A Middle Way Fable

I’ve been intending for some time to write a book of parables or fables about the Middle Way, and today I made a start by writing the first fable, which I thought I’d share with you. Comments, whether critical or supportive, might help me on my way to writing some more!

The Ship

Ship in straitThe lovely ship ‘Progress’, laden with passengers and cargo, was just entering the dangerous strait between Scyllia and Charybdisland when the weather began to look more threatening. Captain Jack Everyman scowled at the gathering cloud and the rising wind.

“It’s not looking good”, he said to his first mate, Mr Scyllius, “We could be driven straight onto those rocks if we call in at Scyllatown.”

“But we have to call in there!” protested Mr Scyllius, “My mother will be waiting for me, and she has a legacy to give me from my lately deceased uncle! Then the Prince of Scyllia wishes to join us on the voyage. We will displease him!”

“That won’t do any of us any good if the ship is turned to matchwood on the way” growled Everyman, “You and the Prince and your money will all alike go to feed the sharks.”

“Yes,” chimed in Mr Charyb, the Second Mate, who came from the rival state on the other side of the strait, “Scyllia is too dangerous at the best of times. The docks are thronged with cut-throats! I don’t know why the ship has to include it on the itinerary at all. Come to Charybdisland instead: it’s a great deal safer and friendlier. The people there are actually rational and behave like proper human beings!”

“Not likely,” Replied Everyman gruffly, “The passage into Charybport is just as dangerous. Not rocks but sandbanks! It may look smoother, but the threat lies just beneath the surface. Not in this weather!”

“But the Oracle of Charybport is due to give a final revelation!” cried Charyb, “I need to hear it! And the Chief Priest wants to join us on the voyage. He will be most displeased!”

“That seals it,” replied Everyman ironically, “If we’re lucky enough not be eaten by sharks, The Prince of Scyllia and the Chief Priest of Charybdis will probably kill each other in any case, and trash the ship in the process!”

“What do you expect if you let hypocritical scum from Charybdisland on board?” cried Scyllius.

“It’s the immoral rabble from Scyllia that cause the trouble!” protested Charyb. “Just look at the statistics on crime in sea-going vessels. They bear me out!”

“That’s enough!” said Everyman sharply. Both men knew that he had no sympathy with their partisan bickering, and the tone of command was enough to silence them. “Either I please you both or I please neither. There’s no way I’m going to visit one port but not the other.”

At that moment, a sudden shaft of sunlight burst through the gathering black clouds, and the wind seemed to drop.

“That’s an interesting meteorological indication, sir” said Scyllius carefully, “Do you think it might mean we could risk it?”

“It’s a sign!” cried Charyb in half-ironic triumph, “God wants you to go to Charybport! He could never allow you to leave his Chief Priest standing on the quay.”

“Maybe it’s a sign, and maybe it isn’t,” said Everyman, “But if we take the risk, we go to both ports. Agreed?”

Reluctantly, both men agreed. Everyman turned the ship towards Scyllatown.

As they neared Scyllatown, however, the weather deteroriated again. The clouds massed, the rain lashed down, and the winds blew up to storm force. Having made up his mind, though, the Captain set his jaw, held course and ordered the sails down.

“Look at those rocks!” cried Charyb, “We’ll be wrecked! Let’s get out of here, Jack!”

“Just hold your course!” urged Scyllius, “We’ll be OK. Many ships have still managed to dock safely in weather like this.”

They were driven closer and closer to the rocks, to the terror of all on board, but Jack Everyman held his nerve. At last the wind began to abate a little, and the quay of Scyllatown loomed before them through the film of rain.

As soon as they docked they sent messengers into the town to find Scyllius’s mother and the Prince. Both were surprised but happy to find that the ship had dared the weather to dock there. Captain Jack Everyman urged the Prince to board without delay, and made sure that all cargoes were loaded and unloaded immediately.

“Are you not going to wait for better weather, Captain?” asked the Prince’s Aide-de-Camp, “Why do we go so soon?”

The Captain shook his head, “We’re leaving immediately,” he said, “and sailing to Charybport”. The Aide-de-Camp looked at him incredulously, as if he had said they were sailing for the City of Dis. The Captain did not tell him why he feared lingering in Scyllatown even more than the storm. Charyb had been right about the throngs of cut-throats.

With the Prince and further precious cargo on board, the ship set off again in weather that was not much better than the conditions they had arrived in. This time the journey lay straight across the strait, for Scyllatown and Charybport, each the capital of a diametrically opposed kingdom, lay right opposite each other. Each could even see the other in clear weather. Many had been the ships sunk and men’s lives wasted in endless warring over that strait. In public all was enmity, with all visitors from the opposite realm requiring special clearance from the authorities. Any stray sailor from the opposing realm who wandered incautiously in Scyllatown would first be spat upon, then quietly dispatched in a dark alley. Yet behind the scenes, the authorities in fact maintained quite a cordial relationship with each other.

It was a battered-looking Progress, with a snapped foremast but otherwise intact, that limped into the harbour of Charybport a few hours later. The Prince of Scyllia had barricaded himself into a stateroom below decks and refused to stir, the misery of seasickness only slightly alleviated by the news that they had landed in Charybdisland. The quay in Charybport was much better maintained than that in Scyllatown, but the sailor who jumped onto the quay was immediately upbraided by the harbourmaster for wearing what he took to be leather shoes. “This is an insult to Charybdis!” he roared, “Take away your unclean footwear this instant!” The terrified sailor soon leapt back on board to comply.

After an inspection by the harbourmaster for both leather footwear and signs of disease, a few sailors were judged pure enough to be able to land temporarily. However, they were only able to proceed into the town to glimpse the wonders of the Great Temple after paying hefty additional bribes to the harbourmaster. Only Mr Charyb, as a native, was able to avoid these strictures. Captain Everyman was again desirous to be off as soon as possible, and instructed the sailors to be back in an hour at the most. He was relieved to see that the Chief Priest’s sumptuous carriage soon rolled up. The extremely obese Chief Priest was then brought on board in a litter borne by four slaves.

He was greeted, somewhat to his surprise, by the Prince of Scyllia, who had unbarricaded his state room as soon as he glimpsed the Chief Priest’s arrival through a porthole. “Hello, old fellow!” He proferred a hand, “Terrible weather, what!”.

“Fancy meeting you here!” the Priest responded, “Don’t think I’ve seen you since the Ball after Finals! Time goes by, what!”

But then the Prince glimpsed the Captain coming towards them along the passage. “Quick, the Captain’s coming,” he said in an undertone, “It might be prudent to be more statesmanlike.”

“That’s an insult to Charybdis!” shouted the Priest suddenly, putting on a convincing, but rather wobbly, shake of anger. “I will hear no more of this blasphemy!” He then turned and heaved himself along the passage towards the Captain.

“Your holiness is quartered in the front state-room, as his highness from Scyllia occupies the rear one.” said the Captain politely, “I hope it will be to your liking.”

The priest waddled on to inspect the front state room, “It will do,” He said eventually. “Just don’t let that sacrilegious scumbag anywhere near me!”

Once more, then, the ship set sail in some haste, as soon as passengers and cargo had been loaded and unloaded, and the foremast rapidly replaced. One sailor who had lingered too long, captivated by wonder in the Great Temple, had to be left behind. As they set out the storm had already abated to a gale, and before long it sank to a pleasant breeze. Within hours the clouds had drifted away, and the sun shone, as the ship beat down the strait to further its journey.

The captain and mates gathered again on the bridge. “That was a hard passage, captain,” remarked Scyllius, and Charyb for once nodded his agreement.

“Ay, ‘twas hard,” remarked the Captain. “It would have been hard enough just to sail down the strait in such weather, let alone pick up passengers. Yet I’m glad I allowed you both to persuade me. What would be the point of a voyage without passengers?”

“As long as the Prince and Chief Priest don’t kill each other.” added Charyb.

“They haven’t yet.” said the Captain, “Who knows, a pleasant voyage in the sunlight may help ease their enmity!”

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

12 thoughts on “A Middle Way Fable

  1. I know fables and allegories are somewhat out of fashion. On the one hand they’ve been used by humourless religious writers like John Bunyan, and on the other by satirists like Swift. My feeling is that it’s possible to use the form in a way that both attacks dogma (with the lightening of a touch of humour) and also offers a positive message.

    1. I really like this fable. It is funny, and in places comical with a hint of pantomime, yet the way it’s written does subtly impress that the story carries a serious message that invites – so as to reward – the reader’s closer attention, perhaps by reading it several times, so as to puzzle it out. Anyone with some slight acquaintance with migglism would find it a useful aid to understanding how competing dogmas can impede progress towards aims that – even where they may not seem to coincide exactly – are more similar than they oppose each other.

      The way the shipboard scene and the characters are portrayed is vivid. Half way through I was aware of my ‘picturing’ the goings on, and imagining the distinctive ports and hinterlands. I thought “This would make a great animated film!”, and Ed Catmull’s involvement in Disney’s Pixar enterprise came – perhaps prematurely – to mind.

      I did find the variations on Scyllia, Scyllaport, Scyllius (the sailor) and the counterparts Charyb (Mr), Charybdisland, Charybport rather vertiginous at time, and the significance of the City of Dis had me foxed for ages. I think it’s the capital city of Charybdisland? Perhaps Charybdia might have been a simpler designation of nationhood than Charybdisland? Also an insult to Charybdis hinted as Charybdis as some kind of eponymous deity from which Charybdisland took its name, and to Whom the Great Temple was dedicated. A bit bewildering, I thought, but may it’s your intention to make us think, Robert!

      Altogether gripping and pacey stuff! I look forward to more fables. Shall we meet these intrepid characters again?

      Last point: I’m intrigued by the mention of Charyb’s mother, to whom he seems attached, perhaps because she’s the key to his legacy. I wonder if she will have a deeper significance in later fables. And will more women feature? After all, the role of women in seafaring fables is usually minimal. Will this hinder the style or substance of fables, and is the basic symbolism of the ship and the straits gender-biased?

  2. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for this. It helps me see some things I could improve. The City of Dis is just a classical (or Dantean) reference – to Hell in fact. It’s not meant to be part of the fable’s realm. Scylla and Charybdis are a monster and a whirlpool between which the heroes have to navigate in the Odyssey, hence the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis”, like “between a rock and a hard place”, or “Catch 22”. Maybe I shouldn’t presume so much on the readers’ classical education these days!

    You’re right that there’s a bit of a shortage of women, apart from Scyllius’s mother (not Charyb’s). I can only plead that, indeed, women have traditionally had little connection with ships!

    1. Hi Robert, yes, the classical references could be an obstacle, although even I had some scant acquaintance with the “between Scylla and Charybdis” tag, although how they were actually represented in Homer’s Odyssey was new information!

      I looked in vain for suitable images of boats containing women to complement the ship in the straits image that accompanies your fable. The (poor)best was an unattributed and rather sentimental painting of Grace Darling, battling the tempestuous seas to rescue people on the rocks.

      Your teaser about Scyllius’s mother can’t be left hanging in the air, surely? There is, I think, a ‘soapy’ leitmotif to this fable, and readers may be interested to know why Scyllius was so keen to meet his mother. Is there a back story around his apparent need for this money, a need so urgent that the cautious and moderate Scyllius is prepared to challenge his captain’s decision about the ship’s course, giving mere personal reasons for doing so?

      (Cue East Enders drum roll……)

      I can see how fables like this could be very useful as discussion topics, although the further point arises for me that they might be better if placed in a more familiar setting. What do you think?

      1. Afterthought: do you think a map of this part of the strait, with the opposing ports of Charibdysport and Scylliatown identified thereon, and the ship’s course to each and beyond marked out?

        1. Hi Robert and Peter,
          The fable makes a good yarn, I do wonder if it is a little too long and detailed before the moral of the tale is reached. The moral is clear to those who are aware of Middle Way philosophy but do you think a more informative summing up by the captain would make the message clearer Robert?

  3. Hi Norma

    I’m sure Robert will have his own reply, but although I thought the fable was rather long, fables are often designed to be repeated over and over again. I think it’s intended that as they are heard again and again, different layers of meaning are revealed to the listener, so that different “summings-up” are available, appropriate to different conditions.

    Consider Bible stories: these have been interpreted in thousands of sermons in thousands of slightly different ways by the sermonisers, and possibly in millions of different ways by those who heard them, and so with “The Ship”. The power of the fable may be in its potential for creative interpretation. I’m reminded here of your art class and of its effect on us, and on our discussion of Brueghel’s “Tower of Babel” painting, which still moves and inspires me.

    Best wishes, Peter

    1. Hi Peter,
      I see what you mean and you are right, repetition is helpful. A fable is different from a parable I suppose, it is more like a story where differet meanings can be found.

  4. I’ve reflected on my suggestion about making the setting less ‘foreign’ to everyday experience and more ‘familiar’. I now think that the unfamiliarity of the setting adds to it’s appeal, because it may better challenge a reader’s conventional assumptions about her/his world, and thus maybe free up imaginal and less-fettered patterns of perceiving and thinking.

  5. Hi Peter and Norma,
    I had originally intended to write a rather shorter story, but it grew with a certain delight in creating characters and developing a little symbolic and comic detail of a kind that would have been impossible if I’d stuck to the barebones story. The basic story is just the ship passing through the strait that picks up passengers on either side. But that doesn’t tell you why the sides are opposed and how integration can still happen despite metaphysical opposition. To appreciate that tension you need to be in an embodied situation to some extent, not just absorbing ideas that are so summarised that they could very rapidly be turned back into abstractions. All that requires a little more detail. So actually my feeling was that if anything the story was too short, and that I should have given more detail about Scyllia particularly.

    However, I’m less decided about how explicit the ‘moral’ should be. On the one hand, such stories are more effective when they speak for themselves, but on the other, how well they do so then depends on the reader’s patience in looking closely at the story. My original plan was for a book of parables each followed by discussion – definitely a didactic plan rather than a literary one. However, I’m also tempted by the potential of letting stories speak for themselves.

    I’m afraid I can’t relate much to the concern that the setting is unfamiliar. A symbolic world of any type should be both familiar in some ways (i.e. the symbolic features) and unfamiliar in others. If I set the story in a more familiar world the symbolic elements would be less clear. But this fantasy world should not really be that unfamiliar in comparison to fictional worlds you must have encountered before, for example in fairy tales? Even if you’re not addicted to Tolkien, Harry Potter and similar material to the extent that I am, I’m guessing that nearly everyone has encountered fantasy worlds in childhood reading.

    1. Hi Robert,
      Your reasons for the fable’s length, detail and symbolic elements are clear now. I like fantasy worlds, I remember reading Gulliver’s Travellers for the book club I belong to, which features some wonderfully strange lands and people, I haven’t read any Harry Potter.

      1. The fable has really taken a hold on me now! My mind returns to it often with questions. What cargo is carried? Is there a ship’s cook? Where are the passengers going, as the ship seems to have no declared destination and just seems to be on one-way a course through the strait? Do the Scyllians and Chabdytes have a common language? What might be the symbolic significance of the damaged foremast? What’s the specific function of the foremast, if specific function there be? (I’m going to google that……)

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