Fables, by Robert Louis Stevenson,
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables.
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896).
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.
First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are.
Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:
“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”
Stevenson’s novellas (which include Jekyll and Hyde) were of one type of fable, as he saw it, his publishers typifying them as semi-supernatural, dreamlike and with an implicit moral. But he also tried more short-form compositions – what we might perhaps now call flash fiction – which followed more traditional lines. Three of these each have a Moral, one a rhyming couplet couched as an epigram or explicit, the other two being verses of a half dozen lines; their lessons, however, are inevitably opaque. What are we to make of the epilogue which concludes a dialogue between a book and its reader?
The coward crouches from the rod,
And loathes the iron face of God.
I have to say I really enjoyed these miniatures, especially with the scarcely concealed barbs about human nature. A well-travelled visitor argues the toss with a citizen, one filled with civic pride, and then pays the price for such foolishness. A philosopher tries and fails to put right a distinguished stranger — a visitor from a neighbouring planet — who mistakes trees and cows for people, while not thinking much of people reputedly from “the greatest nation in the world”. Four reformers meet under a bramble bush to discuss what must be done in order to change the world; they disagree on what to abolish, until one of them suggests they start by abolishing mankind.
Many of the longer fables are more like traditional folktales but a little more twisted. There are stock archetypes like kings and princesses, wise women and holy men. A handful of tales were sent to the publishers from Samoa, where Stevenson ended his days, and retain a certain flavour of the South Seas; others have a Scottish setting, such as ‘The Song of the Morrow’, and very melancholy they are too.
The fable which opens the tale is of a different order, and somewhat metafictional. It is set between chapters 32 and 33 of Treasure Island when Captain Smollett and Silver have a break from the main action of the novel to sit down and have an acerbic conversation about human morals and such. Their dialogue comes to an end when the Author is heard opening his ink-bottle “to write the words: CHAPTER XXXIII.”
Stevenson keeps the reader guessing while showing mastery over whichever voice he chooses to use, whether chiding, sneering, teasing or merely observing. Just occasionally he slides into prose that is pure poetry, as in the ending of ‘The Song of the Morrow’ that ends the collection. Here, after many years, the King’s daughter of Duntrine has sat down on the beach where she first met the crone that gave her the advice that has dominated her life ever since:
The sea foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed about her back, and the veil blew about her face in the blowing of the wind. And when she lifted up her eyes, there was the daughter of a King come walking on the beach. Her hair was like the spun gold, and her eyes like pools in a river, and she had no thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.
Every one of these carefully crafted fables bears repeated reading, for the joy of the language, the echoes of ancient tellers of tales or the puzzling out of enigmas. These are Aesopian indeed, in the nineteenth century sense, designating a superficially innocent narrative which, in truth, held a cryptic meaning to the initiated. To read these fables is enjoy the surface while reflecting on what meaning, if any, resides deep below.
The 1902 illustration is by Ethel Martyn, who described herself as a professional artist in 1901. She was born in Bristol, later residing with her twin sister Agnes (both remained unmarried) and brother Gilbert in Hampstead, where she died in 1946.
All the fables are available to read online on various sites, for example https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Fables_(Stevenson)
In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book I own but hadn’t read