In “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama,” the hefty volume once used by my Advanced Placement English Literature classes, X.J. Kennedy opens with a discussion of the fable. Naturally, he mentions that most famous practitioner of this genre, Aesop (circa 620–560 B.C.)
Little is known of the life of Aesop other than he was Greek—some debate his very existence—but many of the 584 fables attributed to him remain familiar to us to this day. Children still read or hear “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” and “The Dog and the Wolf.”
As Kennedy writes, a fable is “a brief story that sets forth a pointed statement of truth.” The characters in fables “may be talking animals (as in many of Aesop’s fables), inanimate objects, or people and supernatural beings (as in ‘The Appointment in Samarra.’)”
Fables Are Universal
These qualities make the fable readily transferable cultural commodities. Aesop’s stories, for example, have long belonged to the world. The 10th century, for example, produced a collection of the Greek’s fables in Central Asia in the Uyghur language. In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries introduced Aesop to the Japanese.
Other fabulists have also found popularity outside their own countries. Perhaps foremost among these was Jean de La Fontaine, whose late 17th-century collections became literary classics and remain familiar not only to French children but also to others around the world.
Like their characters, the moral truths of these short tales also appeal to a broad spectrum of cultures. Whether you are from the shores of the Ganges River or from the mountains of Colorado, you understand the message in a fable like “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The ant works hard throughout the summer preparing his larder for the cruel months of winter, while the grasshopper merrily plays his fiddle and laughs in derision at the toiling ant. When storms and snow come, as they always do, it is the grasshopper that finds himself hungry and shivering in the cold. The moral of this story is twofold: Be responsible for yourself; there’s a time to work and a time to play.
Most human beings acknowledge such ideas as true.
A Fable for Grownups
Let’s look now at a much more modern fable, Somerset Maugham’s version of an old Arabic legend, “The Appointment in Samarra,” which Kennedy includes in “Literature.” Here it is in its entirety:
Death speaks: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs into its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Clearly, “The Appointment in Samarra” is not intended for children. The fables mentioned earlier may appeal even to the preschool crowd, but Maugham’s tiny gem of writing is too confusing and frightening for the little ones.
A Deeper Look
Yet I chose “The Appointment in Samarra” for analysis here for three reasons.
First, Maugham’s little story contains all the classic elements of a fable. It’s short, the language is succinct and without decoration, and Death appears in human form, in this case as a woman. Though the moral is not directly referenced, as it is in so many fables—Kennedy asks his student readers, “How would you state it in your own words?”—most of us would conclude that the message is that we cannot escape our fate, particularly in regard to death.
And unlike some fables, “The Appointment in Samarra” raises some important questions: What is fate? Do we believe in destiny or in free will? “I am the master of my fate,” wrote poet William Ernest Henley, “I am the captain of my soul.” Maugham’s fable challenges us to consider the truth of that bold proclamation.
Finally, I decided to elaborate on “The Appointment in Samarra” because of its power. I’ve read Maugham’s words with numerous classes, have mentioned it in some of my writing, and have told this story to friends and family members. Despite these many repetitions, this fable still sends a chill up my spine every time I read it, amazing me by its literary precision and the knockout punch at the end.
A Treasure of Our Culture
Though we live in a time of cultural storms and moral relativism, the timeless wisdom of fables can act as ballast and moorings for our children. Aesop’s “The Wolf and the Dog,” for example, teaches a much-needed lesson in the importance of liberty. “The Lion and the Mouse” emphasizes the importance of kindness, while “The Hare and the Tortoise” reminds readers that “the race is not always to the swift.”
Knowing some of these fables also connects us more deeply to the past. Decades ago, a girl I knew was told by her friend, “I’m the grasshopper, and you’re the ant,” a remark intended as a putdown, though the speaker apparently forgot that it is the grasshopper that starves. But at least both of them were acquainted with this story.
We can easily equip our children with this wisdom. Our libraries and bookshops are loaded with these collections—my library has more than 20 books of Aesop’s fables alone—and many of these books are handsomely illustrated, adding to their appeal to the young. If the children enjoy videos, you can find dozens of sites promoting fables through cartoons and dramatic readings online.
Give this gift to our children, and it will last them a lifetime.