Monday, September 3, 2018

Book 1 of 1001: Aesop's Fables

The very first book listed in the “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” book is Aesop’s fables. Because it’s been around in various forms for centuries, I was able to download a copy of the e-book from Amazon for about a dollar. I could probably find it elsewhere for free, but I’m not 100% sold on doing any heavy reading on e-books as it is, so I went with convenience at a small cost.

A little background: It’s listed as just over 300 pages, though almost none of those are full pages. The Fables themselves are generally just a paragraph or two, sometimes with the moral of the story restated at the end. The introduction provides a useful history of the fables, explaining how they were initially compiled 2600 years ago, translated, added to, re-translated, recompiled, added to again, and translated and compiled a few more times.

The animal characters are generally obvious archetypes – Lions represent the most powerful members of society, while mice are the weakest. The characteristics of the various foxes, wolves, cranes, sheep, deer, oxen, crows, rabbits, and so on are all relatively consistent through the various stories.

And boy, there sure are a lot of stories. More than 350, in total.

It’s not an easy read, just because of the sheer quantity of fables. It’s like trying to make a meal out of a giant bag of assorted cough drops. If you try to read straight through it you start to burn out pretty quickly, and the stories start to blur together (not helped by the fact that it’s the same rotating cast of predictable animals and redundant moralizing).

All told, I’d be inclined to scrap about 70% of the stories here just for the sake of readability. Of course, I’m not actually sure who this volume is for. I mean really…what’s the goal here? Why put them all in one place like this? Who’s going to read this? I’d understand if it was being used as a Greek or Latin primer for young learners, but what purpose or edification can be derived from page after page of this stuff if you’re not a folklorist tracing the history of particular anecdotes across the Eurasian continent?  

The introduction sort of warns the reader of this:

Has [the fable] a future as a mode of literary expression? Scarcely; its method is at once too simple and too roundabout. Too roundabout; for the truths we have to tell we prefer to speak out directly and not by way of allegory. And the truths the Fable has to teach are too simple to correspond to the facts of our complex civilisation; its rude graffiti of human nature cannot reproduce the subtle gradations of modern life. But as we all pass through in our lives the various stages of ancestral culture, there comes a time when these rough sketches of life have their appeal to us as they had for our forefathers: The allegory gives us a pleasing and not too strenuous stimulation of the intellectual powers; the lesson is not too complicated for childlike minds. Indeed, in their grotesque grace, in their quaint humour, in their trust in the simpler virtues, in their insight into the cruder vices, in their innocence of the fact of sex, AEsop's Fables are as little children. They are as little children, and for that reason they will forever find a home in the heaven of little children's souls.

I’m not so sure that phylogeny recapitulates monotony, but among the chaff there are certainly a few kernels of wheat that bear relevance to our daily condition. One fable in particular, immediately upon reading, brought to mind the ongoing discussion about “the marketplace of ideas” and whether everyone deserves a spot at the podium or an equal voice in the debate (i.e. do Nazis and white nationalists deserve the opportunity to publicly debate the merits of their ideology of ethnic cleansing?).

The Wolf and the Lamb
by Aesop

A WOLF, meeting with a lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea, which should justify to the lamb himself, his right to eat him. He then addressed him: "Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me."

Indeed, bleated the lamb in a mournful tone of voice: "I was not then born."

Then said the wolf: "You feed in my pasture."

No, good sir, replied the lamb: "I have not yet tasted grass."

Again said the wolf: "You drink of my well."

"No," exclaimed the lamb: "I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother's milk is both food and drink to me."

Upon which the wolf seized him and ate him up, saying: "Well! I won't remain supper-less, even though you refute every one of my imputations."

Moral: The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny, and it is useless for the innocent to try by reasoning to get justice, when the oppressor intends to be unjust.


Well. One down, a thousand to go. Is this truly a book that you MUST read before you die? I'd say no. You're probably better served watching a few classic episodes of Aesop & Son from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show.

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