I thought the earlier post on Mormon folklore went well, so I went and dug up the only Sunstone issue I own, which happens to contain William A. Wilson's article "On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries." Somehow I managed to avoid reading the article until now. The main theme is that folklore stories aren't really about the ostensible objects of the stories, such as the Three Nephites; they're really about the people relating and re-telling the stories. Yes, that's irony alright, although I didn't note that choice term in Wilson's essay.
That, I suspect, is the sense in which Wilson intended this comment (which Clark didn't like) which I quoted in the first post: All the stories are true — it depends on the truth you're looking for. So these stories are reflexive rather than objective. Personally, I find flesh-and-blood missionaries a lot more interesting than the Three Nephites, so I'm quite happy with that approach. Consider the explanation offered by Wilson for a story told and retold (with variations, of course) about two missionaries stranded with car trouble in a Canadian blizzard who were then rescued by a passing motorist, who later unexplainably disappeared. This is a One Nephite story (sometimes they work alone). Here's Wilson's commentary on this and another story:
The first two stories deal with the very real dangers missionaries face on the highways and at the hands of the frequently hostile people they must try to convert. The telling of these stories provides some relief from the fear engendered by these circumstances. For example, the teller of the missionaries-in-the-storm narrative related it to prove: "the ability of the Lord to protect those who place their faith in him and lead good lives."
There are scriptures that could be quoted to show the Lord protects those who serve him. For example: "And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up" (D&C 84:88). Well, you can see why the snowstorm story gets more airplay. Young missionaries on the evangelistic firing line don't really want to hear elliptical references to hair or sparrows, they want to hear that if their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, a Nephite will drive by to render assistance. Even in Canada.