The interpretation of an Aesop fable varies considerably. For example, The Fir tree and the Bramble, has this earlier interpretation, from Oliver Goldsmith, citing Bewick’s version.
Poverty secures a man from many dangers; whereas the rich and the mighty are the mark of malice and cross fortune; and still the higher they are, the nearer the thunder.
To have a better view of the moral, let me cite the fable from Bewick’s. The fable starts with a verse, as follows:
Minions of fortune, pillars of the state,
Round your exalted heads that tempest low’r!
While peace secure, and soft contentment wait
On the calm mansions of the humble poor.
So the story goes like this. “My head, says the boasting Fir-tree to the humble Bramble, is advanced among the stars; I furnish beams for palaces, and masts for shipping; the very sweat of my body is a sovereign remedy for the sick and wounded: whereas thou, O rascally Bramble, runnest creeping in the dirt, and art good for nothing in the world but mischief."
"I pretend not to vie with thee," said the Bramble, "in the points that gloriest in. But, not to insist upon it, that He who made thee lofty Fir, could have made thee an humble Bramble, I pray thee tell me, when the Carpenter comes next with the axe into the wood, to fell timber, whether that hadst not rather be a Bramble than a Fir-tree?”
Compare the same fable with this simplified version for children. Here it goes.
One day, on a hill top, a fir tree said to a bramble bush. “Look at me. I am tall, strong, graceful and very beautiful. What good are you? You are small, ugly and untidy.”
This made the bramble bush very unhappy because it knew the fir tree was right. But next day some men carrying axes came up the hill. They started to chop down the fir tree. They wanted to use it to make a new house.
”Oh dear!” cried the fir tree, as it started to fall. “I wish I were a bramble bush, then the men would not have cut me down.”
The Fox and the Grapes
Here is Bewick’s version of this fable.
Old maids who loathe the matrimonial state
Poor rogues who laugh to scorn the rich and the great,
Patriots who rail at placemen and at pow’r,
All, like Reynard, say, ”The Grapes are sour.”
And here is the main body of the fable.
“A fox, very hungry, chanced to come into a Vineyard, where hung many bunches of charming ripe grapes; but nailed up to a trellis so high, that he leaped till he quite tired himself without being able to reach one of them. At last, Let who will take them! Says he; they are but green and sour; so I’ll even let them alone.”
This is the interpretation from the same source (Bewick’s).
When a man finds it impossible to obtain the things he longs for, it is a mark of sound wisdom and discretion to make a virtue of necessity.
To compare with the simplified children’s version, the story goes like this as retold by Marie Stuart (A Second Book of Aesop’s Fables, Ladybird Books, 1974)
A fox saw some nice grapes. “They look good,” he said. “I want to eat them, but they are too high for me. I must try jumping for them.”
He jump and jumped but could not reach the grapes. So he said, “I can see now that they are green. They are not sweet. I do not like green grapes. They are sour. I don’t want them.”
So he went away without any. He knew that the grapes were really very nice. He just said they were sour because he could not reach them.
This story gave rise to the idiomatic expression – sour grapes, which are an expression of frustration, a passive surrender, a defeatist argument, and a kind of defense mechanism.
What could have led to the variation in the interpretation of the two versions? Thomas Bewick from whom Goldsmith based his English translation, lived in the later part of the 18th century and early 19th century, and apparently wrote and illustrated in wood block Aesop’s fables; whereas the children’s version is a very recent one. Understandably, it the social message in Bewick’s time and ours that has not changed, but it is in the way it is stated. The earlier version reflects the fineness in expression and diplomacy of the English language, unlike our contemporary style of expression - direct and moralistic. Thus the idiom – sour grapes was born out of the contemporary version.
The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf
(A Boy and False Alarms)
Of all the fables I learned as child, I like best the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” After bluffing twice, thrice, and made fun out of wit, people didn’t believe in him anymore. Then the real wolf came and killed all the sheep.
Here is the story from Bewick written in Medieval English style.
“A shepherd’s boy kept his sheep upon a common, and in sport and wantonness had gotten a roguish trick of crying. A wolf! A wolf! When there was no such matter, and fooling the country people with false alarms. He had been at this sport so many times in jest, that they would not believe him at last when he was in earnest; and so the wolves broke in upon the flock, and worried the sheep without resistance.”
The fable shows us the dangerous consequences of an improper and unseasonable fooling. The old moral observes, that a common liar shall not be believed, even when he speaks true.
The Mice in Council
(Who will bell the cat?)
It’s an interesting fable that behooves upon whose who are good only as critics, and ruefully poor doers. It also applies to those who may be sincere in a thing they think is right, but lack the courage to do it. Why many evil things continue to prevail because of indifference!
Let us look into the story. This is the simpler version for children to understand. Once some mice lived in a house where there also lived a big cat. Everyday she liked to eat some mice. At last the mice said to one another. “This must stop, or soon we shall all be eaten.”
So after a time an old mouse said. “I know what we can do. One of us must put a bell on the cat. The bell will tell us when she is near and when we must stay at home. After she has gone away, we can come out again.”
“Yes, that will be a wise thing to do. Let us do that,” they all said.
“But which one of us will put the bell on her?” said the old mouse. “I am too old, I cannot run very fast so I don’t think I can do it.”
“So are we,” said some of the others.
“And we are too little,” said the baby mice. In the end no one would do it. So the bell was never put on the cat and she went on eating the mice.
Another interpretation suggests that the fable must have been addressed to celebrated personages - people who are members of a council. In the story, the members offered solutions which they debated upon. Here the one who offered the solution to bell the cat came was a young mouse, who in fine florid speech convinced the council. Thereafter an old grave Mouse, who had sat silent all the while, gave another speech, in which he said that the proposal is ingenious. However, he thought it would not be so proper to thank the proponent unless he informs them how the bell was going to be fastened around the cat’s neck, and which mouse would undertake the dangerous assignment.
Bewick’s interpretation speaks on a higher level of thought. To wit:
“The different lights, in which things appear to different judgments, recommend candor to the opinions of others, even at the time we retain our own.”
The Dog and the Shadow
Perhaps the most popular fable about avarice is The Dog and the Shadow (The Dog and His Reflection)
One day, a dog took a bone from a shop. He ran off with it before anyone could catch him. He came to a river and went over the bridge. As he looked down into the water, he saw another dog with a bone. He did not know that the dog he saw in the water was a reflection of himself.
“That dog has a big bone. It is as big as mine,” he said. “I will jump into the water and take it from him.” So he jumped.
When he was in the water, he could not see the other dog. And he could not see the other bone either. He had lost his own bone, too, because it fell as he jumped in. So because he was greedy, he got nothing in the end.
The story invites the reader to reflect upon himself on these related lessons:
• Excessive greediness mostly in the end misses what it aims.
• Disorderly appetite seldom obtains what it would have.
• Passions mislead men, and often bring them great inconveniences.