Sunday, December 4, 2011

Re-discovering Aesop’s Fables. Are fables still relevant in our times?

Abe V Rotor and Melly C Tenorio
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School on Air)
738 DZRB AM, 8 to 9 o'clock evening, Monday to Friday

Aesop

Aesop's Fables have been told and re-told, then written and re-written countless times as a form of entertainment and education. Anecdotal and comic sketches were everyday forms of amusement in ancient Athens and Delphi. Today these works envelop many realms of life including psychology, politics, spirituality, education, health and well-being. Whether the man himself or Aesop the modern construct of scholars, his influence and commentary on human behavior has been firmly established. (C.D. Merriman)

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Aesop did not write down his fables. He told many people the stories and they remembered them. It was nearly two hundred years before the stories were collected together and published. The fables were not published in English until the 15th century, but since then they have been read by people all over the world. Their moral lessons are as true today as they were 2,500 years ago when Aesop was alive.
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Childhood Lessons from Fables

The first lessons I learned from my father came from Aesop’s fables. Quite a number of them are still fresh in my mind nearly fifty years after. Fable or fibula in Latin is a story or tale, especially a short story, often with animals or inanimate objects as speakers or actors, devised to convey a moral. So simple and universal are fables that no one could possibly miss the lesson of each story.

Before I proceed let me say a few words about the genius behind this ancient art of storytelling. Aesop, the founder of fables, was a native of old Greece, a former slave who earned his freedom out of his genius and wit, a master in allegorical philosophy. It is for this natural gift that he also gained fame – and ironically, it is also for this that he met a lamentable end in the hands of enemies whom his fables created.

Aesop is the greatest fabulist of all time, and if there are other prominent fabulists after him and at present, there is likely a trace of Aesop in their stories. Even modern fables like the movie Babes, about the pig that gained its right to live by learning to be a"sheep dog," reminds us of Aesop. Or take the case of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a story about man’s folly and greed for power and wealth and lavish living.

But little can we perceive the original morals of Aesop in most of today’s animations. There is simply too much fantasy that masks the lesson, especially so with the versatility of technology that emphasizes scenarios that heighten the plot as if fables are running entertainment stories. What technology misses is that it fails to capture the refinement of presentation and the purposeful message that lingers in afterthought. Aesop has a unique way of making his reader to first look within himself before casting judgment upon others. Like many philosophers in his time, he believed that change is basically internal and often, discreetly self-atonement and non-effacing. Aesop is Aesop for such extraordinary character as can be gleamed from records about the man. To wit -.

“It is probable that he was of a low and diminutive stature, though agreeable in his complexion, and polite in his manners. It is however, certain that he had a great soul, and was endowed with extraordinary mental qualification; his moral character approached to a degree of perfection to which very few have attained. He appears to have had a true sense of morality and a just discernment of right and wrong; his perceptions and feelings of truth were scrupulously nice, and the smallest deviation from rectitude impressed his mind with the greatest antipathy.

“No considerations of private interest could warp his inclinations to as to seduce him from the path of virtue; his principles are steadfast and determined, and truly habitual. He never employed his great wisdom to serve the purposes of cunning; but, with an uncommon exactness, made his understanding a servant of truth.” (Oliver Goldsmith, Life of Aesop)

While we recognize Aesop as the father of the fable, there were fabulists ahead of him like Archilochus who wrote fables one hundred years before. But it is certain that Aesop was the first that brought that species of teaching into reputation, building upon the style of using animals and inanimate objects to describe the manners and characters of men, communicating instructions without seeming to assume authority of a master or a pedagogue.

Here is a story from which we can gleam the Aesop’s indomitable reputation. He adopted a unique strategy to reconcile his master and his estranged wife who had left him. It is said that Aesop, then a slave of Xanthus, went to the market and brought a great quantity of the best provisions, which he publicly declared were intended for the marriage of his master with a new spouse. This report had its desired effect, and the matter was amicably settled. And at a feast to celebrate the return of his master’s wife he is said to have served the guests with several courses of tongues, by which he intended to give a moral to his master and wife, who had by too liberal use of their tongue almost caused their permanent separation.

In another occasion, Aesop astounded the sages of Greece. An ambitious king having one day shown his vast riches and magnificence, and the glory and splendor of his court, asked them the question, whom they thought was the happiest man. After several different answers given by all the wise men present, it came at last to Aesop to make his reply. He said: “That Croesus was as much happier than other men as the fullness of the sea was superior to the rivers in his kingdom.”

If we were to base Aesop’s sagacity and severe morality his answer would rather be one of sarcasm rather than compliment, but he was undoubtedly understood by the king to be a great compliment, that in his vanity exclaimed, “The Phrygian had hit the mark.” Afterward, alone with a friend, Aesop commented, “Either we must not speak to Kings, or we must say what will please them.”

While he was living at the court of King Croesus, now a free man, celebrated and famous, he was sent on a journey to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. There he was accused by the Delphians of sacrilege, and he was convicted by an act of the greatest villainy. They concealed among his baggage, at his departure, some golden vessels consecrated to Apollo, and then dispatched messengers to search his baggage. Upon this he was accused of theft and sacrilege, and condemned to die. The angry Dephians pushed him over a steep cliff to his death.

Aesop’s ironic death is not the first among respected citizens of Greece, paradoxically when Greece was at its peak of power, as we can only imagine with this aphorism “the glory that was Greece.” Not far after Aesop’s time, Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Athens in his time and one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, was condemned to die by drinking poison hemlock for “corrupting the minds of the youth.” Socrates opened the gate of enlightenment; the concept of the Lyceum or university.

I have selected a number of Aesop fable to suit the purpose of conveying important messages related to contemporary issues in a manner that they can be understood at the grassroots. This is the purpose of Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (school-on-the air) to impart functional literacy to the masses. It is not the intention of the lessons to impose moral authority, much less to proselytize our society of its failures and weaknesses. It merely seeks to elevate awareness for change, in the humblest manner we may find ways to reform, through the lessons in the fables Aesop related more than two thousand five hundred years ago.

Here are some of the popular fables of Aesop with the morals they convey.

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 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 and other Fables


Sour grapes is a popular idiomatic expression which we often hear from people who find excuse for not having succeeded at a thing. It's like saying, "It's not worth anyway."

Here is Bewick’s version of The Fox and the Grapes.

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 jumped 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 make 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
(The Dog and His Reflection)

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.

Other Aesop Fables

Here is a list of Aesop Fables which may not be as popular to us as compared with those in the first list. It is true that many fables have remained obscure and forgotten in some shelves, relinquished aside in favor of modern day fables and animations. Ironically many stories about animals are not fables at all. Even legends have a place of their own, and a lot of them do not fall into the category of fables. The Minotaur for example will remain firmly within the sphere of mythology, more so with the mystical beasts legends and myths like Medusa and the Dragon.

The Ant and the Grasshopper – “Save for the rainy day.” Action and industry of th wise and a good man, and nothing is so much to be despised as slothfulness.

A boar and a fox – A discreet man should have a reserve of everything that is necessary beforehand.

The fox and the crow – There is hardly any man living that may not be wrought upon more or less by flattery

An ass, an ape and a mole; The hares and the frogs – These two fables tell us that we
cannot contend with the Orders and Decrees of Providence

The ant and the fly – An honest mediocrity is the happiest state a man can wish for.

The horse and an ass – This fable shows the folly and the fate of pride and arrogance.

An husbandman and stork – Our fortune and reputation require us to keep good company.

A father and his sons – The breach of unity puts the world in a state of war.

The sick father and his children – Good counsel is the best legacy a father can leave
to a child.

A peacock and a crane – There cannot be a greater sign of a weak mind than a
person’s valuing himself on a gaudy outside.

The stag looking into the water – We should examine things deliberately,
and candidly consider their real usefulness before we place our esteem on them.

The gnat and a bee – Industry ought to be inculcated in the minds of children.

A swallow and a stork – A wise man will not undertake anything without means answerable to the end.

The Satyr and the traveler – There is no use conversing with any man that carries two faces under one hood.

The eagle, the cat and the sow – There can be no peace in any state or family where whisperers and tale bearers are encouraged.

The two frogs – We ought never to change our situation in life, without duly considering the consequences of such a change.

The discontented ass – Here is a beautiful verse written about this fable

Who lacks the pleasures of a tranquil mind,
Will something wrong in every station find;
His mind unsteady, and on changes bent,
Is always shifting, yet it is ne’er content.

• And here is a shade of mythology in Aesop in these two fables: Hercules and the carter. Prayers and wishes amount to nothing: We must put forth our own honest endeavors to obtain success and the assistance of heaven; and Mercury and the woodman – Honesty is the best policy.

The Little Red Hen – A Modern Fable

Once upon a time there was a little red hen that lived in a farmyard, and one day found some grains of wheat which she took to the other animals in the farmyard – cat, rat, pig. He asked who of them can help her plant the grains of wheat. None wanted to, so the little red hen planted the grains, and the plants grew tall and strong until it was time to harvest them.

Again he asked her companions if they are willing to help. Just like before, none of them was. So the little red hen did the harvesting. And she did all the work – brought the grains to the miller and to the baker, and when the bread was baked he asked her friends, “Who will help me eat the bread?”

“I will,” said the cat.

“I will,” said the rat.

“I will,” said the pig.

“No you will not,” intoned the little red hen. “I shall eat it myself.” So she did.

The Little Red Hen and the Grains of Wheat is a modern fable which evolved into philosophy that touches sensitive issues of modern living such as capitalism and socialism. Animal Farm by George Orwell may be different in presentation and philosophical connotation, from the traditional style of a fable. It is a socio-economic and political thesis in the guise of animals acting like humans do under a system which they themselves created.

Even as Aesop fables are taking a new dimension as viewed in a changing world, the essence is as fresh as ever. All one needs to realize them as relevant as they were in Aesop’s time is simply to reflect on them himself. For human character and behavior have not really changed since then.
x x x

References: Goldsmith O (1973) - Treasury of Aesop’s Fables Avenel Books, NY 139 pp
Stuart M (1974) A First Book of Aesop’s Fables (Vol 1 and 2) Ladybird Books

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