Nasty, Brutish and Short
Geraldine McCaughrean on her dislike of Aesop’s Fables
Don’t get me wrong. This is only a partial blindspot – a scorchmark on the retina, as it were. I know of people who keep the Fables by their beds, like the Bible, to swear by. Anyway, one can’t help but appreciate a writer who’s gone to such mortal lengths to be out of copyright. But I’ve recently had cause to read the complete works, unselectively, at a go, and I’m left not liking Mr Aesop one little bit. I don’t care whether he was Phrygian or Lydian, deformed or handsome, a plaguer of ancient Egyptian papyri or just plain mythical. The man is as dour, uncharitable a misanthrope as anyone could ever wish to avoid at a publication party. His philosophy of life is one I would not commend to Machiavelli’s Prince, let alone a child of tender and trusting disposition.
On displacement of water by stones and the absorbency of sponges, he can’t be faulted, but his Thatcherite worship of thrift and self-reliance is surely a horrible glimpse of society post Welfare State. No room for charity in the industrious ant! No arts funding for busking grasshoppers in the winter of a market economy! How did a sixth-century, pre-Christian become so riddled with the Protestant work ethic, that’s what I want to know?
In case you have momentarily forgotten what other advice Aesop has to give us: don’t rub shoulders with people outside your own social class; put up with the blood-sucking parasites you know – there are plenty worse waiting to suck you dry; never attempt anything ambitious; right and reasoned arguments always lose out to might; never look for loyalty or enduring kindness from your fellow men (because they’ll kick you in the head the moment you weaken); ‘hope can only delude you’; never travel abroad; your friends will always let you down – or quite possibly tear you in pieces at the first opportunity; serious quarrels can’t ever be made up; ‘even the kindest treatment can’t tame a savage nature’; never do anyone a kindness because they will instantly take advantage of you. Oh, and ‘the Arabs are the greatest liars and deceivers on earth. Their tongues know not the truth.’
In fact, prolonged reading is rather like standing in a post office queue behind that splenetic OAP who chunters continually about what dreadful times we live in.
Admirers will argue that Aesop was writing for gullible adults in a wicked world, rather than advocating a Design for Living. But the Bible was written in similarly hard times, and not primarily for children. Compare the parable of the reapers or the Prodigal Son with the Ant and the Grasshopper, the Good Samaritan with the Dog who gave up her Kennel. I’ve looked, but I’ve looked in vain for any real charity in Aesop.
Of course, it may be that all the really offensive pieces of snobbery and misanthropy are late accretions by different authors. Nobody has attracted such imitation as this mythical Phrygian Quasimodo. There seems to have been a time in the eighteenth century when everybody with a few hours to spare from grinding the faces of the Poor felt free to run off Fables of their own and add them in anonymously to the Complete Works.
As for the annotators who added ‘conclusions’ longer than the Fables themselves – well, they remind me strongly of people who explain jokes. I once sat on a tube listening to someone explain the Punchline ‘Along the M4’. ‘Well, you see, there’s “to Wales” and there’s “two Whales” …’” It took from Paddington to Waterloo, and I’ve never felt quite the same about saving the whale or the Welsh ever since.
The number of animals in Aesop has always made him a must for children’s anthologies. But it might have been nicer if all those cuddly animals could have undergone their ‘final agony’ off-stage, in keeping with the traditions of Greek drama, instead of bleeding all over the page. If it crops up once, it crops up 20 times – ‘he bethought himself, in his final agony …’. I realise Nature is bloody in tooth and claw; I acknowledge that human life can be – like fables – nasty, brutish and short. But Hobbes doesn’t make it into too many children’s anthologies, whereas it takes bouncers at the door to keep Aesop out.
Either Aesop was one of those people who invited persecution, or else he had an almighty persecution complex. (I maintain he was freed from slavery in a desperate effort to cheer him up.) But if he really lived according to his own advice, he surely kept his back to the atrium wall at all times and never gave anyone so much as the time of day, for fear they stole his sundial.
Socrates, in prison, had apparently started a verse version just before he died. Perhaps that’s what drove him to the hemlock.
I do not love thee, Aesop dear;
The reason why, I’ll tell thee here.
Thou dost not like thy fellow man,
Thou see’st a flash in every pan,
A wasp in every outstretched hand,
In every smile a grin of fear;
I do not love thee, Aesop dear.
Of course, Aesop was proved absolutely right. Reputedly he was thrown off a cliff by a bunch of hooligan Delphians. I can almost hear the dying diminuendo of his wail –
Not reasoned critical comment, no, but I can’t help thinking those Delphians had a point.
My apologies to all admirers of Aesop, but kindly note:
‘Nothing is so good that some fault cannot be found with it.’
Illustrations on this page are by Arthur Rackham from an edition of Aesop’s Fables, originally published by Heinemann in 1912.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest book, Cowboy Jess, is reviewed by Stephanie Nettell in this issue of BfK.