Academic journal article MELUS

Of Snakes and Men: Toni and Slade Morrison's and Pascal Lemaitre's Adaptations of Aesop in Who's Got Game?

Academic journal article MELUS

Of Snakes and Men: Toni and Slade Morrison's and Pascal Lemaitre's Adaptations of Aesop in Who's Got Game?

Article excerpt

Toni and Slade Morrison and Pascal Lemaitre's reworkings of three of Aesop's fables, collected in a combined edition under the title of Who's Got Game? in 2007, were first published as individual children's books in 2003, each bearing a main title relating to the ancient original but framing its title significantly as a question: The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake? The first of these is probably the best known of the fables attributed to Aesop. The second, which reflects upon the use of power and clemency, the code of gratitude, and the situational definition of power, has been adapted in many versions. "Poppy or the Snake?"--a seemingly simple moral narrative that takes as its hypotext (or originary text) (1) a lesser-known fable called the "The Countryman and the Snake" (2)--concerns ill-judged acts of charity and the inadvisability of bringing snakes into your home, or as it is phrased in Ben Edwin Perry's translation of Babrius and Phaedrus, the tenet that "To Pity the Pitiless Is Folly" (187).

The context and motivations for the series, which will eventually comprise retellings of six of Aesop's fables, can be examined in relation to four key considerations. First, Morrison became well acquainted with the classics as a part of her formal education; Marc C. Conner comments that by the time she began teaching in the late 1950s, "she had studied Latin for four years, taken degrees in classics and literature, and written a Master's Thesis that employed structures of Greek tragedy to understand the work of Faulkner and Woolf"; thus, "any critical view that would blind itself to her training in a western, even classical background is misguided" (xii). (3) Second, as Anne Lake Prescott notes at the end of her review of Annabel Patterson's Fables of Power (1991), "there is an important fable tradition in America derived from a black slave community born and bred in the briar patch of oppression and enforced double meanings" (548-49). One could expand this point by observing that there is an affinity between African tales--which frequently involve animals such as Ananu or Anansi the Spider--and the instructive tales of the Aesopian tradition; and indeed the latter may well have been drawn, to a greater or lesser extent, from vernacular tales circulated in various parts of the ancient world. (4) Third, Aesop, who according to legend was born a slave and was deformed in body, represents an instance of the wise outsider gifted with trenchant yet subtly couched powers of expression. (The Roman writer Phaedrus, a less-noted fabulist who set Aesop's tales in verse, was also an ex-slave). (5) Fourth, the status of fables is curiously mixed, moving between the realms of the moralistic tract, particularly adapted to the instruction of children and easily taken up by those with vested ideological interests, (6) and the multivalent text which is open to diverse applications and interpretations. (7) Aside from the enduring influence of fables within European and world culture, English translations and adaptations of Aesop and other fabulists are innumerable; these have been variously "dress'd," as the title of Bernard Mandeville's translation of Jean de La Fontaine's Fables puts it, in familiar and contemporary language for the readier understanding of their readers, and sometimes they may be directed to new, more open, or "divergent" frameworks--as indicated by the title of Lloyd W. Daly's 1961 volume, Aesop without Morals. Fables, with or without stated morals, are still very much alive in our time.

This essay examines how the fine line between the "moral" and "moralistic" is handled in the Morrisons' and Lemaitre's reworkings; how the authors draw upon different source materials and mythic associations; and how the stories are directed to the interests of the contemporary child reader in such a manner as to sustain inquiry and provoke interrogation (not just in their endings, but throughout). …

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