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  • James Bloom

A Fondness for Fables



This morning I have been leafing through a book from my childhood to which I find myself repeatedly drawn back-- Aesop's Fables as retold by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated by A & M Provensen. Untermeyer must have been the premier anthologist of children's poetry in America during my childhood. Collections edited by him were ubiquitous in both my elementary and high schools. The Provensens were in the same league. They were commissioned to illustrate all the classic children's anthologies: the Greek myths, the Homeric epics, Grimm's Tales, Shakespeare adapted for children and, of course, Aesop. Their signature style was anthropomorphic animal figures that looked like they were printed with rough woodblocks and then filled in with blotchy watercolors. Untermeyer was born in 1885 and the world the Provensen's depict in their fable collection with him is that of his childhood and youth-- the bowler-hatted, lace-collared, pointy-toed, hook and eye-shod world of the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth, the world of my great-grandparents' youth and my grandparents' childhood, a world that disappeared over a century ago now.

The Provensen fable book is one of the first I can recall being given-- for my third birthday in 1966. Roughly five years later, when I was eight, one of the first books I ever bought for myself was the Fables of La Fontaine, illustrated by Alexander Calder. I got it from the shop in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, the Brutalist big black box that was a two block detour on my way home from school. It was a racy purchase the required some nerve because La Fontaine employed more human characters than Aesop and Calder drew all of them naked in his signature style using curlicue single stroke lines that looked like the figures he had cut and bent from wire coat hangers to create his famous circus, which was on long term display in the museum's lobby back then. Some nine or ten years after that, the first properly old and expensive book I ever bought was Kalila wa Dimna or Fables of Bidpai, retold by WW Jacobs with anonymous etchings, which was, along with The Arabian Nights, my introduction to non-western classic literature.

Such a formative influence had 'fabulous' children's literature been upon me that fourteen or fifteen years further down the road, when I was qualifying as an English teacher, the first sustained 'scheme of work' I ever put together was a unit for British year seven pupils,, children aged eleven turning twelve, in their first year of secondary school and, for most, their last of childhood. Deep in the stacks of the Exeter University School of Education, before the dawn of internet searching, I discovered fables from native American and African tribal cultures, from the desert of Aboriginal Australia to the frozen of Siberia, all with beautiful but reproducible artwork to help engage my young charges.

It proved a hit with my colleagues and I was asked to copy and spiral bind it by most of my teacher training classmates. Since I was asking my students to finish off the unit by writing and illustrating a polished fable themselves, I thought I ought to write one too. I have it still, along with the striking oil pastel illustrations my wife generously made later on to accompany it, including one of a gnawing vagabond who looked a lot like myself at the time. Without further ado, here it is:

The Turkey and the Peacock

In a certain farmyard there lived a turkey and a peacock who kept invidious company together. No sooner would the peacock fan out his train of long, full emerald and azure feathers than the turkey would rush up and spread his tail of short, scraggly black and brown stumps.

Then the peacock would cast a haughty look toward the turkey and strut off. But the turkey, following after him would say, "Cousin, your plumage may be more beautiful than mine, but to be certain on the inside I am the better bird!"

At other times, the peacock would bring forth a ringing, clear call that would resound through the farmyard like a note from a hunting horn. As soon as this sound was heard, up would rush the turkey, puffing out his chest and let off a volley of absurd gobbling.

At this, the peacock would glare disdainfully at the turkey and turn away. But the turkey, sticking right by him would declare, "Cousin, your voice may sound nobler than mine, but rest assured, on the inside I am the far better bird!"

It happened one evening that two hungry vagabonds were passing by the farmyard and the peacock, noting their presence, effortlessly and gracefully took to the air and perched atop the roof of the barn.

The turkey, catching sight of the peacock's flight, capered about, flapping his wings pathetically unable to get nimbly and quickly aloft. As he did so, opening wide his beak to announce, "Cousin, your flight may be--", the two hungry vagabonds grabbed hold of him and promptly wrung his neck.

Later that same evening, the two vagabonds, no longer hungry, sat by their campfire smacking their lips.

Licking his fingers, the first said to the second, "A fine meal that! What a shame we didn't get the other one. It looked ever better."

To which the second replied, "You are quite mistaken, Brother. The other may have looked the finer fowl on the outside but inside, I assure you, this was the far better bird.

MORAL: Envy of others' physical attributes, especially when twinned with vanity over one's allegedly superior character, is sure to lead to an unpleasant end.



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