I designed the following parable to deliver its moral using a fixed, but versatile formula. See whether you can spot it.
The King had a son who loved nothing better than to sit indoors and study. Despite the numerous books that already surrounded him, the young Prince was desperate to peruse his father’s grand library—a library reputed to contain the wisdom of humankind. The King repeatedly refused, year after year.
On the day he came of age, the Prince woke to a message from his father inviting him to receive a birthday present in the library. He got dressed and rushed into the courtyard, but the library was no longer there. In its place smouldered a heap of rubble. Dismayed, the Prince walked across the sooty field, sifting through the cinders, until he arrived at the centre, where he found a pedestal and on it a single, unsinged book. He leafed through it; it was blank.
The Prince looked up to see the King slowly approaching with a saddled horse. The Prince smiled, spoke a word of thanks, and tucked away the book, before taking the reins from his father.
Later that day, the peasants working the fields near the palace watched as a young man galloped past, heading for the sunset.
The formula consists of two parts: the shock at such wholesale destruction of value (preparing the protagonist/reader for the moral) and the poignancy and potentcy of a single rescued symbol of value (that offers the moral).
If you read my previous post on Japanese aesthetics, you may have noticed the quote from which I extracted the destroy-all-but-one formula.
Simplicity—this was something that Rikyu tried to teach his pupil, Hideyoshi, at whose “court” he was arbiter. One famous anecdote illustrates his method.
Rikyu’s garden of morning glories was known for its beauty. Hearing of it Hideyoshi demanded that he be invited to visit. So he was, but when he arrived all the morning glories were no more; they had all been scythed. Perturbed, Hideyoshi retired to the nearby tea house, and there the modest flower arrangement in the alcove was a single morning glory, the only survivor, superb in its focused simplicity. The warlord is supposed to have stared, then nodded, and said that he understood the lesson.
—Donald Richie, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007)
The Rikyu and Hideyoshi anecdote conveys a far subtler and incomparably more delicate point in a different domain of human thought. That said, the parable-construction exercise offers a thinking point: given a set formula, but not much time to consider it, how would different people dress it up?
The formula frees the imagination from having to grapple with the mechanics of the “plot”, leaving two other variable components: the moral and the setting. I had reached for the first moral that came to mind (knowledge, self-discovery, and importance of lived experience), together with what instantly presented itself as a possible vehicle for timeless messages within the Western tradition (a European court). It seems probable that other’s too would chose the moral from amongst favourite personal topics, while drawing the setting from a collection of tropes belonging to their predominant cultural background. What do you think?