The Goose with the Golden Grammar
It’s easy to see why the fables attributed to ‘Aesop’ have endured for centuries: the elegance of their metaphors, their tidy, punchy narratives, their peculiar fixation upon a world of animals and inanimate objects that won’t stop mouthing off when they spy a moment of dramatic irony or moral transgression. (…Aesop’s world is indeed a sanctimonious one: it seems you can’t walk down the street without a lamppost or ladybeetle giving you a piece of their mind.)
These stories have penetrated every avenue of our modern culture and lexicon. To be a wolf in sheep’s clothing; to be a pot calling a kettle black; to cry wolf; to watch the tortoise and the hair in their perpetual conflict; these images and the principles that they espouse are inextricably embedded in the human psyche. Children absorb such parables with glee, political leaders nod gravely and wrangle them into clumsy sound bites, and the entire Disney oeuvre can be argued to rest upon Aesop’s fanatical anthropomorphism.
Despite their recognition, however, it is curious to note the multiplicity of readings that can still be drawn from these fables. I have two copies of Aesop’s tales, both Selected Editions, and where their translations intersect there are often notable divergences in their account of the morals that one should draw from the preceding tales.
One such fable (titled ‘The Dog Invited to Supper’ in one edition and ‘Reckoning Without His Host’ in another), concerns a hungry dog who is invited to dinner by his friend, another dog, whose rich gentleman owner is going to be putting on a feast. The hungry dog arrives early, excited to see all the food being prepared for a meal that he believes himself welcome to, but when the gentleman owner sees an unfamiliar animal in his kitchen, he seizes him violently and flings him from the house. (From here the story gets a little strange: the dog, when questioned by passers-by as to how the meal was, claims he drank too much and can’t even remember leaving…)
In one edition of this tale, the moral reads: ‘It is bad policy to trust those who offer to do one a good turn at someone else’s expense’, a succinct warning to be wary of accepting a second-hand kindness. The second edition suggests: ‘Those who enter through the back door can expect to be shown out through the window’, a Chuck Norris-inspired sentiment that firmly places the blame not upon the gentleman owner’s dog, who extended an offer that was not his to make, but upon the hungry dog, who is depicted as sly, invading the house without justification. The same story, the same sequence of events, and yet the weight of responsibility and the lesson to be drawn from it do not align.
We tend to assume that these stories, ancient as they are, are static, their meanings fixed in place through generations of recitation, but like all linguistic artefacts they mutate and change – dependent upon their translation, of course, but mostly upon the momentary circumstance of their use. (In this sense, they are much like their ‘author’ himself, who may or may not have been a slave, may or may not have been flung from a cliff to his death by a horde of angry Delphians, who perhaps never existed, and certainly didn’t write all of the fables attributed to him.) These are breathing, amorphous narratives that gain new meaning from each application, and it is for this reason that they still seem as fresh today as they did over a millennia ago.
…There is one story, however, that I have yet to see satisfactorily explained, and which I believe defies all rational thought. It is called ‘The Peach, the Apple, and the Blackberry’, and I include it in its entirety:
The peach and the apple decided to have a context to determine which one was the more beautiful than the other. However, when tempers flared and the competition appeared to be getting out of hand, a blackberry thrust its head from a nearby bush and cried out, ‘This dispute has gone on long enough. Let’s all be friends and stop this nonsense!’
This story haunts my dreams.