The tale of Rumpelstiltskin asks a moral question: Who is the worst of the three men? The lying father who gives away his own daughter, the greedy King who threatens death, or the proto-men’s rights activist dwarf?

rumpelstiltskin dancing around a fire

This is my all-time favorite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?

That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.


Or perhaps we are to pass judgement on the miller’s daughter, who promises her first born under duress and then ‘fails’ to follow through, by handing the baby over to the gold-spinning dwarf? We are certainly invited to pass judgement on The Frog Queen, who promises to marry a frog if he retrieves her golden ball, and then promptly changes her mind once the frog has given it back. The idea that women have free will is a much newer concept than this tale. The morality of the miller’s daughter is interesting because she is both trapped in a prison, but also an honoured guest. Scholars of feminism will realise that this gilded cage has resonance for many women even today.

This is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts — we don’t hear about the miller after he gives his daughter to the King, but we can assume he lived in comfort, at least for a good while.

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Allegory = Extreme Metaphor

The Horse and His Boy boy open on bed

Allegory means, among many other things, that the characters, worlds, actions and objects in a work of fiction are highly metaphorical. That doesn’t mean they aren’t unique or created by the writer. It means the symbols have references that echo against previous symbols, often deep in the audience’s mind.

Allegorical also means ‘applicable to our modern world and time’.

Good stories have elements that are founded on the thematic line and oppositions. This especially applies to allegory. For example, for Tolkien, Christian thematic structure emphasises good versus evil.

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What is a parable?

A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. A parable is a type of analogy.

Allegories are a more general category of narrative and can sometimes be harder to interpret than parables, with several possible meanings (though not nearly so many possible meanings as symbols).

Like a parable, the allegory employs metaphor.

The parable is more condensed.

Raison d’être

Illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.

Features Of A Parable

  • Simple story structure
  • Sketches setting, describes action, shows the results
  • The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences
  • The moral of a parable is not always stated outright but is nevertheless meant to be straightforward and obvious.
  • The parable is like a metaphor in that it uses concrete, perceptible phenomena to illustrate abstract ideas. A parable is a metaphor extended to the length of a complete narrative.
  • Parables don’t exist to explore ‘anomalies’. They aren’t about unusual people in ordinary circumstances; the main character will stand-in for a fairly common sort of viewpoint that the author is critiquing by writing the story.


Perhaps the most famous are the Parables of Jesus, found in all the canonical gospels. These are the parables which form the foundation and structure of all parables in the West.

Parable of the Leaven — about a woman baking bread

Parable of the Friend at Night — a man knocks on his neighbour’s door at night

Parable of the Good Samaritan — the aftermath of a roadside mugging

The parables in the Bible teach readers to pray and the meaning of love.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens — This work is a criticism of the widely held political idea at the time that if we were to support the poor by providing them with food then they’d just procreate in greater numbers and produce even more poor people that the rich will have to keep feeding and feeding. (This idea still hasn’t died, even today.)

Mrs Gatty’s Parables

Margaret Gatty was an English woman who edited Aunt Judy’s Magazine1866-73 and who wrote Parables From Nature, which, as you might expect, were parables for children, inspired by nature.

Parables From Nature title page

Mrs Gatty was a great admirer of The Water Babies, which is itself a lot like her Parables from Nature but enlarged and given a continuous plot.

Mrs Gatty’s most interesting parable is that comic delight ‘Inferior Animals’, which foreshadows not Animal Farm by Kipling; yet the satire is almost as sophisticated as that of Swift. The rooks are holding a counsel. The subject is Man. The meeting is addressed tin turn by those learned authorities Mr Ravenwing, Mr Yellowhead, Mr Greylegs. ‘Why Man?’ says Mr Ravenwing, sounding like a religious programme on television. ‘One of the most puzzling whys in connection with Man is, why he wears clothes?’ The birds decide that clothes are probably vestigial feathers, or that Man, having either lost or not yet evolved feathers, is trying to reproduce them artificially, to become, in fact, a Rook. Further proof is supplied (in this coal-using and mining era) by his efforts to attain his original colour — black. Another proof of his need to resume his original life in trees is his continued effort to soar in the air — by balloon. The rooks debate Man as a fallen Rook, arguing delightfully from data, drawing all the wrong conclusions with invincible superiority.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land