Posts Tagged Aesop

Fable Comics

Fable Comics is a brilliant collection of cartoon versions of Aesop’s fables! Here’s one I like lots:

Mouse-Council-1

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childish comparisons

mworry3It was thought-provoking when last week my excellent colleague Russel Tarr was accused by Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove of “infantilising” 14-year old students by asking them once they had finished studying the Weimar Republic, to re-present what they had learnt to younger 10-year old students in the form of their own Mr Men book.

Russel answered the criticism very sufficiently on his popular history site activehistory.co.uk – but I’ve been thinking about one aspect of the business in particular: how and why we use fables.

Russel mentioned Orwell’s Animal Farm, but fables have a long history of being told to portray political events, though that’s may not be their only, or even main, purpose. The Kalilah and Dimnah fables of Persia for instance were in the frame story told by the sage Bidpai to a tyrant as a form of “mirror for princes”, a way to show things as they really were.

The oldest fable in the Bible is a political one, the fable of the Trees and the Brambles, given to discourage the people of Israel from adopting kingship:

Trees_and_brambleOne day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’ Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’ But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’ But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’ Finally all the trees said to the thorn bush, ‘Come and be our king.’ The thorn bush said to the trees, `If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thorn bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

A similar Aesop’s fables is said to have been delivered by Aesop to the Athenians for a political purpose too, the Frogs who Desired a King:

The Frogs, grieved at having no established Ruler, sent ambassadors to Jupiter entreating for a King. Perceiving their simplicity, he cast down a huge log into the lake. The Frogs were terrified at the splash occasioned by its fall and hid themselves in the depths of the pool. But as soon as they realized that the huge log was motionless, they swam again to the top of the water, dismissed their fears, climbed up, and began squatting on it in contempt.

Wm_de_Morgan_storkAfter some time they began to think themselves ill-treated in the appointment of so inert a Ruler, and sent a second deputation to Jupiter to pray that he would set over them another sovereign. He then gave them an Eel to govern them. When the Frogs discovered his easy good nature, they sent yet a third time to Jupiter to beg him to choose for them still another King. Jupiter, displeased with all their complaints, sent a Heron, who preyed upon the Frogs day by day till there were none left to croak upon the lake.

So, why construct a fable? Why not just recount the situation literally, as it “actually is”?

I’m not sure what the whole answer is, but part of it is the power of storytelling to magnetise listeners. Another part is that you can put the actual historical people aside for one moment, with all the positive and negative associations and responses you have to them, while you look at the basic structure of events. And a third thing is that the act of making or recognising the metaphor allows you to see the whole thing newly, freshly and memorably.

Whether the characters in the metaphor are bushes, or frogs or characters from a children’s story is not important – it’s that their relationships and actions to each other hold up a mirror to human affairs. To object that a signifier is a children’s book character is to mistake the container and the content. It would be like objecting to Newton’s f=ma because it uses mere letters of the alphabet to represent physical forces. It’s the truth of the metaphor that’s important.

mr impossibleNow all three reasons for using fables seem to me to be excellent reasons for getting children to use a metaphor of some kind from time to time to deepen and share their understanding of events.

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Alexander Calder and his circus

Alexander Calder, Little Clown, the Trumpeteer, from Calder’s Circus, 1926–31. Wire, cloth, paint, yarn, thread, rhinestone buttons, electrical tape, rubber tubing, and metal horn, 12 × 3 1/2 × 3 in. (30.5 × 8.9 × 7.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from a public fundraising campaign in May 1982. One half of the funds were contributed by the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust. Additional major donations were given by The Lauder Foundation, the Robert Lehman Foundation Inc., the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation Inc., an anonymous donor, The T.M. Evans Foundation Inc., MacAndrews & Forbes Group Incorporated, the De Witt Wallace Fund Inc., Martin and Agneta Gruss, Anne Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller, the Simon Foundation Inc., Marylou Whitney, Bankers Trust Company, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth N. Dayton, Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz, Irvin and Kenneth Feld, Flora Whitney Miller. More than 500 individuals from 26 states and abroad also contributed to the campaign  83.36.8a-d© 2009 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph © Whitney Museum of American ArtRoll up! roll up! Come and see some amazing children’s picture books full of the creativity of artists and inventors….

Books like The Day-Glo Brothers about the two brothers that gave us Day-Glo paint:

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Or A River of Words about the poet William Carlos Williams:

I came across another recently. It’s called Sandy’s Circus, and it’s about the sculptor Alexander Calder:

This is about just one part of Calder’s amazing creativity – when he was in Paris and created a circus out of wire and bits and bobs. Here’s a video of him with the circus later in life:

 

 

As a boy, his parents always made sure “Sandy” had a workshop and tools.

He made his friends toys and jewellery from scraps of wood, leather and wire he would pick off the street. Sandy built his sister Peggy a castle for her doll – complete with a moat! He and Peggy made toy animals and played circus in the workshop.

The next year, 1926, he decided to go to Paris. Why Paris? Because that city was alive with art. And Sandy said, “In Paris it’s a compliment to be called crazy.” Sandy rode through the streets of Paris on his orange bicycle. He carried a roll of wire around his shoulder and a pair of pliers in his pocket.

When Sandy bumped into a friend, out came the wire and pliers. He would twist and bend and curl while he chatted. And before they said adieu, Sandy would give his friend a gift – voila! A small portrait of the person – made of wire.

The wire pictures are a bit like the ones he drew for a version of Aesop I have illustrated by him.

And I hadn’t realised that Alexander Calder invented the mobile (as in the hanging sculpture, not the portable telephone of course). It seems so ubiquitous and… obvious, that the thought of it being invented so recently is strange.

Here’s someone with a very long spoon actuating a couple of Calder’s mobiles:

And here’s one self-actuated:

“All Calders tend to make someone happy”:

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blowing hot and cold

Blowing hot and cold

A man and a Satyr once drank together in token of a bond of friendship between them. One very cold wintry day, as they talked, the man put his fingers to his mouth and blew on them. When the Satyr asked the reason for this, he told him that he did it to warm his hands because they were so cold.

Later on in the day they sat down to eat, and the food prepared was quite scalding. The Man raised one of the dishes a little towards his mouth and blew in it. When the Satyr again inquired the reason, he said that he did it to cool the meat, which was too hot.

‘I can no longer consider you as a friend,’ said the Satyr, ‘a fellow who with the same breath blows hot and cold.’

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cat’s paw

Reading one or two fables in spare moments (whiich there aren’t many of). The Moneky and the Cat came to my attention. It’s called an Aesop’s fable, but, like many, doesn’t seem to go back to Aesop. Where it comes from no-one seems to be sure.

The story itself is short, without the subtle humour and dialogue that Aesop’s fables often have:

Once  there was a small monkey who lived in the same household as a little cat. When he saw some chestnuts buried in the hearth, he began to brush the ash aside, but, afraid of the burning coals, he seized the foot of the sleeping cat and with it stole them out.

From this there is, apparently, the expression a “cat’s paw”: someone who does someone else’s dirty work (and not only doesn’t benefit but actually suffers for it).

These microfictions are so short they can be summed up with just a simple visual emblem, something like a hieroglyph of a situation.  Like the one here made for a little plate, one of twelve in the British Museum, based on the fable illustrations in a wonderful old book illustrated by Marcus Gheeraerts

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39 fables

I always thought an installation with lots of Aesop’s fables would be good. But tonight I discovered that Louis XIV got there before me. He had a maze with 39 Aesop’s fables sculptures put into the Gardens at Versailles. I couldn’t really compete with him.

Here’s Charles Perrault’s wonderful guidebook to the fables and maze.

Wikipedia:

In 1665, André Le Nôtre planned a maze of unadorned paths in an area south of the Latona Fountain near the Orangerie. In 1669, Charles Perrault – author of the Mother Goose stories – advised Louis XIV to remodel the Labyrinthe in such a way as to serve the Dauphin’s education. Between 1672 and 1677 Le Nôtre redesigned the Labyrinthe to feature thirty-nine fountains that depicted stories from Aesop’s Fables. Each sculpture was accompanied by a plaque on which the fable was printed; from these plaques, Louis XIV’s son learned to read. Once completed in 1677 the Labyrinthe contained thirty-nine fountains with 333 painted metal animal sculptures. The water for the elaborate waterworks was conveyed from the Seine by the Machine de Marly. The Labyrinthe is said to have cost the equivalent of £8,000,000 and contained fourteen water-wheels driving 253 pumps, some of which worked at a distance of three-quarters of a mile.

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the fox and the crow

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