Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fables Part 2: Versions of Some Aesop's Fables

Popular Aesop Fables

1. The fox without a tail – Wise people are not easily fooled

2. The shepherd boy and the wolf – If we tell lies, no one will believe us when we speak the truth.

3. The boastful traveler – People who boast are soon found out.

4. The crow and the fox – Beware of people who say nice things they do not mean.

5. Who will bell the cat – Some things are more easily said than done.

6. The crow and the swan – Think well before you copy other people.

7. The wolf and the lamb – People who want to do something bad can always
find an excuse.

8. The lion and the hare – It is sometimes wiser to be content with what you have.

9. Brother and sister – It is better to be good than to be just good looking.

10. The goose that laid the golden eggs - A greedy man can lose all he has.

11. The wind and the sun– Kindness often gets things done more quickly than force.

12. The trees and the axe – Be careful when you give way over small things,
or you may have to give way over big ones.

13. The dog and his reflection – If you want more because you are greedy, in the end
you might find you have less.

14. The fir tree and the bramble – People who are too proud may be sorry later.

15. The ant and the dove – No one is too little to be helpful.

16. The boys and the frogs – Do not do things to other people that you would not
like to be done to you.

17. The raven and the jug – If you try hard enough, you may find you can do something
that at first seems very difficult.

18. The dog in the manger – Do not stop others having what you don’t need.

19. The fox and the grapes – It is silly to say that you do not want something just
because you cannot have it. (idiomatic expression: sour grapes)

20. The wolves and the dog – Those who cannot be trusted deserve to be treated badly.

21. The fox and the lion – Things are not always what they seem to be at first.

22. The bear and the travelers - A real friend will not leave you to face trouble alone.

23. The fox and the stork – If you play mean tricks on other people, they might do
the same to you.

24. The man and the partridge – No one loves a traitor.

Versions and Interpretations of Aesop’s Fables

The interpretation of an Aesop fable may vary. For example, The Fir Tee 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.

Continued...

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