Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs The Apologue Through Time

The apologue, a literary form similar to a fable in which animals, plants, and other elements of the natural world are used as characters to convey a moral, has existed for ages. It is a form that is not of set length, with some apologues being very short and others being quite long. The apologue is of Eastern origin, with most of its successful practitioners throughout the ancient world being slaves. The Encyclopædia Brittanica rationalizes the link between slavery and the apologue as coming out of slaves' necessary drive to not fully speak their minds or to veil the truth. In the Western world, successful slave practitioners of apologue were Aesop and Phaedrus (Chisholm). Aesop is also a very successful practitioner of the fable, however, so one may be curious about the differences between the fable and apologue, as well as their differences with the related parable. Apologues tend to be more moralistic than fables, which often serve no other purpose than relating a tale, but the difference between these forms and the parable is a bit more subtle and contentious. According to the Encyclopædia Brittanica, the primary difference is in the fact that parables are sourced from the realm of the human exclusively, whereas apologues and fables tend to be more fictitious and incorporate non-human elements as characters:

A parable is equally an ingenious tale intended to correct manners, but it can be true, while an apologue, with its introduction of animals and plants, to which it lends our ideas and language and emotions, is necessarily devoid of real truth, and even of all probability. The parable reaches heights to which the apologue cannot aspire, for the points in which brutes and inanimate nature present analogies to man are principally those of his lower nature, and the lessons taught by the apologue seldom therefore reach beyond prudential morality, whereas the parable aims at representing the relations between man and God.

As we see in Fifteen Dogs, however, not all of the encyclopedia's claims are necessarily true. In depicting dogs with human intelligence, of course, the novel loses all of its pretensions to reality or verisimilitude, but it does succeed in conveying a great deal of information about the relationship between human beings and the divine, as well as the relationships of human beings to one another. Other well-known apologues, too, reinforce the idea that the apologue is not "lower" than the parable, but rather a different exercise entirely. Consider the tale of Jotham in the Book of Judges. When Jotham's half-brother Abimelech conspires to kill all of their other siblings and consolidate power over the people of Israel, Jotham escapes and delivers an apologue about different kinds of trees. In Jotham's story, the trees are looking for a new king and are turned down by the olive tree (representative of consumption and extravagance), the fig tree (representative of security), and the grape vine (representative of abundance and divine favor) before turning finally to the bramble (representative of violence and cruelty). Here too, the fact that when God's gifts to the world refuse rule, a more secular, violent tree is chosen reveals much about the relationship of mankind to the divine. The apologue is thus not inferior to the fable or even noted for taking a different moral stance or tackling a different arena, but a more granular distinction is perhaps that fables and apologues incorporate inhuman elements, while parables do not.

In any event, the apologue and the parable are two faces of the same technique—using nonhuman elements to tell a story. Opinion of the apologue may shift and change over time, but novels like Fifteen Dogs remind us that it is possible to innovate on ancient forms and construct wholly new tales from them. The apologue is Protean, but not ill-defined; it is not human, but all the more human for it; it is fanciful, but not silly; and it is moralistic, but also triggers the best of our imaginations.