Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Parable

Once upon a time there lived two men. They were each wealthy and powerful, in the fullness of manhood, scions of their people. They dwelt in a diverse community, neighbors to each other and to the folk who made their homes nearby. Lavish palaces they built for their own pleasure, and they shown like beacons over the countryside. Those who inhabited the surrounding lands marveled at their glorious manors, and grew envious of their fantastic possessions.

Their material wealth unbridled, these men reveled in their own success: hale, in their prime, untouched by disease and unbent by hardship, they were the fortunate sons of generations of hard-working people who had chosen almost by accident the richest lands in which to abide. But so lordly they had become, so high was their bearing, and so mighty was their knowledge and craft, that they were estranged from their neighbors, and as kin they seemed to be to one another, yea, as brothers they were.

But lo, they were not so similar as appearances made them out to be.

Apollonius was the mightier of the two in contests of strength. He was a warrior, and carried a huge cudgel and a keen-edged knife. He weighed the hearts of other men by their outward prosperity, and he did not long suffer the company of lesser men, who shunned him.

Aeneas, a hunter who loved the land, was the faster of the two; he carried a curved horn-bow to hunt and a net to trap game. Aeneas, unlike his peer, harbored a curiosity about his neighbors, and though other men often recoiled when he drew near, he spoke with them when he might.

By and by theses princes took to wandering the countryside, seeking men like unto themselves, and greater knowledge and fortune. Now, Apollonius was masterful and feared no man. Indeed, none could withstand him in battle. One day, while seeking new trophies for his palace, he chanced upon three men, poor farmers from the scrub lands who said to him: "you are Apollonius. The light of your home shines down upon we who have nothing. We hate you for your beauty and strength. We will bring you down and despoil you."

But Apollonius laughed at them. "Come and test your valor, and we shall see if you can do what you say." And they bore down on him in a flash, bruising his face and cracking his ribs. But they were no match for Apollonius, who knocked them to the dusty ground, and untethered his cudgel, and beat them until their bodies were bloodied and misshapen.

"Now you are like whipped curs, and you have no power to harm me," said Apollonius, wiping the sweat from his brow. "And I claim your lands as my own, I will hunt there and take what I will, and you cannot resist."

There was an old crone nearby who saw the encounter, and at this she spoke. With the gravity of an ancient sage, she said: "my lord, what you have done is right, those men deserved punishment. It is justice. But you must not take their lands, for you would upset the delicate balance among the people around you, and the lives of their families would be threatened. Let their wives come and wash and bind their wounds. They will trouble you no more."

But Apollonius replied: "old woman, you do not understand the ways of men. I must make an example of these vagabonds, or they will not fear and respect me. Their families must suffer for their sin against me." The crone at first made no reply, but bowed to him as a sign of her lower station. Then she added, "my lord, you may one day regret this path."

Aeneas also traveled openly, unafraid of strangers and highwaymen. And late one afternoon, as he was returning home, he too met with a hostile trio of poor farmers. "Aeneas! You walk in our lands and hunt and trap where you will. Lay down your arms and give us your goods, or we will attack and rape you of your belongings," they commanded.

But Aeneas would not be mastered thus. He raised his horn-bow and nocked an arrow, and cried: "nay, thieves, you may not take with force that which is mine. But I see that you are hungry, and that you have suffered through lean years. If you stand down, I will make a gift of some of my food." For Aeneas had long been abroad, and his cart was laden with foodstuffs and treasures.

Then he slowly lowered his horn-bow. And they were amazed by his offer, and their wonder calmed their hot-blooded envy. Aeneas was pleased, and said, "let us make a fire together, and share a meal." Meat, wine, bread, cheese, and fruit Aeneas passed among the men, and they spoke long into the night. They told him tales of the surrounding lands and of the harvest and of the simple life that they led, and Aeneas shared secrets of his crafts.

But in the hour before dawn, while Aeneas slept, the farmers crept away with the better part of his possessions, leaving him alone. Though he was left unharmed, his horn-bow, his horse, and his cart were gone. When Aeneas rose and discovered what they had stolen from him, he raged against them for their treachery and against himself for his foolish trust.

But it happened that on this morning the crone, who was fetching water from a well, came upon him, and said: "my lord, why do you cry out?" Aeneas told her the tale of his meeting with the farmers. She considered his tale, and then spoke. "You have been robbed, my lord. And I reckon that the thieves should pay for their crime. But you have been left unhurt. And am I not right to say that your loss amounts to little when weighed against the value of all of your earthly possessions? Do not despise your neighbors for taking advantage of the gifts you had freely given them. For the tale of your generosity will linger far longer than the tale of their thievery."

Aeneas saw that the woman was wise. "Old woman, there is truth in what you say. But what of the thieves? Surely they will mock me and delight in their crime if I do not pursue them and take back that which is mine." The old woman was unmoved. "Perhaps," she said. "But a flame unfed is soon extinguished. Do not labor overmuch in vengeance. Be on your guard for false friends, and do not patronize your neighbors. Learn the names of the people around you. Then you will isolate those who would do wrong to you."

Aeneas, moved by the crone's kind, careworn face, and grateful for her wisdom, took up her burden and accompanied her home. As he walked among her people, stripped of his belongings, and dirty from travel and toil, the folk saw that he was not so unlike them as they thought. All day he worked among them, for a weight of debt had settled upon his shoulders, seeing how little that these people subsisted upon. In the evening they took a meal together.

Now, the eldest of the men who had attacked Apollonius developed sores all over his body. His wounds did not mend, and he fell ill and died. That farmer's son, Matthias, possessed of mischief-making, had become wild with desire for revenge. He had taken a stone, slipped into Apollonius's land, and climbed a tree at the edge of his property. The folk had secretly tried to coax him down, but could not.

In the course of the meal, the people told Aeneas the tale of Apollonius, the farmers, and the farmer's son. For though little love did they have for Apollonius, they worried for the boy, and thinking them brothers, they wanted to repay Aeneas for his labors and his kindness. "My lord," said they, "Matthias cannot stay much longer in the tree. The nights grow colder each day, and he is out of food. He will come down soon." And Aeneas replied, "I will go to him tomorrow and warn Apollonius of the danger, and try to rescue this boy."

The next day Aeneas returned home and washed and shaved and poured oil into his hair. He put on his fine tunic and robe and sought his neighbor Apollonius to warn him of the boy in the tree. Aeneas carefully avoided the tree as he entered Apollonius's domain, and continued on to his dwelling.

"So, the boy dares to trespass upon my land," muttered Apollonius when Aeneas's tale was done. "I shall make an example of him that the people will not forget."

"But my lord," argued Aeneas, "the boy is still stricken mad by grief, and he is half-starved. Little harm can he do to you. Avoid the tree for a week, and he will crawl back to his people. They wish for mercy."

"You have spent too much time among them, and you think like a weakling. I will defend what is mine from man and boy alike," Apollonius scoffed. "The trespasser must leave now or perish."

Then swiftly Aeneas took his leave, for he knew Apollonius was in a bloody-minded fury. He raced across the land to the settlement to rouse Matthias's people.

Apollonius donned his gleaming bronze armor and girted himself as if for battle, for he wished to humiliate the boy and cow him into submission with a bold display of martial strength. He approached the tree, but he could not see Matthias, for he was well-hidden in its boughs. He called out in anger: "boy, come down from my tree and face me. I have heard tell that you mean to do me harm. Such thoughts are folly. Get ye gone or I will bring that tree down to kill you, and mourn the tree before you."

Then the boy was afraid, for he saw how mighty a man he was. But his hatred grew hot again, and he clutched his stone. Apollonius strode up to the tree and began to chop with his ax. "I will savor your death, boy," he taunted.

But sweat filled his eyes, for it was warm work. He removed his helmet, and wiped his brow, and called one last time: "boy, your father died like a dog. Your lands are now mine. If you do not wish to share his fate, climb down and run away."

Hearing this, Matthias hurled the stone with all the strength he could muster. It struck Apollonius's nose and his face exploded in a bloody spray. He cried out in pain, and groped for his spear and threw it with a deadly force into the tree. It grazed the boy's pale right arm and he fell. At this moment, Aeneas returned with the country folk.

A vain man, Apollonius would not be seen bloodied by a mere boy. He placed his bronze helmet back upon his head as the crowd drew near, and shouted, "this boy's life is forfeit. He has trespassed against me and assaulted me. Does anyone dare dispute my right to justice?" He brandished his knife, which flashed in the late afternoon sun.

Aeneas stepped forward. Though unarmed, he was formidable. "My lord, the boy belongs to these people, who have nothing. He has sought out revenge and failed. Show your mercy now and let him go."

"Little do I care for mercy, and I doubt that I can ever trust these people again. But you have always been civil, and so you may take him and be gone. To you vagrants and squatters, I issue this warning: I will hunt and kill anyone who dares enter my land unbidden again: man or woman, young or old."

Aeneas attended to the boy, for he was skilled in the arts of healing. "Collect wood that we may make a stretcher to bear him away," he directed. Apollonius stood fast, however, menacing the country folk.

It happened that the three farmers who had stolen Aeneas's goods were disguised among the crowd. The eldest had claimed the the horn-bow for his own. From under his cloak he produced the hidden bow and raised it and loosed an arrow at Apollonius. But alas, he was unskilled in its use, and the arrow struck Aeneas in the shoulder instead. Shocked, the people around the farmer seized the bow, and his former companions bound him with Aeneas's net, which had also been preserved and secretly carried afield.

At this Apollonius roared with laughter, and jeered, "you are shot with your own bow, you fool. Now you see how this rabble repays your mercy."

But the crone was there too. "My lord, you know nothing of our customs. Verily, you know none of us. You see only one thing when you look out upon us, though there be many things here. Now I beg, let us bear away the fallen, and we will trouble you no more. But beware, for though it seems like you are strong and safe, your ignorance will not serve you long." And with that they fashioned two sturdy cots and carried Aeneas and Matthias away.

Thereafter Apollonius was forever on his guard, and he went abroad more seldom, and when he did he was often beset by brigands in the narrow and lonely places. Never was he bested in these contests, but he suffered greatly. As age and wear took their toll, his strength wained, and he knew he could not travel far in safety. In his twilight years he could no longer keep even young children at bay. They peppered him with stones and taunted him, for his face never mended from Matthias's shot. He died unmourned and unmarked, and carrion fowl picked his flesh, and heather and ferns grew over his bones.

Aeneas walked still among the people, though less proudly than before, and at times he was again robbed and cheated. But the people knew him, and he knew them, and word came to him when it was unsafe to be abroad. And they came to greet him when he traveled, and they sought his advice, and learned what they could, for his knowledge and craft were still beyond measure. They took up arms to defend him in his old age, for always they remembered his service to them. And when finally he passed, they burned a great pyre, and raised up a cairn in his memory, and long did they speak of his life.

And herein lies the moral: men and nations both live and die, that is the way of the world. As a man rises, so shall he fall. A nation too will perish according to its conduct. Tales of virtues and vices will abide in the hearts of others long after you are gone. And so it is for man and nation alike: it is better to know your neighbor's heart, to reckon and to strive with him, and to make peace with him, than to leave him unknown and trust solely in the strength of arms. For in the end, this path merely hastens your own demise.

5 comments:

GeistX said...

This story reminds of a similar discussion I've had with my in-laws. My father-in-law works for the fund raising arm of the Nation Rifle Association. The NRA uses the argument of protection of personal property as a reason to have guns. I countered with the point that nothing in my home was worth a human life. To which he countered but what about your life and life of your wife? I did not have an answer to this beyond, I do not need a gun and I will not kill someone if I can avoid it.

My house that was in the city was broken into once and was attempted to be broken into once. They took money, anything labels SONY, and some of my wife's possessions such as jewelry. I was enraged at first, but no one was hurt, our pets were left alone and besides the loss of some material possessions, the only thing damaged was our door and our sense of privacy.

After that I got to know as many of my neighbors as I could. We watched out for each other, as best we could. And though we could not prevent others from doing harm to us (my neighbor had his car stolen, another had his house broken into), we no longer lived in fear or misunderstanding of each other.

This is a good parable and well done.

Knight of Nothing said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Shawn. Wow, that really is a remarkable real-world parallel.

The inspiration for my parable came to me last week. I'm sure you heard the story: Cheney was traveling around the world and a suicide bomber made an attack on him when he was in Afganistan. I heard it said on the news that it was a "symbolic attack," because it had no chance to actually hurt the vice president. That really bothered me: there is nothing "symbolic" about twenty people getting killed. It seemed like an Onion headline: "Symbolic Attack Leaves 20 Unsymbolically Dead".

Cheney's unfettered movement around the world while willfully seeing and understanding none of it struck me as the bitter pinnacle of arrogance. The colossal gulf between our perception of the world and this Administration's perception leaves me angry and dumbfounded.

I'm not a pacifist. I'm not even saying "give peace a chance" (though I would very much like that). With this tale, I'm really only asking: can't we know who it is we're fighting, and why, and what are the risks and benefits of doing so? If we could honestly talk about these questions, I think it would fundamentally change our policies.

It's really interesting that you made a connection to the gun control debate, because that never occured to me while I was writing. Here's an idea for a counter-argument next time that sort of talk comes up: couch it in terms of risk/benefit.

"Does the small chance that an armed, hostile intruder will enter your home with the pre-ordained goal of hurting or killing you outweigh the gigantic safety risk of having a weapon in the home?"

Maybe the answer is "yes" for him. But at least he might see your point of view.

Human beings live with all kinds of deadly risks every time we go outside, get in a car, fly in a plane. Hell, even every time we eat something or shake hands, there is a chance that a contagion could kill us. So to make the sensational plea "wouldn't you want to protect your (insert vulnerable loved one here)" is a non-starter. Of course you would! But a gun ain't the way to do it.

The idea that a gun in the home will protect you is one that's best left in the movies.

Thanks for reading the story!

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I like that this story doesn't romanticize any of the characters or situations... Some of the people still rob and attack, even after they've been shown kindness and mercy. Even the "noble" lord doesn't seem to understand that the more fundamental problem is inequality. Charity is not the same thing as justice, and the story makes this point nicely.

The story doesn't have a "perfect" ending... The "bad" guy lives on, making people miserable, and he dies of natural causes -- though perhaps younger than he ought, unpopular and unmourned). The good guy still has to deal with envy and contention -- though gradually his more generous ways win him friends and a measure of peace. I like that, because that's the way things are. Sometimes the most we can hope for is avoiding calamity or making things just a little bit better.

As a parable of international relations, it works. Those are certainly the two faces of America. America is strong and successful and prosperous. Sometimes we've used our strengths to try to make friends. Lately we've been acting like arrogant thugs. Now we're seeing the consequences...

Keep on writing! I'll be interested to read the next installment.

Knight of Nothing said...

Hey John, thanks for your comments! I was definitely wary of making a "pat" ending in a parable about something as complicated as international diplomacy.

The simple lesson upon which we agree, and our current leaders seem hell-bent on ignoring: relating to our neighbors is hard work that isn't always successful, but it's work that we should be doing, for practical if not moral reasons.

Even GHWB understood this basic truth. Maybe he should read my parable to his little boy. :-)

Gillty as charged said...

I really liked this story. I agree with the comments you made in response to the other commentators. A gun is not a good way to protect anyone because the people in the house will be more likely to be endangered rather then be safe. A child can easily find a gun in the house and use it without a basic understanding of consequences. I'm really against guns too.

Your story definitely contained a good moral lesson. I liked how you delved into the characters and portrayed the old wise women withing the story. I also really enjoyed the fact that you used names from mythology and that associates with Latin.

P.S. I really love the title of your blog "Knight of Nothing" that's really clever. I guess I'm a sucker for alliteration.