding them is universal. Often, a fanciful story - a fable or a parable - can express ideas that might be difficult to discuss in a more straightforward manner. People are sensitive to criticism, and frequently are blind to their own faults. They need a way to stand outside of themselves, to be an observer looking in, in order to obtain a truer picture of the real conditions of their existence. In the unreal world of the fable or the parable, animals think and act like people, actions are symbolic, and characters, whether human or otherwise, react in broad, stereotyped fashion to the surrounding stimuli. Just as the reflection in a mirror is a real, yet intangible reality, so too is the fable or parable.

Among the earliest and greatest of fabulists was the semi-legendary Aesop. Many of his fables are still commonly told even today. Though often treated as children's stories, their real meaning is much deeper. One of the most famous of his fables is "The Ant and the Grasshopper."

In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

Why not come and chat with me,' said the Grasshopper, instead of toiling and moiling in that way?'

I am helping to lay up food for the winter,' said the Ant, and recommend you to do the same.'

Why bother about winter?' said the Grasshopper; 'we have got plenty of food at present.' But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:

It is best to prepare for the days of necessity." (Long, 1997)

An ant and a grasshopper are certainly two of the most familiar insects. Everyone has seen them, long lines of ants hurrying across the ground, green grasshoppers jumping from blade of grass to blade of grass. No one usually gives them much thought. People generally assume, in fact, that they are creatures of little intelligence, creatures that live their entire lives within the confines of pre-programmed instincts. But on the rare occasions that humans do observe these insects more closely, there are particular features of the two species that stand out. The ants are always busy. They seem to move continually back and forth from their communal home, carrying in food, dragging out waste. Theirs is a very orderly "society," the anthill runs like a well-oiled machine. In contrast, to the unscientific eye, the grasshopper seems oddly carefree. What do grasshoppers do but jump around in the sunshine, and chirp happily beneath the blue summer sky?

Surely it is not too difficult to imagine these two races of insects imbued with human feeling. The ant is a hard-worker, a planner, and an organizer. She knows how to budget her time, knows how to use the bountiful days of summer to lay in a good supply of food for the lean days of winter. She is symbolic of the farmer who works diligently all through the growing season, the industrious worker who makes sure that her family and community are always well-provided for. On the other hand, the grasshopper is like the young man who spends the summer amusing himself. If he were a person, we might find him at the beach, or at a baseball field, or maybe even at an amusement park. Summertime is vacation time. Food and rent can wait. There is always tomorrow. Thus, the grasshopper, like the loafing young man, is completely unprepared when the winter finally comes. To live only for today is foolish. That is the moral of the Ant and the Grasshopper.

In fact, the message of Aesop's fable is quite straightforward. His language is simple and direct; the Grasshopper's wintertime misery follows directly from his summertime fun. However, another great fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine, tells the same story in a slightly different fashion:

The Grasshopper having sung

All the summer long,

Found herself lacking food

When the North Wind began its song.

Not a single little piece

Of fly or grub did she have to eat.

She went complaining of hunger

To the Ant's home, her neighbour,

Begging there for a loan

Of some grain to keep herself alive

Til the next season did arrive, shall pay you,' she said

Before next August, on my word as an animal,

I'll pay both interest and principal.'

The Ant was not so inclined:

this not being one of her faults.

What did you do all summer?'

Said she to the grasshopper.

Night and day I sang, hope that does not displease you.'"

You sang? I will not look askance.

But now my neighbour it's time to dance." (Long, 2002)

As can be seen above, La Fontaine takes a very different tack from Aesop in conveying the same moral. Rather than following ant and grasshopper through the summer, we first meet the grasshopper once he has already realized the danger of his situation. It is winter, and he is hungry. Penniless and desperate, he attempts to buy food from the ant...on credit. The ant refuses.

The Ant was not so inclined:

this not being one of her faults.

What did you do all summer?'

Said she to the grasshopper.

Night and day I sang, hope that does not displease you.' "

You sang? I will not look askance.

But now my neighbour it's time to dance.' "

Beautifully told, La Fontaine's moral is itself a metaphor. Give no thought to the consequences of your actions, and you must pay the piper. Another parable yes, but one with a similar message, for La Fontaine elaborates on the simple cause and effect of idea of Aesop's story. The tale of the ant and the grasshopper is not simply about failing to prepare for the future, it is about taking responsibility for one's actions. We are not our brothers' keepers. We don't work so you can play. La Fontaine's version introduces a social problem into what in Aesop's rendition was purely a problem of personal need. One could even see in La Fontaine's fable something of the conditions of his own world, the world of Seventeenth Century France, in which idle nobles often lived off the labor of their peasants. The ant is not grasshopper's peasant.

Ant and grasshopper are distinct individuals, each with his own obligations.

Indeed, by the Seventeenth Century in both England and France, the fable had become the ideal vehicle for social satire. In a world in which speech and the press were still relatively closely controlled, a fable's animal protagonists could serve as stand-ins for real-life personalities of the day. The never-never land of the fable or parable was shown to be an accurate reflection of a contemporary situation, its lessons as equally applicable to the past as to the present.

For the fable to do its work in the world, a contemporary vocabulary and issues cannot merely be grafted upon a traditional matrix, but past and present must be seen to be structurally related. And the more people wrestled to accommodate received systems to vast social and cultural changes, the more it became evident that the fable was no rudimentary signifying system, but capable of doing advanced work in the arena of political definition." (Patterson, 1991)

Sir Philip Sydney, among others, recognized the specifically mass appeal of the fable. The fable's simple imagery and elegant poetry presented complex ideas in an easily digestible fashion:

say the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him, that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught; but the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs, the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher, whereof Aesop's tales give good proof: whose pretty allegories, stealing under the formal tales of beasts, make many, more beastly than beasts, begin to hear the sound of virtue from these dumb speakers."

(Duncan-Jones and Sidney 223)

Much as the fable serves today as a means of instructing children in social and moral values, the fable once served this same purpose in an age when a great part of the population was at best only poorly educated. A moralist could point to a…[continue]

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