Androcles and the Lion (1997)
Retold and Illustrated by Dennis Nolan
Harcourt Brace and Company
This story is generally indexed in Aesop’s Fables, perhaps out of laziness. A tale retold can resist easy categorization, after all. A version of this story does appear in Aesop’s anthropomorphic moralizing, but it was around much earlier than that.
This story was first written by an Egyptian living in Rome in A.D. 40, and was apparently based on eye-witness accounts of an actual fateful day at the Circus Maximus. It was then included in Apion’s AEgyptiaca, was copied by Aulus Gellius in the 2nd Century in Noctes Atticae, rewritten 1300 years after that by Plutarch, and now – some 600 years after that – is again retold in this beautiful edition by Dennis Nolan.
I gleaned that previous paragraph from a nice afterword Nolan includes.
Long ago, on the edge of the Egyptian desert, in the empire of Rome, a slave named Androcles was kept by a cruel master.
Soon Androcles attempts his escape, to run off into the desert with two days worth of stolen food. Nolan shows great detail in drawing his dirty hair, his unshaven face, the bare, calloused feet digging into the dunes. The bitter realism better serves the fantastic forthcoming, as he creeps toward the fateful cave.
From behind, enter the eponymous lion.
Though recoiling in fear, Androcles can see that the lion is wounded by a great thorn. Soon, the thorn removed, they become the best of friends, hunting and sleeping together, and posing for portraits such as the one on the cover.
However, the blissful relationship in interrupted by Roman soldiers, who arrest Androcles and force him to join the sadistic Circus Maximus, there to be torn to morsels by wild beasts for the emperor Tiberious’ amusement. But the emperor doesn’t count on the relationship between the slave and the best in question.
Androcles marched in triumph through the streets with the lion beside him. As they passed shops and houses the people showered them with coins and threw flowers on the lion’s golden mane. And everyone who saw them said, “This is the lion that was a man’s best friend, and this is the man who healed the lion.”
Androcles and the Lion (1989)
Retold and Illustrated by Janet Stevens
In this version of the classic tale, Androcles seems much more saintly. His run-in with the lion is not just a random occurrence, but seems just in keeping with his view of nature. In an image which reminds me of Saint Francis, Stevens draws the young lad sitting cross-legged – albeit shackled – while a bevy of cats and kittens and a few dogs flock about him, crawling on him, licking him.
“Androcles was gentle and kindhearted,” she writes. “After his hard work was done and his cruel master was fast asleep, the stray animals of the city came to visit.”
Even after the young slave has escaped and fled to the woods, we find him again kneeling in the grass, surrounded by a bear, a ram, a porcupine, some rabbits and… one ferocious man-eating lion who is roaring so loudly that the rest of the animals run and scatter!!! The ostrich especially looks like its about to die of a heart attack.
But does Androcles run?
“Easy boy. There’s a big, nasty thorn stuck in your paw. Will you let me pull it out? Now be still and don’t bite me.”
And thus the friendship is struck. However, it is not much later that the Roman soldiers surprise and capture Androcles, whilst at the same time a different group of soldiers capture the lion.
Androcles is then sent to the Colosseum – there to be devoured in front of cheering attenders – whooping and hollering and whistling. But it is the very same lion released onto the Colosseum grounds! And instead of attacking, it becomes a docile pussy cat! The cheering attenders now find themselves whooping and hollering and whistling. Is there any result which would have not made their day?
Regardless, “Androcles had learned an important lesson,” Steven tells us. “A noble soul never forgets a kindness.”
And while Androcles was off learning that important lesson, another less fortunate chap was presumably fed to a different, less sensitive lion, and the Colosseum crowd again cheered, whooped and hollered.