Aesop started his career in a hurry. Some angry Delphians were about to throw him off a bridge when he shouted, "Stop! I'll tell you a fable!" In those days, fables were so rare even angry Delphians stopped for them. Everyone back then loved stories, but fables were by far the favorites. The Delphians also had a sense of humor: they planned to listen to the fable, then throw Aesop off the bridge anyway, by claiming that the moral of the very fable he'd told them required it. So Aesop tells them about an eagle who was chasing a rabbit. The cornered rabbit asks a scarab beetle for help. The beetle pleads with the eagle for mercy. The eagle eats the rabbit anyway. The disrespected scarab starts rolling the eagles' eggs out of their nest one by one. The freaked eagle goes to Zeus and asks him for protection, so Zeus tells the eagle to lay his eggs in his lap because nobody'd dare mess with Zeus' lap. But the scarab sees through the trick: he poops on Zeus and when Zeus stands up to shake off the pellet, the eggs roll off his lap and scramble anyway. Moral: if you throw me off this bridge, I may be dead, but I have friends who'll fix your eggs.

Sherezade, of course, had to tell 1,001 stories before the King decided to marry her instead of killing her. Her stories were precisely geared to cure both insomnia and impotence. For that reason they were long, intricately connected and sexy. Sherezade and the King probably also smoked hashish before she began, so the King saw pictures to the soundtrack of her voice. The whole time she lay in bed telling stories to the King, a couple of mean satraps with sharp swords stood by the bed, ready to take advantage of any narrative breakdown.

As a way of saving one's life, stories are a fairly unreliable device. Running is much better. The poet Frank O'Hara said that if someone is chasing you down the street with a knife, you don't turn around and shout, "Stop! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!" No, you just keep going. On the other hand, if you do get caught, a good locker room story plus your wallet should be tried by all means.

It is possible that most, if not all, stories were originally told to stave off the wrath of someone strong and unhappy. Women and children wrapped themselves for protection in stories as the cave shook with the bellows of the hungry husband who came home without meat and drunk besides. In the Middle Ages, knights lay down their arms to snooze around bonfireplaces, lulled to sleep by recitations. Francois Villon saved his neck from the noose twice by writing poems begging the King for mercy. Even now, all that stops from constant mutual slaughter is diplomacy, which is about the skillful readjustment of incompatible narratives.

Here is a timely fable by Aesop. A lion was doing his thing feeding sleepily on the carcass of an antelope. A gnat came by and started razzing the King by biting him on "the hairless parts of his face." The lion scratched himself to death trying to get the gnat. The gnat did a victory dance and then lay down to sleep -- right in a spider's web. The moral: don't go around with hairless parts on your face if you're a lion, and don't dance too much if you're a gnat.