Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Case for Aesop

John Amos wrote recently about how Bible ignorance (from a literary standpoint) weakens reading comprehension and the public discourse. I followed with a similar observation about Greek mythology. And now I've got to add Aesop's fables to the list of things people should/used to be familiar with -- but aren't.

This past week during a conversation with a colleague I mentioned belling the cat -- and got a blank look.

And that's really a shame, because Aesop was a keen observer of human behavior, and his little stories about animals (and people) so perfectly illustrate human foibles and conditions I really feel that I'm deprived of a rich means of expression when I can't use them in conversations (like I did in this post). But of course, unless the person I'm talking to also knows the fable I'm referencing, the full meaning is lost.

As a child, I was given my grandmother's copy of Aesop Fables. It was an early 1900's printing, filled with Gustave Doré engravings (like the one that accompanies this post for "Belling the Cat" -- click on the image to get the full impact). I fell in love with the engravings as well as the stories, and I read the book repeatedly.

While some of the stories, such as "The Fox and the Grapes," "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse" and, of course, "Belling the Cat," also appeared in contemporary children's literature collections, there were many other fables that I didn't find elsewhere (yet were in common usage nevertheless). And as time went on, I began to appreciate the wisdom of those other fables.

The Fable of the One-Eyed Doe is a good example.

A doe, blind in one eye, watched the forest as she drank at the lake. She expected danger to come from the woods and so turned her blind eye to the lake. One day two hunters in a boat, seeing that the doe didn't react to their presence, silently floated close enough to shoot her. Trouble had come from the direction she least expected.

Now who couldn't benefit from the moral of that fable? And notice how it colors the meaning of the phrase "turning a blind eye."

If it's been a while since you've read a collection of Aesop's Fables, I contend it would be a worthwhile investment of time. And if it's something you've never done (or have only read a children's version), then I encourage you to do so. You'll be surprised at how many common expressions have their origins in these tales (such as "sour grapes") -- and how a Greek slave from 500BC could so accurately describe life in the 21st Century.

- Ralph

Day 6 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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