I’ve always liked reading “wisdom tales”; I still read and delight in those Zen Buddhist stories that Paul Reps recounted in his book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which I first encountered in the late 1960s. Not long after that, I discovered the many tales of the Mulla Nasrudin retold by Idries Shah, and the stories of the Wise Men of Chelm, the imaginary city of fools in Jewish folklore. Decades later, I still have most of these books. I suspect, however, little of the implied wisdom in them has rubbed off on me, yet I persist in reading them.
Around the time I was discovering these authors, I started reading fairy tales and fables, collecting books by the Brothers Grimm, Arthur Ransome, La Fontaine, Charles Perrault, and Andrew Lang. I read the Lais of Marie de France, and the 1,001 Nights. I read Carl Jung’s Joseph Campbell’s books on myths. Although often read to and by children, these stories were originally meant for adult readers and listeners.
But not all fairy tales and fables are “wisdom” tales, although many have similar conclusions, often appended to the tale as pithy aphorisms. Wisdom tales often have wit and sometimes humour. They can surprise and delight. Sometimes they make a subtle point (the moral of the story, or more correctly, the epimythium) that is not easily obvious, and requires consideration or meditation to appreciate. Wisdom tales are meant to teach us lessons, but also to throw up a mirror in which we can explore our own behaviour, views, and mores. Some are mean to wake us up, others to warn. (Not every tale, however, comes with its own aphoristic moral or epimythium; sometimes you are expected to figure out the lesson for yourself.)
There is also a similar type of moral anecdote called an exemplum you can find in many collections. These usually had humans as their main characters, often real historical persons, as opposed to the animals that populate Aesop and others. Machiavelli gives similar exempla in his Discourses and The Prince, albeit to further his views on history and leadership.
Of late I started re-reading Aesop, finding in many of his stories much in common with those wisdom tales. Many are remarkably similar to the Zen tales that Reps recounted. Perhaps it’s because Aesop and the Buddha were both around in the Axial Age, that period of about 500 years during which many of the cultures around the world developed similar perspectives and religion and philosophy.
Aesop’s fables have long been a standard in Western mythology and storytelling. They were first published in English by England’s first printer, William Caxton, in 1484, and have remained in print in some form ever since. One of the distinguishing features of Aesop not always found in other fables is his use of talking animals as the main characters. Of course, the animals are merely humans in disguise.
Aesop is said to have been a slave who lived c. 620–564 BCE, but his existence has never been verified and may be mythological. He is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus, the playwright Aristophanes, and the philosopher Plato, but there are no verifiable records of his life.
While numerous tales have been credited to him over the intervening centuries, no original work by him has survived, so many are likely apocryphal. It has long been popular among critics of the political or social order to credit a fable to Aesop to avoid censure. Others, such as Odo of Cheriton, have simply written their stories in his style or an imitation of it. In the medieval period, many of these, like Odo’s Parabolae, were included in religious sermons.
Some of the tales have been recycled many times in many cultures and historical periods, like the City Mouse and Country Mouse story that appears in Horace, Aesop, La Fontaine, and other sources with similar, but not identical forms (also known as the Town Rat and the Country Rat.) Micheline Walker note on her blog:
Surprisingly, fables often possess an unsuspected depth, especially if they have an Eastern origin, which is the case with many of Aesop’s fables and fables published in La Fontaine’s second collection of fables (1678).
My interest in these stories was rekindled by opening my two editions of the fables: Aesop’s Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs (Oxford World’s Classics, 2002) and Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998)*. I re-discovered them during the recent downsizing of my library; I put them aside as books to keep.
Reading Aesop’s stories today, I not only enjoy their wisdom and humour, but often see their relevance to contemporary events, from the international to the local spheres. Of course with so many fables to choose from, one will likely find relevance in at least some of them. But here are a few that I found as examples of local issues and events.
This one struck me as relevant to our own municipal council, a group so heavily obsessed with promoting their Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI) that they are oblivious to the clamouring of the community for them to deal with important issues:
The dog and the smiths.
There was a dog living in the house of some blacksmiths. When the blacksmiths were working, the dog would go to sleep, but when they sat down to a meal he would wake up and approach his masters in a friendly fashion. The blacksmiths said to the dog, ‘How is that you sleep undisturbed when our heaviest hammers are clanging away, but you are immediately awakened by the slightest sound of our teeth chewing?’
This fable shows that even inattentive people quickly notice anything that they think will benefit them, while they are completely unaware of things which are not their immediate concern. Fable 380 (Gibbs), 415 (Perry)
This next one also reminds me of local politics: the wolves having been elected to council by residents (shepherds) gulled by their ostensibly good behaviour on the hustings (and learning too late their real nature):
The wolf and the shepherd
A wolf followed along after a flock of sheep without doing them any harm. At first the shepherd kept his eye on the wolf as a potential enemy to the flock and never let him out of his sight. But as the wolf continued to accompany the shepherd and did not make any kind of attempt to raid the flock, the shepherd eventually began to regard the wolf more as a guardian of the flock than as a threat. Then, when the shepherd happened to have to go to town, he commended the sheep to the wolf in his absence. The wolf seized his chance and attacked the sheep, slaughtering most of the flock. When the shepherd came back and saw that his flock had been utterly destroyed, he said, ‘It serves me right! How could I have ever trusted my sheep to a wolf?’
The same is true of people: if you entrust your bank deposits to greedy men, you are certain to get robbed. Fable 38 (Gibbs), 234 (Perry 234) Gibbs notes that “Leaving the sheep to be watched by the wolves’ was already a Roman proverb.
This one reminds me of our council: creaking and groaning but doing nothing while staff or contractors do the actual work:
The bulls and the wagon.
Four strong bulls were straining with their shoulders to pull a wagon into town, while the wagon kept on creaking. The driver was filled with rage and leaned down next to the wagon, speaking in a voice loud enough to be heard, ‘You vile creature, why are you raising such a ruckus? Those who are carrying you on their shoulders aren’t making a sound!’
Bad people are in the habit of weeping and wailing when others are working, just as if they were also exerting themselves. Fable 225 (Gibbs), 45 (Perry).
And then there’s this one that seems to be relevant to the SVJI report with its hundreds of mostly irrelevant or redundant recommendations that our council continues to promote (and lavish money on) as their “pretty picture” but that the public sees as expensive piffle:
The Lion and the Man Disputing.
A man and a lion were arguing about who was best, with each one seeking evidence in support of his claim. They came to a tombstone on which a man was shown in the act of strangling a lion, and the man offered this picture as evidence. The lion then replied, ‘It was a man who painted this; if a lion had painted it, you would instead see a lion strangling a man. But let’s look at some real evidence instead.’ The lion then brought the man to the amphitheatre and showed him, so he could see with his own eyes, just how a lion strangles a man. The lion then concluded, ‘A pretty picture is not proof: facts are the only real evidence!’
When the evidence is fairly weighted, a colourful painted lie is quickly refuted by the facts. Fable 187 (Gibbs), 284 (Perry)
Doesn’t this one speak to you about the way the public had been led by our mayor and his council sycophants to expect the SVJI would be something bigger, greater and more important than it proved in reality?
The piece of driftwood
Some men were making their way along the beach and reached a lookout point. From there, they could see a piece of driftwood floating far off in the distance, and they thought that it must be an enormous ship. They waited for a long time, thinking that the ship would put in to shore nearby. As the driftwood was blown closer to shore by the wind, they kept on waiting, but they no longer thought it was a great ship as before; they were now expecting some kind of smaller boat. As it was carried in even closer, they saw that it was just a piece of driftwood. The men then said to one another, ‘How foolish of us! We had high expectations for something that was actually nothing.’
The same is true of people. Often we are in awe of someone whom we have never even seen, but when we get to know him, we realize that he is really not important at all. Fable 279 (Gibbs), 177 (Perry).
And similarly, this seems another apt metaphor for the SVJI (especially considering how cooly the mayor’s peers at the county reacted to it):
The mountain in labour
A mountain had gone into labour and was groaning terribly. Such rumours excited great expectations all over the country. In the end, however, the mountain gave birth to a mouse.
This is a fable written for people who make serious-sounding threats but who actually accomplish nothing. Fable 280 (Gibbs), 520 (Perry).
Yes, I could go on citing examples that speak to me of local relevance, but I’ve rambled long enough. I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to carry on and find their own references among these wonderful, inventive, and entertaining tales. And as I always say:
Collingwood deserves better.
* A little aside: the Gibbs’ translation is far more comprehensive than the Penguin edition despite its title. Gibbs offers 600 fables, while the Temple edition has 358. In comparison, The Loeb edition of Babrius and Phaedrus, translated by Ben Perry (1965) contains a total of 725 fables, of which 584 are in the canon usually ascribed to Aesop. A critical review of the Temple edition by Gibbs can be found on Bryn Mawr’s website.
The Temple/Penguin edition is a re-translation of the Greek text published in a bilingual (Greek-French) edition, Ésope Fables, translated by Émile Chambry, in 1925-26. The Chambry edition contained all the anonymous fables, but not everything by other ancient authors or the later Latin collections, often conflated into modern collections.
Gibbs includes those anonymous tales, plus stories, wordplay (puns), jokes, and poems translated from both Greek and Latin, from authors Babrius (c. 2nd century CE), Phaedrus (c. 15 BCE – c. 50 CE), Aphthonius, Avianus, and Syntipas, plus a comprehensive index (an egregious lack in the Temple edition). Gibbs also provides a 10-page cross-reference numbering system so readers can find the stories in the original or sources or translations, especially to the commonly-used Perry Index. The Temple edition uses the Chambry numbering, but scholars prefer the Perry system.