Aesop, trans. by V.S. Vernon Jones
As I grow older, I wonder if conservative thinkers aren’t on to something when they talk about how people are more alike than not. Although I’m the first to advise ignoring anecdote in favor of seeking more robust evidence, I don’t think I’m alone, as a parent, in wondering just what happened to formative works of my youth. Nowadays it seems, books commonly read by children must be crafted to serve contemporary didactic purposes.
Luckily, I still control the rituals of bedtime including the selection of the reading material. So when a gently used version of Aesop’s Fables presented itself on the library’s sale shelf I saw my opportunity and took it. Our elite educational institutions may care to debate the value of Classics, but I worry I’m running out of time and just better get down to it. Better still if I can plant a seed with the young ones.
Aesop, if he existed, was born somewhere close to the Black Sea (Turkey? Bulgaria? Iran?) in the 7th century BCE. At least that’s what people think based on the conflicting (and passing) mentions of him by some of Ancient Greece’s heaviest hitters. Some folks advocate for an African origin. The adult Aesop, evidently, was a freed slave.
This last fact seems to strike some people as implausible, as though slavery must only involve manual labor and slaves can’t become writers. I’m not claiming any particular expertise, but slavery seems to have been fairly widespread in the ancient world, encompassing all sorts of occupational areas. As for the writer part, please read Frederick Douglass.
We know–maybe knew is more appropriate–Aesop as the author of fables, short stories, most often populated by animals who are recognizably human types. The present volume helpfully numbers them and presents 284 short tales. You can easily read half a dozen before lights out.
If you’re of a certain age (I suspect that younger folks are more likely to know the idioms than the tales behind them) you’ll find yourself in familiar territory. Aesop’s world is full of animals. Foxes, lions, eagles, jackdaws, wolves, sheep and lambs abound, not to mention the favorite of my 10-year old son-asses–along with roosters, which is how I gently modified the translator’s preferred term for male, crowing chickens. Given the endless mirth and abundant usage of ass that has ensued, I think I made a wise choice.
Although this is speculation on my part, I’d bet Aesop’s fables were formerly well-known as the tales that all ended with “The moral of this story is…” So it was a bit surprising to discover that, at least in this collection, stories that ended like that represented a distinct minority.
It turns out, as near as I can tell, that there’s no agreed-upon set of fables that constitute the whole. I’d have thought 284 was an exhaustive number, but the Perry Index goes to 544. Yet it would surprise me if the Louis Untermeyer edition I grew up with, and from which the illustrations accompanying this post are drawn, contained more than 60. All of those, as I recall, had a moral and it feels like that’s about the number that do in the present volume. (My preference for quantification aside, I did not count and have no intention to.)
Back to the menagerie. A few things become apparent when reading the corpus. The first is that there are repeats. I don’t mean exact repeats, it’s more like when the plot from one sitcom episode shows up next season in a different series. I suppose given the sheer number that’s to be expected.
Then there are the head-scratchers. Those are the ones that left me and the boy wondering just what the point was. Perhaps the fables in this category speak to a particular set of circumstances I didn’t recognize. For the most part, they’re more likely to be among the fables that only feature humans. So, draw your own conclusion.
That leaves the rest of Aesop’s world, populated, as I said, by all manner of talking beasts. It’s a choice that allows for a bit of literary anthropomorphic trickery. Humans, I’m sure you’ll agree, project human traits onto all sorts of non-human things–pets, cars, computers, websites.
Doing so strikes me as probably the baseline in explaining our world to ourselves. That’s why I think debating whether a fox, for example, actually is sly or whether foxes reminded some group of humans of behaviors they’d see in other humans is almost pointless. It’s a deliberately fluid state with a decidedly messy interface.
That allows the storyteller the latitude to, among other things, speak truth to power and deliver life lessons with some degree of safety. It’s one thing to tell Cassius he’s bitter because he has his own pretensions to power and quite another to tell a tale of a fox who fails to secure the tasty morsel he desires.
I think that’s why animals are so prevalent in folk tales. Again, without professing particular knowledge, I know I’ve come across animal-laden takes from any number of Native American tribes as well as in studies and works from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Telling animal stories is about as universal human behavior as you can find even without fish tales.
I’m not going to recount the various tales. Times being what they are these fables are easily dismissed. I think if you read them as folklore a lot of the ‘oppression’ problems progressives reference might recede. And, hey, Aesop was from Asia.
I’d also offer a note of caution for conservatives who are in an uproar about children’s books disguising morality lessons. That practice started long ago and may have been first collected here. Your argument isn’t about the practice, it’s about your own preferences.
Aesop has a tale for that. It involves a fox. And a bunch of grapes.