From Aesop’s Fables to Champak Comics, What Relevance Do Morality Tales Hold Today?
If you consult a children’s book about why a tortoise looks the way it does — with a shell on its back — it would tell you it’s the tortoise’s fault. It missed a party hosted by Zeus, the king of Gods, because of a foolish desire to stay home; in his wrath disguised as munificence, Zeus decreed the tortoise will now have to carry his home on his back forever. No matter how hard the tortoise tries, he cannot leave home. In a follow to this story, the tortoise attempts to fly and plummets; the moral being that vanity, dear readers, will lead to a steep fall.
We recognize these teachings better as proverbs and sayings that have adapted across cultures: the Greeks call them Aesop’s fables; the Buddhist tradition understands them as Jataka Tales; they’re Panchatantra in Hindu understanding; a host of other versions exist in French, German, Russian, Hebrew. Other folk tales and mythology have also taken on the task of putting a moral in between their narratives, or towards the end — as an asterisk in bold.
But these stories feel disjointed, even archaic, in the backdrop of a pivoting reality. They represent a longstanding culture of morality training. one marked by simple tales featuring animals and caricatures, compiling a set of ‘good’ values, warning children of the consequences of ‘incorrect’ actions. Indian nostalgia comes alive with examples of Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, and Champak comics, which gleam in their storied appeal and popularity through the centuries. All these stories are guilty of reinforcing stereotypes, failing to communicate the complexities of the real world and falling short in imparting a sound philosophical education today.
There’s a story about an ambitious milkmaid named Patty. She dreams about the things she could buy after selling a bucket of milk as she carries the pail on her head to the market. She will use the money from the milk to buy chickens, whose hatched eggs can be sold to buy a new frock and chip hat; the make-over will make her desirable to young men and inspire much jealousy in other women. As she mimics how the others’ will toss their heads in simpering envy of her, the bucket falls, and the milk spills. In another version, Patty is replaced by a man, and a pot of rice replaces the milk. The rice is the object of hope for him, until he breaks the earthen pot, spilling dreams.
“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” the tales appear to caution. The claims these stories make are equally strong, but monochrome: vanity is bad, modesty is good. Other tales rush to draw out a comparison between good and evil, success and failure, the strong and the weak — as if these are binaries exclusive of each other.
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But these ideas feel wanting, condensing complex systems of a complex world into two diverging lanes. One reason for this is, of course, that these tales were written for children. However, our fascination with indoctrination is worth examining: Pope Pius IV commissioned the Italian text Centum Fabulae from Gabriele Faerno “so that children might learn, at the same time and from the same book, both moral and linguistic purity.” Before him, Aristotle understood the importance of this exercise; “it is no small matter whether one habit or another is inculcated in us from early childhood,” he mused. “On the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.” Young adults and children have been the target audience of morality stories for centuries.
Another reason these tales don’t stand the test of time is that their original intent — to represent survival — is no longer as relevant in the modern-day. Aesop was an enslaved writer living in Greece in 620 BCE. Academics believe he wrote these stories as helpful primers on how to survive; the messaging is addressed to adults and covers religious, social, and political themes. Earlier morality tales also employed animals instead of humans and took place in a timeless world without a geographic clue. The vacuum made it easier to interpret — people in power could find consolation as much as the voiceless.
Common lessons from Aesop’s stories include the triumph of power, wickedness, and malice over weakness and innocence. Sample this: in one of the oldest fables, a hawk who has seized a nightingale says over her dying song, “Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please, I will make my meal of you, or let you go.” The lesson that follows this tale is: “He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.” In other words, might makes right, and the weak are doomed to suffer at the whim of those stronger; rebellion by the weak is futile and only brings more pain.
The idea of survival, imperative at the time, now pushes ways of submission and acceptance instead of resistance and change. “Other themes that seem to emerge in the fables include the importance of knowing one’s nature, place, and limitations,” Edward Clayton writes in Aesop, Aristotle, and Animals: The Role of Fables in Human Life. “… the importance of recognizing and submitting to the stronger; and the importance of sticking with one’s group as a means of safety. Some fables are exceptions to these themes, but not many.” If the original audience were people who suffered as Aesop did, the audience now might include marginalized groups. The tales perpetuate the idea of obedience to authority, feeding into an already unjust system.
Social psychology echoes the tangible effect this black-and-white dualism has on people; a recent study shows how morality, shaped by upbringing, education, and other factors, influences socio-cultural attitudes. Participants who had a restricted understanding of morality — a one-sided, unidimensional take — were resistant to changing their attitudes. The study concluded that those who receive a well-rounded message, that takes note of both sides, were more likely to accept alternate thinking and be amenable to development. A logical conclusion can then be that a nuanced representation of an issue makes us more sensitive about the complexity at play.
Morals, like social constructs, do not exist in silos. They are sentient in their own ways, responding to societal shifts, differentiating between ideas and prejudices. It is comfortable to think of a ‘moral compass’ as something that anchors individual action; some things such as ‘murder is bad’ will always hold true. But beyond that, morality is very much a cultural product that is understood differently at different moments in time; it is also a process influenced by background knowledge, reading skills, parental ideologies, religious dogmas, economic and caste position, and gender perspective. Morality is taught as a response to its time, so while Aesop’s original fables might have been about survival, the more they moved into different regions and times, the more they seem archaic and facile.
Perhaps that’s why Indian artist Anant Pai’s storied Amar Chitra Katha — a collection of 700-plus odd stories that chronicled India’s ‘heritage’ and ‘roots’ — sits awkwardly in Indian memory today. AKC intended children’s education but managed to weave in a religious sermon, too. Shaan Amin writes in The Atlantic how Pai “constructed a legendary past for India by tying masculinity, Hinduism, fair skin, and high caste to authority, excellence, and virtue. On top of that, his comics often erased non-Hindu subjects from India’s historic and religious fabric.” Muslims generally, Amin explains, faced a damning portrayal. “… adherents of Islam often play the boogeymen, a menacing, green-clad horde threatening brave Hindus,” he writes. In its “Makers of Modern India” issue, AKC was found lacking in representation of people from Christian and Sikh communities.
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If morality itself is a dynamic process, one wonders, then, whose morality these tales are pushing — that of a nation, its people, or the version of both the writer wants? That is a question many modern storytellers are asking themselves, as they attempt to recover the space through stories that subvert the very genre they inhabit.
British author Mahsuda Snaith reimagines traditional folk tales as ones narrated by women. The central female leads in her stories “do not wait for princes to save them but have to fend for themselves, and neither of their fates is dependent on their beauty,” she says in an interview. “I think the retelling of these tales with female ownership will mean a lot of subversion and rebellion against what we are taught is the typical role of woman.” The focus is on women and their perspectives, their relationships, framing them as real people with real lives.
Take Kamila Shamsie’s Duckling, or Jeanette Winterson’s Hansel and Greta: both are subversions of the original folk tales that either reframe conventional models of beauty or story precepts. The duckling is no longer patently ugly, while Hansel and Greta fight climate change. These are stories with a renewed sense of morality, with freedom and compassion at their core. The focus is on the issue and response to it, instead of a sweeping takeaway applicable for life, as earlier morality stories were.
Even queer themes that have remained dormant in Indian mythology and folk tales are getting a new lifeline in some stories. Larger themes seem to promote representation and diversity and shun a patriarchal lens of morality. People are turning to human-centered stories, or real-life instances, to understand what society and values mean to them.
Author Kevin Walker, who adapted a series of traditional stories to include queer representation, says, “these sometimes traditional and sometimes modern tales show queer people that they belong not only in today’s world but also in a storytelling tradition going back centuries, if not millennia.” A more subtle lesson in morality than imposing a constricted worldview.
The relationship between our stories and morals changes with time — right now, it is caught in a mismatch between text and ideas. There may be space for a black-and-white, decisive morality in a social vacuum, but a world inherently skewed needs a different approach.
Does that mean moral-of-the-story tales are inherently bad? Of course not; the format has served loyally and piqued the interest of generations of children who long to look at caricatured animals engaging in social dilemmas. Maybe if we shift the focus from the “lesson” to the “learning,” there might not be a need to fully eschew them yet. Instead, we may do better to realize that any training such as this has the potential for harm, and therefore deserves critical scrutiny.
Understanding fables and morality tales that posit themselves as the ultimate education of children is itself a socio-cultural process. In a paper titled “Does Reading Moral Stories Build Character?” Darcia Narvaez argues that the social milieu matters because readers, particularly children, are active readers. She counters claims made by William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, among other supporters, who contend that exposure to virtue stories has a formative impact on moral character. Narvaez says their arguments are based on the following assumptions: that the reader is passive; that every reader ‘gets’ the same information from a text and ‘gets’ the information the author intends; that themes are readily accessible to the reader; and that moral messages are just another type of information conveyed in a text. Readers, she argues, use their prior knowledge and strategically construct meaning from a text, making the moral education a little more skewed than the creators would have liked.
What is the moral of this story, you ask? I remember one that goes something like this: Things may not always be what they seem at first.