Skip to main content
Northwestern University
Picture of a wooden bear.left

Wisdom and Whimsy

A carved wooden menagerie adorns the doorways and ledges of Deering Library: bears, owls, frogs and hares. Inspired by Aesop’s Fables, the figures were created by American sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan at the request of University Librarian Theodore W. Koch, who oversaw the library’s construction in the early 1930s.

Koch possessed a well-known sense of whimsy along with a devotion to literature, history and culture. The library he envisioned would celebrate the intellectual tradition in all its dimensions. Thus, the Aesop characters were a canny ornamental choice. The deceptively simple fables, beloved by young readers around the world, also have a long and complex history as vehicles of philosophical and political discourse. 

“Aesop’s Fables usually take the point of view of the weaker character, and in that sense they are somewhat subversive,” observes Professor Sara Monoson, whose research explores how political writers and artists in the 1930s drew on Aesop’s Fables to express anti-Fascist sentiments. “Even in antiquity, they weren’t read as lovely children’s tales. They were much more edgy and rather critical.” 

Monoson suspects that the bibliophile Koch fully appreciated that complexity. “If you’ve read Aesop’s Fables, you know they can be interpreted in many different ways,” the political science professor says. “In that sense, they are a very good choice for a library.” 

Back to top