A parable

[Martin Taylor 2017.]

The first part of this is based on a Mark Twain story in "A Tramp Abroad".



In a cave in a small kingdom there lived a fire-breathing dragon. Most of the time the dragon slept, but it insisted on an annual tribute of maidens from the city, and if it did not get them, its wrath was ferocious. It ravaged the farmland and destroyed the crops, it flew over the city spreading fire here and there throughout the kingdom. The King offered a reward of anything in his power to give, including his daughter in marriage, to whoever might slay this dragon.

From far and wide came young brave knights and aged warriors, riding magnificent steeds, wearing the latest fashion shining armour, caparisoned and flying gaudy banners, armed with swords, lances, maces and all weapons that had served to make their fame across many lands. Or that they hoped would do so after they had slain the dragon.

But the armour clinked and the hooves of the horses clopped, so the dragon was awake and aware of what portended when they arrived. Many suits of fine armour that had contained tastily barbecued knight soon adorned the entrance to the dragon's cave. And the dragon continued to demand his annual tribute of young maidens.

One day, an old man with a large backpack arrived in the capital astride a mule, and asked to see the King. He told the King that he had come to slay the dragon, and asked whether the promised offer of everything the King had in his power to give still was open. The King tried to dissuade this poor old man, obviously untrained in warfare, but finally agreed that the offer was indeed still open. So the old man started out from the Palace through the streets of the city.

The people by now had heard of this foolhardy enterprise, and tried to tell the old man that the dragon had killed so many fine and famous knights, but he would not be put off from his quest. So they tried to press upon him their personal armour and swords and fine horses, but he would not accept them and went on his way astride his mule up the mountain to the dragon's cave. His armour didn't clink and the mule didn't clop, so the dragon was still more or less asleep when the old man got off his mule and took off his backpack to withdraw his weapon.

By this time the dragon was awake and saw the little old man, a minor nuisance like a fly to be swatted. But as the first breaths of fire came from its mouth, the little old man let fly a spray from his fire-extinguisher and doused the fire completely, killing the dragon. Then he got back on his mule and returned to the city.

"I see you thought better of it in the end", said the King, "I'm glad, because I rather liked you." "Oh, no." said the little old man, "the dragon is dead, and I am here to claim my reward." "I don't believe you" said the King, and with a splendid guard of his own knights (who had known better than to try to slay the dragon after it had barbecued half their number) started off for the dragon's cave, followed by many of the common people.

[The rest of the Mark Twain story is about the little old man claiming his reward, which was not the princess; the whole story is an extended pun or shaggy dog story based on what he demanded of the King. To get the joke, read it for yourself. It's a great book.]

Indeed, the dragon was dead, and the people feasted and grew fat on its flesh. They asked the little old man about his weapon and learned about the fire-extinguisher. Then he returned to his home with the reward he had asked of the King, but not before telling a clever boy how to make a fire-extinguisher in case any more dragons came to visit. The old man, because of his reward, lived happily inventing new tools and helping others do so until he died.

After a while, the dragon's eggs began to hatch. A dragonet emerged from the cave and began testing its wings and building its fire. When the people saw it, they were sore afraid. But the boy said "Fear not. I will kill it before it gets too big", and with his flamethrower, he did. And he did it when the next dragonet emerged, so he became quite important in the city. But as more and more dragonets appeared, his workload grew too big and he taught everybody how to make fire extinguishers, so anybody could kill a dragonet, and probably would have been able to kill a full-fledged dragon if they had enough practice.

The city grew prosperous and perhaps a little complacent, because now they knew that fire-extinguishers could protect them from danger. Their swords grew rusty and their armour fell apart. But then a visitor from another town came and warned them of a band of brigands who had attacked his town, but had been repelled when people had pelted them with stones from atop their houses. The visitor suggested that it might be wise to prepare quantities of rocks on roofs in case the brigands came to the city.

The boy shouted "Fear not. We need no foreign ideas. We have fire extinguishers." So when the brigands did come, the people used their fire extinguishers to cover them with wet foam, and indeed the brigands ran away. Once more the boy was a hero, and was appointed Chief Security Advisor for the city.

But it was not long before the brigands came again, now wearing face coverings and waterporoof cloaks. When the people used their fire extinguishers, the bandits laughed and cut with their swords and smashed with their maces. A few people who had listened to the visitor went up to the roofs of their houses and threw rocks down on the brigands, killing several. The rest fled.

Some people then said that fire extinguishers were no good. Forgetting the dragon, they believed that stones thrown from roofs were the answer to danger, so they stashed their fire extinguishers away in attics and basements. But the Chief Security Advisor still said "Fire extinguishers are the defence we must use." But some who had thrown stones in the last successful defence said "Fire extinguishers are no good, and throwing stones from the roof is the defence we must use". And other people said "We will keep our fire-extinguishers and stockpile stones on the roof, but we don't know what defence we must use until we know what the danger is." Most of the citizens called them ignorant.

When the brigands came again, they came carrying strong shields over their heads and were wearing the same face coverings and waterproof cloaks. The group of them looked like a turtle. People who had followed the advice of the Chief Security Advisor stood in front of the turtle and sprayed it from their fire extinguishers, They were killed. People who threw stones from the roof found that the stones had no effect. They bewailed the fate of the city, which was evidently doomed.

But some of the "ignorant" people who had not known what defence to use decided to think for themselves, and poured oil from the public stores onto the street in front of the turtle. The brigands in front fell down, and those near behind fell on top of them. The citizens who most people had called ignorant had retrieved their old swords from storage while they were getting the oil. They fell upon the fallen brigands, making the street run with blood. Some of the other brigands put up a fight, but they were surrounded and killed. The city was safe again.

The city was safe for a while, but the Chief Security Advisor said that the ignorant people had used unfair means and had wasted the public oil, and that they should have hit the brigands with fire extinguishers. The stone throwers said that they could have saved the city if they had heavier stones, and the ignorant people said "We don't know how we should fight the next danger." But when a fire broke out in an abandoned building, the boy who was the Chief Security Advisor said "It is a danger to the city and we must use fire extinguishers." They did, and the city was saved once more.

So the people trusted the boy once more, and took the stones off their roofs for fear that the weight might collapse into their living quarters. The big public supplies of oil were distributed among the people, and kept in small bottles for cooking and for lighting, the government having forgotten how the last danger had been averted. The city gates were closed to visitors with dangerous ideas such as stones on the roof, and were opened only for sallies outside by knights armed with fire extinguishers and for peasants bringing food into the city. All was well, and the city was kept safe, while the people, who could not go out into the countryside, became very bored and craved novelty, which was forbidden. The knights were not bored, because although they found little use for their fire extinguishers, the countryside was very beautiful.

Bored people do strange things, and so it was that a gang of young teenagers tried to storm the Palace wherein lived the boy, using their fire extinguishers to gain entry. There they found the boy and smothered him in foam so that he could breath no more. Some guards, seeing the boy apparently dead, stopped holding closed the city gates, and some people went out to visit other town, bringing back tales of wonder, and ideas that bored people took up, crazy ideas, beautiful ideas, ugly ideas, and ideas that meant nothing at all. But the people ceased to be bored, and among those ideas, they found some that could be used in case new dangers befell the city. The boy, who was not dead, continued to say in a weakened voice "Fire extinguishers! You need only fire extinguishers!"

But most of the people did not heed the boy's cries. Some did indeed build new fire extinguishers, which were better than the design the old man had taught the boy. Others built fantastical machinery that toppled and broke when it was tested. Yet others thought the city itself was a problem and dug tunnels for disposal and treatment of sewage, and built machinery for keeping the roads clean and even so that more elegant carriages could use them instead of only ox carts. The city became alive with energy -- but the people kept their fire extinguishers handy, having learned well that a fire extinguisher often solved a problem when all else failed.


We live in a city with much potential, but there are always efforts to keep the gates closed against visitors with strange ideas. We must fight to keep them open, for the life of the city.