The Fable of the Wrong Key
The Many Names for Story
In a small village some miles north of here two men found themselves locked behind a great iron door. They did not know why they came to be there or how they were to get out. When they knocked and hollered at the door, there was no response.
Burt became angry. He knocked harder and hollered louder, still to no avail.
Bart, seeing in the dim light provided by a high window that his companion’s efforts came to nothing, sat on the dank dirt floor and wept.
Behind the two men was a leaden darkness which they were loath to explore, so they did not see a third man sleeping on a stone bench that ran along the further wall.
Burt’s pounding and Bart’s wailing woke the man, who came forward to find out what the fuss was all about. “What’s wrong?” asked Art, for that was his name.
Burt and Bart were not surprised to learn of the third prisoner, as they supposed the man to be.
“We are locked behind this door and we don’t like it,” Burt explained.
Bart was too upset to explain anything.
“Ah,” said Art. “Perhaps you were not given keys to the door.” He pulled out of his pocket a large key that looked exactly like the letter T. In the bottom of the T were several notches.
Burt waved his hand at the key. “That doesn’t have the proper look of a key. It won’t work.”
“What do you mean?” Art asked.
“A key, to be a key, must have an oval at its head and two or three square teeth.”
Bart took a skeptical look at the key and sniffed.
Art shrugged and tried to get past the other two men to open the door.
Before he could insert the key, however, Burt stepped in front of him, for he had begun to wonder whether the key might work after all. If there was one thing he hated more than being locked up, it was finding out that he was wrong about something. He had decided the key was no proper key and there the argument must rest.
As for Bart, he had retreated to the stone bench, slumped over, and turned his face to the wall.
Bart would have gone on with his arguments that the key was useless, but Art set him aside with a gentle but firm motion, unlocked the great iron door, and walked away into the sunlight, saying, “The test of truth is, does it work.”
But Burt and Bart refused to exit through the now wide-open door.
“That was no proper key,” Burt said.
Bart did not argue.
Fables and other Kinds of Tales
I have posted this story as an example of a fable. I could also have called it a parable, an allegory, or a cautionary tale. But “The Fable of the Wrong Key” is not a myth, a fairy tale, a tall tale, or any kind of folk tale. For one thing, I made the story up on the spot. And these guys are certainly not larger than life like the tall tale heroes Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill. Burt and Bart are puny.
Burt and Bart are not characters with whom we sympathize or identify. Well, maybe we identify a little if we have ever caught ourselves refusing a new idea without trying it out to see if it worked. I wrote the tale to illustrate a frustration I have experienced with people who turn away from guidance they might find useful if they tried it. Useful is the key here. Does it work? Does tomato juice take away the stench of skunk? Does eating plenty of fresh vegetables give you strength? Is it better to take action, any action, than to sit around defeated?
This fable is cautionary because it cautions the listener not to reject a good key to solving a problem. It does not use animals who act like people as some fables do. For this reason it can be seen as a parable. A fable is often a story intended to illustrate a moral. Often the fable supports conventional morality, but the moral can be one that breaks through convention, depending on the philosophy of the author.
My favorite fabulist is James Thurber. In his story “The Day the Dam Broke” we see the towns people running away from the dam shouting at one another, “The dam has broke. The dam has broke.” But since the dam is okay, the mayor sends a helicopter over the running crowd to announce, “The dam has not broken.” The people hear, “The dam has now broken.” They keep running and shouting, “The dam has broke. The dam has broke.” (Most people are none too sure of the present perfect tense of break even when the dam is holding.)
My story above is not funny. It’s just bleak. Its only purpose is to give a message. Perhaps I shall strive to write as funny as Thurber writes in “The Night the Bed Fell on Father.” I also love “The Bear Who Could Let It Alone,” which does have a moral: some recovered alcoholics are as difficult sober as they were drunk.