Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Aesop's Fables; a new translation

Aesop's Fables; a new translation
Aesop's Fables; a new translation by Aesop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd heard a lot of Aesop's fables, here and there, but I'd never read them all. There are a lot, it turns out, and most are fewer than 100 words long.

They all have similar elements, but these elements aren't there in all of them. Sometimes animals stand in for human traits (like the fox almost always represents cleverness, the lion danger and strength, the wolf is sneaky and scary, the crow a big dope, the monkey cute and clever), but some of the stories have only human characters. The stories don't even all have explicit lessons at the end; sometimes it's spoken by a character in the fable.

The most interesting part of reading these fables is that the lessons at the end have become clich├ęs in our time (and probably before then, too), and the stories were written in the 7th century BC. Some are timeless, but surely some attitudes have updated since then. I refer to the two that were explicitly sexist, and the many that implied that slavery is a normal, everyday thing.

My favorite fable, which I've never heard before, is about wolves who complain to the sheep that they're not given the chance, because the dogs bark and bite and chase them off when they try to get close. The sheep get rid of the dogs, and are torn to pieces for their stupidity. It reminded me of the tone argument, the precept that one needs to be nice about it when pointing out others' prejudices.

Most of the stories can likely be similarly updated, because the lesson isn't always explicit. It may well have been meant for one situation, but its universal application is what's made it survive this long.

The end of the edition I read contained some biographical information about Aesop, which adds some more context to these tales. It doesn't address any of the controversy about his identity, but presents the story of his probable life at Samos and death at Delphi.

If you think you know the fables, I recommend you read through them, at some point, to get a more full view. If nothing else, they're useful as cultural reference to a place and time when people still feared wolves.

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