Rewriting Aesop: From Beatrix Potter to Jerry Pinkney

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Francis Barlow’s famous frontispiece of the hunchbacked slave Aesop surrounded by his characters for the 1687 London edition of Aesop’s Fables.

Some stories are so good that they are reimagined every generation. As a kind of twice-told tale, the fable can be quite difficult to make one’s own: the plot unfolds rapidly in very few words and realizing the action in more than one illustration is not always an option. But writers and illustrators have risen to the challenge of retelling Aesopian fables in strikingly different ways, sometimes changing quite radically the traditional themes and characterizations.

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Beatrix Potter as a young woman.

Beatrix Potter’s fable retellings are among the best in English literature, but due to complicated circumstances, only The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse (1917) was published during her lifetime. In 1919 Potter proposed to her publisher Fruing Warne that she work up a series of connected fables begun years before. Fruing did not mince words about the draft of The Tale of the Birds and Mr. Tod : “It is not Miss Potter, it is Aesop.” The firm’s commercial travelers wanted something new by Potter, so naturally his concern was sales, not supporting an author who wanted to strike out in a new direction. Even if Potter had not been frustrated by Fruing’s lack of enthusiasm, her eyes were no longer sharp enough to draw all the illustrations. No one’s heart was in it, so the volume was abandoned. The drafts and preliminary illustrations were published posthumously by Leslie Linder in The History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971).

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Jemima earnestly conversing with the foxy gentleman. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck (1908).

Fruing did wish her retelling of ‘The Fox and the Crow” long enough to fill a little book. Potter had brought back the foxy whiskered gentleman (aka Mr. Tod) who almost succeeded in making dinners of the foolish Jemima Puddleduck, her nest of eggs, and the careless Flopsy Bunnies at different times.

Looking for his next meal, he spies Miss Jenny Crow perched in a tree, trying to manage the large chunk of cheese she stole from a farm boy’s dinner basket. Seeing an easy opportunity for dinner, Mr. Tod appeals to Jenny’s vanity, calling her an “adorable smutty Venus,” “a beautiful black lady bird elegant as a newly tarred railing” whose grace outshines the black swans of Tasmania. His extravagant compliments make Jenny so nervous that she sidles up and down the branch, but without loosening her grip on the cheese. Of course the fox wears her down. When he exclaims that her voice must be “as sweet as a nightingale’s,” she croaks and he realizes she is weakening. He calls out, “She sings, she sings, louder, sweet sky lark” and Jenny drops her guard, opens her bill to caw, and drops the cheese into the foxy gentleman’s mouth. He laughs until he cries and takes “no further notice of poor silly Miss Crow. He had got what he wanted.”

Perhaps Potter as a woman should have been less tolerant of Mr. Tod’s wiles… But she is hardly the only female reteller of “The Fox and Crow” who won’t take the crow’s side. Lisbeth Zwerger draws the picture from the crow’s point of view, but the fox’s mock-serious gesture down on the ground expresses more amusement than disapproval in his hypocrisy. There is no doubt who is going to triumph.

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From “The Fox and the Crow,” Aesop’s Fables Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. (New York/London: NorthSouth Books, 2006), p. 21.

Barbara McClintock ‘s lady crow, on the other hand, wears a dainty blue gown, red shawl, poke bonnet, and slippers, which makes her look even more ridiculous when she throws a tantrum after losing out to the leering fox… Maybe vanity rather than gender is the fable’s point–so why couldn’t the roles be reassigned so that a foxy lady outwits a preening lad?

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From “The Fox and the Crow.” Animal Fables from Aesop Adapted and Illustrated by Barbara McClintock (Boston: David Godine, 2012), p. 5.

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From “The Fox and the Crow.” Animal Fables Adapted and Illustrated by Barbara McClintock, p. 6.

Potter titled her version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” “Grasshopper Belle and Susan Emmet.” As tough-minded as La Fontaine’s “Le cigale et la formi,” “Grasshopper Belle” is one of the most powerful stories Potter wrote. The main character is the industrious ant Susan in a rusty black gown and black net cap, a “notable good housekeeper” like Mrs. Tittlemouse with “cupboards of spotless linen” and fully furnished storerooms with sacks and bags floor to ceiling.

A miserly soul, Susan works incessantly through the sunny summer months and has to go back and forth by the merry grasshoppers. Grasshopper Belle all “in green satin with pink sleeves and gauzy wings” has the lightest foot of all and dances to the gentlemen fiddling “Sing leader, needle, treadle, wheedle, wheadle, sudle, chirr, whirr, whirr, oh, who is so fine, in silver gossamer as Grasshopper Belle?” Loaded down with a heavy sack, Susan hisses at them, “Vanity of vanity, disgusting idleness,” but they invite her to dance a turn to their music anyway. Not that she does. Nor will she stop when Belle offers to lull her to sleep–no, Susan must get home before the rain, to which Belle trills, “Home, my home is in the barley grass, no cellars for me, come upon the grass stalk and watch the sun slip behind a cloud.”

Susan does get home just as the thunderstorm breaks. At dawn the driving rain begins, turning to sleet by evening. Susan sits contentedly by the fire sewing, ignoring the rattling latch and cries of “Susan Emmet, Susan Emmet, let me in.” When the voice begs, “Let me in, let me in, I am dying, Susan Emmett,” the ant decides it is nothing more than the bitter cold wind. While the ant is eating dinner, the latch rattles yet again and the voice calls out weakly to her. Susan clears the table, thinking to herself, “She has had her lesson, I suppose I must let her in; she can sleep on the door mat.” When she opens the door and looks out into the dark, “Grasshopper Belle lay dead on the doorstep.”

Would many American parents would consider reading Potter’s dark, but heartbreaking retelling of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” to their children? Two recent picture book versions, in which the fable has been recast as a tribute to the power of music, is probably much more in tune with the today’s sensibilities (and in line with recommendations of educators and social psychologists). The father-daughter team of Rebecca and Ed Emberley imagine the ant anxiously pushing a slice of watermelon back to the nest on a hot, hot summer day.

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Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley, The Ant and the Grasshopper (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012), p. 31.

The Emberleys not only allow the grasshopper to live, they erase the object lesson of the dangers of having no plan for tomorrow. Instead the happy-go-lucky grasshopper teaches the weary, dispirited ant how music makes burdens lighter.

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Let the good times roll! Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley, The Ant and the Grasshopper, p. 28.

In Jerry Pinkney’s retelling of the same fable, the banjo-playing grasshopper is also a joyful character. Below he tries to convince the ants that they ought to stop and enjoy the beauties of the summer season.

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Jerry Pinkney, The Grasshopper and the Ants (New York: Little Brown, 2015), p. 8.

When winter comes and the miserable grasshopper shows up on the ant colony’s doorstep, they can’t find it in their hearts to lock him out. He is welcomed in and offered the best of everything.

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Jerry Pinkney, The Grasshopper and the Ants, p. 18.

The Queen Ant sits down to tea with the grasshopper, as if to say the love of music and of nature can bring us together, if we allow it to happen. Both insects are right in their own way, but no one loses in the end.

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Jerry Pinkney, The Grasshopper and the Ants, p. 36.

Who can argue with messages like these in confusing, competitive, and cruel times? But is it necessary to obscure the pragmatic worldview of the Aesopian fable in order to protect young readers? Some children will embrace the happy ending where the ants and grasshopper party, others will remember Susan Emmet peering out into the dark, with the beautiful grasshopper Belle lifeless at her feet. The good news is that we don’t have to choose among them–any version can be worth a look. The open-endedness of the twice-told tale is, after all, is one of its enduring pleasures.

See more Beatrix Potter and bugs at Cotsen’s virtual exhibitions page!

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