Parables and other stories within stories

One of my teachers in elementary school, Mr. Walton, came in on Fridays and posed conundrums to us. Mr. Walton was the computer lab teacher, which meant that he was a whiz at probably my worst subject. I could not type, and more than once accidentally highlighted and deleted the results of several minutes’ painstaking chicken peck. Computer lab class was not among the highlights of my day. But once a week, Mr. Walton came into the regular classroom, sat down in the teacher’s chair while we clustered cross-legged on the carpet, and posed us conundrums.

Robbers broke into a room. In the room was a person sitting on a chair. The robbers stole everything else in the room and left. The person made no move to stop them. Why?

We sprouted answers (wrong) and questions, racking our brains.

“Was the person unconscious?”

No, the person was awake.

“The person in the the chair was blind!”

No, the person could see.

“Was the person tied up? Did the person know the robbers?”

No. No.

Eventually the lightbulb clicked on, and somebody found the answer.

A man walked into a bar. Immediately, he was knocked unconscious. What happened?

Sometimes nobody found the answer, and Mr. Walton would tell us. Or he would tell us the next week, giving us that long to puzzle over the mystery and try different solutions. (Okay, we did get the bar joke before long — which says fascinating things about the human brain, because even those of us who barely knew what a bar bar was *ahem, me* didn’t take his words literally, at first.)

One year, Mr. Walton brought in bins of mechano-toys (I don’t know what they were called), and had us build machines out of levers, pulleys, bars, and funny little pieces of plastic. He was training us in different ways of thinking. School wasn’t just for academic work: he taught us to design and construct mechanical, three-dimensional machines (the mechano-toys); and to think beyond our assumptions (the conundrums).

In Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, Effie has a teacher in Aphrikans magic named Miss Ochiba. Miss Ochiba begins her first lesson by asking her students to look at a painting hanging on the blackboard, and tell her what they see. What is it? The answers flow in: one student identifies the area depicted; another notes that it is a lumber camp; it shows a forest, a body of water. It is a painting. And an illusion: Miss Ochiba waves her hand, and the painting disappears. (p. 49-50)

“This is the most important lesson you must learn about macis,” Miss Ochiba went on. “There are many ways of seeing. Each has an element of truth, but none is the whole truth… First, last, and always, however, I expect you to learn to see.” (50-51)

Miss Ochiba daily guides her class to see different facets of everyday items. This way of thinking — of taking the effort to consider a person, object, or situation from as many angles as possible — becomes Effie’s great strength. This doesn’t, of course, apply only to magic.

In Arabian Nights, characters often pause in the middle of the action to tell their own story. This is a narrative device, embedding stories and framing tales within a larger tale (the ultimate frame is that of Scheherazade and the sultan Shahriyar). Characters live or die by how good they are at storytelling; the listener’s sympathies are swayed (or not) according to the skill of the storyteller. Being a storyteller means knowing the rules; it also means breaking them. Not all mysteries need to be made plain; what matters is the story, and thinking about the story.

To use another example, in the Bible, the gospels are full of stories Jesus tells, called parables. Parables are sometimes analogies, where one thing in the story corresponds to something in life; but mostly, parables are more opaque than that. They are short stories with a surprise in them: there is something unexpected, something startling, maybe even shocking. The point of parables is not a direct, one-for-one substitution (x means this); the point of parables is to cause pause, to stir the listener to think, puzzle, meditate, consider, re-examine.

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books contain embedded stories: Gen tells his companions stories about Eugenides, the god of thieves, in The Thief. Helen, Queen of Eddis, tells the magus the story of Hespira and Horreon in The Queen of Attolia. Phresine tells Gen the story of Klimun and Gerosthenes in The King of Attolia. Sophos earns a place for himself with his knowledge of the Eponymiad, and the goddess Moira tells him the story of Morphos’s choice in A Conspiracy of Thieves.

These tales within tales cannot be reduced to lessons. They are myths, and, like myths and parables, they offer a tale, sometimes to explain why something is so, and sometimes merely a story of humans and relations among humans, or human-deity relations. They offer other ways to see.

The national Goreddi epic of Belondweg in Rachel Hartman’s Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming acts similarly as Amy’s adventures over one eventful summer are woven into and against the background of Belondweg’s tale. (And I really can’t say more because of spoilers.)

Parables and these other stories invite — no, demand — long, patient thought with their surprising narratives, different ways of thought, and open ends. How have stories like these shaped you — which do you recommend?


4 responses to “Parables and other stories within stories

  1. One amusing example in history was how sometimes Penny Dreadfuls would have stories within stories; when an author could not keep up with the rigorous schedule of writing his weeklies, publishers would sometimes find other authors to write short stories so that characters in the serial would ‘pick up and read’ some new book, and the reader could read the tale along with the character while the main author got caught up on writing the main story.

  2. I have a copy of the Thirteenth Child which I’m moving up to read. In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente is my favourite Arabian Nights inspired frame story – I love the feeling of getting deeper into a story through another voice opening up another layer of a world. Neen in Merrow by Ananda Braxton Smith confronts all the stories that are woven around her body and her family. She finally realises her own responsibility as a storyteller to question. The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor also digs deep into the prejudices/preconceptions that run through some of the myths that informed a war. Harry Potter is ironically a living myth both inside and outside of the story. I’d say those books have irrevocably shaped me as a person (Hogwarts was far from perfect but persists as a refuge.) Also, a shout out to HIs Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

    • Neat list! I haven’t read Merrow, but your description of Neen reminds me of Tanaqui in The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones, which I love — thanks for the new works to check out!

  3. I took a set of classes on myths/legends and one on Biblical parables one year (my dd is a Biblical studies prof and a minister for churched of Christ so I’m kind of always taking those lol). I love finding the tales within the tales and have been trying to include things like that in my own books (The Stone Dragon Saga by Elizabeth S. Tyree) and have found that the writing of my own myths/legends is impacting me almost as much as reading them does.
    Tim Tingle, the Choctaw story teller, has several wonderful books that include tales wishing tales in both non fiction and fiction genres. I’ve introduced him into my 5th grade classroom…as well as to high school and college aged friends

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