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
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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