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Explorations
Volume 21 (2010)
80
Reworking of Fable in Vikram Seth’s Beaslty Tales from Here and There
Madiha Inam Pal
Abstract
This article attempts to establish a link between Vikram
Seth’s Beastly Tales and the traditional genre of the
fable with particular emphasis on its genesis,
popularity and varied functions in different ages of
history. It shows that both eastern and western fables
incorporate religious, literary and humorous elements,
in addition to an abundance of materials from the
observation of nature.
Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales from Here and There (1995) is a collection of
animal stories from different parts of the world. These stories have been
classified as fables because of the presence of animal characters that
delineate qualities of the human species. Seth’s apparent simplicity of form,
lyrical quality and light-hearted humor tends to make critics and readers of
the tales categorize them as children’s literature. However, they seem to
have disregarded the fact that the medium of the fable was and still is a vital
form of representation, not reserved for children. This article attempts to
establish a link between Seth’s Beastly Tales and the traditional genre of the
fable with particular emphasis on its genesis, popularity and varied functions
in different ages of history. Adrados (1999) attributes the origins of the fable
to the animalistic basis of the festival in Greece, which gave rise to
Comedy, Satirical drama and the Fable. In the History of the Graeco-Latin
Fable, he writes that:
There was a long process of development that started
with the animal-god or the animal rooted in some way
in worship and dance and …with the intervention of a
period of playful use of animal motifs…the literary
Explorations
Volume 21 (2010)
81
animal represented by the fable. Thus various playful
and comic elements proper to the festival like the agon,
the dance, the disguise and the banquet have penetrated
the fable. The festival, the banquet, and iambic poetry
included themes found strongly in fables; myths,
insults, exhortations, maxims, anecdotes, enigmas,
tournaments of ingenuity, and insulting comparisons.
(18)
This observation points towards the origins of the fable in the West. Since
animals held an important place in Greek mythology and religion, they were
used to perform the sacred task of educating the common people. This
religious undertaking eventually became one of the basic purposes of the
fable i.e. to instruct. The origins of the fable in the East are also believed to
be religious. In The Fables of Aesop (1880), Jacobs analyses how the great
ethical reformer, the Buddha is believed to have initiated the habit of using
the Beast-Tale for moral purposes, or, in other words, transformed it into the
Fable. Thus both Eastern and Western fables came to incorporate religious,
literary and humorous elements, in addition to an abundance of materials
from the observation of nature.
Seth draws upon some of these aspects of the traditional fable in his
collection of Beastly Tales. The presence of a ‘celestial court’ (37) of Gods
and godlings in The Rat and the Ox (BT 293-9); the Eagle’s refuge in ‘the
lap of the mighty Zeus’ (83) in The Eagle and the Beetle (BT 300-3); and
the manner in which the Tragopan kneels and prays to the god of birds, the
‘Great Partridge…/…dwelling in the sky’ (82-3) in The Elephant and the
Tragopan (BT 337-63) point to the religious inclinations of the tales. The
Nightingale’s song in The Frog and the Nightingale (BT 332-6) is also
considered ‘divine’ (29); while the Cat and Cock sing to their heart’s
content in The Cat and the Cock (BT 313-23) as a tribute to the god of
music, ‘And the pair would dance and sing /While the house with joy would
ring’ (13-4). There is also subversion of the biblical text in some stories. The
mangoes in The Crocodile and the Monkey (BT 279-85) have been
described as ‘nectar from the tree of life’ (73) which may stand for the tree
of the Forbidden fruit in Paradise. Mrs.Crocodile’s attempts to devour the
Explorations
Volume 21 (2010)
82
Monkey would, in that case, symbolize the evil at the heart of such beauty.
Bingle Valley in The Elephant and the Tragopan (BT 337-63) has also been
described as ‘a minor paradise’ (10) for the animals. This paradise, like
Eden, offers the creatures with all sorts of comfort and Man, like the
Serpent, intends to deprive them of this heavenly bliss. The Hare in The
Hare and the Tortoise (BT 304-12) spends cash only because it is a ‘sin’
(246) to save it, while ‘the shrine of sleep and beauty’ (222) ironically
replaces a holy place of pilgrimage.
Although none of the characters in Seth’s stories wears a mask, as in the
Greek festivals, their false feelings serve as a disguise which hides their true
intentions from each other. In The Crocodile and the Monkey (BT279-85),
Kuroop conceals his motives of killing his friend behind ‘accents
gruff’(107) and a ‘gentle smile’(77); the Rat in The Rat and the Ox (BT 2939) feigns ‘gloom and grief” (131) in order to gain the sympathy of the Ox;
and the Fox in The Cat and the Cock (BT 313-23) disguises her voice in
accents ‘smoothly oiled’ (42). Seth has also made effective use of the
element of the banquet in his stories. There is feasting in nearly all the
stories of the collection. The crocodiles in The Crocodile and the Monkey
(BT 279-85) eat ‘Mangoes gold and ripe and sweet’ (25); the clan of lice in
The Louse and the Mosquito (BT 286-9) drink ‘the king’s blood’(6) for
their food; the beasts of Runnyrhyme gobble ‘popcorn’ and drink ‘beer’ (97)
while waiting for the contestants of the race in The Hare and the Tortoise
(BT 304-12); and the Elephant is served tea with ‘milk’ (448), ‘sugar’(448)
and ‘biscuit’ (492) in The Elephant and the Tragopan (BT 337-63). This
constant presence of food and drink not only adds to the humor and gaiety
of the tales, but also displays the religious motive of celebrating life in
general. Thus the presence of all these features formulates the link between
Seth’s Beastly Tales and the traditional fable.
In Greece as well as the Indian sub-continent, fables were related to