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."
* * *
If 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.
My 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.)