Publisher: Collector’s Library
Pages: 256 including afterword (Hardcover)
Form: Anthology of Fables
This timeless collection brings together three hundred of the most popular of Aesop’s fables in a collection that will delight young and old readers alike. Here are all the age-old favourites – the wily fox, the vain peacock, the predatory cat and steady tortoise – just as endearingly vivid and relevant now as they were for their very first audience. While their lifespan over several millennia marks them out as one of the most enduring staples of world literature, they have also been the inspiration for countless other forms of narrative in various languages. For all their entertainment value – this is a world where even a lamp and the moon can speak, and mice taunt bulls – they have also come to be fondly regarded as a playful compendium of secular wisdom.
First off allow me to say how much I love, love, love the Collector’s Library. If you haven’t encountered them before they make adorable, gilt-edge, pocket-sized, hardback editions of books widely regarded as ‘classics’. They’re pretty affordable at roughly £8 each (more for the thicker ones), come with a handy stitched in ribbon bookmark and are just the best thing ever – especially as Blackwell’s always seems to have them on special offer. If you don’t like tiny books they won’t be for you but I love having books that can easily fit into my handbag/jacket pocket.
And now onto the book itself: this in unfortunately not the ‘complete’ fables but only a selection. The blurb says 300 but in fact there are only 284 individual stories in here. (As a side note: because they are well-known classics the Collector’s Library does occasionally include a spoiler or two in their blurbs so if you don’t know what happens in the book you might want to avoid reading the inside cover – I found this out the hard way with The Picture of Dorian Gray).
It’s probably worth noting that I read these stories one a night before bed, rather than cover to cover, and as such my memory of some of the earlier ones might be a bit fuzzy and there will be some I don’t remember at all. Overall I enjoyed them. They were short, much shorter than I had expected, ranging from a few lines to perhaps a page and a half. As I had expected most – but not all – featured talking animals representing various human qualities and teaching the reader moral (or often not so moral) lessons. Some fables spelled out their message with a handy and very familiar little moral at the end (‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, ‘Persuasion is better than force’ etc.), some fables left the message only implied, some appeared to have contradictory messages to other fables, but only a very few appeared to have none – ‘A dog and a sow were arguing, and each claimed that its own young ones were finer than those of any other animal. ‘Mine can see, at any rate, when they come into the world; but yours are born blind”.Perhaps the original roman audience would have the relevent cultural understanding to know what the lesson in this story is but it left me a bit nonplussed. That I can only pick one off the top of my head that I didn’t ‘get’, however, just tells me that the rest have aged pretty dang very well.
While most stories were traditional anthropomorphic fables I had anticipated, where each animal represents a different personality trait (my favourite, like most I suspect, are the numerous sly and clever foxes) there were also a sizable number of stories that featured human characters. These I found in general to be less enjoyable but I that may be because my own bias simply wanted more of the talking animals. Other stories featured gods from the Roman pantheon, again I generally liked these less but, as someone who has studied some Classical Civilisation and Ancient History I did find them very interesting as examples of the sort of oral tales told about the gods by everyday people, that either didn’t make it or perhaps disappeared from the ‘traditional’ mythology.
I remembered a lot of the stories from my childhood, such as The Lion and the Mouse and was (perhaps naively) surprised to discover that many more of the stories I had read or listened to as a child were adaptations of Aesop too. The Boy Who Cried Wolf is here under the title The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf while The Fox and the Crane, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, and many others brought back very vividly the almost forgotten illustrated copies of these stories I used to enjoy when I was first learning to read. This edition does in fact have black and white illustrations of its own (some beautiful, some not so beautiful) but I confess that none of them caught my imagination the same way as the cartoony, colourful image of the Fox and the Crane trying to eat Knickerbocker glories (if anyone knows which of the many kiddie’s version of the story that was let me know!).
That was, for me, the best thing about the collection – the wave of nostalgia I got when reading certain stories and the ‘oh so that’s where it originated’ realisations when certain well-known phrases popped up (‘Might makes right’ ‘Quality, not quantity” ‘Honesty is the best policy’ etc.).
Whether you like these I suppose depends on whether you enjoyed them as children and what you think of moral tales. I found that most of the moral stories had enough satirical bite to them that I didn’t find them ‘preachy’, even when I disagreed. There was nothing sugary or saccharine about most of them either – there is none of children’s TV ‘well I learnt a valuable lesson today’ – here if the characters are foolish they die, or have their food stolen, or simply look foolish at the very least. A lot of them like ‘the Boy Who Cried Wolf’ take a ‘scare them straight’ line to their lessons (I wouldn’t even call a lot of them morals so much as common sense) but they’re short enough, witty enough, and removed enough from reality for me not to hold that against them – the use of animals prevents the violence from feeling too heavy-handed and gratuitous and I imagine a lot of people in fact find themselves backing the Foxes and the Lions more than they do the docile, ignorant donkeys and asses.
While the collection was a little hit and miss in places (and a ‘complete’ set of fables might possibly include more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’) I am very glad that I read it, if opened my eyes to the origins of phrases I use almost without thinking and gave me a strong incentive to track down my old children’s books. I think I did it the right way though in limiting my reading to one a night, it is not a book that I think would stand up well to being read cover to cover.