|Aesop Talking Realpolitik on red-figure dish|
A sustained meditation on iniquitous power relations, dressed up as cute dialogues between cuddly animals—are Aesop’s Fables really suitable for impressionable children? I gave a paper over Skype to a conference on children’s literature in Warsaw, and laughed when I reminded myself that Aesop should come with an ‘X’ certificate.
In The Wolf and the Lamb, the darling baby mammal is mercilessly devoured by the wolf. Moral: nice guys finish last. In The Cockerel and the Jewel, the humble cock is taught to accept that a grain of corn ought to be the limit of his aspirations. In The Hare and the Tortoise, the tortoise is motivated to plod on forever because his superior might—just might—nod off and let him win something. The Gnat and the Bull shows, however, that small powerless entities aren’t even noticed by big ones.
|"I'm bigger than you are"|
A disturbing number of fables stress that different groups are naturally irreconcilable, e.g. The Jackdaw and the Doves. Surely we don’t want to teach our children this principle in a multicultural society? Others suggest that masses are incapable of ruling themselves--The Mice in Council, and the Frogs who wanted a King. Let’s introduce a dictatorship!
|No Democracy for Little People|
It has become fashionable amongst Classical scholars to argue that Aesop’s Fables were originally stories told by ancient slaves, and that they therefore have a subversive and rebellious undertow. I am inclined to think that while any slave will have seen the fact of domination reflected in the message of the Fables, they will also have chimed perfectly in tune with the mindset of the master class.
Socrates put Aesop’s Fables into verse in prison. Luther said every peasant should read them. Malcolm X read them in prison and recommended them to his followers. The radical socialist Hugo Gellert framed his critique of the brutalities of American capitalism in his collection of fables Aesop Said So (1936). But there have also been sinister ultra-right readings of Aesop, such as Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid’ und Keinem Jud bei seinem Eid! (Trust Neither A Fox On the Green Heath Nor the Promise of a Jew) by Elvira Bauer (also 1936), which sold at least 70,000 copies.
Next time you give a first-time parent a charmingly illustrated copy of the Fables, ask yourself if the precious newborn is really ready for such cynical ethics. More importantly, all three children with whom I have read many books said that Aesop was completely boring. Perhaps you have to have experienced the unfairness of life full-on before you are ready for his wisdom.