Life lessons from a turtle

ROBERT FULFORD

What Aesop’s fables teach us about ourselves.

Aesop
c. 1638, by Diego Velasquez

A few weeks ago, when the speaker of the house in the Philippine Congress was deposed, a story in the Philippine Sun-Star carried the heading, "Aesop's tales confirmed." The failings of the now ex-speaker, the reporter wrote, recalled Aesop's opinion that men often condemn others for the sins they themselves commit, something for which the speaker was apparently famous. The reporter then brought in not only Aesop's fable about the fox and the grapes but also the one about the oxen and the butchers and Aesop's opinion that the loudest quarrels are usually the most petty.

It's no surprise that a Manila journalist invoked Aesop. For centuries he's been the most pervasive of classical authors, a voice from ancient Greece that remains strong after two and a half millennia. Last year, his name appeared in The New York Times on 18 occasions. No doubt his stories were used without credit at least as often.

If we listen we can hear Aesop's voice in many cultures, including our own. Without Aesop (and many anonymous collaborators over the centuries) we wouldn't know that slow but steady wins the race, familiarity breeds contempt and gods help those who help themselves. We would never have heard about the boy who cried wolf, or for that matter, the wolf in sheep's clothing. We might even count our chickens before they're hatched.

The Aesop fables are the Great Barrier Reef of storytelling. His body of work has grown organically, century by century, accumulating stories the way coral forms a great rock in the sea. There's no such thing as a correct edition of Aesop fables. An Aesop collection is an accretion of tales from known and unknown sources, a collaborative project developed by a regiment of storytellers over the centuries. He left no original text (could he write?) and many tales we have come to know as his were likely concocted by other ancient Greeks after his death -- that is, if he ever actually lived.

Historians have firmly established that Aesop either did or did not live as a slave on the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea during the sixth century B.C.E. Herodotus, writing about a century later, depicts him as part of Greek history.

Aristophanes , in one of his stage comedies, has a character mention either a person or a style of satire named Aesop. Still, we lack absolute proof that he existed.

Naturally he comes to us with no personal image attached. Artists have often guessed how he might have looked, showing him as everything from wise to cynical. There's an imaginary portrait of him in the Prado in Madrid by no less than Diego Velázquez, perhaps the greatest of all painters. His Aesop looks dishevelled, tired and possibly a little bored, wrapped in a shabby brown toga that's carelessly fastened with a sash.

Considered either as a writer or a team of writers, Aesop was one of the great curators of experience.

Considered either as a writer or a team of writers, Aesop was one of the great curators of experience. He helped humanity understand itself. Reality being a confusing mess, we make what sense of it we can by encapsulating experience in simple narrative illustrations. The stories burrow into the marrow of our imagination, until we accept them as part of our nature, forgetting they ever had authors. They become stereotypes, but necessary stereotypes.

Humans need patterns and generalities just to get through the day. Aesop's tales were invented for adults but a couple of centuries ago turned into children's fiction. Today, they appear as juvenile literature, year after year, in newly illustrated, newly paraphrased form, often just one story in a large-format book. Simplified over the years, the stories help children to make sense of the world. As William James pointed out in Principles of Psychology in 1890, the world appears to small children as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." Aesop's tales are a way of framing experience and sorting out the complications of everyday life.

Over the years, editors and translators have been steadily recreating Aesop. William Caxton, the great printer, brought out the first English edition in 1484, but it was rather distantly linked to the original. First the Greek was translated into Latin, which was translated into French, which was translated into the English Caxton used. But if that process was by the standards of recent scholarship, the book that resulted kept selling until the late 17th century.

Standards have changed. Laura Gibbs, when preparing Aesop's Fables (Oxford University Press, 2002), perhaps the most admired recent edition, worked directly from the ancient Greek.

Today Aesop lives a vivid, prolific and unpredictable life -- the day before yesterday he starred in a London Observer editorial. Last year alone he appeared as a sage in at least three business journals. Readers of Investment News were told, under the heading "What Aesop can teach us," that the story of the dog that saw its reflection in a stream while carrying meat in its mouth (and lost its own meat while lunging for the meat of the dog in the water) has a lesson for investors: Don't be greedy and impulsive.

A journal called Employee Benefit News claimed that organizers of pension plans feel like the fox in The Fox and the Hedgehog, who fears being drained of its blood by flies. Instead of flies, the pensions people fear declining interest rates and burdensome regulations. The Grasshopper and the Ant was recommended to readers of Jewellers Circular Keystone. The ant stored up food for the winter while the grasshopper wasted his time in play. Jewellers should emulate the ant, putting something aside for their trade's equivalent of winter, increased costs for materials and no rise in retail prices.

The most influential of Aesop's literary strategies was using animals to tell all his stories. Why did he do that? G.K. Chesterton, in the introduction to a 1912 edition, explained that to tell moral tales Aesop needed to strip his protagonists of personal qualities and use them "like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess."

That made Aesop the ancestor of Walt Disney, E.B. White as a children's author and George Orwell, who in Animal Farm used barnyard animals to satirize the Soviet government. They and thousands of writers and filmmakers have agreed with Aesop that a story of human folly works best when it pretends to be about non-humans.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Fulford. "Life lessons from a turtle." National Post, (Canada) March 4, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.

THE AUTHOR

Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950, when he left high school to work as a sports writer on The Globe and Mail. He has since been a news reporter, literary critic, art critic, movie critic, and editor — on a variety of magazines, ranging from Canadian Homes and Gardens to the Canadian Forum. He was the editor of Saturday Night magazine for 19 years, and since he left that job in 1987 he's been a freelance writer. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly. His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (1999). Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities.

Copyright © 2008 Robert Fulford




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