Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Animal Fables from Aesop by Barbara McClintock (1991)

In my most recent quest to ingest and digest Aesop, I stumbled across Barbara McClintock's version.  McClintock doesn't cite any of these tales - other than they are from Aesop - so I'm not sure where she gets her translations.  Perhaps she speaks Greek.

Animal Fables from Aesop has incredible illustrations - McClintock really is one of my favorite illustrators.  I think I read this about Harry Truman in David McCullough's famous biography that his taste in art was pretty pedestrian - a horse should look like a horse (maybe not, but that's how I remember it).  I sort of feel the same way.  Abstract art can be beautiful and moving in its own way - I'm not that pedestrian.  But for something like Aesop's fables, beautiful, detailed, intricate illustrations like McClintock's are excellent.

Her premise is both quite interesting and a little odd.  The opening pages start as a play, with an old goat introducing the cast of characters.  The book ends with those characters taking off elaborate costumes to reveal humans of all ages inside.  I guess McClintock is trying to say that the fables, although nominally about foxes and crows and cranes, are really about human foibles and lessons to learn.

I liked how McClintock put the moral in the mouths of the animals instead of in italics at the end.  For example, in "The Fox and the Crow," after the fox - completely dapper in Regency attire - tricks the crow (very Victorian) out of her cheese, he runs away - but not before taunting her "I'll give you a piece of advice - don't trust flatterers."

"The Fox and the Crane" is the same story from Jack Kent's tale.  Kent's is shorter - it's a shorter book - but essentially the same.  I love McClintock's Crane - a Victorian lady, with an incredibly expressive face.  She definitely does not get the joke -- "We are not amused."  Her reply at the end is slightly different from Kent's "A dose of our own medicine is good for us."  In Kent, the crane seems to be teaching the fox a lesson. McClintock's Crane, though, says "One bad turn deserves another."  That's a moral with more of a bite than Kent's, a moral about revenge.

I'm not exactly sure what I thought "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" was about - a cute little story about urban living verses country living.  The moral the Country Mouse imparts to us a the end of McClintock's version is "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear."  I'm going to do a bit more research on this tale, and see if that's the general ending or are there other versions.

"The Wolf and the Crane" features the same Crane Dame again, helping out a wolf in need, much to her chagrin.  There seem to be two morals to this tale, which McClintock provides.  The wolf warns the crane:  "You should be happy.  You put your head inside a wolf's mouth and taken it out again without harm. That ought be reward enough for you."  "Don't expect gratitude from the greedy" she thinks as she walks away.  The illustrations of her sticking her are disgusting, which makes the illustration all the cooler.

"The Fox and the Cat" is another really good one - I think overall McClintock's choices of fables was spot on.  I loved "the dogs and peacocks" at the beginning, and love them even more carrying the fox.  "The Wolf and the Lamb" is my least favorite in the book.  "The Crow and the Peacocks" is terrific.  The illustrations of the crow trying on peacock feathers is awesome, and the peacocks themselves look like they just got back from a Pride and Prejudice ball.  I love the peacock dandies.

"The Fox and the Grapes" is another one that's incredibly familiar; McClintock's adds some detail to the story, but in essence it's the same -- it's easy to hate what you can't have.

"The Wolf and the Dog," with it's fat contented dog and starving wolf exchanging stories about their lives was probably radical 2,600 years ago and may be a bit radical even today.  The smug dog - with his pipe and waste coat, the epitome of business success, says to his old friend the wolf - "I knew your wild life would be the ruin of you.  Why don't you work steadily, like I do, and get your food given to you every day... I could easily arrange that... You can share my work guarding the house."  Then the wolf notices and remarks upon the worn spot on the dog's neck, which turns out to be "the place where my collar is put on at night to keep me chained up.  It chafes a little, but you soon get used to it."  The wolf replies Goodbye to you... it's better to starve free than be a fat slave."  Live free or die, right?  What is the better life, in the end - is it better to be free and hungry or fat and contented yet chained to something?  There is so much room for interpretation and discussion here - again, what is the different between a parable and a fable?

Some of Aesop's brilliance (or whoever really made these up) is that he took the actual nature of animals and spun them into fables.  The grasshopper really does sing all summer long while ants appear industrious.  A dog is a fat contented slave to mankind while the wolf remains free.

Animal Fables from AesopAnimal Fables from Aesop by Barbara McClintock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Incredibly illustrations, detailed, intricate, bright, and fun.  Pure McClintock - when aren't her illustrations slightly quirky yet gorgeous?  The familiar animals of Aesop - cranes, crows, foxes, and so on - are all dressed in their very best Regency and early Victorian finery.  A crow dressed as a peacock goes to a peacock ball that might as well be in Jane Austen's Pemberly.  McClintock's foxes are always, always the best, but her Grand Lady Crane is exquisite - who knew that a crane could purse her beak!  So much fun, and definitely a conversation piece.

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