We Will Always Need Cautionary Tales


Like a lighthouse, stories can guide us through some dark places and help us avoid dangers we would not see.

After Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 — his dystopian novel of a world where books are burned — he reportedly told interviewers “I wasn’t trying to tell the future, I was trying to prevent it.”

Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale, like so many of my favorite stories. If you think about it, some of the best stories are those that warn us of some great danger — real or imagined.

  • Ancient literature — From dealing with the devil to receiving wishes from a djinn, we are advised to be careful when dealing with supernatural creatures. The outcome is often not what we want, and it may cost us our souls.
  • History — We know to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, because — as the people of Troy found out only too well — a gift from an enemy can be a trap.
  • Fairy tales — The stories of “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel,” tell children to stay out of the woods because they are filled with dangerous animals and dark-hearted crones.
  • Science fiction — Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein warns of the hubris of human scientific advancement. As does the more recent Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.  Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

The quote by Bradbury has always haunted me, in part because Fahrenheit 451 is so terribly frightening to me as a writer. I shudder to think of a world without stories, because that means that there is no longer a need for them. It means that humanity has lost its need to create something more than it can see or touch. It means an end to creativity and dreams.

But the truth is, we will always need stories. No matter how far we advance in our technology or our culture, we will at least need the cautionary tale to remind us of what we should not do.

Stories from history will always be a reminder of what has come before — a caution against repeating our darkest days. Even if the dark woods of days gone by are no longer filled with witches and wolves, fairy tales still can serve as a warning for new types of predators. And when we stop believing in spirits and demons, stories that warn us of making pacts with the devil will always help us to consider the consequences of our actions.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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