The Oral Origin Of Fairytales

Henry Herbert La Thangue - The Harvesters' Supper

The era in which oral folktales became written fairytales was also the era in which children’s literature as a whole began to develop.

How did oral tales change once they became written-down stories?



First, the main audience shifted, notably, from the peasant class to the monied classes. Main characters were previously adults; now they were children.

Oral folktales focused on empowering the oppressed, and tended to centre on class struggles. For this reason they appealed particularly to the lower classes. As they became written fairytales, and so became the domain of the educated classes, class struggles were usually replaced by adult-child power-struggles: the child became the central focus of the story, rather than the peasant.

Elizabeth O’Reilly

This meant the ideology also shifted. Oral folk tales were often ribald. Now they became didactic, emphasising upper-class manners:

Zipes points out that, as writers appropriated the oral folk tale, they ‘converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners’ for the socialisation of children according to the social codes of the time. Thus, ‘writers of fairytales for children acted ideologically by presenting their notions regarding social conditions and conflicts, and they interacted with each other and with past writers and storytellers of folklore in a public sphere’. This point probably applies to all children’s books (and literature as a whole)

Elizabeth O’Reilly

Most importantly, perhaps, the content of a tale was affected by the fact that storytelling was a dynamic process between narrator and listener. When retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the storyteller would grab the child at “All the better to eat you with!” The child listener would probably react in a variety of ways, changing the story slightly with each retelling, perhaps pouncing on the storyteller in turn. The ability to turn the tables affected thee ending of Little Red Riding Hood. The children being told the tale were not harmed, and neither was Little Red Riding Hood, who managed to outwit the wolf in the oral tradition. It was only after being written down that Little Red Riding Hood lost her autonomy.

Another fairy tale perfectly suited to the oral tradition is Rumpelstiltskin, which is very old. Guessing the little man’s name turns the story into an interaction between storyteller and audience.

More recently, Spike Milligan wrote in the oral tradition. His story Badjelly The Witch is perfectly suited to adaptation for radio — the version I grew up with.

Below, Philip Pullman explains the extent to which oral tales vary depending on a variety of factors. He conveys the idea that fairytales were always meant to evolve. Fairy and folk tales are not meant to be set in stone forever, unlike the Gutenberg Press, which froze English spelling in time:

A fairy tale is … a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing: a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs. Another accident might affect it too: a good tale might find itself in the mouth of a less than adequate teller.

That matters a great deal, because tellers vary in their talents, their techniques, their attitudes to the process. The Grimms were highly impressed by the ability of one of their sources, Dorothea Viehmann, to tell a tale a second time in the same words as she’d used before, making it easy to transcribe; and the tales that come from her are typically structured with marvellous care and precision. […]

Similarly, this teller might have a talent for comedy, that one for suspense and drama, another for pathos and sentiment. Naturally they will each choose tales that make the most of their talents. When X the great comedian tells a tale, he will invent ridiculous details or funny episodes that will be remembered and passed on, so the tale will be altered a little by his telling; and when Y the mistress of suspense tells a tale of terror, she will invent in like manner, and her inventions and changes will become part of the tradition of telling that tale, until they’re forgotten, or embellished, or improved on in their turn. The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text.

Philip Pullman

Not everyone agrees with the idea that fairy tales came from the oral tradition:

The popular understanding is that fairytales evolved exclusively from oral folktellers – from the uneducated “Mother Goose” nurse, passing into the imaginations of children by centuries of fireside retellings.

But this story is a myth. Fairytales were invented by the blue blood and pomaded sweat of a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.

Melissa Ashley

Sure enough, some fairy tales did not come from the oral tradition. Beauty and the Beast is the stand-out example of that. I have seen these referred to as ‘literary fairy tales’ to distinguish them from ‘oral fairytales’, in which ‘oral’ is assumed.

Header painting: Henry Herbert La Thangue – The Harvesters’ Supper

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson

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? Or is it the daughter herself?

rumpelstiltskin dancing around a fire

This is my all-time favourite 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.

Riveted

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. Any girl who takes the ‘lazy’ way out by getting someone else to magically do her (spinning) work for her is judged harshly. The ethic of work hard and you will be rewarded is very old.

Rumpelstiltskin 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.

HISTORY

  • “Rumpelstiltskin” is a German fairytale, also known as “Whuppity Stoorie” in Scotland, “Gilitrutt” in Iceland, “Joaidane” (جعيدان) in Arabic, (Martinko Klingáč) in Slovakia and “Ruidoquedito” in South America. Other versions are found in Israel, Serbia and Japan. Although individual plot details inevitably differ, the core of the story is the same as the German “Rumpelstiltskin”.
  • A Japanese tale called Oniroku and the Carpenter (だいくとおにろく)has strong Rumpelstiltskin vibes. Instead of spinning straw into gold, a supernatural creature (an ogre) builds a carpenter’s bridge for him. Instead of threatening to take the carpenter’s firstborn, he threatens to take his eyes, unless the carpenter can guess the ogre’s first name.
  • Rumpelstiltskin stories are likely over 2500 years old, and possibly as old as the Indo-European’s life on the Steppes 6000 years ago. The earliest literary mention of Rumpelstiltskin occurs in Johann Fischart’s Geschichtklitterung, or Gargantua of 1577 referring to an “amusement” for children named “Rumpele stilt or the Poppart”.
  • There are various ways to spell Rumpelstiltskin and in Germany, in case you were wondering, it’s Rumpelstilzchen. It means ‘little rattle stilt’. (The ending -chen is a German diminutive classifying something as “little” or “dear”.)
  • A rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was the name of a type of goblin (also called a pophart or poppart) that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. The meaning is similar to rumpelgeist (“rattle ghost”) or poltergeist. But at some point, and by the time it was translated into English, ‘goblin’ became ‘dwarf’.
  • Some of his other names include Tom Tit Tot, Päronskaft, or Repelsteeltje.
  • There is a version of this tale in sorts of cultures from Japan to Iceland.
  • As for the Grimms’ collected tale, this one is similar to The Three Spinners. Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, the characters in The Three Spinners are women — from the Queen (rather than the King), the mother (rather than the father) and the three deformed women who show up to do the spinning for the girl.
  • Most of the early stories related to Rumpelstiltskin involve a fairy trying to take the woman to be his wife. When the Brothers Grimm got hold of it, that’s when Rumpelstiltskin suddenly wants a baby.
  • Rumpelstiltskin hasn’t been made into a Disney film, though the character Rumpelstiltskin does exist on the TV series Once Upon A Time, played by Robert Carlyle.
  • Gold has long been associated with fairies and similar creatures (such as hobgoblins). Why? Fairies come from underground, and that’s where treasure comes from, too.
Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon A Time

By the by, there is a live action film of Rumpelstiltskin: the 1940 live action one produced in Nazi Germany, directed by Alf Zengerling. I’ve not sought that out.

I consider this fairytale well-suited to the oral tradition. The part where the Queen/miller’s daughter guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name can be turned into a type of word game where young listeners play with language and come up with all sorts of different, original names each time.

STORY STRUCTURE OF RUMPELSTILTSKIN

Who is the main character of this story? If in doubt, the main character is the one who changes the most. Failing that, the one who learns a life lesson. The King and the Father are monsters of men with zero shades of grey. (When it comes to fairytale archetypes, Kings and Fathers are basically the same person.) This whittles it down to either the nameless miller’s daughter or Rumpelstiltskin.

I will treat Rumpelstiltskin as the main character, not because he is given a name (indeed, in the title) but because the miller’s daughter is entirely passive. In the era this tale existed, she would not have been considered someone even capable of making plans. She is simply a chattel. Even the baby is more important than she is — I presume the baby is a boy, though it is not specified in my version of the fairytale (1979, Cathay Books).

“Rumpelstiltskin” by Willy Pogany

SHORTCOMING

Rumpelstiltskin is a dwarf, presumably shunned by society for this ‘deformity’. He has no status or power despite having the wonderful and rare skill of being able to turn straw into gold.

Rumpelstiltskin as illustrated by John Dickson Batten for British version called Tom Tit Tot.
Rumpelstiltskin as illustrated by John Dickson Batten for British version called Tom Tit Tot.

DESIRE

He wants power. Surely he could get rich on his own, if he can spin straw into gold. His real aim must therefore be to enter the realm of royalty. But as explained by Ravens Shire, Rumpelstiltskin must have a goal, but it is not clear to the audience:

Rumpelstiltskin, despite outward appearances, is neither clear in his goal nor his motivation. On the cusp of it, it would seem that he wants the girl’s first-born baby. However, most fairies in stories don’t ask for the child they want, instead they simply take it. Rumpelstiltskin, however, despite being clearly able to sneak into a prison, being able to weave magic doesn’t just take the child as he obviously could. He tries to get the girl to accept giving the baby to him. What’s more, even after he comes to collect the child, he decides to give her another chance to escape her agreement with him.

Ravens Shire

Ravens Shire has some interesting theories about why Rumpelstiltskin wants this baby:

  • he may be a forgotten god
  • a baby would offer him love
  • he could bring the baby up as ‘the good king’ to eventually replace this evil one
  • he is seeking revenge (for what, I wonder?)
  • he will utilise the baby’s help at a later date

I’m thinking the original creators of this tale lived in a world where an imp’s/goblin’s intentions were assumed because of pre-existing stories about these creatures. Let’s not forget that the baby twist came quite late, in the mid 1800s. I wonder if this was a throwback to an earlier tale or if it was a brand new twist at that time. (In the same way, Disney have changed certain fairytales in the public imagination. We’ll always think of the dwarves in Snow White as miners, for instance.)

But in Troublesome Things, Diane Purkiss encourages us not to ask why a fairy (or a hobgoblin) would want a baby:

Why did fairies want babies? No one knows. The short, modern answer is that fairies reflect a mother’s love … Babies, especially boy babies, are wanted because everyone wants a baby — or is supposed to. But why do the fairies want human babies? This si not the right question: the point is that babies are, in certain crucial ways, like fairies. we… fairy beings in the ancient world are liminal, borderers; so medieval fairies remain. They wander between the dead and the living.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

Rumpelstiltskin would’ve had this in common with a baby: They were both on the edge of life.

Later in the same book, Purkiss says something else which makes me think again of Rumpelstiltskin: ‘Giving up your baby in exchange for your own power or security is the ultimate crime in agnatic kinship’. That the girl did not want to give up her baby means she is a good girl, because she is conforming to the patriarchal structure designed to keep her in her place.

OPPONENT

Aside from society at large, Rumpelstiltskin’s opponent in this story ends up being the miller’s daughter who, once Queen, has ‘forgotten’ all about her promise: to hand over her firstborn. (I guess PTSD wasn’t a thing back then.)

PLAN

The only way to get power is to act through people connected to the King. Rumpelstiltskin himself must pull strings behind the scene (at night, in the barn), like a puppeteer. If he were to get his hands on a baby of normal height — the King’s son no less — he would be the owner of the ultimate bargaining power.

More specifically, he notices when the King keeps a girl captive and must have somehow overheard the miller boasting. The dwarf’s diminutive size must therefore allow him to be almost omnipresent, blending in to the landscape — his status so low that he is invisible.

In the illustration below, I feel those birds may represent Rumpelstiltskin’s messengers.

Almost all illustrated versions of Rumpelstiltskin show both dwarf and girl in the barn. Often she is crying; sometimes they are engaged in conversation; other times we see him at the spinning wheel, working away.

Edward Gorey 1973
Helga Gebert, 1985
Paul O. Zelinsky has chosen a warm palette, presumably because they’re surrounded by straw and gold.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scenes are the episodes in which the miller’s daughter tries to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and the final big struggle scene is of course when she gets it right, after having heard word from a man who passed a man in the woods singing all about his name. The Rule Of Three is used here and in the very sentence structure of some retellings, with repetition of words three times, for instance.

In some versions it is the Queen who sends out her messenger to find the dwarf in the woods, giving the female character more agency by turning her into a trickster who is a worthy opponent for the baddie. In my version she asks for help from the people in suggesting names, but in the end the revelation is an accident.

In the 1812 edition of the Brothers Grimm tales, Rumpelstiltskin then “ran away angrily, and never came back”. The ending was revised in a final 1857 edition to a more gruesome ending wherein Rumpelstiltskin “in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.” Other versions describe Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again. In the oral version collected by the brothers Grimm, Rumpelstiltskin flies out of the window on a cooking ladle. (Why cooking ladle? Well, why broomsticks?)

It’s not surprising that we don’t see Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in two in illustrations for children. Instead we see the seconds leading up to it — there are many images of a dwarf/goblin dancing around a fire. The fire conjures up associations with hell.

ANAGNORISIS

As in Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and various other non-bowdlerised fairytales, there is no anagnorisis because the dwarf tears himself in two and dies.

NEW SITUATION

We must extrapolate that the Queen gets to keep her first born. Don’t think about it too hard, however, or you’ll realise she’s living in a permanently abusive relationship under a powerful man who keeps her not only as a gold-spinning slave but as a sex-slave. And now she has no way of continuing to expand his fortune. I don’t envy her prospects.

Header illustration: Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson

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.

What’s The Difference Between Allegory And Symbolism?

An allegory is a story told by a symbol’s POV, or a highly symbolic story. Allegory = ‘extreme metaphor’.

Symbolism is a bit more subtle, and will be interpreted in a range of different ways by different readers, as Thomas C. Foster explains  below:

Here’s the problem with symbols: people expect them to mean something. Not just any something, but one something in particular…It doesn’t work like that. Oh, sure, there are some symbols that work straightforwardly: a white flag means, I give up, don’t shoot. Or it means, We come in peace. See? Even in a fairly clear-cut case we can’t pin down a single meaning, although they’re pretty close. So some symbols do have a relatively limited range of meanings, but in general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing. […]

[With symbols, however,] the thing referred to is likely not reducible to a single statement but will more probably involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations. [A symbol requires] of us…to bring something of ourselves to the encounter [in order to get its meaning].

How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

With allegories, on the other hand, there is generally a commonly accepted symbolic meaning. It’s harder to come up with your own unique interpretation (and justify it).

Examples of Allegory

Strict allegory, in which virtually every word must support a double meaning and fit into a coherent interpretation, has produced few examples since the Middle Ages. But loose allegory, in which only major events and characters must fit the chosen ideological pattern, still appears with fair frequency and is a staple of experimental, literary fiction, and fantasy.

Lord Of The Rings is fantasy but applied to a wartime 20th century world. (Tolkien said he didn’t mean to write it as an allegory of war, but he was a product of his time.)

Lord of the Flies is, in large measure, a fable of this sort. Each of the major characters represents one particular facet of hu- man possibility as Golding conceives it. The characters are stranded on an island to limit them to their own resources. They’re schoolboys (some are choirboys) to underline that they’re as close to innocence as human beings are apt to get. And all are male, I assume, to keep any question of sex from muddling the experiment, since it’s not part of what Golding wants to examine. They’re boys. But boys plus. Simon, for example, is a fully realised individual. But he also stands for and demonstrates the mystical and hopeful tendencies in all people. He’s the only mystic on the island, just as Piggy is the only intellectual, Jack the only natural hunter, Roger the only sadist, and so on.

Narnia — Aslan stands for a concept beyond his role — Jesus, of course. But as Roger Sutton writes in his article about the allegory of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, there is a contradiction involved in writing allegory for kids:

There’s a reason we caution would-be writers for children to stay away from allegory, and it’s the same reason we see so much of it from self-published and small-pressed* children’s authors: it’s more often preachy and didactic and labored than not, but there’s a lesson involved, which people who don’t love to read love to see in books for the young. Allegory also, as we see above, eludes many young readers, so what’s the point?

— Roger Sutton, November/December 2019 editorial at The Hornbook

 

Animal Farm — an allegory about capitalists and totalitarians. This 1945 novel is popular among many readers precisely because it’s relatively easy to figure out what it all means. Orwell is desperate for us to get the point, not a point. Revolutions inevitably fail, he tells us, because those who come to power are corrupted by it and reject the values and principles they initially embraced.

Aesop’s Fables — In its simplest forms, allegory can be a fable like that of the dog in the manger or the fox and the grapes, in which dog, fox, grapes and manger stand for some reality of human experience—that some people who can’t use a thing nevertheless are reluctant to let others enjoy it; that some people rationalise their disappointment at being unable to get something by claiming the thing is no good anyway.

Pilgrim’s Progress — Back in 1678, John Bunyan wrote an allegory called The Pilgrim’s Progress. in it, the main character, Christian, is trying to journey to the Celestial City, while along the way he encounters such distractions as the Slough of Despond, the Primrose Path, Vanity Fair, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Other characters have names like Faithful, Evangelist, and the Giant Despair. Their names indicate their qualities, and in the case of Despair, his size as well. Allegories have one mission to accomplish—convey a certain message, in this case, the quest of the devout Christian to reach heaven. If there is ambiguity or a lack of clarity regarding that one-to-one correspondence between emblem—the figurative construct—and the thing it represents, then the allegory fails because the message is blurred.

Pinocchio — an allegory of life, similar to The Water Babies and The Three Pearls, but far nearer to folktale in feeling due to its shadeless black and white issues and quick rewards of virtue and sharp punishment of wrongdoing. Pinocchio can be considered a young Pilgrim’s Progress. There are animal tempters, avengers and judges. Pinocchio is always saying, “Oh! How I wish I could have been a good child!” Obedience brings you to heaven, the reverse gets you nowhere.

Features Of Allegory

SUBTEXT

Like a theme story, allegory has a subtext, a pattern of meaning beyond what’s evident on the surface. Just more so.

LOTS AND LOTS OF SYMBOLISM

Allegory involves creating a fairly thoroughgoing pattern of symbolism in which all major events and characters in a story have a meaning beyond themselves and those meanings can be put together to make some sort of overall sense.

This kind of structural symbolism lends itself to social satire, political polemics, fantasy, and religious fiction. There are innumerable examples of each. Some are plotted; some derive their energy from the tension between symbol and reality, the character and what the character stands for, the gradual revelation of larger meanings.

Allegory = Extreme Metaphor

To see how metonymic and metaphoric devices interact in a mixed, that is, both realistic and romantic, fiction, it is perhaps best to begin with the extreme form of the metaphoric or romance pole, the allegory. In an allegory, the only way to approach the characters is by reference to their position in a preexistent code. An analysis of the metonymic context leads nowhere. […] if we were to meet an allegorical character in real life, we would think the person driven by some central obsession. The obsessive-like behaviour of the character is, of course, a result of his or her actions being totally determined by the position he or she holds in the preexistent code. The difference between an allegorical character and a character in a romance is that the romance figure not only acts as if obsessed because of his or her position in the story but also seems obsessed in reference to the similitude of real life created in the work itself.

This combination seems most effectively achieved when a psychologically real character’s obsession is so extreme that he or she projects the obsession on someone or something outside the self and then, ignoring that the source of the obsession is within, acts as if it were without. Thus, although the obsessive action takes place within a similitude of a realistic world, once the character has projected an inner state outward and then has reacted to the projection as if it were outside, this very reaction transforms the character into a parabolic rather than a realistic figure.

The most obvious early examples are those stories by Poe that focus on “the perverse”, that obsessive-like behaviour that compels someone to act in a way that may go against reason, common sense, even the best interests of the survival of the physical self. In many of Poe’s most important stories, the obsession occurs as behaviour that can be manifested only in elliptical or symbolic ways. For example, in “The Tell-tale Heart” the narrator’s desire to kill the old man because of his eye can be understood only when we realize that “eye” must be heard, not seen, as the first-person pronoun “I”.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

The Challenges Of Writing Allegory

There are two main dangers with this kind of fiction, from Ansen Dibell’s Elements Of Plot:

1. The message, the larger meaning, will take over, making the characters seem like lifeless puppets and the story, however organized, a mechanical thing determined by forces imposed from outside—a political stance, a religious or social ideology. The fiction has a blatant ulterior motive. In extreme cases, the events and people of the story, as presented, make no surface sense at all. Only what they stand for is of any significance; and that’s not enough to make the story readable or coherent.

2. The second difficulty is establishing the system of symbols itself. The pattern must make sense, rather than seeming an arbitrary authorial whim (umbrella = ambition; galoshes = passionate love; fish = space travel). The symbols chosen must be appropriate both to what they represent and to one another. The connections should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, and be consistent through the whole story. A knife can be a symbol; but it also better be able to cut string. And if it represents cutting free, cutting loose, in the story’s beginning, it better not be used to prop up a bookcase and then forgotten, later on.

In practice, this makes characterisation and plotting doubly hard, since each element of the story carries an added weight of meaning and invites interpretation, as though it were a code to be broken rather than a story to be enjoyed.

Both difficulties, combined with allegory’s tendency to become preachy and polemic and its requirement that the reader put in extra work discerning the second level of meaning, have diminished its popularity over the centuries. 

What is a parable?

A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. Fables are different. Fables feature animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters.

A parable is a type of analogy. Analogies are short narratives comparing one thing to something else.

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 is highly metaphorical. But the parable is more condensed.

PHILIP GOODWIN, IF THE HORSE WHY NOT THE MAN, A PICTURE PARABLE, 1908
from 1908

Raison d’être

The parable 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 suffers 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 outliers, chosen people and exceptions. These stories 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.

Examples

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 novel 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’, … 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