Aesop’s fables. How many do you know? Probably between five and ten. The tortoise and the hare, the grasshopper and the ants. Good. Squeeze for a minute, you’ll come up with more. The lion who spares the mouse and then helps him later. The goose who lays the golden omelets. Go ahead and recite a couple, right now. Do your heart some good.
But wait. Go back a second. When you recited ’em, did you forget to add the morals? I bet you did. It’s not as easy to remember to put the moral in there.
Try again. There was a grasshopper (in the original Greek, it’s never a grasshopper; it’s a cicada or a cricket or a scarab beetle, but never mind). This grasshopper diddled around, all summer, while the ants were sweating. Then, winter came. It always does. Uh-oh! Grasshopper didn’t have anything to eat. The ants all gathered ’round and said, Ah-hah, you are justly served for being such a lazybones! Now starve, shithead.
And the moral of the story is … See, you’re kinda forced to invent it spontaneously. The moral of the story is: Instead of sitting around, getting high all the time, how ’bout you get a job? The moral of the story is: All play and no work means you fail out of community college. The moral of the story is …
But there are other ways of looking at it, y’know. The lesson could be: People wouldn’t mind starving so much if they didn’t have to listen to others telling ’em they deserve it. The grasshopper just made a mistake, y’all. It’s not like it’s an unalterable fact that he needs to be punished. Indeed, the moral could be: People who have evaded a calamity inevitably enjoy tormenting those who must bear the calamity’s brunt.
But do you see what I did there? I didn’t just take the grasshopper’s side. I inverted the moral universe. You’re supposed to want to imitate the ants; I gave you a reason not to. Here, look at the original moral:
This fable shows that in all things one should beware of negligence, if one wishes to avoid danger and trouble.
See? Be like the ants. Now, there are other Greek fables, where ants are painted as greedy or foolish, so it’s not like the Greeks were just in love with ants. Yet, in the above story, the meaning was obvious: ants, yes; grasshopper, no. The moral that I drew (“People who have avoided a calamity …”) would not have occurred to 99.99% of people anywhere in the world at the time these fables were composed.
And why not? That’s easy. In 500 B.C.E., the world religions with which we are familiar today did not exist—or might as well not have. Morals hadn’t gotten very far. Mainly, you were just supposed to watch your back. Take what’s yours, watch your back—that pretty much covers it. The idea that you shouldn’t sneer at the unfortunate? Anyone looking for that concept will search the Homeric poems in vain.
But don’t even worry about that. That’s not important. The important thing is that the story can be turned upside down and not only does it still make sense, it becomes its own opposite. You should be alarmed. You should think, Wait, is this true of all fables? And, further, is it true of all narratives?
If the answer to those questions should turn out to be yes, then the so-called moral of every story is not present in it at all, but is imported into it by its audience. And if that’s true, then the stories don’t teach us anything. We teach them.
For the last twenty years, anyone interested in the Greek fables has had easy access to a couple of exquisite indispensables: the Penguin and the Oxford World Classics editions. You kinda have to get both.
The Penguin edition gives you three hundred and fifty-eight fables, all translated from the Greek. No Latin allowed, no medieval stuff. There are no notes in the back (there’s not even an index back there). The footnotes are on the same pages as the fables, and are deliciously personal, grumpy, witty, and eccentric. In one place, you get a whole page on the word amaranth. This is my go-to Aesop.
Meanwhile, the Oxford World Classics paperback is also dreamy, but it’s a different dream. For starters, it’s more like six hundred fables, ’cuz Phaedrus and Babrius and Avianus and guys like that are allowed in. Basically the Christian-era versifiers, and the like. Everything is cross-referenced and footnoted and indexed to a wonderful degree. Here, you can watch the handling of the morals develop in a way that is impossible when using the Penguin.
Be it noted, both books are completely exhausting. You can only take so much Aesop in one session. There are a number of factors involved. One, a great many of the fables are so slight that you marvel that anyone thought it worth the trouble to write them down. Or even to say them. For example:
A fisherman drew in his net from the sea. He could catch big fish, which he spread out in the sun, but the small fish slipped through the mesh, escaping into the sea.
That’s it. You read it, and you’re like, Right? That’s…how nets work? Then you read the moral:
People of mediocre fortune escape danger easily, but one rarely sees a man of great note escape when there is a disaster.
And you’re like, Okay, sure. But isn’t that more like an idea for a fable, rather than a fable? (A lot of ’em are like this.)
But that isn’t even what kills you. The thing that truly wearies your spirit, in reading these things, is the fact that roughly half the morals either have no warrant for existing at all (because they’re just blindingly obvious), or worse, they seem to have been written by someone who, in all appearances, has not read the fable.
You have to see it to believe it. Here’s an example of a superfluous moral:
Some flies had found some spilled honey in a cellar and started to eat it. It was such a sweet feast that they couldn’t stop. But their feet became stuck to the spot so that they couldn’t take flight. And, as they began to suffocate, they said:
“How wretched we are! We are dying for a moment’s pleasure.”
Moral: Gluttony is often the cause of much harm.
At least half the Greek set is like that.
Now here’s a specimen of what the Penguin translators call idiotic morals:
Zeus entertained all the animals at his wedding feast. Only the tortoise was absent. Puzzled by his absence, Zeus asked her the next day:
“Why, alone among the animals, did you not attend my wedding feast?”
The tortoise replied:
“There’s no place like home.”
This aroused the anger of Zeus and he condemned her to carry her home everywhere on her back.
Now, pause a second before I read you the moral. What moral would you give that story? Personally, I wouldn’t give it a moral at all; it’s not that kind of a story. It’s a just-so story, like how the camel got his hump, or why skunks have stripes. It is meaningless. But what if, for the sake of completeness, you had to put a moral at the end. You’ve glue gunned morals onto every other story in the collection, so you have to hunt up a moral for this one, too. A couple glasses of wine later, you come up with:
It is thus that many prefer to live simply at home than to eat richly at the tables of others.
Please recall that I brought all this up to explain why reading Greek fables en masse is tiring. It’s like sitting at a table loaded with jars and lids, and, maddeningly, the lids are all either too small or too big. You keep dropping the lids into the jars!
I am about to read you another one, not out of Aesop. Except it is out of Aesop, or there’s one just like it in Aesop. My source text is a beloved book called The Languages of the World by Kenneth Katzner (Funk and Wagnalls, 1975)—in particular, the entry for Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia). The book gives the original apologue in Amharic script, and then translates it:
A hare lived in a country where there was no other kind of animal. “There is no animal as big as I and none whose voice can equal mine,” he said to one of his friends. “That is true,” replied the other, for they had never seen another. One day, hearing a lion roar, the first hare said, “I shall cry like him.” “Good. I’ll stay to hear you. Cry!” said his friend. “Listen,” said the hare, and, swelling his chest, he cried. His friend said to him, “The lion’s voice is strong; yours, on the other hand, cannot be heard.” The hare became very angry and said a second time, “Watch and listen how I cry.” And under the illusion of roaring like a lion, he split in two and died. The same fate awaits the poor man who vies with the rich.
In Greek, it is a worm or a fox imitating a huge snake’s length. In Phaedrus’s Latin, it’s a frog imitating an ox’s bulk. But in every version of the story, the foolish imitator is destroyed. The heartlessness of the moral is best captured in the passage quoted above, with its run of monosyllables and long vowels and closely packed stresses: “The same fate awaits the poor man who vies with the rich.” I doubt it’s more pungent in the Amharic.
Anyhow, that moral is typical. “Be content with your lot.” “Pipe down.” “Shut up and do what you’re told.” “Blunderers deserve what they get.” “Your tears are amusing to us.” These are not direct quotes, but they might as well be. I am giving you a précis of archaic ethics. About half the ancient Greek fables end on one of these five or six notes.
Indeed, there is nothing those old boys loved more than having the dying or humiliated animal say: “I deserve this completely!” Here are a few examples. In each case it’s the last sentence in the fable:
“I have only myself to blame; for I ought not to have damaged that which could have saved me.”
“I deserve this fate! I, who lived in the sea, had the folly to imagine I could live on the land!”
“Alas, what has befallen me! Because I didn’t want to carry a light load, now here I am carrying it all, even the skin as well!”
“It serves me right,” he said. “I forfeited the meal I had right at hand for the hope of a better catch.”
And so on, forever. It makes you want to write a set of a dozen parodies, in which you somehow find a way to spoof the meanness by taking it to some absurd level. However, there would be absolutely no point in doing that. Just look at Twitter, look at Facebook. We have maxed out on absurd levels.
Indeed, I predict that, five hundred years from now, if the human race still exists, scholars will be sifting through our hard drives, straining to comprehend the relationship between our stories and our morals, so to speak. In a state of perpetual mismatch, somebody’s going to have to figure out which part is the joke. Were we joking? I mean, where did all these lids come from, if not even one of them fits any of these jars?
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.