Friday, July 15, 2011

Aesop: The Moral of the Story

The Complete Fables (Penguin Classics)I don't know how I missed it growing up, but Aesop's Fables are some of the earliest literature we have.  In the early fifth or sixth century BC, Aesop was--at least according to the limited sources we have--a slave in ancient Greece.   He was also a fabulous storyteller.  There is some debate about how much Aesop actually wrote, partly because of internal discrepancies in the fables and partly because of their similarities to fables in Sumerian and Akkadian tradition.

Many of us grew up with versions of Aesop sitting on our nightstands.  But as the introduction to my Penguin edition says, "The animal stories which parents still buy in quantities for their children's birthdays bear little resemblance to the real Aesop fables."  Instead, his animal tales were used to negotiate with his contemporaries and win points in arguments--not teach ethical standards or moral actions.  Many of his best known works were one-liners used at drinking parties!

Reading through the complete Aesop, I was overwhelmed by the oddity of some of the tales and the morals drawn from them.  Some are shocking and appalling.  Others are just random.  Many are quite dark and brutal--not at all the light and humorous tales I was expecting.  Sanitized versions of Aesop's fables are so often used to teach morality that the idea that these tales expound something so intensely opposite of morality is hard to accept.  Is it possible that our ideas about kindness to the weak is all historically constructed?

Here's one fable that I find quite powerful, given that the traditional interpretation is that Aesop was a slave:

A pigeon, kept in a dovecote, boasted loudly of her fertility.  Hearing this, a crow said to her: "Hey, friend!  Stop boasting like that.  For the more children you have, the more you should lament slavery."

*  *  *

Aesop's Fables: A Classic Illustrated EditionIf you explore your library's collection of illustrated Aesop's Fables, you'll find a great variety of incredible editions.  In fact, the artist whose name is most associated with children's illustrations, Randolph Caldecott, created pictures for one version back in 1883.  So did artists known for very different kinds of art, such as you will find in an edition with drawings by Alexander Calder.

One magical edition is Aesop's Fables: A Classic Illustrated Edition which compiles illustrations from almost 30 different artists--all pictures used to accompany editions over the course of more than one hundred and twenty years.

Aesop's FablesMy favorite illustrations of the fables are Jacob Lawrence's pen-and-ink illustrations.  One of my favorite artists, Lawrence was a twentieth century African American artist whose work is often colorful and playful while also deeply rooted in politics and history.  Reflecting the intensity of some of the fables rarely included in children's versions, Lawrence's Aesop illustrations use bold, severe, and tangled drawings to accompany the stories.  (Although the artist reflects the darkness of some of Aesop, both the stories and illustrations in this version are all completely appropriate for young children.)


  1. Slow Plot-Driven ReaderJuly 16, 2011

    I think I need to take my copy down off the shelf. One liners? Drinking stories? Not so simple morality? I had no idea.

    This underscores one of the reasons for your project-to read for yourself and get past our collective assumptions about the classics.

  2. A very interesting post-I checked to items from my Life Time Reading Plan (C.F.) this week-The Stranger by Albert Camus and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe"

  3. Where did you find a copy of the complete Aesop's Fables? The only one that I can find that claims to be complete is a paperback from Penguin and an e-book only on Amazon. I need hardback!


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