Saturday 25 May 2013

Are You Adult Enough for Aesop?

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 grĂ¼ner 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.


  1. Probably the biggest mistake in terms of buying an Aesop for children is to buy them the "Children's Classics" edition... which is the 17th-century version of Sir Roger L'Estrange! As if any child today is going to read 17th-century English and enjoy it! I'm a huge fan of L'Estrange's Aesop, but its inclusion in the "Children's Classics" (published by Knopf) is just crazy. Here is his version of the wolf and the lamb, for example:
    As a Wolf was lapping at the Head of a Fountain, he spy'd a Lamb paddling at the same time a good way off down the Stream. The Wolf had no sooner the Prey in his eye, but away he runs open-mouth to't. Villain (says he) how dare you lie muddling the Water that I'm a drinking? Indeed, says the poor Lamb, I did not think that my drinking here below could have foul'd your Water so far above. Nay, says t'other, you'll never leave your chopping of Logick, till your Skin's turn'd over your Ears, as your Father's was, a matter of six months ago, for prating at this saucy rate; you remember it full well, Sirrah. If you'll believe me, Sir, (quoth the innocent Lamb, with fear and trembling) I was not come into the World then. Why thou Impudence, cries the Wolf, hast thou neither Shame nor Conscience? But it runs in the Blood of your whole Race, Sirrah, to hate our Family; and therefore since Fortune has brought us together so conveniently, you shall e'en pay some of your Forefathers Scores before you and I part. And so without any more ado, he leap'd at the Throat of the miserable helpless Lamb, and tore him immediately to pieces. 'Tis an easy Matter to find a Staff to beat a Dog. Innocence is no Protection against the arbitrary Cruelty of a tyrannical Power; But Reason and Conscience are yet so sacred, that the greatest Villanies are still countenanc'd under that Cloke and Colour.
    For people interested in the Latin Aesop tradition (I am more or less obsessed with it!), I have a free ebook, Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop's Fables in Latin, which you can download here:

    1. Thanks, Laura. I wholeheartedly agree with and endorse your comment.

  2. I think he wrote them for adults, not children, so....

    1. I think I agree with him. It looks as though they were used for teaching literacy in antiquity, though, or at least were some of the first books fifth-century Athenians read, according to a few bits of Aristophanes.

  3. I've noticed that the "moral" is a distractor so that the writer will not be attacked for the true message to the powerful:
    The ant and the grasshopper imho is a caution to the powerful about the place of arts and artists in society. They are there for the edification of the society/upperclass. Where would the ant be in a world without music.

  4. I really like that interpretation!

  5. According to some Islamic scholars chapter 31 in The Holy Quran is named after him and he is considered a saint among them.