Monday, July 23, 2012

Animal Fables and Claws of Calamity

“The hand of destiny drew down before the eye of my vision also the curtain of carelessness; and clear-sighted reason, and far-seeing prudence kept me behind the dark screen of ignorance and folly, and thus the whole of us were all at once overtaken with the hand of trouble and the claw of calamity.”
-  Anvar-I-Suhali, or The Lights of Canopus, Being the Persian Version of The Fables of Pilpay; or the book “Lalilah And Damnah”, Chapter III, On the Agreement of Friends and the Advantages of Their Mutually Aiding One Another.
What do you think of when you think of animal fables? Do you think about the tortoise and the hare, and the moral that slow and steady once won the race? An animal fable is a story with a moral conveyed by animals that personify various moral characteristics. Perhaps fables were concocted by teachers to provide moral guidance to students who couldn’t read or write. We don’t need fables these depraved days, and not only because we (allegedly) can read. Fables might have been helpful in the days when we didn’t worry only about what was strictly legal, but also considered moral values like integrity, honesty and compassion. You don’t need Aesop today if you have a lawyer who can interpret tax codes, locate offshore shelters, and crawl through sewers of legal loopholes that serve to enrich hares at the expense of tortoises.
Fables are intended to illustrate such moral lessons as: pride goes before a fall; or how if you’re natural prey, you should be careful before befriending a predator; or how you should never order the meatloaf at a place called Mom’s.  Apart from the fact that most of us don’t know much about the moral characteristics of lions and mice, many traditional animal fables have no moral traction these days. Some fables have been worn into smooth clichés while retaining the animal characters in the underlying story: don’t count your chickens before they hatch; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Most of the simplistic stories attributed to Aesop include only two characters like an ant and a grasshopper. Possibly, the simple cast of characters was intended to explain the lessons at their most fundamental and un-misunderstand-able level. I have always liked animal fables, and I wondered how I could make animal fables more appealing to contemporary students.
Perhaps if I updated the characters and the settings, the fables would have more of an impact. A professor at the place I once worked has done that here.  For example, check out a contemporary interpretation of the fable ant and the grasshopper. The problem is that it’s no longer an animal fable – it’s a college student fable.
Or, perhaps animal fables have fallen out of favor these days because life is more complicated. Suppose we just need more drama and interest in our stories than old-fashioned Aesop preached? What about catchy names and places? For example, at least Ambrose Bierce’s fables included politicians, and intriguing proper place names like the City of Prosperous Obscurity. But here again, we’ve lost the animals.
So what if we kept the animals and just threw in more plot twists and complexity? The ancient Persian Lights of Canopus is a good source of more elaborate fables, for example the one about  the Crow, and the Mouse, and the Pigeon, and the Tortoise, and the Stag. There's another bonus apart from having a bigger cast. These animal fables include some of the most awesome metaphors ever, and like the example above, they mix more than a bartender in the Fox corporate suite at a Republican Party Convention. Here’s an example: “…the vessel of my life has fallen into a whirlpool, such that the mariner of deliberation is unable to set me free; and the cord of my existence is broken in such wise, that the finger-tip of thought is baffled in attempting to unite it.”  That really resonates with me although I confess I've always had a soft spot for fingertips scratching my brain.
So, then I got to thinking how about fables with more contemporary characters? I wonder what kind of moral can I make out of the fable of the Flash Drive, the Smart Card and how despite the boasts implied in their names they are outsmarted by the Spambot.  Or how about one where a woman marries a corporation? Upon consideration, this would risk offending those who consider valid marriage to be only between a man and a woman, (including between a 12-year-old girl and her rapist – a marriage that many men in Afghanistan consider to be completely reasonable). Besides, the moral of such a fable depresses me because we’ve all been screwed by a corporation at one time or another so technically, we’re already married, and we know how that one plays out. Besides, no animals.
So, what if I created my own animal fable, but make it even more spectacular by using animals whose very existence is questionable? How about a fable about involving a Squonk Hunting a Snark? Or maybe the Snark should hunt the Squonk?  According to Wikipedia (which is always 100% true) a Squonk (aka, Lacrimacorpus dissolvens) comes from Latin words meaning "tear", "body", and "dissolve". A Squonk is hard to catch. “Hunters who have attempted to catch Squonks have found that the creature is capable of evading capture by dissolving completely into a pool of tears and bubbles when cornered” - which I totally get. And only Lewis Carroll knows what a Snark is. All I have to do is figure out what moral I want these characters to illustrate. But then how could I ever top this? It’s a “fun with fables” site that is structures like a “choose your own adventure” story where you can select for the type of animal, the character trait or the moral of the story.
So, for now, I think I’m out of the animal fables business. Besides, I have to master the mixed metaphor first.  

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