Fable Traditions in the Stories of Doris Lessing and Bessie Head

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Date: 1998
From: Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English
Publisher: Rodopi
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 61. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,245 words

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[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, Gohrbandt compares the use of fable elements in the African stories of Lessing and Bessie Head.]

1 The problem of comparability

The art of narrative in Africa is fed from so many sources that it is extremely difficult to gain a sense of what is characteristic and particular about it. Take two novelists, Bessie Head and Doris Lessing, say--what does it mean to compare them, and to compare them as African writers? What exactly is one comparing? Ethnic or regional influences? Themes? Style and genre? Politics? Coloured the one and white the other, both of them are writers of fiction, non-fiction, historico-political semi-fiction, and autobiography. Women and expatriates both, one was a rebel against her bourgeois upbringing, and the other was rejected by the bourgeois society which had pronounced her parents unfit to bring her up. Both Head and Lessing are writers of place, meaning that it is through a careful examination of landscapes and settlements, and of the flora and fauna and humans inhabiting them, that they both advance towards a knowledge and evaluation of society and of human behaviour in society. At this level of description, the two writers no doubt share common ground, but it is not so clear how extensive this is, and if their very own territories are not more significant.

In an attempt to find out more about the position in literary history occupied by Head and Lessing, I wish to explore the idea that their writing is significantly influenced by an oral and literary tradition stemming from and informed by an archetypal genre, that of the fable narrative. In a way that I shall describe in a moment, the short fiction of Head and Lessing follows and develops the rules of the fable form and by so doing situates itself within traditions of world literature, as well as within currents of European and African writing today. Let me state this approach in three theses:

1. The use of fable elements in the stories of Lessing and Head documents their position in African and in world literature, and helps to define the relation between these two literatures.

2. Head's and Lessing's stories derive part of their generic identity (formal, thematic, interactional) from their use of fable elements.

3. The use of fable elements provides a basis of comparison within a literary tradition--for example, with respect to the relation between the oral and the written.

More specifically, it seems that the use of fable elements can tell us a lot about a writer's political attitudes, her awareness of issues like class, the role of women, the distribution and exercise of power, the economic system, and the moral norms operating in a society. To the extent that such issues constitute a society, the fictional narratives expressing them can be said to contribute toward the constitution of a specific society. I am proposing, then, to use genre as a tool in an exercise in comparative literature.

2 Generic continuity from fable to story

The history of the fable in English literature, whether in Britain, the USA or in other anglophone cultures, can plausibly be seen in terms of the genre's slow but inevitable decline. While such a description is too simplistic to be at all accurate, it does suggest that, after a final flowering of fable literature in the eighteenth century (in the works of writers like Gay, Moore, Prior and Goldsmith), it gradually fell out of favour. The Romantic poets delighted in the rediscovery of 'preliterary' traditions, of forms written in what Wordsworth called the "language really used by men,"1 and resuscitated the old genre of the ballad in the process. The fable, however, was displaced by new forms of moral writing and has been revived only sporadically since. Only in the nursery and perhaps in the classroom has the fable survived, though there are signs of a new lease of life in feminist writing.2 The decay of the genre was made up for by the rise of the short story in the nineteenth century, which quickly displaced the fable as a viable adult form. At the same time, the new genre, as practised by writers like Poe, Hawthorne, Stevenson, Kipling, Saki, and Lawrence, adopted and adapted certain characteristics of the traditional mode, ensuring a degree of continuity which perhaps helps to explain the short story's unprecedented success.

3 Characteristics of the fable

While a definition of the fable, or a discussion of the various definitions proposed, is not called for here, it may not be amiss to call to mind the main traits that have characterized the genre through the centuries.3 Very briefly, the fable is a didactic genre, which expresses its meaning in a parabolic manner, either in an explicit moral or by implication. In form, it combines narrative with dialogic elements, and in the moral it tends to be hortatory. Most fables have something comic and fantastic about them, partly because they use animals as agents, partly because they lead to surprising and ironical resolutions, and partly because they tend to stand the natural and social order on its head, so as to put it back more firmly on its feet. In dealing with the moral foundations of society, the fable is always political. Finally, the co-occurrence of similar fable motifs in widely different and distant cultures, and the passage of individual fables and of collections through the centuries from one author to another, both suggest that the fable is preeminently the genre that transcends cultural barriers, i.e. that it is intercultural.

Bearing these features of the fable in mind, let us read some of Bessie Head's Botswana tales and Doris Lessing's African stories.

4 Bessie Head's stories as fables

Bessie Head (1937-86) published one collection of stories during her lifetime, The Collector of Treasures (1977), followed by the posthumous Tales of Tenderness and Power (1990). The subtitle of the first collection specifies the genre as "Botswana Village Tales." This accurately indicates the oral tradition of Botswana, her adopted country after 1964, as one source of her stories, as well as her view of herself as a traditional storyteller.4 Her oral history of Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981), where she lived for many years, is a treasury of this tradition and indirect documentation of the sources tapped for her stories. It shows how Bessie Head interviews those men and women in Serowe who can give witness to the community's history and traditions, those who know how the community works and what it stands for. In the same spirit, the Botswana village tales speak of the values and aspirations of the Bamangwato nation, but also of "the incredible muddle and nonsense people made of their lives each day."5

The Collector of Treasures consists of a sequence of thirteen tales, organized in such a way as to lead the reader step by step into the social and moral life of a Botswana community. Whereas, in South Africa, "people [did] not know how to speak for themselves,"6 in Botswana they do, and Head recognizes that especially the old men are living libraries and "repositories of all tribal learning and knowledge."7 This discovery encouraged her to try to write "a continuous portrait of African history."8 As contributions to such a portrait, her tales, she says, are reincarnations of tales told for generations. She is the re-teller of the tales, and as such she has a strong presence in them, commenting and moralizing and digressing in the manner of what we have learned to call an intrusive narrator. Let us look for examples of this narrative attitude and of other fable elements in two of her tales.

In "The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration," the first tale from The Collector of Treasures, Head makes an important distinction that signals the merging of oral and literary modes. She introduces the members of the Talaote tribe as "a people who lived without faces, except for their chief, whose face was the face of all the people."9 In other words, they possess no individual names, only the group name of their tribe and the patronym of their chief. This absence of individual names, a feature of the fable, goes along with an absence of individual volition: "their day-to-day lives granted them no individual faces either for they ploughed their crops, reared their children, and held their festivities according to the laws of the land" (1). To be defined in name and law by the community is the traditional way of things, though only recognizable as such from a post-traditional perspective, that of the immigrant Bessie Head. She provides us with a strikingly partisan comment on tradition when she calls it a "regimental levelling down of their individual souls" (2). This is unexpected, for tradition is her main source and the value of tradition one of her dominant themes. The point is that tradition is only half the story. Head is far from deluding herself that it is possible or desirable to return to the harmonious and innocent state of society imagined as existing before the white man came. The structure of this tale shows that the other half of the story is one in which individuality reigns, where it stands in a conflictual relationship with the old order. One day an event occurs that disrupts the old order's namelessness, or, as Head puts it: "On the day of dispute or when strife and conflict and greed blew stormy winds over their deep river, the people awoke and showed their individual faces" (2). The dispute is about the individual's right to decide his own emotional priorities, ie a conflict of love versus tribal policy. The protagonist is marked as an individual by having a name: Sebembele. His mistress and their child and Sebembele's rival brothers are also named. By contrast, there are two classes of participants without proper names, the people and the councillors. According to the rules of oral narrative, there is no need to individualize these--at most, they are subdivided into subsets, or "camps" as Head (rather like Henry James before her)10 calls them. On the other hand, names can be precarious, as when Sebembele's two junior brothers, Ntema and Mosemme, merge into a single name, as if it were hyphenated, and always speak with one and the same voice.11 Indeed, a good part of the drama of this tale derives from the way Head contrasts individual utterance, as in Sebembele's remarkable "The love between Rankwana and I is great" (3), with the speaking of a group in the very frequent "they said" phrase (3).

Two more fable elements in this tale should be mentioned. One is the use of sentential phrases, expressing the wisdom of the tribe rather than the insight of any individual member. Examples are: "If a man couldn't make up his own mind, other men could make it up for him" or "Women never know their own minds" (4). However, Head does not allow these phrases to remain uncontradicted: her narrative ironically subverts them, or, in the case of the second example, has them rejected by an individual voice, as when Rankwana speaks up for herself against her father. The second characteristic is the emphasis on social norms and moral values. The narrator's reference to greed as one of the prime causes of dispute has already been quoted (2). Other vices are secrecy and causing unrest, while respect for seniority and obedience are accepted as traditional virtues. The principal moral the tale seems to be asserting is the familiar Aesopian preference for deeds over words:12

They saw Rankwana and Sebembele walk together through the town. Sebembele held the child Makobi in his arms. They saw they had a ruler who talked with deeds rather than with words. They saw that the time had come for them to offer up their individual faces to the face of this ruler.("The Deep River," 5)

In the end, then, individuality gives way again to the group identity from which it arose. This, no doubt, is the political message of the tale, and it seems to provide yet another link with the fable: namely, its function of upholding the norms of society and of protecting it against enemies from outside or within.

While this first tale of the collection refers to the origins of the Talaote tribe, so remote that even the oldest men give only "confused and contradictory accounts" (6), the second story refers to the more recent past, probably the final years of the nineteenth century, after the founding of the Bechuanaland protectorate in 1884, when the Christian missions were still new to the country. On the occasion of the death of a very old woman, Galethebege, her brother-in-law tells the assembled family the story of how she married his brother Ralokae. The story relates events that happened within living memory, so of course the two principal actors have proper names, as does the teller of the framed story. The only other identifiable character is the missionary, but as he is only a type, he has no name. Indeed, Modise, the narrator, describes him to his audience as "a short, anonymous looking man who wore glasses."13 The conjunction of the two specifying details with the term "anonymous" signals that this is a figure half-way between history and fable. In a way, this is also true of Galethebege and her husband Ralokae, since she, as an ardent Christian, stands for Christianity while he, faithful to the old customs, stands for the traditional Setswana faith. To this extent they are parabolic characters whose significance goes beyond their individual identity. In this tale, Galethebege and Ralokae are intended to signify the contrast between Christian and Setswana traditions, and their dealings with the missionary signifies the contrast of African tolerance and the intolerance of the missions. While Ralokae can tolerate his wife's Christianity and she makes no sustained attempt to convert him, the missionary refuses to allow a Setswana marriage and even excommunicates Galethebege. But the really interesting conflict is more abstract, and that, I suggest, is another sign of the fable tradition. The key concept in the tale is not 'sin' or 'faith' or 'tradition' or 'discipline' or 'obedience'--all of which are important moral concepts in the story--but the meaning of 'love.' The term 'love' is carefully defined in the course of the story, and it is also re-defined as against the meaning any listener or reader associates with it. At the beginning of the story, in the framing narrative,14 we are introduced to the concept in its religious meaning, when we are told that Galethebege loved God "with her whole heart" and that she had only been able to express "all her pent-up and suppressed love for God" after her husband's death (7). But this is not the whole meaning of 'love'; it is only, so to speak, the official version, according to which Galethebege has been living in sin. The main meaning is the one to be revealed in the main part of the story, in the framed narrative. First we are told that the wish to marry is a part of "the normal life of man" (9), then the courtship is memorably represented in two brief sentences: "'Let us two get together,' he said. 'I am pleased by all your ways'" (9). Then we learn how Galethebege falls in love despite her reservation that Ralokae is an 'unbeliever':

He always wore a black beret perched at a jaunty angle on his head. His walk and manner were gay and jaunty too. He was so exciting as a man that he threw her whole life into turmoil. It was the first time love had come her way and it made the blood pound fiercely through her whole body till she could feel its very throbbing at the tips of her fingers. It turned her thoughts from God a bit, to this new magic life was offering her.(9)

If this description tends to cliché, that is no demerit, for the function of the passage is to supplement agape (divine love) with eros (human love). At least, this is how one would put it in Western terms. That these are not really adequate is shown when Ralokae responds to his bride's wish to be married in church by protesting against the concept of love propagated by the missionaries:

The God might be all right, he explained, but there was something wrong with the people who had brought the word of the Gospel to the land. Their love was enslaving black people and he could not stand it. That was why he was without belief. It was the people he did not trust. They were full of tricks. They were a people who, at the sight of a black man, pointed a finger in the air, looked away into the distance and said impatiently: 'Boy! Will you carry this! Boy! Will you fetch this!' They had brought a new order of things into the land and they made the people cry for love. One never had to cry for love in the customary way of life. Respect was just there for people all the time.(9-10)

In this passage, an African self-interpretation, the concept of love is re-defined in an important way. In the Setswana way of life, love is coterminous with respect, an attitude which is permanent and consists in recognizing the dignity and identity of others. This respectful love can be relied on; it is always there, a kind of natural resource. It as naturally includes physical love as it excludes moral and physical bullying. The point I wish to make here is that in re-defining love in such a way this tale is not aiming at psychological subtlety or social realism. Its aim is didactic: namely, to identify false ideas and to define true ideas to replace them. This is characteristic of the mode of narrative employed in all of Bessie Head's tales, as well as being a feature of her novels. Her didacticism is also one of the ways in which she shapes the tales in The Collector of Treasures into a coherent whole.

5 Fable elements in Doris Lessing's African stories

The stories collected in the two volumes of Doris Lessing's African stories possess no such unity, nor are they meant to. In her preface to This Was The Old Chief's Country (1964), Lessing admits that the African setting "is all they have in common."15 In the preface to the 1973 collection of the same name, she hesitantly proposes a minimal common denominator:

All the stories I write of a certain kind, I think of as belonging under that heading [This Was The Old Chief's Country]: tales about white people, sometimes about black people, living in a landscape that not so very long ago was settled by black tribes, living in complex societies that the white people are only just beginning to study, let alone understand.16

This can be taken as confirming that Head and Lessing are both writers of social and geographical landscape, but it also underlines the fact that white people and their society are as much at the centre of Lessing's writing as black people and theirs are at the centre of Head's. An important difference between the two writers follows from this, as Lessing herself acknowledges: "I am not able to write about what has been lost, which was and still is recorded orally. As a writer that is my biggest regret."17 That she regarded the oral tradition of the East as in danger of being lost and worth recording is evidenced by the preface she wrote to an edition of the Fables of Bidpai.18 By contrast, Bessie Head's achievement may well be described as writing about what has been lost and so recovering it. But in spite of Lessing's disclaimer, there is indeed an oral component in her writing, which possibly derives from the tradition of the fable. A first clue in this direction is found in the titles of her stories, which sometimes imitate the binary form of fable titles or refer to animals, or to men as animals, e.g. "'Leopard' George" and The Antheap,19 or "The Pig," "Plants and Girls" and "The Story of Two Dogs."20 Let us look at the last two to see what other fabular elements they contain.

"Plants and Girls" begins with a single-line paragraph: "There was a boy who lived in a small house in a small town in the centre of Africa."21 This reduced form of the fairy-tale beginning, a conventional enough trace of orality, is emphatically unspecific, and as neither country, town nor house are identified in the course of the story, the representative Africanness is all that counts. The boy is the only character to receive a name, Frederick, while the others remain simply "the father," "the mother," "the girl," and "people." Frederick is nicknamed "Moony" by the children in the street, emphasizing his odd, moonstruck, 'loony' behaviour at the expense of his individuality. But the two names are hardly ever used in the story, for the boy is usually referred to in generic terms as "son" or "youth," and mainly as "he." The boy is a type, not an individual. In the fable, this kind of unspecific reference is important as one of the features of the genre that invites what is known as the 'application': ie the movement from a literal to a figurative or allegorical meaning. In traditional fables, this application or moral can be provided or it can be left to the listeners to find for themselves. In Head's "Heaven is not Closed" a compromise strategy is used, when the teller of the tale, Modise, gives his listeners a partial interpretation but leaves it to them to work out the moral:

His listeners sighed the way people do when they have heard a particularly good story. As they stared at the fire they found themselves debating the matter in their minds, as their elders had done some forty or fifty years ago.22

In Lessing's story, which has no traditional teller, this 'over to you' technique is achieved in the implied shift from the spectators inside the story to the readers outside it:

When people glanced over the hedge in the strong early sunlight of next morning they saw him half-lying over the girl, whose body was marked by blood and by soil and he was murmuring: 'Your hair, your leaves, your branches, your rivers.'23

Where the spectators of this scene will probably come to a conclusion something like "The crazy boy has killed her! Call the police!," the wiser reader is expected to go a step or two further and to formulate a conclusion which includes the enigmatic words Moony is murmuring over the dead girl's body. In Lessing as in Head, the story is left to its readers to complete, ideally in a communal situation, as of sitting round the fire, and finding a social or political application to the here and now of that community.

In "The Story of Two Dogs" (echoing Aesopian fables like "The Two Frogs" or "The Two Pots")24 we find a contrast between the unspecific title and a certain amount of naming in the style of realistic fiction: the dogs are called "Jock" and Bill," and several other names are introduced casually (such as "Jacob, our builder" and "Stella, my puppy's mother"). At bottom, however, specific names are irrelevant and are even displaced, as when Mr and Mrs Barnes are referred to as "the man from Norfolk" and "the man from Norfolk's wife."25 The periphrastic forms become more significant than the proper names: Jock and Bill become "Jock the good dog" and "Bill the bad dog."26 Arbitrary proper names become names with a meaning, signifying names. This even becomes a topic when the first-person narrator, ie Doris Lessing as a fourteen-year-old, tells us about ritual names:

to reach the Great Vlei, which was beautiful, we had to go through the ugly bush 'at the back of the kopje.' These ritual names for parts of the farm seemed rather to be names for regions in our minds. 'Going to the Great Vlei' had a fairy-tale quality about it, because of having to pass through the region of sour ugly frightening bush first.(149)

The remembered landscape of Rhodesia is moralized, just as the dogs of the narrator's childhood27 are turned into types and moral agents. The moralizing of dogs is, of course, a staple feature of Victorian juvenile literature.28 Here it is explicitly linked with the cautionary tale (163),29 in that the history of Bill's Ridgeback father is inserted as a kind of etiological explanation of why the puppy later reverts to the wild state: it is a matter of "bad blood" (162). The dogs provide a seemingly harmless field for the expression of racist and élistist notions: the "dirty Kaffir dogs in the compound" are set against "puppies of the most desirable sort" (166), mongrels against pure-bred dogs (162, 171). However, dogs and humans are not kept separate, for right at the beginning of the story we are told that "my brother's dog was his substitute" (148), just as later the older dog, Jock, becomes a substitute mother for the puppy (164). Just as Doris's mother used to call Jock "old boy" (while her husband calls her "old girl"!; 158), she now refers to the puppy as "the child." In this way, the canine world becomes a parallel to the human world, and the fate of the dogs is finally shown to result from "the inner nature of the [human] family" (166) they belong to. Here, realistic history is merged with moralistic fable in a fictionalized autobiographical narrative.

As in the previous examples discussed, the story of the dogs further shows its relation to the fable through its focus on questions of vice and virtue. The opposition between "Jock the good dog" and "Bill the bad dog" becomes important when we are told about the family's efforts to train Bill. While Jock is "admirably obedient" (170), Bill "just plays all the time" and even seduces Jock (and Doris) into not taking the training sessions seriously. At this point, the traditionally unambiguous stance of the Aesopian fable is supplanted by a contradictory double perspective which sets the masculine stress on discipline and its practical uses, "this business of the boy and the two dogs" against the narrator's much more relaxed and empathetic attitude. Doris is fascinated by the puppy's antics; she enjoys the animal's physical beauty, and recognizes that its behaviour is a natural training for life in the wild. This contradictory perspective colours the rest of the narrative, so that Doris reports "moral disintegration" and "corruption" (174), without really endorsing the judgements. Indeed, the gap between the male, practical, domestic, white standpoint, on the one hand, and the female, aesthetic, natural and native attitude on the other gradually widens, until the reader recognizes that clear-cut judgement is not possible: training is corruption, corruption is training; it just depends on whose interests count. Again, this hesitant insight is brought to bear on human affairs, as when the boarding schools Doris and her brother attend are described as institutions "where we were supposed to be learning discipline, order and sound characters" (174). The implication that these may not be good things to learn is confirmed by Doris Lessing's reflections, in African Laughter, when she meets her brother again and sees what kind of man he has (been) turned into.

Not all the features of fable mentioned earlier have been identified in these four stories by Bessie Head and Doris Lessing: a more detailed analysis of all the tales and stories is required. Nonetheless, I hope to have established that both writers make extensive and significant use of elements of fable--perhaps, even, that they are key features of their short fiction. It now remains to assess in what way Head and Lessing differ in their use of the genre.

6 Comparing Head and Lessing

The quest for fable elements leads to at least four areas of comparison: autobiography, psychology, narrative style, and place. If it is true that an autobiographical approach informs many stories by both writers, there are no doubt differences in its use. For Head, personal experiences seem essentially a means to discover tradition through and beyond other individuals. Lessing, by contrast, uses her own history as a way of finding out about the tensions besetting Africa. These are often located in her characters, or in groups of characters such as a family, and these agents are often explored with considerable psychological subtlety. At the same time, one has a strong sense that even the most realistic figure has a parabolic dimension, ie represents an idea or a typical attitude. Head's figures tend to be types, ie representatives of roles and institutions, but they often achieve convincing psychological dimensions, especially in social interaction. Both writers tend to move between proper names and generic reference, with a larger distance between these forms of naming covered by Lessing. In her writing this is offset by a consistently sophisticated tone, even when she is narrating from the perspective of a mentally limited figure like Moony. By contrast, Head often seems stylistically clumsy, as in the use of cliché and pleonasm, although she is capable of memorable phrases, as when she describes a wished-for rapprochement between Setswana and Christian ways as "a compromise of tenderness."30 As regards the construction of the tales, the shades of meaning developed on different levels of narration, and the interplay of narrator and listener, she is very skilful indeed. Lessing is more conventionally modern, eg in her insistence on unreliability and openness. Finally, the attitude to place is one further feature our writers share: Head writes of place as of finding the true Africa after losing a false or falsified one; she is a chronicler of a place that is indubitably there to be heard and seen and told. Lessing, writing at a greater distance from Africa, seems motivated by a sense of loss, a loss which she recuperates in her stories by re-writing place in her memory; place is a moral and political structure.

Neither Head nor Lessing writes fables in the strict sense of the term. However, what is characteristic of their writing can be identified by exploring its connections with traditional oral forms of telling. These also provide a tool for identifying what may be seen as specifically African about their African stories: a subtle brand of didacticism that springs from authentic experience.


1. William Wordsworth, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," l. 98-99, in Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason (London: Longman, 1992): 59.

2. Most remarkably, this is the case in the work of Suniti Namjoshi, who brings Indian and European fable traditions together creatively in her Feminist Fables (London: Sheba, 1981) and The Blue Donkey Fables (London: Women's Press, 1988).

3. A more detailed account of the characteristics of the fable is given in my "Gibt es englische Fabeln? Informationen und Anregungen zu einer vernachlässigten Gattung" [Are there English fables? Information and suggestions on a neglected genre], Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht 23.97 (1989): 15-20; and 24.99 (1990): 39-43. For a discussion of intercultural aspects, see my "Eigene Fabeln, andere Fabeln: Europäische und westafrikanische Tierfabeln im Vergleich," in Verstehen und Verständigung durch Sprachenlernen? (Dokumentation des 15. Kongresses für Fremdsprachendidaktik 1993; Beiträge zur Fremdsprachenforschung, vol. 3, ed. Lothar Bredella; Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1995): 276-83.

4. See Gillian Stead Eilersen's introduction to Tales of Tenderness and Power, 10, on Head as a 'teller of tales,' and Ursula A. Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980) (London: Sinclair Browne/ Amherst MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1983): 199-200, on the 'narrative note' introduced by the term 'tale.'

5. Bessie Head, "Hunting," in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (London: Heinemann, 1977): 109.

6. Bessie Head, A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig Mackenzie (London: Heinemann, 1990): 9.

7. Head, A Woman Alone, 88.

8. Head, A Woman Alone, 79.

9. Head, "The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration," in Collector of Treasures, 1. Further page references are in the text.

10. For instance, in ch. 25 of Henry James, The Bostonians (1886; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966): 210 ("the whole question of sides and parties").

11. "Ntema and Mosemme" are mentioned six times in the course of the story, plus five times as "the/his/my brothers," before Head herself makes the de-individualization explicit by describing them as "still working together as one voice" (6).

12. As in "The Fox and the Woodcutter," translated by Handford as "Actions speak louder than words"; see Fables of Aesop, tr. S.A. Handford (Penguin Classics; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964): 6.

13. Head, "Heaven is not Closed," in Collector of Treasures, 10. Further page references are in the text.

14. "Heaven is not Closed" is a frame narrative consisting of an introduction (the first part of the framing narrative, 7-8, 1.12), a framed narrative (8, 1.12-12, 1.24), and a conclusion (the second part of the framing narrative, which has a preliminary beginning at 11, 1.34 and a proper one at 12, 1.24).

15. Doris Lessing, "Preface for the 1964 Collection," in This Was The Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories, vol. 1 (London: Michael Joseph, 1973): 8.

16. Doris Lessing, "Preface for the 1973 Collection," in This Was The Old Chief's Country, 9.

17. Lessing, "Preface for the 1973 Collection," 9.

18. Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, ed. Ramsay Wood, intro. Doris Lessing (London: Granada, 1982): ix-xix.

19. These two stories are collected in Lessing, This Was The Old Chief's Country, 146-70, 301-49.

20. These three stories are collected in Doris Lessing, The Sun Between Their Feet. Collected African Stories, vol. 2 (London: Michael Joseph, 1973): 63-9, 137-46, 158-79.

21. Lessing, "Plants and Girls," in The Sun Between Their Feet, 137.

22. Head, "Heaven is not Closed," 12; cf "It made the people of our village ward think," 11.

23. Lessing, "Plants and Girls," 146.

24. See Aesop's Fables, tr. V. S. Vernon-Jones, intro. G. K. Chesterton (1912, repr. New York: Avenel, 1975): 100, 126.

25. Lessing gives an example of Africans employing periphrastic names for white people ("the man who barks like a dog") in her autobiographical African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (New York: HarperCollins, 1992): 302.

26. Lessing, "The Story of Two Dogs," in The Sun Between Their Feet, 168. Further page references to this story are in the text.

27. Lessing reveals that the story is autobiographical in the preface to The Sun Between Their Feet, 7.

28. Examples are R. M. Ballantyne's The Dog Crusoe and His Master (London: James Nisbet, 1861) and the moralized dogs that abound in Mrs Prosser's Original Fables (London: Religious Tract Society, c1880). In African Laughter, 350, Lessing tells us about two dogs she came across in a house in Harare, one "confused and happy," the other "confident and successful." Significantly, although this is a report, Lessing titles the passage "A Story of Two Unimportant Creatures."

29. The cautionary tale is a genre of didactic verse parodied and revitalized around the turn of the century by Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tales (1907) and New Cautionary Tales (1930). A recent practitioner is Barbara Goldberg in her Cautionary Tales (Washington DC/San Francisco; Dryad, 1990).

30. Head, "Heaven is not Closed," 10.

Works Cited

Aesop's Fables, tr. V. S. Vernon-Jones, intro. G. K. Chesterton (1912). New York: Avenel, 1975.

Ballantyne, R. M. The Dog Crusoe and His Master. London: James Nisbet, 1861.

Barnett, Ursula A. A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980). London: Sinclair Browne/Amherst MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.

Belloc, Hilaire. Stories, Essays, and Poems. London: J. M. Dent, 1938.

Fables of Aesop, tr. S. A. Handford. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Gohrbandt, Detlev. "Gibt es englische Fabeln? Informationen und Anregungen zu einer vernachlässigten Gattung," Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht 23:97 (1989), 15-20; 24:99 (1990), 39-43.

------. "Eigene Fabeln, andere Fabeln: Europäische und westafrikanische Tierfabeln im Vergleich," in Verstehen und Verständigung durch Sprachenlernen?, ed. Lothar Bredella (Dokumentation des 15. Kongresses für Fremdsprachendidaktik 1993; Beiträge zur Fremdsprachenforschung, vol. 3; Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1995): 276-83.

Goldberg, Barbara. Cautionary Tales. Washington DC/San Francisco: Dryad, 1990.

Head, Bessie. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1977.

------. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.

------. Tales of Tenderness and Power, intro. Gillian Stead Eilersen. London: Heinemann, 1990.

------. A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig MacKenzie. London: Heinemann, 1990.

James, Henry. The Bostonians (1886). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, ed. Ramsay Wood, intro. Doris Lessing. London: Granada, 1982.

Lessing, Doris. African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

------. This Was The Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories, vol. 1. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

------. The Sun Between Their Feet: Collected African Stories, vol. 2. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Namjoshi, Suniti. Feminist Fables. London: Sheba, 1981.

------. The Blue Donkey Fables. London: Women's Press, 1988.

Prosser, Mrs. Original Fables. London: Religious Tract Society, nd..

Wordsworth, William. "Preface [to the Lyrical Ballads]," in Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason. London/New York: Longman, 1992): 55-87.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420050904