Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



A source of timeless wisdom and sometimes indirect ridicule, fable, like anecdote and parable, preserves knowledge of human experience and history. Fabulists recorded the first written versions of ancient STORYTELLING during the Akkadian-Sumerian Empire, which began in 2350 B.c. Terse and insightful, like the agon or contest motif of the Babylonian CREATION story “Nisaba and Wheat” (ca. 1900 B.c.), the typical fable narrative takes place in an indistinct time and terrain. A prophetic biblical fable from Israel in the book of Judges 9:7-15 (ca. 1040 B.c.), composed in the early years of King Saul's reign, uses nature lore to demean Abimelech, a king from around 1700 B.c. who, like the briar, was a menace to productive kingdoms surrounding Shechem (present-day Nablus, Israel). When the prediction of internal unrest came true three years later, the civil war that overwhelmed the powermonger also destroyed surrounding settlements. Increasing the irony of his violent death was his felling by a millstone, dropped on his head from a siege tower by an elderly woman.

Throughout the ancient history of the Middle East, fable served more as an oral source of education than as mere amusement. The image of the briar and the tree recurs in 2 Kings 14:9 (ca. 535 B.c.) and again in 2 Chronicles 26:18 (400 B.c.) when Amaziah, king of Judah, threatens his father, Israel's king Jehoash. At a meeting of enemies around 800 B.c. to discuss a dynastic marriage, Amaziah, fresh from attacking south of the Dead Sea at Edom, plotted a raid on Israel. Jehoash quashed negotiations by promising to set a wild beast against the lone thistle. As the PROPHECY foretold, he overcame Amaziah, demolished the wall of Jerusalem, and plundered the palace and temple of their treasures.

The Greeks dominated the fable genre with the slave storyteller AESOP'S models from the sixth century B.c. Following on Aesop, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus's “The Eagle and the Arrow,” an ironic Libyan tale about empowering enemies incorporated into the play Myrmidons (ca. 470 B.c.), preceded his cautionary tale “The Man Who Reared a Lion's Cub” in the drama cycle Oresteia (458 B.c.). The latter fable alerted hearers to the nurturing of potential traitors, like the Trojan welcome to the Spartan queen Helen, the source of Troy's destruction. During the 29-year empire of Alexander III the Great of Macedon, Demosthenes of Athens told listeners the allegory of “The Wolf and the Shepherd” (ca. 336 B.c.), a tale warning Athenians to avoid risking Greek lives in the hands of an empire builder.

Middle Eastern Fable

In the next millennium, the fable archetype held its original form in the tales of Babrius, author of “The Rise of the Proletariat,” written in Christianized Syria around A.D. 235. The characters of Eastern Mediterranean fables were often royalty and nondescript peasants of no discernible nationality or whimsical collections of animals and plants that English essayist Joseph Addison, producer of

the newspaper the Spectator, termed “Brutes and Vegetables” (Addison and Steele 1907, 45).

Animal characters depersonalize the fable by setting the action outside the human realm. As the Parisian satirist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE explained in Selected Fables (1668), “When Prometheus wanted to create mankind, he took the dominant quality of each beast; of these pieces so diverse he composed our species; he made this work that we call the small world (microcosm). Thus these fables are a picture in which each of us finds himself portrayed” (quoted in Jewell 2001, 282). Fabulists chose beasts known for stereotypical behaviors—the pugnacious lion, the humble donkey, the predatory crow, the sly fox, the numbskull sheep, the nervous frog, the pesky fly, the shy dove. Thus, purveyors of animal logic, such as Babylonian and Hebrew court sages and the Greco-Libyan ambassador Apion of Alexandria, Egypt, the author of ANDRQCLES AND THE LIQN—delighted hearers with the truism that character determines destiny. At the same time, the storyteller instructed or cautioned with provocative axioms revealed below surface caricature, such as the Chinese moral “He who rides the tiger cannot get off,” a warning to despots who unleash mercenary armies as a means of conquest.

Before becoming anecdotes and miniature homilies, fables took the form of dialogues, such as in the Akkadian-Sumerian boast fables; the nature argument “The Tamarisk and the Palm” (2300 B.c.); and Babrius's “Show Me How” (ca. A.D. 235), a verbal disagreement between a baby crab and its mother. Around 1100 B.C., during the Sabaean empire, the forerunner of Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, the sage Lokman the Wise, told pithy animal proverbs reduced to a few sentences of dialogue. Having survived a fall in status from prince to a maimed slave carpenter, Lokman infused his fables with a quiet humility gained from losing his fortune and family. Valued by Islamic aphorists, Lokman earned veneration for his faith in God and his willingness to accept destiny without complaint.

African Fable

The rise of West African empires of the Sahel on the south rim of the Sahara Desert encouraged the circulation of indigenous folk tales in the form of work chants, travel songs, dance rhythms, and group rounds. The Kanem-Bornu empire, comprising Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria, attracted Arabic and Islamic scholars and moralists to the region around Lake Chad, a center known for its teaching tales. Timeless and anonymous logic puzzles, ethical debates, and trickster stories marked the folklore of the Songay, Hausa, Edo, and the Ashanti of Ghana. The Yoruba storyteller AMOS TUTUOLA reshaped stories of trial by ordeal for two Nigerian epics, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and

Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1952), both replete with Jungian threats and instinctive methods of self-preservation. Farther inland, pourquoi (why) or explanation stories such as “Pig's Long Nose and Greedy Mouth” flourished among the Congo and Loango along the Zaire River and northeast among the Aksumites of Ethiopia (fourth to 12 th centuries) and the Semitic Kush of Nubia (present-day Sudan); 2000-1000 B.C.).

Humor lightens the WISDOM LITERATURE of subSaharan Africa. The Mbindu of Angola mocked polygamy with “The Frog and His Two Wives,” a dilemma tale about a foolish husband trapped between two demanding cooks. A wittier form of fable colored the literature of the Malian empire (1247-ca. 1600). A mocking chorus, “The Song of Gimmile,” describes the stingy king Konondjong of Gindo, who declines to pay his royal composer, a wandering musician from Korro. The king orders the man beaten and ejected from court. A harper named Gimmile the song-teller makes up a rude heptet that accuses the king of being ungainly, sagging in the belly, toothless, and bald. After the jingle gains popularity, the king attempts to suppress it. The bard he abused observes, “Who can stop a song that travels from country to country?” (quoted in Courlander 1996, 81), a reminder that memorable ditties move beyond political borders at the whim of the singer. Proving the wisdom of that rhetorical question were the dances, dramas, mumming, and Anansi the spider stories that slaves brought with them via the African diaspora to the Caribbean and the coastal Americas. By its very tenacity, diasporic literature proved that language preserves culture more surely than the sword.

In the last decade of the Roman Empire, the work of the elegist Flavius Avianus illustrated the decline of Roman style and purpose. His 42 Aesopic stories and fool tales, blending the materials of his predecessor Babrius with the ornate phraseology of OVID and VIRGIL, augment the metrical standards of all four influences. Around A.D. 400, Avianus composed a dedication explaining his preference for imaginary literature that anthropomorphized a pot, water jar, and battle trumpet as well as birds, domestic and wild animals, insects, and the gods Apollo and Jupiter. Among his morals for readers are warnings not to covet and not to make threats that cannot be backed up and a reminder that it is best to remain alone than to choose untrustworthy friends. One of the poet's most negative pieces, “The Soldier Who Burned the Weapons,” pictures a warrior blaming the trumpet for turning Roman legions into killers without itself taking part in conquest.

Fable as Satire

Whether in home territory or throughout diasporas, fables soften the impact of SATIRE on its target—for instance, in the work of Jose Rosas Moreno (1838-83), a Mexican poet who composed “The Spider's Web” and “The Eagle and the Serpent” during the Second Mexican Empire (1864-67). To distance recitation of stories from the sphere of social PROTEST, the storyteller may set up an impersonal conflict, a word picture that leads directly to an epimythium, an abstract, often intuitive moral. The Arabian caliph Abu Bakr, a companion of the prophet Muhammad and conqueror of Syria and Iraq, retold “Strike on This Spot” (A.D. 630), an Egyptian exemplum or classroom model expressing the value of logic over hasty action. Into this same category falls the shepherd's comment on a sly wolf in sheep's clothing sneaking into the fold in Nikephoros Basilakis's Progymnasmata (Exercises, ca. 1175), written during the clash between the expansionist Mongols and Russian principalities preceding a national onslaught. Basilakis concludes, “Look for trouble and find it,” a warning to would-be conquerors. Similar advice to monarchs about power and responsibility fills the WISDOM LITERATURE of Saadi (Sheikh Saadi, ca. 1210-ca. 1290), a Persian poet who produced under parables in Rose Garden (1258). In a tale of a Persian King, Saadi warns that a tyrant resembles a wolf that superintends a sheep herd by sapping his empire's foundation.

The substitution of animals for people softens the didacticism and stresses right thinking without specifying incriminating political situations or scandals close to home, as is exemplified by the fox's conniving in Sefer Meshalim (Book of Fables, 1697) of the 17th-century rabbi Moses ben Eliezer Wallich (d. 1739) of Worms, Germany. Another writer from the latter days of the Holy Roman Empire, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) of Kamenz, Saxony, an imitator of the fables of Aesop and Phaedrus and of the PANCHATANTRA (ca. 200 B.C.) of Vishnu Sarma, pictured animal tyranny as a reflection of human conquest. His concise, utilitarian collection called Fables (1759) derides boasters in “Friendship without Envy” and “The Ox and the Calf” and mocks the strutting military poseur in “Dressed in Strange Feathers.” Heavy with implications, Lessing's “The Briar” describes a plant that lives to destroy. Similarly, “The History of the Wolf” warns the unwary that the predator will not change its ways after rehabilitation. In a statement on the natural order of primacy, Lessing's “The Beasts Striving for Precedence” acknowledges ancient authority that some enemies always threaten.

Another cautionary tale about the claws under the velvet paw lies in the French fabulist Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian's “The Apes and the Leopard” (1792). In Florian's experience with leopards, an allusion to the French Revolution of 1789, “The people of such lofty tone / 'Twere well for us to let alone” (Florian 1888, 64). A more pointed accusation of aristocrats skewers Alfonso X the Wise, who ruled Castile in the last half of the 13th century. The king, an amateur astronomer, overlooks beggars while he moon-gazes. A poor man tugs on the royal robes and remarks, “You'll find men here, men who need bread: / You need not look for them up there; / They're here, around you, ev'rywhere” (Florian 1888, 119). The lessons came too late to save Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, both of whom went to the guillotine in 1793.

The satirist Anatole France carried Florian's animal fables to a more chilling extreme with the novel Pile des pingouins (Penguin Island, 1908), a fanciful diatribe against human barbarity. In one scene depicting mindless chauvinism, a shepherd explains to an outsider that a common tune, an antiporpoise war hymn, infects the minds of local children before they can talk. He justifies early corruption through hate music: “We are all good Penguins” (France 1921, xi). As society destabilizes and the empire falls, France remarks, “Anarchist attempts followed one another every week without interruption” (224). He adds that the typical victim is poor.

Fables and Universality

The similarity of fable themes and motifs derives from universal human psychology and from trade, religious conversion, and conquests that spread stories between peoples, such as the Hispanic storytellers throughout the Western Hemisphere and the Wolof stories of Senegal that the ethnographer BIRAGO Diop transcribed into French. When the English satirist Samuel Johnson wrote “The Vulture” for the Idler on September 16, 1758, he referred indirectly to Great Britain's suppression of the North American colonies and of West Indians in the Caribbean. His allegory characterized war from the perspective of a bird profiting from carnage. The grotesque image casts the British Empire as food for corpse pickers. A contrasting bird pourquoi (why) story, ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S “Why Noah Chose the Dove” (1974), expresses the author's need for people to be more quiet and modest like the dove, a peace-loving messenger who carries God's promise of protection to Noah and his family. The dove, in a self-description, declares the importance of accepting individual differences: “Each one of us has something the other doesn't have, given us by God who created us all” (Singer 1974, n.p.). An allegory, the narrative explains why supporters of harmony are more valuable to society than its leopards, tigers, wolves, and vultures, symbols of Hirohito, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, the causes of suffering during and after World War II.

As entertainment for children, fables conceal socioeconomic foibles under whimsy. A resilient tale, Hans Christian Andersen's “The Emperor's New Clothes” (1837) mocks the easily flattered ruler who believes he wears an outfit made from cloth that only the wise can see. The fabulist, a lover of youth for their truthfulness, has a child point out the obvious truth: “The emperor is naked.” The fable marks an expansionist era in the Danish Empire and recurs in cinema version in Hans Christian Andersen (1952), a musical biopic starring Dannye Kaye.

On January 25, 1919, the journalist Louise Bryant (depicted years later in the film Reds [1981]) introduced the fall of the Russian and Austrio- Hungarian empires in the journal Revolutionary Age under the children's story “How the Revolution Began in America,” part of a collection she entitled Fables for Proletarian Children. The Marxist parable characterizes President Woodrow Wilson's concept of a League of Nations as “a clever scheme for international policing to stop the further progress of revolution” (Bryant 1919, 6). The dreamscape of American socialism halts with the leap of an alley cat through the window, a droll conclusion to Bryant's tale.



Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. The Spectator. Vol.

2. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1907.

Babrius. Babrius and Phaedrus. Translated by Ben Edwin Perry. Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1990.

Bryant, Louise. “How the Revolution Began in America.” Revolutionary Age (January 25, 1919): 6.

Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Tales, Recollections, Wisdom, Sayings, and Humor of Africa. New York: Marlowe & Co., 1996.

Dijk, Gert-Jan van. Ainoi, Logoi, Mythoi: Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek. Amsterdam: Brill, 1997.

Fischer, Barbara, and Thomas C. Fox, eds. A Companion to the Works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 2005.

Florian, Jean-Pierre Claris de. Fables of Florian. Translated by J. W. Phelps. New York: John B. Alden, 1888.

France, Anatole. Penguin Island. Translated by A. W.

Evans. London: John Lane, 1931.

Hobbs, Anne Stevenson, ed. Fables. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.

Jewell, Keala Jane. Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001.

Kassis, Riad Aziz. The Book of Proverbs and Arabic

Proverbial Works. Amsterdam: Brill, 1999.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Why Noah Chose the Dove. New York: Trumpet Club, 1974.