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Aesop: The Complete Fables.

Translated by Olivia and Robert Temple. New York: Penguin Classics. 262 pp. $8.95.

Marina Warner

The biter bit. Sour grapes. Swan song. Pride comes before a fall. Borrowed plumage. Crying wolf. Once bitten twice shy. In the skin of a lion. Let sleeping dogs lie. Blowing hot and cold. One swallow does not make a summer. These proverbial phrases still stud common speech today, approximately twenty-six hundred years after they were written down as the work of one Aesop, a slave.

When I bought S.A. Handford's postwar translation of Aesop's Fables in the sixties, the Penguin Classic was already in its twentieth printing. There is something fustian and schoolmasterly about its renderings, while the pen and ink illustrations, by Brian Robb, carefree and charming in the postwar pastoral sketchbook style of Edward Ardizzone, planted the fables firmly on juvenile territory: this was the homespun wit and wisdom of granny or Mother Goose, savvy, cynical, practical, perennial, and handed down to the younger generation to develop their "cunning and high spirits" (Walter Benjamin's telling phrase) in dealing with Life.

Olivia and Robert Temple's new version is based on French classicist E. Chambry's scholarly edition, published in Paris in 1927, but includes the mythological stories featuring Zeus and Hermes and Aphrodite that Handford omitted, thus swelling the corpus by 151 more fables. This husband and wife translation team are also intent on taking the fables out of the nursery and putting them back into history: they present the fables as the kind of crib notes that have always supplied the oral tradition in the long ongoing symbiosis between print culture and storytelling.

This practice is by no means extinct: an Arabist friend of mine reports that he heard a blind bazaar ballad-singer in Damascus and then, a few days later, saw the same man in a coffee house with song sheets spread out on the table in front of him, learning up another number. This was not pure charlatanry, as my friend was quick to point out, but demonstrated that the public requires, even today, that a fabulist should appear a true bardic descendant of Homer or Aesop, an original, spontaneous conduit of a popular, unlettered art uncontaminated by high culture or scholarship.

Aesop was likewise set apart by handicap - by an arresting and unique ugliness, according to the rich body of legends that circulated about him from medieval times. He figured there as a tongue-tied brute who appeared a dolt because he could only stammer. The poet who drew on animal imagery to express the human condition was himself invoked under the aspect of a variety of beasts. "Is he a frog, or a hedgehog, or a pot-bellied jar, or a captain of monkeys, or a moulded jug, or a cook's gear, or a dog in a basket?" wrote the children's writer and publisher John Newbery. He went on to introduce into the nursery the novel twist on the legend that Aesop, being a slave, was also black: "his complexion was so swarthy, that he took his name from it, Aesop & Aethiop, according to their account, signifying the same thing."

When he is sold on by one master to another, called Xanthus, he offers to act as a bogeyman to frighten children into good behavior. Illustrations from Renaissance editions of the fourteenth century Vita Aesopi show him swollen and misshapen and huge, as everyone runs in alarm from the sight of him. But this outcast, this stigmatized and abject hobgoblin, has a quick and brilliant mind inside his freakish outer shape. The goddess Isis eventually takes pity on him and restores his powers of speech; he begins to entertain his master with his cunning tricks and clever ripostes. Many of these turn on puns and wordplay: the fabulist's arsenal mines the inherently ludic properties of language itself, as do much more recent exponents of the genre like Lewis Carroll and Salman Rushdie. For example, Xanthus one day orders Aesop to prepare the best banquet available. Aesop serves four courses of tongues all differently dressed, whereupon Xanthus falls into "a most outrageous passion" and belabors Aesop. He responds, '"Sir . . . you charged me to make the best entertainment I could . . . & if the tongue be the key of knowledge, what cou'd be so proper as a feast of tongues for a philosophical banquet?"

Aesop's gifts in this regard make him the counterpart of such tricksters as Anansi the spider from Yoruba folklore, Coyote of the Navajo repertory, and Brer Rabbit, their U.S. cousin; in many ways, this legendary Aesop is the generic precursor of "the signifying monkey," who by flyting, by repartee, by doing the dozens, reverses his low status. Aesop is the earliest figure in classical Western culture to use stories and language as defensive weapons in the struggle for survival.

The low humor of the fables and their progenitor gave them their bite: Velazquez portrayed the poet as the nemesis of great men and their pretensions. He was inspired, the art historian Nicholas Tromans has persuasively suggested, by the episode in the Vita when Aesop scoffs at his master for worrying that when he defecates, his brains leave him with his stools. The vessel and the rag at Aesop's feet in Velazquez's famous portrait in the Prado can be identified in relation to this scatological anecdote as a nightsoil bucket and toilet rag.

The Temples' new version attempts to bring out this ribald, adults-only, shameless side of Aesop's Fables; they are following a current trend to desanitize traditional material such as fairy tales, taking the sugariness out of Disney, dyeing darker the pastel hues of wonderland. "'It's a jungle out there!' could be taken as the motto of Aesop," they write in their introduction. For them, the fables are patently cynical: this is territory where a cat may not look at a king. The messages of the stories are often highly conservative, and the appended moral tags cumbrously underline the warnings against presumption, vanity, greed, ambition, etc. It seems best to keep your place, accepting that a jackdaw will never be a peacock, that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that one good deed may deserve another but is unlikely to be thus rewarded.

But can this be right? Aesop would not have acquired his fame as the adversary of tyrants' follies and of the arrogance of lions and wolves if his stories upheld the status quo in this manner. A fable is not the same as a parable, a barroom joke not the same as an exemplum from a pious sermon: from childhood we read Aesop knowingly, against the grain of the text. Indeed, he gives us some of the most brilliant and fundamental lessons in irony, for our sympathies are aroused to run counter to the manifest lesson of the fable. Take the famous tale of the ant and the cricket, immortalized by La Fontaine's 1668 collection of fables after Aesop. The improvident cricket, who has sung all summer long instead of hoarding for the lean winter like the thrifty ant, is clearly the surface target of this cautionary tale about human folly. But the sympathy of the fable runs with the cricket nevertheless: it shows up the ant's meanness, and in so doing, offers as much of a rebuke to selfishness as it does to thoughtless hedonism. It's significant that La Fontaine placed this fable first and that in the biography of Aesop he included, Aesop refers to himself as a cricket and says, "All my business is my song." The story's piquancy lines us up with the cricket, against common sense, against natural selection, against the law of the jungle, just as it yokes us to donkeys, mice, rats, tortoises, frogs, and the other foolish and put-upon underlings who people the fabulous menagerie.

The Temples show a keen historical interest and scatter notes here and there to correct the circumstantial as well as the zoological record on the animals and their representations in the fables. They reckon that Aesop was a spoil of war rather than born basely into slavery, and worked as "a personal clerk/secretary," even pleading a case before the assembly of Samos. Likewise, in point of accuracy, the famous crafty talking cats of fable turn out to be house-ferrets or polecats, apparently as common to Greek hearths as mongooses are in households of India. The editors note that the ubiquitous wild ass, protagonist of numerous warnings about knavishness and folly, is portrayed against nature as carnivorous; consequently they suggest that the fables, many of which originated outside Greece, starred hyenas rather than donkeys. Similarly, the fox may have begun as a jackal, which would link its character in fable even more closely to Coyote's.

There are several problems, however, with this edition. The diction is often stilted, even compared to Handford's polite version (the Temples' opening line of the opening fable is almost incomprehensible: "The things brought by ill fortune, taking advantage of the feebleness of those brought by good fortune, pursued them closely.") Adopting Chambry's arrangement, which follows the Greek titles in alphabetical order, means that the tales are clumped by character - the Fox tales all together, ditto the Monkey stories and the Lion's and the Wolf's; this decision intensifies the danger of repetitiveness and dulls the very different saltiness of each fable.

La Fontaine declared in his preamble to the Fables, "On ne saurait trop egayer les narrations" ("One can't do too much to enliven the telling of stories"), and made an eloquent plea for "gaiete" as the principle of fabulism. Though the Temples consider Aesop "essentially a joke collection" for adults, gaiety and liveliness have been lost. They have decisively withdrawn Aesop's Fables from children, and present them instead as the equivalent of a journeyman artist's pattern book, supplying sallies, anecdotes, and epigrams for the party piece, the political speech, the satirist's diatribe, the cleverclogs op-ed writer. The result is almost a fable in itself, too close for comfort to the one about the kite who wanted to neigh as beautifully as a horse and by dint of croaking so hard, ended up mute.

Marina Warner's book No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October 1998.
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Author:Warner, Marina
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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