Inquiry into Cultural Authenticity in Traditional Literature: Aesop’s Fables

by Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University

Fables are another form of traditional literature. They are short stories written in prose or verse. The main characters are most often anthropomorphized animals whose behaviors demonstrate moral lessons. Fable tellers and writers end their stories with a maxim, or a statement that encapsulates the moral. The most famous fables in Western culture are attributed to a Greek named Aesop.

Who was Aesop? In her introduction to her children’s book Aesop’s Fables, author and fable reteller Beverly Naidoo provides a rationale for why she believes Aesop was African. Naidoo suggests that as a Greek slave Aesop would have come from somewhere outside of Greece. Historians are not quite as sure. Although his birth is commonly estimated at around 620 BCE, there is some uncertainty as to whether or not he was an actual person at all. According to Ashliman, Aesop’s birthplace could have been Trace or Phrygia ancient cities in Asia Minor, Athens or the Greek island of Samos, Sardis in Turkey, or on the African continent in Ethiopia (ix). Naidoo suggests that Aesop’s name sounds like a Greek word for a black African: “Ethiop” (7).

Assuming he did exist, Aesop would have shared his fables orally during his lifetime, and the stories were written down years later after they had had a dynamic life in the oral tradition. About 425 BCE, the Greek author Herodotus made one of the first written references to the “fable writer” Aesop. However, many stories credited to Aesop most likely evolved from retellings of the original stories of the man who legend claim was born with a speech impediment, was hunchbacked, and had a misshapen head (Ashliman xv). Who was the “real” Aesop?

Also in the introduction to Aesop’s Fables, first published in Britain and included on the USBBY Outstanding International Book List for 2012, Naidoo points out that many of the animals in Aesop’s fables are from Africa. And similar to African tales, Aesop’s fables end with morals and do not have the happy-ever-after endings more common in (some) European fairytales. Can readers conclude that these fables embody cultural information from any particular cultural heritage?

Beverly Naidoo grew up in South Africa and resisted apartheid as a student, which resulted in her exile to England. In her books for children, she often writes about South Africa. In this collection of Aesop’s fables, Naidoo retells sixteen fables and changes the names of non-African animals to similar species found on that continent. As Naidoo notes, in South Africa there are jackals rather than foxes as in Aesop’s fables and warthogs rather than boars. Does changing the animals’ names change essential cultural information?

In Naidoo’s book of retellings, Piet Grobler’s illustrations reinforce the print and also set the stories squarely in Africa. Grobler also grew up in South Africa. His colorful artwork is bold and bright with geometric shapes and angles that bear little resemblance to the distinctly European flavor of most of the previous children’s book illustrators who have portrayed these stories, including London-born Arthur Rackham, Viennese-born Lisbeth Zwerger, and Moscow-born Robert Rayevsky.

“The Old Lion” is the first fable in this collection. It tells of an elderly lion that has been left by his family to fend for himself. Rather than make an effort to hunt for food, he groans loudly, in hopes of getting sympathy, and lures unsuspecting animals into his cave. He then devours the curious creatures. It is Jackal who notices that footprints lead only into the cave but not out and calls Lion’s bluff. The moral of the fable: “Not everyone is fooled by an old trick” (Naidoo 9). Does it matter that the wise animal is a jackal rather than a fox as in the “original”?

Author-illustrator Jerry Pinkney published a collection of Aesop’s fables in 2000. In this book, Pinkney illustrates the fables with distinctly European settings. In his introduction, he notes, “Motifs in many of [these narratives] occur in the storytelling traditions of a variety of cultures—proof of the universality of the themes and lessons of these tales” (unp.) Interestingly, Pinkney published his Caldecott award-winning wordless book, The Lion and the Mouse, set in Africa, a couple years before Naidoo published her collection. At the Newbery-Caldecott banquet in 2010, Pinkney shared a story about a child reading the book and retelling the story one way, and then rereading it and telling it another. Said Pinkney, “This is exactly what I had hoped for—a child claiming ownership of this much-beloved fable” (9).

Is that also the beauty of oral stories that beg to be adapted anew by each teller? What does cultural authenticity mean for Aesop’s fables?

In his fables, Aesop uses animal characters to illuminate the follies, foibles, and strengths of human character. As such, the morals ascribed to his fables such as “honesty is the best policy” and “look before you leap” may apply across cultural boundaries. How do you respond to these moral tales? Do 21st-century children resonate with these fables? Do we think children enjoy these stories because they enjoy other stories with animal characters? Do children and youth need moral education? Is this the role of the family or religious institution, or is there a role for libraries and schools?

 

Next Week: Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar

Works Cited

Aesop, D. L. Ashliman, and Arthur Rackham. Aesop’s Fables .  New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.

Naidoo, Beverly. Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Piet Grobler. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2011. Print.

Pinkney, Jerry. Aesop’s Fables. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.

Pinkney, Jerry. “Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech: A Peaceable, Wordless Kingdom.” Children & Libraries 8.2 (2010): 9-11.

Pinkney, Jerry. The Lion and the Mouse. San Francisco: Little, Brown. 2009. Print.

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16 thoughts on “Inquiry into Cultural Authenticity in Traditional Literature: Aesop’s Fables

  1. Wendy Wagner says:

    Naidoo’s Aesop’s Fables was one of those books that was intriguing in that I kept finding different things to think about each time I picked it up. How authentic were the tales themselves? How about the illustrations? Were the morals well adapted to the African backdrop they were fitted into? Dr. Moreillon has addressed many of those queries in her blog post. I will not rehash what she has already written other than to add my comments on the authenticity of the text and illustrations.

    As already stated by Dr. Moreillon, Naidoo intentionally changed aspects of the stories to fit an African backdrop. Her stories included animals found in various parts of Africa, for example. In addition to those changes, Naidoo included a smattering of various African vocabularies throughout the pages of her book. These flourishes add a touch of authenticity that might otherwise have been missing from the stories.
    Piet Grobler’s illustrations are also authentic to African culture. Every object in every picture is a representation of something in Africa: a boabab tree, an asp, a kudu, a striped rug, and so forth. The colors are also chosen to depict various African colors in both their shades and their combinations.
    At one point in her comments, Dr. Moreillon asked whether it matters that Naidoo changes some of her animal characters to animals native to Africa. I think it is natural for a storyteller to change details of her story to fit the audience wherewith she is trying to connect. I recently told a story and found myself throwing in some modifications and modernizations without really intending to. I had to retell the story in order to retain its authenticity. However, I think that Naidoo, in changing some of the animals in her versions of Aesop’s fables, is doing what storytellers do: trying to reach her audience. I think a good storyteller will always do just that…try to reach the audience. Were Naidoo claiming her version of the fables was authentic than it might be a problem, but she is very upfront about the changes she has made, and why. As such, I think her modifications fit her purpose and her tales well.
    Another question Dr. Moreillon poses is what cultural authenticity means for Aesop’s fables. Aesop is a fable by himself! Did he exist? That is uncertain. Did he really author the fables he is so renowned for? That isn’t certain either. What is certain is that the fables we credit to him have certainly evolved over the decades and centuries since their first introductions. They most certainly are no longer entirely authentic to the man Aesop was, or the culture he claimed as his own. Therein lies the beauty of his fables. They are universal. Their morals speak to the human soul across cultures and barriers. They are able to affect the old and the young on every continent.
    Wendy

    Works Cited
    “Aesop.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. .
    Naidoo, Beverly. Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Piet Grobler. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2011. Print.

  2. David Jurecka says:

    Wendy,

    I liked your comment about how Beverly Naidoo spelled out the differences between her versions of Aesop’s fables and more traditional ones. The author is asking us to rethink who Aesop was and imagine alternative possibilities. It’s interesting!

    What if Aesop was Ethiopian? If he was, would these versions ring more true? Ms. Naidoo doesn’t change the basic structure of the fables, but rethinks them from the top down, changing the animals and plants to make it authentic to certain parts of Africa. Illustrator Piet Grobler also gives these fables a unique artistic style and changes the color palette from what we would traditionally expect. The result is a fresh take that is interesting, both in a cultural and artistic sense.

  3. In her study of Aesop and his fables, Dr. Moreillon poses the questions: “Is that also the beauty of oral stories that beg to be adapted anew by each teller? and What does cultural authenticity mean for Aesop’s fables?”

    I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Aesop’s fables, and have read them as retold by various authors. I utilized them when teaching literacy to 2nd grade at-risk students because the moral aspect always piques the interest of the youngsters. It’s as if they were mesmerized by the story and the final statement of the moral was an aha! moment for them. After a few fables, they would try to anticipate what the meaning might be and we often made a game of guessing the moral.

    The way the original stories were passed from storyteller to storyteller provides each telling a way for it to evolve into a deeper or simpler story dependent on the type of audience.

    In our class discussions, some of us have raised the issue of the violent nature of some of the fables. It seems to me that in simpler times, before we had all of our modern conveniences, times were hard and often cruel. Simple mistakes in judgement were often life or death decisions. Those were the times when these stories were born. I personally am not bothered by the violence in the stories, and look on them as opportunities to talk to the audience about how that might play out today.

    Since Aesop, himself, is a bit of a mystery to historians, I think the cultural authenticity is secondary to the moral. As long as the relationship between the characters in retelling the story are maintained; ie. jackal = fox, then the story can be told and retold without losing the significance of the reason for the the story.

    Using stories as object lessons or ways of explaining common sense, or a lack thereof, has historically been an effective means of communication.

    In light of this inquiry or analysis of cultural authenticity, Naidoo brillianty maintains the integrity of the tales, introduces the possibility that Aesop was African, and opens the door for new readers to get hooked on fables.

  4. In her study of Aesop and his fables, Dr. Moreillon poses the questions: “Is that also the beauty of oral stories that beg to be adapted anew by each teller? and What does cultural authenticity mean for Aesop’s fables?”

    I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Aesop’s fables, and have read them as retold by various authors. I utilized them when teaching literacy to 2nd grade at-risk students because the moral aspect always piques the interest of the youngsters. It’s as if they were mesmerized by the story and the final statement of the moral was an aha! moment for them. After a few fables, they would try to anticipate what the meaning might be and we often made a game of guessing the moral.
    The way the original stories were passed from storyteller to storyteller provides each telling a way for it to evolve into a deeper or simpler story dependent on the type of audience.

    In our class discussions, some of us have raised the issue of the violent nature of some of the fables. It seems to me that in simpler times, before we had all of our modern conveniences, times were hard and often cruel. Simple mistakes in judgement were often life or death decisions. Those were the times when these stories were born. I personally am not bothered by the violence in the stories, and look on them as opportunities to talk to the audience about how that might play out today.

    Since Aesop, himself, is a bit of a mystery to historians, I think the cultural authenticity is secondary to the moral. As long as the relationship between the characters in retelling the story are maintained; ie. jackal = fox, then the story can be told and retold without losing the significance of the reason for the the story.

    Using stories as object lessons or ways of explaining common sense, or a lack thereof, has historically been an effective means of communication.

    In light of this inquiry or analysis of cultural authenticity, Naidoo brilliantly maintains the integrity of the tales, introduces the possibility that Aesop was African, and opens the door for new readers to get hooked on fables.

  5. David Jurecka says:

    Dr. Moreillon poses some interesting questions! The first one I’d like to comment on is “Do 21st-century children resonate with these fables?”

    I think Aesop’s Fables are very relevant to today’s children. There are some universal truths that stay valid through the generations and stories that can express these concepts in a direct way that children can understand are still important today. I think that kids enjoy stories that feature animal characters, and these characters make the tales more accessible. For example, it’s less threatening to see animals playing tricks on each other than if the stories featured humans.

    Another interesting question Dr. Moreillon asked is “Do children and youth need moral education? Is this the role of the family or religious institution, or is there a role for libraries and schools?”

    Young children need moral education more than ever before. According to a 2012 New York Times article, The percentage of births outside of marriage has been increasing steadily for the last 50 years, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue. Studies have shown that children from a single parent household have more educational, social, cognitive, and behavioral difficulties than children from married households.

    As a married parent of two young boys, I know that my wife and I don’t have enough time to address all of their needs even if we work together. Not even close. I can’t imagine trying to do everything by myself. I think schools and libraries should have a role in helping these children, and including Aesop’s Fables in the curriculum can help all children gain critical social and behavioral skills.

    DeParle, Jason, and Sabrina Tavernise. “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage.” The New York Times. N.p., 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. .

  6. Rozanna Bennett says:

    I would have to say I enjoyed reading this version of Aesop’s Fables. I love the fact that Naidoo transferred and the animals and the plants to represent the African culture. I’d have to agree with David, I think the stories are still relevant to today’s children. The stories are timeless, and more importantly the morals are. I’d even go a step further and say that many adults could read the stories and get something out of them. I really enjoyed reading the Eagle and the Tortoise. It is a story about the Tortoise who gets bored with his life and wants to be free and adventurous like the Eagle. While I applaud the Tortoise for believing in himself, he didn’t put in the effort to equip himself to achieve his dream. Naidoo sums up the moral as being “Just wishing for something doesn’t make it happen” Reading this helped to remind me that I should set realistic goals for myself and work hard to achieve them if there is something I want to change.

    I also appreciate the fact that Naidoo includes vocabulary to help familiarize themselves with African culture. I also really enjoyed the illustrations. The scenery is culturally authentic and eye catching.

    I do think children will always enjoy these stories because they have animal characters. Animals make lessons more interesting to learn about. It creates an element of fantasy veiling a reality.
    As far as where the moral education comes from, I believe it should come from anywhere it can. If it is through literature, libraries, parents, religion, or any other medium, it is beneficial. We should aspire to continuously learn and strengthen our character getting that education wherever it is to be found.

  7. Wendy Wagner says:

    David,

    I agree with you that it is important to teach morals to children, and that Aesop’s fables can help do that. I also think it is very important for schools to reinforce what is being taught by parents at home. That is one reason communication between teachers and families is critical. It helps parents support the teachers, and vice versa. A simple example can be found in reading a fable. If that story is read at home and at school, the moral of the fable is more likely to be internalized by the child. Studies show that what a student learns at home is often more powerful than what is learned at school – especially when children are young. (And once they’ve learned it, un-learning it is also tricky.) Thus, school can reinforce moral education but it is hard for a school to change what a child has learned at home. (Yes, that is a generalization, but holds true in most cases.)

    What all that means is that I agree with you…schools should help teach morals, but I do think that parents have a greater influence on what a child learns than a school does in most instances.

    Wendy

  8. Wendy Wagner says:

    To the Poster of the Comment on April 23 at 2:22pm:

    Your comment in reference to second graders – “After a few fables, they would try to anticipate what the meaning might be and we often made a game of guessing the moral.” – caught my attention. This sounds like such an engaging way for children to really start thinking about the fables and how they apply to themselves. Being able to recognize what the moral is, before they are told, is a great life skill to have. Kudos to you for teaching them something so important.

  9. Wendy, I am glad that you liked my “engaging way for children to really start thinking…” David, I agree that Dr. Moreillon’s question about the relevance to 21st century children is a good one. I believe that the simplicity of these stories provide a refreshing relief from the often mind boggling media rich environments that our students exist in today.

    Providing students with an opportunity to take a breath and encounter simple stories is a great way to help them develop critical thinking skills that don’t require entertainment to hold their attention.

  10. Rozanna,

    You spoke about the choice of animals as the main characters, “Animals make lessons more interesting to learn about. It creates an element of fantasy veiling a reality.” I agree that in changing the characters to animals instead of humans it has the effect of making the story, not the characters, more important. Children can then look at the actions of the characters without social preconceptions regarding how the tale can play out.

    As I was wrapping up this week, and thinking about our literary discussion regarding Aesop’s Fables by Beverly Naidoo, I decided to revisit Haven and Ducey’s A Crash Course in Storytelling. In Chapter 4, the authors offer guidelines for story tellers to consider when choosing a tale. It seems that Aesop, the master storyteller, followed the guidelines in his creations (The following list is loosely translated from my point of view):

    1. Choose stories that one can easily see in your mind’s eye. (Animal characters work well for this.)

    2. The fewer characters the better. (Most fables have two to three characters.)

    3. Short is best. (Children have the gift of understanding a concept with a few words.)

    4. Have a clear plot. (Stick to the basics.)

    5. Envision the structure of the story (Who did what, when, where, and what was the outcome?)

    6. Choose easily understood characters. (I believe Naidoo did this when she changed the characters to match the African setting, while keeping the stereotype or personality of the characters intact.)

    7. Choose a story that can be paraphrased (Aesop’s fables are the ultimate example of this. How many of our parents, perhaps even unwittingly, rephrased these to us as children to prove a point?)

    8. Known stories are a good choice. (The audience loves to interact and provide details or correct the storyteller as they become completely engaged in the telling.)

    9. Select a story that matches your style or personality. (I can’t tell stories out loud if they make me cry.)

    10. Know the audience, and choose relevant material. (If the young listeners will have nightmares because of your story, it might be best not to tell it at eight p.m.)

    Aesop and other tellers of Folktales have mastered these ten story components and have laid a foundation for those of us who aspire to become adept at storytelling.

    Our literary circle discussed point number ten at length because sometimes the stories of old are graphic and unsettling at times. I think the important thing to consider in retelling folktales is the element of cause and effect (ie,“Look before you leap”). In the case of Aesop and his fables, keeping true to the element of cause and effect is important to remember when adapting tales to fit the audience, thereby not watering down the moral or point of the story.

    Ducey, Kendall Haven and MaryGay. Crash Course in Storytelling. Westport CN: Libraries Unlimited, 2007. Print.

    Naidoo, Beverly. Aesop’s Fables. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2011. Print.

  11. Rozanna Bennett says:

    Thank you for sharing the guidelines for storytelling and implementing how Aesop fit into it. you are absolutely right, He did it well, he was indeed a master. Wendy, I agree that parents play the most important role in developing a child’s character. I’m curious (this is to anyone) are there any stories you remember being told as a child that have stayed with you and you feel have impacted the choices you made and the values you hold?

  12. Jean Lovett says:

    Rozanna,

    A story/song that has guided my entire life is:
    Oh be careful little eyes what you see (repeat 2 times)
    Oh be careful little ears what you hear . . .
    Oh be careful little tongue what you say . . .
    For the Father up above is looking down in love . . .
    Author unknown.

    This little poem has guided my choices, what I expose my mind to, and what comes out of my mouth. I can thank my parents for their guidance and their teaching of morals for that. Sorry I can’t sing the whole thing to you, it is a really fun song.

    Jean

  13. David Jurecka says:

    To the poster of the comment posted April 23, 2013 at 8:17 pm:

    You said: “Providing students with an opportunity to take a breath and encounter simple stories is a great way to help them develop critical thinking skills that don’t require entertainment to hold their attention.”

    Since all public schools just endured STAAR week, your comment reminded me of something. We need to be sure our children have a firm grasp on the fundamentals before we give them something a bit trickier.
    A simple fable is something we can take apart and analyze as a class. I’m always amazed at the critical thinking skills of my kindergarten classes and what they know. They love to share. Young children should be given a chance to succeed and build confidence in themselves and their abilities before we push their abilities. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with learning to walk before we run!

  14. Wendy Wagner says:

    Rozanna,

    We read a lot of Uncle Remus stories when I was a kid. We also read a lot of “Just So” stories by Rudyard Kipling. As far as learning things that are moralistic, those are the ones I remember. They weren’t my favorite stories, but are the ones that tried to teach a lesson of some kind. Even at that, they don’t really impact the way I think or act now. Scripture stories are what most impact my behavior as an adult. We read scriptures together as a family every single day.

    Wendy

    Wendy

  15. Wendy Wagner says:

    Jean,

    Your “loosely” translated list is a good reminder of what storytellers have to bear in mind. As I was telling my last story, The Bearskinner, I was reminded of how important those ten points are. In my first practice telling, I missed a couple of points. It wasn’t until I rectified my omissions that the story came together.

    Wendy

  16. David, Rozanna and Wendy,
    I attended a workshop on diversity yesterday. During the workshop, I couldn’t help but think of you guys and our discussions.

    It was very interesting to think about the fact that each of us has our own background, culture, and groups that we belong to. The groups that we belong to provide us with a filter that affects how we view life. It is when those groups intersect that our varying cultural views can be explored.

    In this telling of Aesop’s Fables, Naidoo demonstrates that stories which transcend culture can be enjoyed by all, but stories also can speak to specific cultural groups by the way they are told. In this case, the use of African words, animals, flora, and artistic style speak to those interested in African literature.

    I believe it takes a community to raise the children in our scope of influence, so we all share the responsibility to teach morals, provide good examples of behavior, and guide young minds in ways that will benefit them as adults. In answer to Dr. Moreillon’s final questions, I say yes. Yes to parents teaching morals and convictions at home. Yes to teachers using stories that include morals and maxims, and yes to librarians including fables in story times for the very young.

    Jean

    Work cited:

    Naidoo, Beverly. Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Piet Grobler. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2011. Print.

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