Not Aesoppy at all - his fables were filthy
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Thursday 15 January 1998
We all know Aesop's Fables. The tortoise who won a race against the hare; the mouse that helped a lion by biting through the rope that entrapped it: moralistic stories about lovable animals that have sent children off to pleasant slumbers for over a century, since the Victorians translated them from the ancient Greek.
But what of the tale of beaver who bit off his private parts? Or - to quote its exact title - The Camel Who Shat in the River? These too are Aesop's Fables. But they, along with 100 other tales, were suppressed by the Victorians.
Now the missing 100 have been translated into English for the first time. And they will, say the classical scholars who have translated them, completely alter our view of history's most famous fable-maker.
Robert and Olivia Temple's translation of Aesop: The Complete Fables will be published by Penguin Classics later this month. According to Robert Temple: "The fables are not the pretty purveyors of Victorian morals that we have been led to believe. They are instead savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy or compassion.
"Some of them were probably suppressed because they were very violent and didn't suit the purposes of the Victorians. They were brutal or they were non-Christian. They were about alien gods; they contained coarse, peasant humour and were very rude."
Aesop, a caustic social and political satirist rather than the comforting moralist he has been portrayed, lived in Greece in the sixth century BC. Robert and Olivia Temple, both well known translators, went to the last known edition of the Greek text, published in France in 1927, and spent two years working on it.
Victorian sensibilities may have applauded the moral of the beaver story, namely that if attacked for one's money one should sacrifice it rather than lose one's life.
But they could not, it seems, stomach the actual fable which says that "when the beaver sees himself about to be caught, he will bite off his own parts, throw them, and thus save his own life".
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