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When most people answer the question, "What is a fable?" they usually define it as a story with talking animals that teaches readers a lesson or moral. Although most fables do fit into this category, Idries Shah, an author of many fables, believes that there is more to a fable than just being an interesting story that teaches a lesson. In fact, Shah writes in the "Forward" of his book Reflections, "Do you imagine that fables exist only to amuse or to instruct, and are based upon fiction? The best ones are delineations of what happens in real life, in the community, and in the individual’s mental processes" (1, 2).
What Shah means is that the best fables describe life, one’s mental processes, and the surrounding community to the fullest. In "The Man, the Snake, and the Stone," from his book Caravan of Dreams, Shaw gives insight to the way humans’ mental processes are and how they should be. The fable seems to be a tale about a curious, yet ignorant, man who desperately tries to justify his action of releasing the snake from under the stone so that the snake does not kill him. However, this fable shows the reader how selfish, inconsiderate, and unreasonable humans are with their animal "friends."
One thing this fable demonstrates to the reader is how selfish humans are in their ways. The fable starts with the man who picks up a stone and releases a venomous snake. The snake, of course, threatens to kill the man, but the man pleas for his life because he claims he set the snake free. The man cries, "Give me one more chance. Please let us find someone else to give an opinion, so that my life may be spared" (904). The man cares nothing about how the snake has been inconvenienced. All he cares about is trying to keep the snake from killing him.
Another issue this fable addresses is how inconsiderate man is to the animals of this planet. The fable gives two examples of animals that are treated unfairly. The first example tells of a flock of sheep which have provided humans with wool for many years. Now, after all the years of helping the humans, the humans turn around and repay the favor by killing the sheep for mutton. A sheep sarcastically adds, "That is the measure of generosity of men" (904).
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Furthermore, the situation between the fox and the man shows how the man is unreasonable. This is ironic because the man defines "reasonable" in the fable by saying to the snake, "But I have released you. How can you repay good with evil? Such an act would not accord with reasonable behavior" (903). The fox generously helps the man by tricking the snake into going back under the stone. According to the man’s definition of "reasonable behavior," he should have repaid the fox with something good in return for the good deed the fox performed. Instead, the man leads the fox into a group of hunters and to its death. This idea of doing good in return for nothing is also seen in a lesson of the Sufi tradition that comes from a man named Saadi of Shiraz, whom Idries Shah recognized in his book The Way of Sufi. The passage is called "Doing Good to the Evil" and it says, "Merely doing good to the evil may be equivalent to doing evil to the good" (86). This is saying that if one does a good deed for someone who is evil, it does not mean that the good person should expect something good in return. If the reader assumes that the fox is good and the man is evil, then the lesson here is saying that the fox helping the man is foolish because he should not expect good in return. Indeed, the fox is foolish and the evil is done unto it.
The purpose of this fable is to make humans recognize the way they are and the way they should be. A jacket blurb in the back of Thinkers of the East describes the book Caravan of Dreams, from which this fable comes. The blurb says:
The collection as a whole makes delightful reading, but it also has a deeply serious purpose: to illustrate a kind of thinking that has been neglected in the West for the past thousand years, but which psychologists and sociologists now see as offering new keys to present-day problems. (201)
This kind of thinking that the blurb is speaking of is called Sufism. In Shah’s book, The Way of Sufi, a man named Sheikh el-Islam Zakaria Ansari writes, "Sufism teaches how to purify one’s self, improve one’s morals and build up one’s inner and outer life in order to attain perpetual bliss" (240). Idries Shah wants humans to become aware of their flaws and to consider new ways of thinking to better ourselves and the Earth as a whole.
Shah, Idries. Reflections. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1970.
_________. "The Man, the Snake, and the Stone." The Harper Anthology of Fiction. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
_________. The Way of Sufi. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1970.
_________. Thinkers of the East. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin, 1971.