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Fables Less and Less Fabulous: English Fables and Parables of the Nineteenth Century and Their Illustrations.

Fables Less and Less Fabulous: English Fables and Parables of the
Nineteenth Century and Their Illustrations.
By Horst Dolvers. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press;
London: Associated University Presses. 1997. 207 pp. [pound]29.


Aesop was a slave who lived on the island of Samos in the sixth century bc. A rumour, accepted by the author of this book, has it that he hailed from Phrygia; in fact, as Herodotus, who spent part of his life on Samos, knew, he was from Thrace. Horst Dolvers calls him 'The Phrygian slave'; it is not clear whether he has read the Fables in Greek. His interest in Aesop's influence has been stimulated by a review the twenty-four-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of Lord Lytton's Fables in Song. Stevenson later tried his own hand at fable-writing, though none of his efforts was published in his lifetime. His persistence with a form seemingly in decline since Mandeville, however, has caused Dolvers, a student of Stevenson's mature work, to wonder why so little attention has been directed at fables in the nineteenth century. Fables Less and Less Fabulous is an attempt to fill the gap.

The major interest in this slender volume stems from incidental information it throws up, as if by accident. The cartoonist John Tenniel, as Dolvers correctly observes, first came to public notice by illustrating a translation of Aesop by the Revd Thomas James in 1848. Two years later, though Dolvers does not mention this, Tenniel joined the staff of Punch, serving as its chief illustrator for some fifty years. Some of his most lasting images drew on beast types, as in his 'Who said "Atrocities"?' of 1895, showing Gladstone as a terrier nosing out Armenian massacres. The continuity leads one to think about the iconography in his even more celebrated illustrations to the Alice books. More generally, it invites one to consider the connection between literary fable and pictured caricature. Punch is nowhere mentioned in this book, though Alice in Wonderland receives acknowledgement for its contribution to nonsense literature. Yet, despite the fact that one of C. H. Bennett's illustrations to The Fables to Aesop, reproduced to much effect on page 44, bears a marked resemblance to Tenniel's style, the logic of influence is never carried through.

Dolvers's most absorbing chapter concentrates on a relatively unknown text: The Baby's Own Aesop produced jointly by Walter Crane and William J. Linton in 1887. In this the fables, many of which are coupled on the page, are rhymed as limericks: a genre which, as Dolvers once more correctly observes, was first brought to prominence by Edward Lear some twenty-six years before, in the third edition of his Book of Nonsense. The incestuous relationship between fabular form and limerick lyric shape would thus appear to be a rich source of inquiry. Yet once more the opportunity is missed. Dolvers barely touches on this profitable conflation before setting off retriever-like after such critical neologisms as 'macrofable'.

The last chapter contains a fairly full discussion of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty of 1877. This begins smartly with a discussion of the novel's didacticism; within a few pages, however, we are knee-deep in impenetrable theory. Rather than drag in such monsters as 'interdiscourse', one would have liked to have seen Dolvers nod towards intelligent theories of humanized nature that already lie to hand such, notably, as that contained in Claude Levi-Strauss's La Pensee Sauvage (1962).

If Dolvers were to feature in a fable, he would suit 'The Lion and the Hare'. The lion, you will remember, ceased chewing a tasty rodent, lured away by a stag that wandered into view. The deer eluded him and, when the lion returned to the rodent, it had fled. The venison of discourse theory, of course, is tempting fare. As Dolvers pursues this side-dish, his meal has skipped away.
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Author:Fraser, Robert
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:637
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