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A strange little treasure
on 22 June 2009
This is a strange little treasure, one that is dark and funny, short and profound and a little horrid. If you are interested in the ancient Greeks and writers like Ovid, then I definitely recommend what is certainly a singular little ancient philosophical joke book, full of witty anecdotes and memorable scenes.
So who's the real Aesop? And is the this the ultimate collection of his fables? I was a little surprised when reading the introduction by Robert Temple as he basically says that a 'proper' edition of all Aesop's fables entirely written by Aesop would be impossible for many reasons. For starters little is known about Aesop and almost nothing can be proven. Even in his own time hardly anything was known about him, instead he was a legendary figure and only more so in later centuries. Because of this Temple speculates that similar witty animal tales likely grew around his name as time went on and these found their way into collections of his work. Also many may not even be Greek in origin as they talk about animal characteristics that wouldn't be known to the Greeks. In fact he postulates that over 250 of the fables attributed to Aesop my be non-Aesopic. According to Temple the children editions available further distort the fables as most of them are carefully selected, heavily re-written and artificially expanded. As I haven't gotten my hands on a children's edition I cannot say if the content differs greatly i.e. if some of the more gruesome stuff is edited out.
Included with some of the fables are morals, these were not written by Aesop but likely added later by collectors of the fables. These are short and written in italics after the fables. Many of them are highly philosophical and really add to the fables whereas other are a little stupid, feel tacked on and do nothing to enliven the fable. Under these notes on the fables are often included, which offer possible dates and historical titbits and information on other versions. Both of these things makes reading the fables more interesting and odd.
The Text used for this translation is Professor Emile Chambry's which was published in 1927. Therefore the 358 fables included in that volume are the one's included here, they are also published in the same order, numbered consecutively from their alphabetical arrangement by Greek title. So this edition is nothing ground-breaking, it is basically an English translation. However Temple makes it clear that nothing has been added to the text and that they have also taken much care to translate the species of the plants and animals correctly, they've also included some Greek terms to aid with our understanding. So although he acknowledges that this is not Aesop's complete fables and in fact that none of the contents can be proven to have been written by Aesop he argues that the act of compiling an edition means altering the text by taking away some fables and adding others. He is also convinced that there is a charm to presenting the fables the way he has and that all the fables in this volume, no matter their origin will add to our understanding of our past and human nature.
I agree with his justifications to a certain extent; the differences in the fables and the oddness of the morals do make reading this more interesting but I get the impression that this edition is a bit of a cop-out. What I mean is that if scholars can make educated guesses as to which fables Aesop actually wrote, why hasn't a collection been translated and compiled by now? I don't understand why such a well known name hasn't garnered more interest from experts. I would like to see all the fables translated faithfully into English and then have these convincing arguments that Temple mentions effecting what fables are included and which are not.
I think the material deserves this attention because the fables are so charming, they make me smile when I read them for their attitude, sense, power, relevance and strangness. My favourite fables are the ones Temple believes are most likely written by Aesop; the ones with mythological elements. Temple tells us that as time progressed the fables became 'de-mythologized'. For as the Greek gods became less important to Greek culture the fables began to lose their original mythological elements. In later versions references to the gods and ancient beings were replaced by neutral forces of nature and more benign animals. These ones feel more raw and powerful to me.
These are not the cutesy animal stories that people may think they are, instead they are '...savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy or compassion, and lacking also in any political system other than absolute monarchy...the is largely a world of brutal, heartless men - and of cunning, of wickedness, of murder, of treachery and deceit, of laughter at the misfortune of others, of mockery and contempt. It is also a world of savage humour, of deft wit, of clever wordplay, of one-upmanship, of 'I told you so!...' I've quoted Temple here because that description is perfect. But in short I would say that it is simply very, very Greek! And a strange, funny, intelligent, odd treasure that is well worth taking the time to flick through to enjoy its many wonders.