Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chesterton on Fables

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men.

G. K. Chesterton, from his introduction to V. S. Vernon Jones's translation of Aesop's Fables. And he's right, of course: fables, far from being expressions of a simple intelligence, involve a very sophisticated degree of abstraction. It is the ideas that are simple, not the thought put into them; the ideas are simple precisely because a great deal of thought has abstracted away the nonessentials and tagged the essentials with some imaginative picture.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No anonymity (but consistent pseudonyms allowed). Abusive comments, especially directed toward other commenters, will be deleted; abusive commenters will be hunted down and shot. By posting a comment you agree to these terms and conditions.

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed (although I do occasionally check to make sure that no comments are being overlooked).