The Moral of the Story


Arts & Culture

This is the second part of a two-part thing on Aesop’s fables. Part 1 can be found here, but you don’t have to read part 1 to understand part 2. 

Illustration from The Fables of Aesop (Jacobs)

Were you told, as a child, that fables are stupid? I think I was explicitly told that. Look at these two quotes:

(a) “Fables are literature before literature was even a baby. Fables are four-celled literature.”

(b) “Fables are like the children for whom they are composed: primitive, annoying, and brutal.” 

Items (a) and (b) are not things that were said to me when I was a child. Those quotations are me, when I was first teaching literature, twenty-five years ago. I was distilling what I’d been told. I felt I must warn the young as I had been warned: “Lessons are bad. Talking animals are bad. Anything that smacks of the Middle Ages is bad.”

Today I think the opposite, straight down the line. Lessons are good; talking animals, hell yes. And anything that smacks of the Middle Ages is probably my only reason for getting up in the morning.

Socrates, the wisest man in Greece, didn’t think fables were bullshit. Practically the last thing with which he busied himself on this earth was putting Aesop into verse. Pretty sure it’s the only time Socrates composed poetry. Read the Phaedo.

The relevant passage is full of pathos. It’s near the beginning. Somebody asks Socrates why he’s been composing lyrics, and his answer is full of his usual cheerful perversity. He says he’s heard his daemon (or whatever) all his life urging him to cultivate the arts. He figured he was already doing so by doing philosophy, and that the spirit world was basically cheering him on. But after the trial, he started worrying that maybe he should have cultivated poetry all this time; maybe that’s what the spirits meant. So, “to clear his conscience,” he versifies some Aesop. 

Why Aesop? Because Socrates is no good at making up stories, so he uses ones he already knows. No one questions him about any of this. They just move on to the immortality of the soul and all that. But the passage I’m talking about is like a koan. The reader who’s on three pots of coffee says: “Hold up, gentlemen. Did no one hear what Socrates just said? He said he’s been wondering whether he just spent his whole life doing the wrong thing. Does that not concern anyone? More, he thinks the right thing would have been Aesop.” 



I mentioned in part 1 of this piece that I’m obsessed with the morals that get attached to fables, and in particular how these morals can flicker. The same story, it seems, can support a moral and that same moral’s opposite—and many other variations. I conclude from this that fables do not teach us anything. We tell them what to say.

To illustrate this, and also to show differences in translation style, I proffer a gallery of specimens, culled from the English versions of the same fable, separated by many centuries. You are to pay special attention to the morals. (You should also note that this fable, though extremely well known all through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is not present in any Greek manuscript of Aesop. It was famous, partly because it was Fable Number 1—not in Phaedrus’s Latin but in the even more famous prose redaction of Phaedrus, which is what everybody actually read.) Morals in blue:

1) Laura Gibbs, 2002. A straightforward translation of Phaedrus 3.12, so you can see what it actually says in the first-century Latin.

A young rooster was looking for food in the manure when he found a pearl. “What a fine thing you are,” he exclaimed, “and in what an unfortunate situation! If a person longing to possess something of such value had found you, you have been restored to your original splendor. Yet it is I who have found you, when I would have much preferred to find some food instead. So this isn’t going to do you any good, and it doesn’t do me any good either!”

This is a story I tell for people who do not know how to appreciate me.

2) William Caxton, 1484. The dawn of printing. Accidentals modernized. 

As a cock once sought his pasture in the dunghill, he found a precious stone, to whom the cock said: “Aha, fair stone and precious, thou art here in the filth. And if he that desireth thee had found thee as I have, he should have taken thee up and set thee again in thy first estate. But in vain I have found thee, for nothing I have to do with thee, nor no good I may do to thee, nor thou to me.”

And this fable said Aesop to them that read this book. For by the cock is to understand the fool which reacheth not of sapience nor of wisdom, as the cock reacheth and setteth not by [= sets no store by] the precious stone. And by the stone is to understand this fair and pleasant book.

3) Roger L’Estrange, 1669. Moral turned upside down. Also note the concision and the handsome diction/syntax.

As a Cock was turning up a Dunghill, he spy’d a Diamond. Well (says he to himself) this sparkling Foolery now to a Lapidary in my place, would have been the Making of him; but as to any Use or Purpose of mine, a Barley-Corn had been worth Forty on’t.

THE MORAL. He that’s Industrious in an Honest Calling, shall never fail of a Blessing. ’Tis the part of a Wise Man to Prefer Things Necessary before Matters of Curiosity, Ornament, or Pleasure.

4) Samuel Croxall, 1722 (but my copy-text is 1788). Observe the curlicues of eighteenth-century “fine writing.” Also, watch the moral go haywire.

A BRISK young Cock, in Company with two or three Pullets, his Mistresses, raking upon a Dunghill for something to entertain them with, happened to scratch up a Jewel; he knew what it was well enough, for it sparkled with an exceeding bright Lustre; but, not knowing what to do with it, endeavored to cover his Ignorance under a gay Contempt. So, shrugging up his Wings, shaking his Head, and putting on a Grimace, he expressed himself to this Purpose: Indeed, you are a very fine Thing; but I know not any Business you have here. I make no Scruple of declaring that my Taste lies quite another Way; and I had rather had one Grain of dear, delicious Barley, than all the Jewels under the Sun.

The APPLICATION. There are several People in the World, that pass, with some, for well-accomplished Gentlemen, and very pretty Fellows, tho’ they are as great Strangers to the true Uses of Virtue and Knowledge as the Cock upon the Dunghill is to the real Value of the Jewel. He palliates his Ignorance by pretending that his Taste lies another Way: but whatever gallant Airs People may give themselves upon these Occasions, without Dispute, and solid Advantages of Virtue, and the durable Pleasures of Learning are as much to be preferred before other Objects of the Senses as the finest brilliant Diamond is above a Barley-Corn. The greatest Blockheads would appear to understand what at the same Time they affect to despise: and nobody yet was ever so vicious as to have the Impudence to declare in public, that Virtue was not a fine Thing … 

Croxall is actually just getting warmed up there. He has two more long paragraphs in the same vein, regarding dandies “raking after new scenes of debauchery” and people finding “treasures of impenetrable virtue,” and so on and so forth. Observe, though, that he himself installed vanity into the rooster. All that stuff about “affecting a gay contempt” in order to impress “mistresses” is warranted by precisely nothing in the original. And it alters the meaning of the fable a great deal. (This is why the Penguin translators assert that “the famous ‘translation’ of Croxall was more than half written by the translator himself.”)

But look what happens. In the nineteenth century, the Reverend George Fyler Townsend edited Croxall halfway out of existence, cropping things left and right. In Townsend, the moral becomes simply, All is not gold that glitters. And the “Application” reads:

The most probable intention of the author of this fable was to hold forth an example of industry and good sense. The lesson inculcated is the wisdom of estimating things by their intrinsic worth, and of refusing to be led away by doubtful fascinations from the known path of duty.

That puts us back in Roger L’Estrange’s arms: see above, the third specimen. Yet Townsend cannot possibly have thought the intention of the original author was to hold up the rooster as an example to be emulated. Phaedrus could not be more explicit: “This is a story I tell for people who do not know how to appreciate me.” 

Christopher Smart, on the other hand, knew some Latin. Look at the ending to his charming verse version of 1765: “No service can there render’d be / From me to you, and you to me. // I write this tale to them alone, / To whom in vain my pearls are thrown.” (See how he gets in a little wink there? Very nice.)


But enough about chickens. I wanna wrap this up with a sample not from Greek or Latin but from Hausa, one of the principal languages of Nigeria, spoken by millions, there and elsewhere. This fable, if it were present in the famous European collections, would be one of the ten or twenty that people could be expected to remember. It ranks high, my children, ’cuz it has a quality present in only a tiny portion of Aesop’s fables: wit. 

My source text is that beloved book, The Languages of the World (ed. Kenneth Katzner, 1975):

The Ground Squirrel and the Hedgehog:—One day it was raining: the hedgehog greeted the squirrel saying, “How do you like the cold? Is there anywhere I can shelter?” The squirrel replied, “I’m well, thank God. Here’s a little place, enter!” They then lived together, but after a while the squirrel said, “Hedgehog! This stay of yours with me is unpleasant, your body is all prickles. Change your abode!” The hedgehog said, “Is that so? As for me, I enjoy it: the one whom this place doesn’t suit, shouldn’t he change it for another?”


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.