Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Week's Book: Aesop's Fables

Another collection of things, which is working nicely. How many of us read these stories as children? Now, looking back, how many of us really knew what we were reading?

December 16-22: Aesop's Fables translated by George Fyler Townsend

Literature (1871) 

Aesop's fables were a staple of my childhood. I owned an illustrated copy of many of the fables, which my parents gave me so early into my young life I don't recall ever not owning it. Like then, the fox is my favourite animal to pop up in the stories. Unlike then, I've now read a copy with an introduction detailing what a fable is, a brief biography of what we know of Aesop, and a history of where and when the fables have popped up in European lore. In short, the craft of a fable is a cross between the storytelling of a tale and the didacticism of a parable. 

As with anything over 2000 years old yet so universal in the lessons it teaches, some of these fables are extremely applicable to the present day, others are utterly horrifying, and most lie somewhere on the vast continuum between. Still others have applications or ramifications Aesop could never have anticipated. In this last curious category, "The Ass and the Grasshopper" is a lesson in corporate strategy (i.e. that homegrown strategies can be more effective than benchmarking); "The Prophet" and "The Quack Frog" taken in a modern context appear to question the wisdom of social science professors (a famous example being a psychologist who is the expert in the psychology of money yet is not super-rich), "Jupiter, Neptune, Minerva and Momus" seems oddly pro-trailer park (the sin of the poor house being that it lacks wheels), and "The Widow and the Sheep" feels like an Econ 101 lesson in profit maximization. "The Fisherman and the Fish" and "The Lion and the Hare", applied today, are virulently anti-stock market. 

The best and worst messages range from heartwarming to horrifying respectively. "The Lioness"'s message of quality over quantity is well taken in almost any context, "The Fir-Tree and the Bramble" is a reminder that a wealthy life is not necessarily easier or more desirable, and "The Traveler and Fortune" scolds anyone who wants to blame, or credit, everything on luck. "The Fox and the Mask", one of my favourites since I was about two feet tall, is a reminder that style is useless without substance. "The Rose and the Amaranth", my other favourite, is a reminder that lasting beauty is often the best kind. Less happily, "The Man and His Sweethearts" supposes that a woman should feel ashamed of being courted by a younger man (but then how do we have Cougar Town?), "The Three Tradesmen" advocates a social isolationism mind-boggling to any modern person, and "The Mother and the Wolf" reproaches anyone foolish enough to listen to a woman. 

Other fables reflect the Victorian society George Fyler Townsend inhabited. "The Oxen and the Axle-Trees" is stoicism incarnate. "The Crab and the Fox" hearkens back to the old belief that every person had his or her place in the world and to defy that would be foolish. Those of us with ambition look back unkindly on that particular strain of Victorian thought. "The Astronomer", "The Wolf and the Lion" and "The Monkey and the Camel" send the horrible message of telling people not to think beyond one's immediate surroundings or to learn uncharacteristically new skills. The days of women learning to ride bicycles have since eroded this belief. 

Still other fables have either been grossly misinterpreted or were hazy to begin with. "The Swallow and the Crow"'s contribution of the phrase "fair weather friend" refers to friends who are unable, rather than unwilling, to help when times are difficult. The eponymous character of "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" is attempting to find shelter, not to become a danger (although there are apparently alternate versions of this fable that state otherwise). "The Oaks and Jupiter" and "The Oak and the Woodcutters" are clear instances of victim-blaming. "The Huntsman and the Fisherman"'s moral does not at all match its story; the story describes the ability of the characters to engage in trade with each other, whereas the moral reads "Abstain and enjoy". The moral of this entry, were it to have one, would be that Aesop's Fables is a cultural construct, of Ancient Greece in its original form and also of Victorian England in this translation. Many of the lessons persist over time yet others are quaint relics of earlier days. 

NOTE: With these types of books, page count is an estimate at best. The particular copy I read is one for Kindle for my laptop. There are doubtless many others out there. The fables are all so short and so easily available that to refer to any of the ones I mention here, a few seconds' search should yield what you need. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 5

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