Books, Bells, and Morals

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September 3, 2020 by libroshombre

            It’s fascinating how the human mind skips around, sometimes fruitfully, like recent consideration of a naked pig-chasing man leading to recalling beloved childhood books, ugly Greek writers, and even uglier political shenanigans.  It began with “Cheeky Boar Leaves Nudist Grunting in Laptop Chase,” a BBC.com article describing how Adele Landauer, a German lifestyle coach, was in a Berlin park when she witnessed wild pigs gobbling a pizza an obese sunbathing nudist had stashed in his backpack along with his laptop. When he shouted, a pig ran with the bag.  The nudist “was very focused and run [sic] behind the boar to get it back,” Landauer recalled.  She also took amusing action photos of the chase and shared with him later.  Landauer wrote on her Instagram page that “the incident was a good example of someone persevering to achieve their goal.”

            That incisive moral reminded me of Aesop’s Fables, and Childcraft, the marvelous books wherein I first encountered Aesop’s turtle-hare race, the crow’s sour grapes, the dog losing his bone by barking at his reflection. and other ancient life-lessons.  Many my age fondly recall the orange, 14-volume 1949 Childcraft set that was richly illustrated by the best new children’s book artists, but Childcraft evolved greatly before and afterwards.  According to the 1984 Childcraft set’s introduction, “In the early 1920’s, W.F. Quarrie & Company, publishers of a ten-volume encyclopedia called The World Book, was also selling a new educational plan known as The Foundation Desk and Library.  It consisted of a child’s desk – complete with secret drawer – and two books, a Guide and a Work and Play Book.  The desk was the big item – the books went along for good measure.”

            In 1945 Quarrie was purchased by Marshall Field III (described by Wikipedia as “an American investment banker, publisher, racehorse owner/breeder, philanthropist, grandson of businessman Marshall Field, heir to the Marshall Field department store fortune”) who revamped and broadened the publication, commissioned those emerging, young artists – like Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak – and in 1949 the first Field Childcraft was published.  Volumes were dedicated to “Poems of Early Childhood,” “Animal Friends and Adventures,” etc.  They’re still beloved: the evocative 1949 set is purchasable from Amazon for $295-$967.

            I own the 1949 Folk and Fairy Tales volume containing Aesop’s stories, including the group of mice terrorized by a cat until one suggests putting a bell on the fiend so it couldn’t surprise them, but none would undertake the task.  Aesop’s moral: “It is easy to propose impossible remedies,” but Aesop was “almost certainly a legendary figure,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.  In the 5th century BCE Herodotus wrote that Aesop was a slave who lived a century earlier, and in the 1st century CE Plutarch claimed Aesop was adviser to King Croesus of Lydia.  “Other sources supposed that he was Ethiopian.”

             Most biographical “facts” come from “The Aesop Romance,” written a millennia after Aesop lived by Maximus the Confessor, a monk and scholar who died in 662 CE.  Wikipedia said it’s, “an episodic, probably highly fictional version of his life, including the traditional description of him as a strikingly ugly slave who by his cleverness acquires freedom and becomes an adviser to kings and city-states.” How ugly was he?  According to the Romance, Aesop was “of loathsome aspect, potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped – a portentous monstrosity.”  However, he supposedly wrote his fables in the Library of Croesus.

            In 2014 Aesop’s cat-belling tale inspired the naming of Bellingcat, a nonprofit “investigative journalism website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence.”  “Open-source intelligence” means gleaning video footage off the Internet and other available sources.  For instance, in 2012 Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, “looked at hundreds of these short clips on the Internet, localized them, and examined details of weapons used.  As a result, Higgins was able to demonstrate that the Syrian regime was using cluster munitions and chemical weapons.”  In 2014, Higgins’ team of volunteer cat-bellers proved the Russian military caused the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.  Their latest heavily-detailed research includes the Beirut explosions and the Portland protests.

            Polygraph.info wrote that, “Bellingcat is notable for its transparency, as Bellingcat investigative pieces detail ‘how they found the out story and which techniques they used.”  Bellingcat’s budget comes from grants and teaching those techniques, something Aesop could have used before visiting Delphi.  The Delphinians weren’t impressed by Aesop’s wisdom and wise sayings, and when they wouldn’t reward him, he compared them to driftwood: appealing from afar but worthless close up.  The enraged Delphinians hid a sacred golden cup in Aesop’s baggage, arrested, tried and convicted, and threw him from a cliff into the sea.  Aesop should have recalled the moral from “The Dog and the Bone,”: “It is wiser to take care of your own possessions than be greedy for those of others.”

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