I've been reading through some fables of Aesop's. I notice that some of them draw an explicit moral, but I don't know whether these were edited in later. For example, this version of "boy and snails" stops short of the moral while this one delivers it. The collection I've been reading mostly omits them, although characters do often get a line such as "This is what I deserve for leaving my life in the pasture, hard as it was!" or "But the sheep was no fool and retorted..."
However, some are without editorialization and seem open to interpretation. Examples:
Ape and travellers. Is this an indictment of those who tell the truth heedless of the danger; of those who tell the truth only opportunistically; or of those who can't bear the hear the truth?
Three tradesmen. Do we laugh at the tanner for having no better argument than his partiality, or does he lampoon the others for appearing to have good reasons when really they're partial?
Swan. Are we supposed to agree with the expedient solution or is it as crude as it sounds?
Wolf, mother, child. Do we laugh at the wolf's naïveté about figurative language or do we share his disgust at people never meaning what they say?
Sometimes I find it easier to piece together an intended reading when there are thematic links:
Pomegranate, apple tree, bramble. Two fruit trees argue over whose fruit is better and a bramble invites them to quit quarrelling. Dolphins, whales, sprat. Same story but this time the dolphins and whales rebuke the would-be mediator: "We would rather go on killing each other than be reconciled by a sprat." Lion & boar. Two enemies realize that killing each other for others' gain benefits neither of them.
The heart of my question: Do some of the fables have intentionally ambiguous meanings? I consider this important because that's quite a different species of literature than black-and-white moralizing. (Of course, I see that at least some fables are of the latter kind.)
Some subquestions of possible relevance:
- Is this the fault of my edition? That is, do we have some manuscripts with more of the morals spelled out and others with less? I know that the Victorians liked to gloss the fables...
- Does something about the form tell me how to read it? For example, in the bramble story, does its having the last word mean anything?
- Are there clues from the customs or mores of the time that make some readings more or less likely for the time? For example, if one used to wring swans' necks as a matter of course...