- Hermeneutics of the Fable
Roland Barthes once described the myth of the political Left as poverty stricken: "It does not know how to proliferate; being produced on order and for a temporarily limited prospect, it is invented with difficulty. It lacks a major faculty, that of fabulizing. Whatever it does, there remains about it something stiff and literal, a suggestion of something done to order" (Mythologies, 1957, 147-48). But political discourses have not always been devoid of fabulizing. In Fables of Power, Annabel Patterson shows that the barrenness and intentionalism of political prose was enhanced effectively in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England by the richness and poetry of the Aesopian fable canon. Patterson mainly explores the sociopolitical dimension of the fable, although she does not entirely neglect its poetics. With her methodological approach, Patterson aims to create a productive link between literary and historical research in which each benefits the other.
Although it is not directly concerned with the fable's role in children's literature then or now, this study nonetheless offers the scholar of children's literature valuable historical insights into the appropriation and hermeneutics of the fable. Moreover, Patterson's treatment of the topic touches on issues of dissemination, control, manipulation, and encoding of information in popular narratives that are of equal interest to children's literature.
Patterson's intentions and insights reach beyond the narrow confines of early modern England. In the introductory and concluding chapters, she traces the origins and functions of the fable from Phaedrus to La Fontaine in order to recover the impact and importance of the Aesopian tradition. Specifically, she intends to correct our underestimation of the fable's function in early modern English culture.
In the first chapter, "Aesop's Life: Fathering the Fable," Patterson uses Planudes's rendition of Aesop's life as a metafable. Her analysis provides [End Page 238] the reader with a compelling introduction to the historical and contextual nature of narrative and myth making, which responds closely to social and cultural shifts in society. She asks us to read Aesop's Life as a symbolic narrative that functions as a test of civilized thought in its diverse and, at times, contradictory appropriations. Over time, we are shown, the refinement of European tastes led to a less confrontational aesthetic and a purified ethic. The concreteness of scatological humor—Bakhtin's "material bodily principle"—that existed in Planudes's Life vanished, since it was no longer in tune with the sensibilities of the time. With it disappeared the tension in Planudes's version, which is based on the crass juxtaposition of the bodily principle of scatological humor and the spiritual principle of philosophical arguments. The adaptive and purposeful rewriting of Aesop's Life reached a high point—and an aberration—in the Scottish Aesop from 1570-1571, in which Aesop appeared not as a misshapen black slave but as a "beautiful, white-gowned, white-haired and presumably white skinned" Roman of noble blood (31).
Patterson takes issue with Hegel's dictum "prose starts with the slave" because of the fact that he associated the fable with the socially and artistically primitive. But the association of fable and slave proves to be significant indeed in her analysis of the Aesopian fable as a genre. Early in the book, she asks why and how a black and disfigured Greek slave's name could become tied to our Western fable canon when fables—familiar to all Greek children—predated Aesop and when Aesop himself had not collected the tales. Her answer is inspired by Joseph Jacobs—the nineteenth-century authority on fables, editor of Caxton's Aesop, and, according to Patterson, "one of the greatest deconstructors of 'Aesopus auctor'"—who stated that Aesop's "connection with the Beast-Fable originally consisted in its application to political controversy under despotic government" and that "Aesop's name was associated with the Fable because he made use of it as a political weapon" (17). Expanding on Jacobs' arguments, Patterson defines the fable as a generic medium of subversive dissent with emancipatory qualities. It thus becomes...