Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ancient fables with present lessons

Fiction: Aesop's Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods

Carlo Gebler and Gavin Weston

New Island, €19.95

Aesop's Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods
Aesop's Fables: The Cruelty of the Gods

Hilary A White

The linear economy and moral weight that Aesop imbued his fables with make him a patron saint of storytellers everywhere. Put another way, his allegories are the "year zero" of using metaphor and narrative to impart laws and patterns to callow minds about the ways of the world.

This repackaging of his fables by Carlo Gebler and illustrator Gavin Weston is a reminder that adult minds were originally the target of this litany of pocket-sized parables. It was only much later, Gebler tells us in his excellent introduction, in the late 1400s, that a print by William Caxton saw the fables start to be used by teachers in the English-speaking world as a means "by which moral absolutes are shoehorned into the heads of the impressionable young". The packaging of Aesop and moral instruction has been with us ever since.

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But in a world where man's idiocy, short-sightedness and greed has brought about everything from populist demagogues taking power to the Anthropocene, something of Aesop's original tone might be required. Peopled by flora, fauna, and vindictive gods, these lessons about power and consequence were purposefully composed in handy bite-size chunks by the slave-turned-fixer, and this surely lends themselves to the distractible social-media generation.

But there are no gentle morals here. The unwary get eaten alive, and the powerful either do the eating or choke on their prey. Between the dour, slightly occult illustrations of Weston and the categorising of the fables into moral transgressions - everything from "Gloating and Heartlessness" to "Irreconcilability, Conflict and Vengeance" - there is very much a feeling here of the ancient sound-tracking the alarmingly present.

Sunday Independent

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