Wisdom and wit of Aesop’s fables | Sunday Observer

Wisdom and wit of Aesop’s fables

Hellenistic statue claimed to depict Aesop, from the Art Collection of Villa Albani, Rome
Hellenistic statue claimed to depict Aesop, from the Art Collection of Villa Albani, Rome

From my childhood Aesop’s fables have amused and enlightened me. First, I read them in translations. Gradually, I was drawn to the original fables written in English. In fact, a large part of the fables have come to us through a collection of fables that carries the name of Aesop who was a former slave. He lived in about 570 B.C. However, many of the fables were actually written or adapted by later writers. As Aesop’s fables resolve round animals, they are usually referred to as “Beast Fables.”

Aesop’s fables are brief stories with a moral. The animals in his fables act out mini dramas from human life. The reader will not know the moral until he comes to the end of the fable.

William Shakespeare

The significance of Aesop’s fables is that they have lasted for many centuries demonstrating two combined functions of imaginative or creative literature. Even in modern classrooms they are used delightfully as effective teaching material. What is more, Aesop’s fables have been translated into many foreign languages and translators have enjoyed the challenge of rendering the wisdom and wit of these fables.

At a time when children are distancing themselves from books of literature, it’s time teachers and parents took the initiative to introduce Aesop’s fables to children.

Such an initiation would attract the attention of children who may not know the intrinsic value of literature in general, and Aesop’s fables in particular. The government’s decision to give tabs to students is laudable. At the same time, students should be exposed to classical literature.

Aesop lived many centuries before William Shakespeare. However, Aesop’s fables have enriched the English language. If you are not familiar with Aesop’s fables, you will not understand the real meaning of the phrases such as, “sour grapes, crying wolf, actions speak louder than words, honesty is the best policy” or “slow and steady wins the race.” Hundreds of other metaphors, axioms and ideas have been woven into the fabric of Western culture and English, thanks to Aesop.

Aesop was an extraordinary storyteller whose fables are replete with cunning foxes, surly dogs, clever mice, fearsome lions and foolish humans! In fact, when you read Aesop’s fables you will come to the conclusion that animals are streets ahead of humans. His narratives appeal to all times because they are full of funny episodes.

What is more, the moral of the story is profoundly true. The moral has an awesome power to fascinate the reader.

According to Nathaniel Crouch, Aesop was deformed to the highest degree. He was flat-nosed, hunchbacked, badger-legged and of a swarthy complexion. But, the excellence and beauty of his mind made a sufficient atonement for his outward appearance. According to historical accounts, Aesop was sold as a slave in Ephesus. However, in Samos he behaved like Solomon who was known for his wisdom.

Theft and sacrilege

Aesop accused magistrates at Delos of corruption. Then he had to face the music. A gold cup pilfered from the shrine of Oracle was planted in his baggage, and he was charged with theft and sacrilege. He was then pushed off a high rock as punishment. We can never forget Crox’s words: “whether he was a slave or a freeman, whether handsome or ugly, Aesop has left us a legacy in his writings that will preserve his memory clean and perpetual among us.”

In 1484, William Caxton printed a collection of Aesop’s fables. However, it was not meant for children. The credit of popularizing amusement with instructions goes to John Locke. He argued that nine out of 10 people were good or evil by education. It was Locke who said, “The child became the father or mother of the adult.”

Locke condemned fairy tales as “useless trumpery”. Instead, he recommended Aesop’s fables to delight and entertain children. Locke also suggested that a child should be given an edition of Aesop’s fables with “Pictures in it.” Today, we have several illustrated editions of Aesop’s fables.

By the end of the 18th century Aesop’s fables became the “staple diet” of children. They also became popular among adult readers. If you read some of the fables, you will find they are meant to entertain both, children and adults.

For instance, “The owl and the birds” tells us something about the people in society. But, it also tells us something about the critic of society. To the Greeks, the owl was a symbol of wisdom. In the fable, the owl gives advice to other birds.

The owl sees a man approaching. He is an archer. She warns the birds to keep away from him. They pay no attention to her advice. They think the owl is crazy. Later when they realize that the owl’s words are true, they begin to respect her. In the fable titled, “The Mountain and the Squirrel”, the mountain quarrels with a squirrel. The squirrel tells the mountain that it is no disgrace to occupy her place. The moral is, we somehow want the peach that always dangles just beyond our reach. However, we soon learn that it is useless to get upset over things we find difficult to get.

In “The lion in love”, a lion falls in love with a pretty girl. He wants to marry her and asks her father’s consent. The man tells the lion to have his talons trimmed and his teeth pulled out. When the lion appears sans his claws and teeth, the girl’s father chases him away.

Some of the fables teach life lessons. In “The farmer and the snake” a man finds a snake half dead with cold lying under a hedge. He takes pity on the creature and takes it home. He then places it on the hearth near the fire.

The snake, restored by the warmth, begins to attack the farmer’s wife and children. Then he grabs an axe and kills the snake. The moral is that we should not be kind to ungrateful and vicious creatures.

It is advisable to use Aesop’s fables as a stepping stone to literature.

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