Harvard Classics, Volume 17: Fables

Volume Seventeen of the Harvard Classics covered the biggest names in Western storytelling. Beginning with Aesop and continuing through The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Pretty much every fairy tale you’ve heard of comes from one of these three sources. After reading these, its pretty easy to see why these are such important parts of the Western Canon, and why they are good for people of all ages to engage with.

Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short parables which were added to over the course of two millennia from a variety of sources. In Crito, Socrates makes reference to Aesop and his animal-based parables, but some of the parables are of biblical origin, like “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, and some come from Indian stories as well. Together, these form a collection of stories that not only communicate the moral conclusions of western people over the course of its development and history, but have been etched into the minds of European & American children to this day. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is easily the most famous, but “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, and plenty of others are instantly familiar parables that have been recycled, repackaged and reused in a variety of formats over the years. Aesop’s Fables represent the collective decision making of dozens of generations on what it means to be a moral and productive individual and is worth the read.

It is important to remember that the next work in this volume, a selection of Grimm’s Household Tales are as much an academic work documenting German folklore as it is a means to entertain and to enlighten. The stories in Grimm’s Tales are therefore not always of the highest narrative quality and suffer from common mistakes with narratives that abruptly end, heavy use of deus ex machina and those sorts of issues. Contained within Household Tales are some of the most important fairy tales we have: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. These are timeless stories which are infamously gruesome, like when Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit the slipper, only to be found out by the trail of blood, and subsequently have their eyes plucked out by birds. The fact that I can talk about Cinderella that specifically and everyone who reads it knew exactly what I was talking about is testament to the cultural impact of Grimm’s Household Tales.

The final selection of stories belonged to Hans Christian Anderson. While only a few of these stories are particularly famous: The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the theologically problematic Little Mermaid, they are more complete and well constructed stories. That’s because unlike the Brothers Grimm, Anderson took full artistic license with stories he created himself and adapted from folklore. In fact, one of the stories, “The Wild Swans”, is a more complete retelling of one of the stories from Grimm. These stories were somewhat less gruesome, but included some pretty harsh divine punishment, like the storks who bring a still-born child to the home of a boy who had relentlessly mocked them. Nothing says, “That will teach you for making fun of us” like a dead sibling.

Throughout all of these stories, the harshness of life shines through, widows, remarriages, abandoned children and poverty all play regular roles. In most of the cases, the protagonist ends up in a just situation, though Anderson is the most content to play around with granting melancholy endings instead.

Altogether, this set of fables and stories represents an important illustration of the values and an understanding of western culture at a very basic level. Children can and do enjoy and easily understand these stories and the points they are trying to make. That’s why this volume is on the list as one that is definitely worth reading for anyone who hasn’t read these works in their original form. It is worth understanding the roots of stories that have survived for centuries.

The next two volumes in the Harvard Classics are modern drama. This is the literary definition of modern, so it starts in the 17th century and works its way to the 19th century. Following this is The Divine ComedyThe Odyssey, and two novels I don’t know much about. Once those are done, the long series of narrative works is finished as I launch into Burke, Carlyle & Mill, hopefully early next year.

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