You see I did not exaggerate when I said my old book of Aesop’s Fables was falling apart. On the other hand, how could I throw away a book with such beautiful illustrations?
Designer Harrison Weir and engraver J. Greenaway get high marks from me.
The paper stock
is good quality, too, stout and strong and unfoxed despite the book’s great
age, and the translations by Reverend George Fyler Townsend (1814-1900) are pithy and
direct. In short, this is exactly the kind of book—not good enough to sell but
too good to discard—that often finds its way into my heart and my tattered,
dog-eared home library. Not every book in my home is a waif or a stray, but
many are, as I’ve admitted on other occasions.
|The Fox and the Crow|
|Wolf and Sheep|
|Cattle and Butchers (only cattle shown)|
|The Oak and the Reeds|
“The Tale, the Parable, and the Fable,” reads Townsend’s Preface,
are all common and popular modes of conveying instruction. Each is distinguished by its own special characteristics. The Tale consists simply in the narration of a story either founded on facts, or created solely by the imagination, and not necessarily associated with the teaching of any moral lesson. The Parable is the designed use of language purposely intended to convey a hidden and secret meaning other than that contained in the words themselves.... The Fable partly agrees with and partly differs from both of these. It will contain, like the Tale, a short but real narrative; it will seek, like the Parable, to convey a hidden meaning ... by the skillful introduction of fictitious characters; and yet, unlike to either Tale or Parable, it will ever keep in view, as its high prerogative, and inseparable attribute, to inculcate some moral maxim, social duty, or political truth.
The Fable, continues the Preface, “conceals its design ... by clothing with speech the animals of the field, or the beasts of the forests.” Thus the Fabulist (isn’t that a marvelous word?) offers his lesson indirectly, seeking to charm us into seeing his truth. Both the action of the Fable and the lesson it contains should be simple.
The narration should relate to one simple action, consistent with itself, and neither be overladen with a multiplicity of details, nor distracted by a variety of circumstances. The moral or lesson should be so plain, and so intimately interwoven with, and so necessarily dependent on, the narration, that every reader should be compelled to give to it the same undeniable interpretation.
There should be no confusion about authorial intention with a Fable, no need of literary criticism at the graduate school level to get at meaning. The Fox and the Crow? Crow has a piece of cheese. Fox wants cheese. Fox tells Crow how handsome he is, how beautiful his plumage, and suggests slyly that his voice must be equally beautiful. Gullible Crow opens his beak to sing. Uh-oh! Every flatterer lives at the expense of his listeners! This one I memorized in high school in the La Fontaine (French) version. La Fontaine rewrote Aesop as Pullman, following many others, has rewritten the Grimms.
There are many wolves, foxes, crows, frogs, and lions in Aesop, wild animals with very human characteristics. There are also sheep and cattle and horses and asses and cats and dogs. Lots of dogs. It’s interesting to see how the Fabulist (I am in love with that word!) portrays the different canines and what lessons he finds for human beings in their predicaments. Occasionally a human being appears but never by name, only as a boy or a “Labourer” or some such stock character. There are many mice, perhaps most memorably “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” which to this day continue to inspire children’s book illustrators.
Charles Panati is the author of Words to Live By: The Origins of Conventional Wisdom & Commonsense Advice (Penguin, 1999), and it should probably not be surprising that many of these truisms are attributed to Aesop and have been handed down since the 6th century B.C.E., Here are a few examples:
- “Gentle persuasion Is better than force” is the moral of “The Contest Between the Wind and the Sun”;
- “It is better to bend than to break” comes from “The Oak and the Reed”;
- “Practice what you preach” from “The Quack Frog.”
- “In dangerous times, wise men say nothing” is the moral of “The Lion and His Three Counselors”; while
- From “The Hen and the Fox” we are to draw the lesson, “Beware of insincere friends”; and, finally (for this very brief list of examples),
- “Treat others as you want them to treat you,” the Golden Rule, Aesop’s version, comes from “The Eagle and the Fox.”
A complete list would go on and on. The credit for “Ignorance is bliss,” however, goes to English poet Thomas Gray, and according to Panati, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings” comes not from opera but is a black saying from the American South. So now you know, in case anyone asks.
Looking for a good closing for today’s post, I turned in the Panati book to his section called “The pen is mightier than the sword” and there found, though it includes no mention of reading or writing or book learning, Aesop’s fable of “The House Dog and the Wolf.” The dog brags of easy living and luxuries but then admits that he is often chained. Here is the end the story in two versions:
Townsend: Then said the Wolf: “May no friend of mine ever be in such a plight; for the weight of this chain is enough to spoil the appetite.” Panati: As the wolf started back toward the forest he said, “Good night to you, my poor friend, you are welcome to your dainties—and your chains. As for me, I prefer my freedom to your fat.”
MORAL: Lean freedom is better than slavery.
Do you have a favorite among Aesop’s fables? And do you think your dog would change places with a wolf?