After Kafka, who is certainly one of the most well-known German writers but not especially famous for his fable about the mouse and the cat, let’s today move on to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.As one of the most important figures of Enlightenment in Germany and of German literature in general, Lessing was very productive in a number of genres. The fable being one of the most prominent ones. He translated many of the classical fables by Aesop, he created his own and he also wrote a very distinct normative theory of the genre.
And he wasn’t the only one, of course, who was so into this genre. Fables – so the intellectuals figured – were a great medium to enlighten the masses. Most people back then couldn’t read but, of course, everybody was familiar with folklore. So fables were a medium people were used to and their “Moral von der Geschicht'” (the fable’s moral) was so clear-cut, nobody could misunderstand it. Fables thusly combined entertainment with guaranteed teaching success, or so the idea.
Looking back, there are obviously a number of problems with this brilliant idea. Not the least was that authors like Lessing did write their fables down so it’s anybody’s guess how they were supposed to find their way to the illiterate people… But enough of the theory, let’s see this in practise.
The Furies (Die Furien)
(by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing)
“My furies are getting old and dull”, said Pluto to the messenger of the Gods. “I need fresh ones. Therefore, Mercury, go and seek me three capable wenches above the earth.” Mercury did as he was told.
Shortly thereafter, Juno said to her servant: “Iris, do you believe that there are but two or three perfectly strict, chaste maids amongst the mortals? But perfectly chaste! Do you understand? So that we may sneer at Cythera*, who prides herself on having seized the whole of the female sex. Go and find them.” Iris did as she was told.
And Iris searched in every corner of the earth. But alas – to no avail. She came back alone and Juno called to her: “Is it possible? Oh, chastity! Oh, virtue!”
“Goddess,” said Iris, “I could have brought you three maids who would have been perfectly strict and chaste, who – all three of them – had never smiled at a man and who had all smothered the tiniest spark of love in their hearts. Alas, I was too late.”
“Too late?” asked Juno. “Why?”
“Mercury had just taken them to Pluto.”
“To Pluto? And what does Pluto want with these virtuous maids?”
“To make them his furies.”
It’s typical for Lessing to not spell out the moral yet for it to be still crystal-clear but – what do you think of this? An example for the horrors of male chauvinism? A fascinating piece of culturally charged literature? Discuss!
* Cythera is another name for Aphrodite – in case you, too, were wondering.