Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

2
Ingenuity and Authority
AESOP' S FABLES AND THEIR AFTERLIVES

No author has been so intimately and extensively associated with children's literature as Aesop. His fables have been accepted as the core of childhood reading and instruction since the time of Plato, and they have found their place in political and social satire and moral teaching throughout medieval, Renaissance, and modern cultures.1 We know almost nothing of the historical Aesop, yet we know a great deal about the transmission and transformation of his tales—the making of what modern scholars call the Aesopica. Much recent scholarship has detailed this complex history. But much recent literary criticism has come anew to fable as one of the defining genres of Western literature. Studies of classical and medieval educational practice have proliferated; critical accounts of early modern translations have grown; and theoretical responses to the form have inflected literary study in the large. In reading through this literature, one realizes that fables long ago escaped the confines of the nursery and the schoolroom. Their readerships have included parents as well as children, masters as well as slaves, rulers as well as subjects.

But fables still remain a defining form of children's literature. Their narratives return, again and again, to central episodes in childhood life: learning to read and write, learning to please and fool the parent, learning to chart a moral path through temptation. Whatever purposes adults have put them to, they remain at the core of children's reading. In addition to their local morals or their specific injunctions, the fables teach ideas of authorship, notions of audience, ideals of verbal action—in short, literature itself.

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