on those who cry wolf

Apropos of everything at once and nothing in particular, I found myself thinking this morning—not for the first time—on the interpretations we have of fables and mythical archetypes, and how they don’t always stand up when you think a bit harder about them. One might argue that this is just a limits-of-metaphor issue, and yeah, that’s a valid point—but it also suggests that the limits of metaphor are perhaps tighter than is commonly assumed, and/or that the interpretation of metaphor tends toward confirmation of what the interpreter already assumes, or what they would prefer to be true.

Case in point: we all know The Boy Who Cried Wolf, right? The story about how you should be careful not to lie about a dangerous problem when given responsibility for warning of its arrival?

That’s the interpretation I was given of that story, at any rate, and it is apparently very much the standard gloss. But thinking more carefully about the story to which it is attached suggests a rather different interpretation, which might go something along the lines of:

If your community is aware of the possibility of [wolf], to the extent that it thinks someone should be posted on lookout to warn of the approach of [wolf], then it would be better by far not to assign the look-out shift which is both the period of greatest vulnerability to [village] AND the historically-verified most likely period for the manifestation of [wolf] to an excitable child who is likely too young to have actually encountered [wolf] in any setting other than the collective oral history of [village].

Or, more simply: assigning a nervy and inexperienced kid to do an adult’s job and assuming you can sleep safely, and then blaming the kid’s false alarms for your sleeping through the eventual and destructive appearance of the thing you set the kid to watch out for, is surely less a story about how kids can’t be trusted to raise the alarm about wolves descending on the fold, and more a story about how fobbing off the hard work of protecting a community on its most vulnerable and inexperienced member is really fucking stupid.

Now, the standard moral attached to this story—that serial liars will not be believed at the crucial moment—depends on the assumption that the kid fabricates the wolf sightings he warns of. But this doesn’t hold water, for a number of reasons. For starters, why would anyone tell the same lie a second time, having gained nothing from it the first time but the acute displeasure of the rest of the village? Kids may not be wise, but they’re not stupid.

Furthermore, as recent events have demonstrated all too clearly, serial liars are all too likely to believed at the most crucial of moments, but only when they tell people what they want to hear. This sort of serial lying is not punished, but rewarded, and thus encouraged.

Now, I’m no philologist—though I can think of worse things to spend my time doing, were the opportunity available—so I have no idea at what point in its being-passed-down the fable had that pat interpretation attached. Wikipedia tells me that the story can be traced to Classical Greece, but did it come with that particular 1980s-animation “always remember, kids” moral coda attached to it right from the outset? Maybe it did, I don’t know. But the translation and spread of Classical fables from the C15th onwards suggests to me that it was at least as likely to have been a rather more subtle tale which fell victim to the moralising tendency of Early Modern Xtianity, which was not known for letting narrative plausibility get in the way of making a heavy-handed point about virtue.

But I’m not sure it makes a difference, particularly to interpretations made in our current context: when you deploy an archetype, you rely upon the subconscious apprehensions associated with that archetype. For me at least, the story of the kid who lied wolf is nowhere near as believable an example as the story of a kid who cried wolf in genuine fear in the dark of the night, from beneath the terrible weight of responsibility for the whole community, for the carrying of which he had been woefully underprepared and unsupported… and the moral of the latter story, which admittedly has to be worked a little harder for (and who has the time amirite lololol) also seems better reflected by reality.

On the other hand, the kid who lied wolf is a pretty neat way to scapegoat a destructive disaster on the under-resourced person you burdened with preventing it, eh?

A simpler example of the same dynamic would be the way that critical voices are frequently branded “Cassandra”, because somehow we’ve retained the cultural emblem of the woman (and of course it was a woman!) warning against follies, but jettisoned the rather crucial element of the story wherein Cassandra was actually right.

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