Aesop’s Fables – Aesop

Book # 1001

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

Well, here is a milestone of sorts.  The eponymous Book 1001 is finally, after nearly 90 books, being reviewed.

I come to be reviewing this particular book because I have been reading it to my children for the past couple of weeks.

It is hard to emphasize just how important and pervasive Aesop the slave’s, not-so-little book of fables is to western society.  At least, that is how it feels as you read your way through the huge number of these tales.  I have the Wordsworth Classic version at home, and it contains a smidgen over 200 fables.  They are all swift reading with the morals obvious in most.  You can also source them online at websites such as this one.

Aesop reputedly lived between 620 and 560 BCE, and like many ancient works it is dubious how much is actually attributable to an individual versus a collective gathering of fables over an extended period of time.  No matter the truth of their origins, or the likelihood or not of the existence of an individual “Aesop”, they have been gathered together under his name and continue to delight us today with their sharp observations.

Perhaps some of these titles ring a bell with you?

  • The Fox and the Grapes
  • The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg
  • The Wolf in Sheeps Clothing
  • The Hare and the Tortoise
  • The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

If the titles of others do not seem familiar, their impact and moral will be well known to you, for example The Milkmaid and Her Pail is the fable associated with “don’t count your chickens” and The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf is where we get the saying “don’t cry wolf”.

If you asked me, “Is it worth my time to read this?”,  I would have to say “yes, it is”.  You don’t need to read it all in one or two sittings, and the length of the fables naturally lends itself to dipping in to whenever you feel like it.  Some are not so memorable, but some will strike a chord with you immediately.  If you have children, it is possible to teach many ideas and morals of behaviour using the ever present foxes, lions, mice and dogs as your friendly guides.  Not all of the fables contain animals, although the majority do.  Here is a taster of the sorts of fables in my version.

The Two Bags

Every man carries two bags about with him, one in front and one behind, and both are packed full of faults.  The bag in front contains his neighbours’ faults, the one behind his own.  Hence it is that men do not see their own faults, but never fail to see those of others.

The Man and the Satyr

A man and a satyr became friends, and determined to live together.  All went well for a while, until one day in wintertime the satyr saw the man blowing on his hands. ‘Why do you do that?’ he asked. ‘To warm my hands,’ said the man.  That same day, when they sat down to supper together, they each had a steaming hot bowl of porridge, and the man raised his bowl to his mouth and blew on it. ‘Why do you do that?’ asked the satyr. ‘To cool my porridge,’ said the man.  The satyr got up from the table. ‘Goodbye,’ said he, ‘I’m going: I can’t be friends with a man who blows hot and cold with the same breath.’

The Stag and the Lion

A stag was chased by the hounds, and took refuge in a cave, where he hoped to be safe from his pursuers.  Unfortunately the cave contained a lion, to whom he fell an easy prey.  ‘Unhappy that I am,’ he cried, ‘I’m saved from the power of the dogs only to fall into the clutches of a lion.’

Gargantua and Pantagruel – François Rabelais

Book #995

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (First published May 2012)

Urghh… took me an age to read this. It was partly my fault and partly the book’s. Long ago, I realised during the first book of this five book tome that I wasn’t going to enjoy lengthy sections of this. I’ll explain why in a bit. But rather than bite the bullet and get it over with, I decided, somewhat subconsciously influenced by Rabelais himself, to not leave the toilet until I had read at least a chapter. Granted the chapters are tiny. But there are 299 of them. Sigh…

So, a combination of bowel movements and Rabelaisian prose meant that, a year later, I was still plodding through this and wishing that either I was dead or Rabelais had never lived. Time travel precluded the latter and so I had to content myself with the former. And it didn’t help that I felt the victim of some huge literary practical joke upon reading quotes like this:

If you say to me: ‘It does not seem very wise of you to have written down all this gay and empty balderdash for us,’ I would reply that you do not show yourselves much wiser by taking pleasure in the reading of it.

Well I didn’t take pleasure in the reading of it. So there!

The story, if there is one in this the world’s most rambling satire (please God let it be so), is that Gargantua and his son Pantagruel are a couple of characters who travel widely and meet as many different characters as there are chapters. Each of the episodes they end up relating are side-splittingly funny… if you’re a 16th century French polyglot playing fast and loose with the rules of monastic living. I’m not. Nuffsed.

Rabelais subjects everything to scathing satire: history, literature, politics, religion, philosophy, culture, medicine. The Roman Catholics get a particular spanking. And there’s an entire book (oh, that I spoke in jest) on whether or not a particular character should get married. Each chapter is an argument either way until, at the very end of that particular book 52 chapters later, they decide to leave the matter undecided. Aaaargh!

Yes, yes, satire is meant to be like this: a literary insider’s joke. But, and I’ve made this complaint before, that’s as feeble an excuse as a postmodernist painter telling you that his entirely black canvas is “Whatever you want it to mean.” Life’s too short. This is going on my list of 1001 Books You Don’t Have to Read but Should Know About.

The Thousand and One Nights – Anonymous

Book #996

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love

Reading the Arabian Nights in not a simple proposition. Not only, depending on the version you read, is it long to incredibly long, but first you have to actually choose a version. I started with the very good Wikipedia summary of the history of the collection and translation of the stories. You see, the various collectors and translators over the centuries have had different agendas in approaching the tales: make them less baudy, make them more baudy, make them fit another culture’s picture of the Islamic culture they portray, make a literal translation of the language (thus losing some meaning along the way), make the story total reach 1001… It’s complicated. After reading Wikipedia, I settled on the Husain Haddawy (spelling of the name on Goodreads is wrong, by the way) translation which is linked here. Haddawy actually has a great introduction that talks about the history of the stories and makes a good case for the choices he and the author from whom he translated the work made in compiling their version. One of the things that he argues, and I agree with him, is that to do this work justice, the translator has to be at home in both the cultures involved, the culture of the tales and the western culture into which they are translated. That way the translation can be true to the original while rendering the tales in imagery and language that create the effect of the original in the new tongue. I have been very happy with my choice of this translation.

The basic premise of Arabian Nights is that a king, betrayed by his wife and hearing of a similar experience from his brother, decides that the only way to have a faithful wife is to marry a woman, sleep with her, and kill her the next day. He is pretty much wiping out the female population of the kingdom when his vizier’s daughter steps in with a plan. She begs her father, who is charged with rounding up wives for the boss, to marry her to the king. The first few stories actually make up part of the argument between the daughter, Shahrazad, and her father, about whether he should accede to her request. Eventually he does, and she marries the king, but brings her sister along, to set up the plan. The sister asks Shahrazad to tell them a story before the night ends, and Shahrazad does, but leaving them with a cliffhanger so that she can live to tell the rest the next night. The process continues this way, with stories within stories and cliffhangers most nights. Shahrazad definitely believes in the power of suggestion, since there are many examples of people being pardoned if they tell good stories or are worthy people. Eventually the king gets the hint and decides that he won’t kill her, and the kingdom is saved.

The stories are wonderful little nuggets, many involving enchantment and demons, most also involving beautiful royals and romance. At times they can seem a little repetitive, but they are still wonderful. Haddawy has preserved the pieces of poetry interspersed in the tales which adds to the pleasure of the reading. I recommend taking your time with this collection, as the tales were intended, rather than reading the stories in large gulps quickly over a couple days. It will be much more fun that way.