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If people had to choose only one literary work to send in a rocket ship out to distant galaxies, one representative of our lives on earth, that work might likely be Aesop’s Fables. These stories are among our oldest, and they are still among the most widely distributed on our planet. When printing was a new technology and when decisions had to be made about which were the most important works to appear in this new medium, Aesop’s Fables was often the first choice. And when, in the Eighteenth Century, John Newbery proposed that the young should have their own books and created the whole business of children’s publishing, one of his early offerings reflected what he believed should be in every child’s hands: Aesop’s Fables.
That is still the case today. Pamela Travers, the author of the “Mary Poppins” books, was once asked what stories she would recommend for contemporary children and she replied: “The nursery rhymes, the fairy tales, the Bible, and, of course, Aesop’s Fables.” Indeed, another measure of these fables’ importance is the way they have generated common expressions still in use today: “sour grapes,” “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,” and so on. Then, too, over the centuries, Aesop’s stories have inspired many others to do something similar: from the fables of La Fontaine and Tolstoy, to the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Aesop’s Fables is one book that should be on every child’s bookshelf.
Legend has it that Aesop was an African slave born in 620 B.C. and a hunchback cursed or blessed with a quick wit and tongue. Understanding that these stories were created in a situation where free speech was dangerous for the lowly, you will grasp the special flavor of the fables. Take the story of the “Lion and the Mouse” where a lion frees a mouse he has captured because of the little creature’s laughable promise to perhaps someday help the larger one; later that promise is fulfilled when the mouse gnaws through ropes after the lion is captured in a net. Here we can imagine a slave trying to subtly suggest to his master that sometimes the lowly should be listened to and can assist their betters; but we should note that this point is being made in a completely inoffensive and oblique way, by means of animals.
The boy who cried “Wolf!” (too often to be taken seriously when he encountered genuine danger), the reed that survives a windstorm (because it bends while that inflexible oak falls), the steady tortoise who wins the race (against the speedier but flighty hare)–these are fables meant to send a message to someone but “under their radar.” Try it. Imagine yourself in unfriendly circumstances with a point to be made which won’t be popular to others. How can you make that point using animals?
Of course, another part of “flying under the radar” involves saying something neutral that can be taken in several ways. Aesop is a genius at that. Take the well known story of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” the one busy all summer collecting food and the other fiddling away his time. Then winter comes and the grasshopper begs for food from the industrious ant but is turned away hungry and with a lecture about being prudent. The moral, we are often told, concerns the need to work hard and plan for the future. But the moral could just as easily be that all work and no play makes one as selfish as the ant.
What you need to know is that morals were attached hundreds of years later, and you should always skip them when telling or reading a fable to children. Aesop just told the story. He left it for others to draw their own conclusions, as well they should. That is the genuine meaning of a teaching story.
Nonetheless, scholars have sometimes been troubled that the fables offer contradictory advice and provide no consistent philosophy. For example, sometimes it seems the notion that “opposites attract” is a universal truth that we should live by; but then, a few pages later, it seems that “birds of a feather flock together” is the only correct way of seeing things. Don’t break your head over these contradictions. Instead, imagine a world where both are true, though at different times.
That world is our world, and the real value of Aesop’s fables to the young is that they show in the most primal way our human effort to understand life: to rise above our circumstances, notice resemblances, and learn. Whether framed in terms of animal parables or in other ways, learning begins with the word “like”: the recognition of recurrence and then the extrapolation of lessons about how we can respond appropriately in similar circumstances. It is akin to that moment when our ancient ancestors were no longer surprised by the arrival of snow but made the great leap to the notion of “winter” and the calendar. That is why Aesop’s fables should be our representative item sent to outer space, the one literary work aboard the rocket ship to show the galaxy how we didn’t just endure life but also thought about it.
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There are several standard versions: the most popular is an edition translated by Laura Gibbs (Oxford World Classics) but I also like S.A. Handford’s translation (Penguin). Among the more interesting illustrated editions is a contemporary one by Jerry Pinkney (Aesop’s Fables, Chronicle) and another one edited by Russell Ash (Aesop’s Fables: A Classic Illustrated Edition, Chronicle) which reprints pictures by famed Nineteenth Century artists (Rackham, Caldecott, Crane, and others) as well as representative Twentieth Century illustrators. Finally, Aesopica is an interesting website on the internet that features information on the history and translations of the fables, as well as a handy index to search for particular stories.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2006).