Unpicking tales of protest and subversion
The Aesopic tradition – using symbolic or coded terms and employing elements like myth and folklore when political, social or religious circumstances make it necessary to disguise subversive ideas – is explored through several remarkably diverse essays that editors Philip Morissey and Gert Reifarth have chosen to form Aesopic Voices: Re-framing Truth Through Concealed Ways of Presentation in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
The ‘Aesopic Voices’ of the title refers to the famous fables credited to Greek writer Aesop. Fables such as the Tortoise and the Hare, and the Boy Who Cried Wolf are well-known throughout the world.
This book, the chapters of which come from speeches delivered at a conference of the same name held at the University of Melbourne in 2008, cover everything from Aesop in literature, in film and theatre, and in science and religion, to focusing specifically on stories from Australia and the South Pacific and reinventions of Aesop’s works for the 21st century.
Indeed, the diversity of the editors’ fields of experience also informs the collection: Philip Morrissey is the Academic Co-ordinator of the Indigenous Studies program at the University of Melbourne, and Gert Reifarth has taught literature in Germany, Ireland and Australia.
In the Victorian era, Aesop’s fables were considered merely moral stories used to teach children, but this understanding of them, Morissey and Reifarth explain, obscures the fact that Aesop was said to have written his fables to veil his opinions of the ruling authorities in the sixth century.
In their introduction, Reifarth and Morrisey explain that for a story to be considered Aesopic, it must contain more than simply the narrowest definition of the term, which involves the creation of fairytales or fables to camouflage ideas: the text must have been created in an environment where aspects of reality were being falsified, obstructed, hushed-up or neglected.
These Aesopic voices must then be ‘heard’: there is an inherent need in the work for a reader, or recipient who can decode the Aesopic aspects of the work back into reality. Without a reader with the ability to decode the work, its messages are lost.
While Aesop and his stories have long been a household name, writers who use his methods to create art with veiled meaning have not been seriously discussed in academic discourse for more than a century.
This book begins with a systematic analysis of Aesopic voices by many different contributors: historians, literary scholars, film theorists, scholars from Australian Indigenous studies, cultural theorists and arts practitioners. Their contributions offer thought-provoking insights which span the five continents of the globe.
And while the book looks at Aesopic voices in art in a whole range of different publications, its specificity about the definition of what constitutes Aesopic art means the essays form a cohesive and readable book which offers diverse views and opinions, while giving the reader space to reach their own conclusions.