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World Poetry Project: Rabbits and Souls

Updated on January 6, 2013

Fables are forever. Foxes and sour grapes, tortoises who race faster than rabbits, frogs who desire a king. It is more pleasant, and more instructive, to read about the errors of a hare or a fox, rather than to focus on the errors of Mrs. McGillikuty down the street or some Congressman on television. When our vices and errors are presented in the voices and actions of animals, we more readily focus on the error, the vice, instead of on the participant. We don't feel the same need to celebrate, or mourn, the failure of the fox, the turtle or the hare, that we feel when the failure is applied to a president, a preacher, a congressman, or a neighbor. Distance makes all the difference, and provides a way of looking that leaves the vice and error, leaves the lesson intact, while removing the distraction of everyday envies and affections.

My son's favorite character of fable is not in Aesop. He loves Brer Rabbit, Brer Turtle, and all the animals of Uncle Remus. We went through three of Lester Jones's adaptations of the Brer Rabbit stories together, and he is disappointed our local library has no more. The Uncle Remus stories are more complex than the fables of Aesop. First, they fold into the fable other concerns and roots of narrative--the trickster, the social satire, the coded message, the tall tale, and the narrative as solely entertainment. Remus is a complicated business, made more complicated by the changing American perception of what the stories are, or should be. They have roots in Africa and in the slave society of the American south, but they were written down in the form by which they are known today by a white man, not one who inherited the stories but one who participated in creating the conditions to which the stories are a response. These stories are made to carry the troubled conscience and dreadful burden of the American nation on the subject of race. However, when you read them to a six year old, they are wonderful stories that make him laugh and shake his head over that rabbit. Below all the layers of social and political complexity that we bring into the stories as adults, there remains the story itself--the thing the children understand and respond to.

Avianus was a writer of fables during the fifth century. He wrote his fables in Latin verse, taking many of them from paraphrases of Greek originals and reworking them into a new form. Other than his fables, some 42 tales dedicated to a Theodosius, nothing much is known about Avianus. His versions of old stories were popular enough to be included in medieval school exercises, to be paraphrased and imitated. Fables outlive fabulists, and they remain known when their author becomes only a shadow--the crooked slave shadow of Aesop, the crooked shadow of Uncle Remus.

World Poetry presents Avianus through "The Calf and the Ox" translated by David R. Slavitt. The fable is also told by Aesop, and it is simple enough. A calf enjoys his freedom, ridiculing an ox, yoked to a plow. The ox says nothing, but watches the farmer carry a butcher knife and a halter approach the calf. The moral, for unlike the later fables of Uncle Remus and others, where the lessons involved in a single story may be numerous and require attention to reveal and elucidate, the morals of ancient fables were fairly direct and easily memorized: "Nobody gets to choose which yoke to wear." An unspoken addition to the moral, "But everyone wears a yoke". The fable distills to its starkest, barest lines a truth society thinks important enough for everyone to know.

Orientius, writing only a decade or so after Avianus, also had a truth he thought all should know. Orientius converted to Christianity in the wake of tragedy, as the Visigoths brought misery and destruction into Gaul. The physical and material destruction of Roman Gaul brought about a spiritual crisis, and for some people Christianity was the answer, especially as there did not seem to be an immediate remedy to the physical and material damage the Visigoths and Vandals brought with them. World Poetry illustrates Orientius's vision with a short selection from his lengthy "Poem on Divine Providence", translated by John Peck.

The Vandals and Visigoths are compared to the sea, only the sea has ripped through the land, destroying all in its wake, the plantations and great houses of Gaul blasted by storm and fire, beasts and plants rotted, everything undermined and destroyed. The great men carried weapons for the Goths who destroyed them, yoked to serving the raiders just as any commoner. The distinctions of Roman Gaul's stratified, orderly society were broken down into the defeated and the victorious. All this material destruction, however, is then used merely to illustrate the higher importance of the spiritual life and truth, the inner destruction and corruption of the heart and soul. The loss of property, of beast and villa, are not a man's real losses; he loses these and remains himself. However, the losses of the heart and of the soul, the corruption and sin that alienates man from God and his better nature, these are the "losses that are truly yours".

In the fifth century in the Latin West, then, we find two responses to crisis: a retreat into conservative, rather pessimistic morals that focus on inevitabilities and the virtues of resignation, and a radical shift and striving to find a new way to define the world and one's place in the world as the world crumbled. Fables were stable, they were conservative and conserving. Conversion was a radical reaction: the material world was devoid of hope and value, and so the spiritual was made paramount. When life could not be won on the ground, the struggle of the spirit was all.

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