Aesop C. 620 B.C.–C. 564 B.C.
(Also transliterated as Aesopus, Hesopus, Esope, and Esop) Greek fabulist.
Aesop is credited with developing the folklore fable during the ancient Greek period into a means of indirectly conveying a political message. Thereafter, Greek, Roman, and European fables have generally been attributed to Aesop, although some extant fables may be traced to sources predating Aesop in Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt; some to Indian folklore and literature; and some to such lesser-known writers after Aesop as Babrius, Phaedrus, Poggio Bracciolini, and Jean de la Fontaine. The collection of Aesopic fables is the nearest source for such common expressions as "sour grapes," "familiarity breeds contempt, and "a dog in a manger" as well as for references to characters in such fables as "The Hare and the Tortoise" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." The typical Aesopic fable, a short allegorical tale using animals to portray a moral, has come to define the genre of fable in popular thinking. Today, the Aesopic fable, which was developed in antiquity to teach political wisdom to adults, is commonly used to instruct children in practical wisdom and to entertain them with its fantasy world of talking animals.
Aesop may have been born in Thrace to the northeast of Greece around 620 B.C., according to what the historian Herodotus says about him. Herodotus describes Aesop as a slave from Thrace who served under Iadmon of Samos at the same time as the female Thracian slave Rhodopis. Herodotus also mentions that Rhodopis was later ransomed from slavery in Egypt by the brother of the famous poetess Sappho, who was born around 612 B.C. A comparison of the possible ages of Aesop, Rhodopis, Sappho, and Sappho's brother suggests the date of birth for Aesop as 620 B.C. According to Aristotle in the Constitution of the Samians, Aesop served as the slave of a certain Xanthus, then served as the slave of a certain Iadmon (who later freed him,) and then went on to gain a strong reputation among the Samians by telling them the fable of "The Fox and the Hedgehog" as a defense for a politician on trial for embezzlement. In this fable, a hedgehog's offer to remove blood-sucking ticks from a fox is refused on the grounds that other unsated ticks will come to draw more blood. A controversial and romantic Life of Aesop written in the
first century A.D. relates that Aesop was then sent by the Samians to the court of Croesus in Sardis in order to persuade Croesus not to subjugate the Samian people. Croesus was so impressed with Aesop that he put aside his plans of conquest for Samos and gave Aesop a position at his court, which gave Aesop the leisure to write out his fables. Then, as part of Aesop's continuing service to Croesus, according to the biographer and essayist Plutarch, Aesop went on a diplomatic mission to Delphi, where his life was brought to an end. According to the Life of Aesop, Aesop had offended the priests of Apollo by suggesting that they had a great reputation abroad but lacked substance in person. In revenge the priests framed Aesop by putting a golden cup from the temple in his baggage, capturing him, and condemning him to death. In his defense, Aesop related two fables. The first, "The Frog and the Mouse," tells of a frog that was carried off by a bird of prey attracted by the thrashing of a mouse being gratuitously drowned by the frog; the second, "The Eagle and the Dung-Beetle," tells of the inexorable vengeance of a lowly dung-beetle on an eagle that had refused to heed the dung-beetle's request to spare the life of a rabbit. The Delphians refused to heed the morals of the fables and threw Aesop over the cliff. However, according to Herodotus, the Delphians in the third generation afterwards paid blood-money to the descendant of Iadmon to atone for the crime of their ancestors. According to the dating of the Christian chronographer and historian Eusebius, Aesop died in Delphi in 564 B.C.
Aesop's fables are often defined on the basis of common internal characteristics. The Aesopic fable is generally an allegorical tale of a brief, fictitious action occurring in past time, usually between particular animals who act like humans, so that the actions suggest a moral, which may or may not be explicitly stated. Ani mal types in the Aesopic fable tend to represent types of human moral qualities: foxes represent cunning; asses represent stupidity; lambs represent helpless innocence; and wolves represent ruthlessness. The Aesopic fable often appears as a cautionary tale, revealing through humor or through cynicism and satire an amoral world that does not reward abstract virtue but rather a world that requires common sense and moderation for self-preservation. Aesop's fables are often defined by contrast with the literary genres of folktale, allegory, parable, and proverb. Fable, like folktale, has animals with lives similar to humans but, unlike folktale, has a short and simple narrative and usually gives an explicit moral. Although fable provides an allegory of the human situation in the actions of the animals, fable's use of animal characters and shorter narrative distinguish it from other forms of allegory. Fable differs from parable in its use of animal actors and its frequent humorous quality. Fable differs from proverb in its use of a brief narrative of the interaction of animals in addition to the brief moral statement common to proverb and fable. The Aesopic fable can also be defined by reference to its place in the development of the fable. The fable before Aesop seems to appear after the development of the Greek city-state during the Greek Dark Ages, perhaps because the new urban environment offered greater intellectual stimulation and thus a greater possibility of understanding and appreciating metaphor, the basic concept underlying the fable. The pre-Aesopic fable seems to be directed toward a particular individual in a specific context. For example, Hesiod's "The Hawk and the Nightingale" is directed toward Hesiod's brother, and Archilochus's "The Lion and the Fox" is directed toward Archilochus's former lover. Also, such pre-Aesopic fables appear in verse, are serious, and lack an explicitly stated moral. Aesop's fables, however, seem to have been prose compositions—either orally or in writing, depending on which details of the tradition one accepts—using animal stories for comic effect as well as for conveying a political message. It is probable that the fables that might reasonably be attributed to Aesop originally lacked an explicitly stated moral. However, morals came to be attached to Aesopic fables as a result of the collection of fables attributed to Aesop compiled by Demetrius Phalerius around 300 B.C. According to Ben Edwin Perry, the addition of morals came about from moving the book-maker's heading, which summarized a fable for the purpose of indexing it according to its moral application, from its place at the beginning of the fable to the end, where it served to reinforce the moral.
Four significant collections of Aesopic fables were published in classical antiquity. The first collection, no longer extant, was a work in Greek prose around 300 B.C. by Demetrius of Phalerum, probably for use as a reference book of fables for writers and public speak ers. The second collection is the Augustana recension, or critical revision of the text, which may with good probability have been based on a first- or second-century A.D. compilation. The Augustana recension was the basis for three other recensions, which include the fourteenth-century edition of Maximus Planudes, which served as the vulgate version of the Greek text of Aesop's Fables until the Augustana recension proper was published in 1812. The third collection is the work of Phaedrus, who probably used Demetrius's collection as the basis for his Latin verse version of the fables produced before 55 A.D., the probable year of his death. Phaedrus both expanded the Aesopic material available to him and supplemented it with material from other sources and with material of his own invention. Phaedrus's collection was rendered in Latin prose as part of a fourth- or fifth-century A.D. collection attributed to Aesop. This Latin prose derivation of Phaedrus became the basis for three medieval Latin prose paraphrases referred to respectively as "Aesop of Ademar," "Aesop ad Rufum," and "Romulus," each of which modified the text by means of expansions, deletions, or additions. The fourth and last collection is the work of Babrius, who probably used Demetrius's prose fables of Aesop as the basis for his Greek verse version of the fables, produced perhaps in the late first or second century. Babrius may also have used the Augustana collection, and he seems to have supplemented his Aesopic sources with Near Eastern fables, such as the Assyrian fables of Ahiqar and the Babylonian fable of "The Gnat on the Bull's Horns." Babrius's collection was excerpted and put into Latin prose by Avianus around the beginning of the fifth century A.D. This collection of Avianus and the Latin prose paraphrases of Phaedrus were popular during the Middle Ages, and they inspired the verse imitations of Walter the Englishman and Alexander Neckham as well as the composition of original fables in verse by Odo of Cheriton. The Latin prose versions of Babrius/Avianus and Phaedrus continued to be influential in the Renaissance with Heinrich Steinhowel's Latin-German edition (1476-77) of Romulus, Avianus, Petrus Alphonsus, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and Rinuccio de Castiglione's Latin translation of some Greek prose adaptations of Babrius. First Steinhôwel's edition was translated into French by Julien Macho; then Macho's version was translated into English and published by William Caxton in 1484. Significant English versions of Aesop after Caxton include the versions of John Ogilby (1651), Sir Roger L'Estrange (1692), and Samuel Croxall (1722). Of these, L'Estrange's version is the only one to add significantly to the underlying text of Steinhôwel's edition with fables from the Greek Aesopic tradition that were published after Steinhôwel's edition. Modern critical work on Aesop dates from the writings of Neveletus on the Greek corpus in 1610 and that of Nilant on the Latin corpus in 1709. The scholars Richard Bentley (1662-1742) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) solved significant problems associated with the text. Modern critical editions, such as those of Émile Chambry (1925-26), August Hausrath (1940), and Ben Edwin Perry (1952), give first place to the earliest of the Augustana recensions and then add separately material from later Augustana recensions. The latter two editions put in last place material listed under sources other than Aesop.
Aesop's Fables have always had a mixed reception. The classical rhetorical educator Quintilian advised children at the beginning of their education to practice translating, paraphrasing, abbreviating, and elaborating the Aesopic fables. In rhetorical theory and practice, the fable seems to have been a rhetorical device for enhancing persuasiveness in public speaking. As such, the fable was expected to be adapted to different circumstances, and so the actual wording of the fable would change from one circumstance to the next. In this context, Demetrius's collection seems to have been made as a reference work listing fables for use in rhetorical exercises and public speaking. The situations just described show a regard for the content of the fables but little regard for their textual form. The situation of the works of Phaedrus and Babrius suggests another aspect of the reception of Aesop's fables. On the one hand, putting the fables into verse raised these productions to the level of literary art, and the text of their fables in certain textual traditions remained fixed and received critical but brief attention. On the other hand, the works of both authors in other textual traditions were put into prose and spread across Europe, serving as the basis for vernacular editions of Aesop's fables. Thus, the fables enjoyed popular acclaim partly as a school text, and inspired literary works, although they were not necessarily artful themselves—a fact underlined both by the anonymous or pseudonymous nature of the late classical and medieval Latin prose paraphrases and by the constantly changing text. Today, Aesop's fables continue to be considered useful as children's literature, and the process of adaptation of the fables continues, primarily for this younger audience. Modern scholars also exhibit an ambivalent attitude toward Aesop's fables. Many tend not to critically analyze the literary aspects of relatively independent units of the corpus, such as the Augustana recension, or of groups of fables with a similar theme, or of the literary merit of individual fables. Such avoidance seems to result from a perception of a lack of literary sophistication in the Aesopic corpus and from the difficulty of proving something definitively from such an eclectic and non-homogenous text. Consequently modern scholars tend to discuss alternative aspects of the text, with some discussing the nature of the genre of fable and placing Aesop in that context. Robert Dodsley emphasizes the moral and also discusses the action, characters, and language appropriate for a fable. Ben Edwin Perry stresses the fictional, metaphorical, humorous, and satirical aspects of fable. Agnes Perkins, in comparing the Aesopic morals to the morals of the Buddhist Jatakas, proposes that Aesop's morals support action to one's personal advantage rather than action good in itself. H. J. Blackham analyzes fable according to Perry's definition as well as according to its use of images and its purpose. In addition, some scholars compare fable with other genres. Blackham compares fable with parable and allegory. Alternatively, both Margaret Blount and P. Gila Reinstein compare fable with folktale and fairy-tale. Blount suggests that folktale animals are closer to human and do not demonstrate a moral so explicitly as Aesop's animals, and Reinstein argues that Aesop's fables present a cynical and self-reliant philosophy, whereas Grimm's folktales present a belief in a moral order with the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Furthermore, other scholars discuss the sources of the fables. On the one hand, both Perry and Joseph Jacobs discuss the history of the ever-changing corpus of the written text. On the other hand, Louis Cons, J. H. Driberg, and Georgios A. Megas discuss the influence of the oral tradition. Cons suggests a neolithic source for a particlar fable; Driberg proposes African folktales as a source in general for Aesop; and Megas argues for a better preservation of the fables' internal relationships through oral transmission than through textual transmission. Finally, some scholars focus on the changes that individual authors make in their editions of Aesop's fables. Samuel Richardson, in addition to explaining his own changes, discusses those of Sir Roger L'Estrange and Samuel Croxall in their editions, especially in regard to the morals, in order to advance their own political viewpoint. Barbara Mirel discovers three methods of interpreting Aesop in various modern editions and shows how "The Fox and the Crow" is presented differently according to each. Mary-Agnes Taylor examines the changes made by various poets in favor of the ant in "The Grasshopper and the Ant." George Clark compares the fables of "The Cock and the Jewel" and "The Swallow and the Other Birds" in the versions of Aesop and Robert Henryson. In general, critics find fault with the lack of literary quality in the Aesopic corpus, with the political or religious bias of a previous collection of Aesop's works, and with the didacticism of the morals. However, critics commend the fables for their simplicity, humor, pointedness, and wisdom, and for the literary quality of particular productions.
"Androcles and the Lion"
"The Ant and the Fly"
"The Ant and the Grasshopper"
"The Ass in the Lion's Skin"
"The Bullfrog and the Bear"
"The Butterfly and the Wasp"
"The Cock and the Fox"
"The Cock and the Jewel"
"The Dog and the Meat"
"The Dog and the Wolf "
"The Dog in a Manger"
"The Eagle and the Beetle"
"The Eagle and the Vixen"
"The Farmer and the River"
"The Farmer and the Snake"
"The Father and His Sons"
"The Fir Tree and the Bramble"
"The Flies and the Honey-Pot"
"The Fox and the Cock"
"The Fox and the Crow"
"The Fox and the Grapes"
"The Gnat and the Bull"
"The Good Man and the Serpent"
"The Hare and the Tortoise"
"The Jackdaw and the Doves"
"The Lion and the Mouse"
"The Lion in Love with the Farmer's Daughter"
"The Lion, the Ass, and the Fox"
"The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass"
"The Milk-Woman and Her Pail"
"The Mouse and the Frog"
"The North Wind and the Sun"...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
SOURCE: John Locke, "Some Thoughts Concerning Education," in The Educational Writings of John Locke, edited by John William Adamson, Edward Arnold, 1912, pp. 21-180.
[In the following excerpt, reprinted in 1912, Locke describes Aesop's fables as entertaining and containing useful moral instruction for the young.]
[When a child] begins to be able to read, some easy, pleaxssant book, suited to his capacity, should be put into his hands, wherein the entertainment that he finds might draw him on, and reward his pains in reading; and yet not such as should fill his head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of vice and folly. To this purpose I think Æsop's Fables the best, which being stories apt to delight and entertain a child, may yet afford useful reflections to a grown man; and if his memory retain them all his life after, he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly thoughts and serious business. If his Æsop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much the better, and encourage him to read when it carries the increase of knowledge with it …
(The entire section is 184 words.)
SOURCE: Samuel Richardson, in a preface to Aesop's Fables, 1740, edited by Samuel Richardson, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1975, pp. i-xiv.
[In the following excerpt, reprinted in 1975, Richardson discusses the reasons for editing Aesop that motivated Roger L 'Estrange and S. Croxall and Richardson himself especially in regard to the modification of the moral.]
When there are so many editions of Æsop's fables, it will be expected, that some reasons should be given for the appearance of a new one; and we shall be as brief on this head, as the nature of the thing will admit. Of all the English editions, we shall consider only two as worthy of notice; to wit, that of the celebrated Sir Roger L 'Estrange, and that which appears under the name of S. Croxal, subscribed to the dedication. And when we have given an account of what each says for his own performance, it will be our turn to offer some things to the reader with regard to our present undertaking.
When first I put pen to paper upon this design, says Sir Roger, I had in my eye only the common school book, as it stands in the Cambridge and Oxford editions of it, under the title of Æsopi Phrygis Fabulae; una cum nonnullis variorum auctorum fabulis adjectis: propounding to myself, at that time, to follow the very course and series of that collection; and, in one...
(The entire section is 3428 words.)
SOURCE: Robert Dodsley, reprinted from "Select Fables of Esop and Other Fabulists," in An Essay on Fable, The Augustan Reprint Society, 1965, pp. lvii-lxxvii.
[In the following essay, published in a second imprint in 1764 and reprinted in 1965, Dodsley describes the characteristics of the fable including its ability to convey moral truth without an offensive air of moral superiority.]
Whoever undertakes to compose a fable, whether of the sublimer and more complex kind, as the epick and dramatick; or of the lower and more simple, as what has been called the Esopean; should make it his principal intention to illustrate some one moral or prudential maxim. To this point the composition in all its parts must be directed; and this will lead him to describe some action proper to enforce the maxim he has chosen. In several respects therefore the greater fable and the less agree. It is the business of both to teach some particular moral, exemplified by an action, and this enlivened by natural incidents. Both alike must be supported by apposite and proper characters, and both be furnished with sentiments and language suitable to the character thus employed. I would by no means however infer, that, to produce one of these small pieces requires the same degree of genius, as to form an epick or dramatick Fable. All I would insinuate, is, that the apologue has a right to some...
(The entire section is 4310 words.)
SOURCE: Joseph Jacobs, in The Fables of Aesop: Edited, Told Anew and Their History, by Joseph Jacobs, University Microfilms, Inc. 1964, 222 p.
[In the following excerpt, reprinted in 1964, Jacobs discusses how the text of Aesop's fables has been preserved and changed as it passed through successive translators and publishers from antiquity to his day.]
It is difficult to say what are and what are not the Fables of Aesop. Almost all the fables that have appeared in the Western world have been sheltered at one time or another under the shadow of that name. I could at any rate enumerate at least seven hundred which have appeared in English in various books entitled Aesop's Fables. L'Estrange's collection alone contains over five hundred….
Aesop himself is so shadowy a figure that we might almost be forgiven if we held, with regard to him, the heresy of Mistress Elizabeth Prig. What we call his fables can in most cases be traced back to the fables of other people, notably of Phaedrus and Babrius. It is usual to regard the Greek Prose Collections, passing under the name of Aesop, as having greater claims to the eponymous title; but modern research has shown that these are but medieval prosings of Babrius's verse.
Most nations develop the Beast-Tale as part of their folk-lore, some go further and apply it to satiric purposes, and a few...
(The entire section is 1998 words.)
SOURCE: Guy Everett Snavely, "Latin Source of deVignay's Fables" in an introduction to The Aesopic Fables in the "Mireoir Historical" of Jehan de Vignay, edited by Guy Everett Snavely, J. H. Furst Company, 1908, pp. 31-36.
[In the following excerpt, Snavely discusses how Jehan de Vignay translated Aesop's fables in a fairly literal manner from Latin prose versions into Old French.]
While the ultimate source of the short collection of Æsopic Fables contained in Jehan de Vignay's Mireoir Historial is probably to be found in Classical Greek literature,1 it will be sufficient for the purposes of the present dissertation to investigate our author's immediate source. This latter is readily shown to be the same as that of the remainder of the work; namely, the Speculum Historiale of Vincentius Bellovacensis, which contains the same set of fables in a Latin prose form.
Vincentius Bellovacensis was a Dominican monk who lived from 1190 (?) to 1264, and who was on terms of intimacy with St. Louis (Louis IX, King of France, 1226-1270). Indeed it was he who assisted the King very largely in the formation of the newly-founded Royal Library at Paris, while at the same time the manuscripts of the King supplied him with the necessary materials for his own voluminous writings.2
The Speculum Historiale, the most popular of all his...
(The entire section is 1611 words.)
SOURCE: G. K. Chesterton, in an introduction to Aesop's Fables, translated by V. S. Vernon Jones, Doubleday Page & Co., 1912, pp. v-xi.
[In the following excerpt, Chesterton describes each animal species in Aesop's fables as a symbol of a single fixed meaning, which enables the interaction of animal figures to convey its timeless message.]
Æsop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not to him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future.
The historical Æsop, in so far as he was historical, would seem to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in the time of that Crœsus whose story we love and suspect like...
(The entire section is 1455 words.)
SOURCE: Louis Cons, "A Neolithic Saying and an Aesop's Fable," in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, July-September, 1924, pp. 276-77.
[In the following essay, Cons suggests that Aesop's fable of "The Farmer and the River" descends from a neolithic saying that comments on the infrequency of finding useable stone axe-heads in a river.]
In Carl Halm's collection of Aesop's Fables (Leipzig, 1863) No. 308 … ["A Woodcutter and Hermes"] (No. 44 of Corais's collection) is the story of a woodcutter who, having dropped his axe into a river, refuses to accept the gold and silver ones that Hermes offers him in exchange. He asks only to have his own restored to him, and is rewarded for his honesty by the gift of the three axes. Other woodcutters having heard of this adventure, pretend to have lost their axes in the same river, and call for an axe of gold. Hermes indignant refuses to restore even their own. Then follows a moral to the effect that, in the eyes of the Divine, honesty is the best policy.
But in addition to this well-known version, there is another that in Halm's collection bears the number 308b, and the title … ["A Farmer and a River"]. In this variant, a peasant, walking by the river, let his axe or rather his axe-head … fall into the water. Hearing his lament, the River itself appears and there ensues the same scene of temptation, honest denial and...
(The entire section is 791 words.)
SOURCE: J. H. Driberg, "Aesop," in The Spectator, Vol. 148, No. 5425, June 18, 1932, pp. 857-58.
[In the following essay, Driberg discusses the possible influence of African folktales on Aesop's fables.]
Little is known of Aesop till after he had won his freedom. Some say that he was a Phrygian slave—but that, perhaps, is because his master was Iadmon of Samos, who doubtless visited Phrygia from time to time. The more general view, however, is that he was an African, who, taken in slavery, drifted to Asia Minor and the Islands. His very name, Aesop, perverted from Acthiop, indicates his African origin. He visited the court of Croesus as a freed-man, and later met his death at Delphi, possibly (again accounts vary) for peculating trust funds—how could modern financiers survive such drastic treatment?—but more probably because, as was the way of Archilochus, his tongue was barbed with a greater degree of malice and sarcasm than the worthy Delphians could tolerate. That his fables early won him a reputation may be readily inferred, and it is remarkable that by Mohammed's time his reputation was so firmly established that the Prophet inscribed the thirty-first sura of the Koran to his name, Lokman as he was known to the Mohammedan world, the greatest fabulist then as now.
Caxton's translation from the French has now been worthily published by the Gregynog Press, a superb example of...
(The entire section is 1243 words.)
SOURCE: Bateman Edwards, "An Aesopic Allusion in the Roman D'Alexandre," in Studies in Honor of Frederick W. Shipley, by His Colleagues, Washington University Studies, 1942, pp. 95-100.
[In the following essay, Edwards finds an allusion to Aesop in the "Roman d'Alexandre " that is not based on Phaedrus, Avianus, or any known French Translation, and so may be based on some undiscovered written source.]
The study of fable transmission, with the enormous and complex amount of material of which much is still unknown or imperfectly studied, presents one of the most difficult problems in the history of medieval culture. The Middle Ages received their knowledge of the so-called Aesopic fable in general through the reworkings of Phaedrus and Avianus, which were themselves re-worked in numerous ways.1 That these were not the sole sources of the medieval knowledge of fable material has, however, long been known, and various possibilities of diffusion have been suggested.2 The following pages will show that, in twelfth- or thirteenth-century France, at least one Aesopic tale was known in a form which is similar to that of a Greek version, but which is not found in the usual Latin or French collections.
Three fables in the Greek Prose-Aesop present the jackdaw in a markedly similar light. In each he attempts to abandon his fellow daws for the company of other birds, and in...
(The entire section is 1713 words.)
SOURCE: Georgios A. Megas, "Some Oral Greek Parallels to Aesop's Fable's," in Humaniora: Essays in Literature, Folklore, Bibliography, edited by Wayland D. Hand and Gustave O. Arlt, J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1960, pp. 195-207.
[In the following essay, Megas presents some oral Greek parallels to certain fables of Aesop in order to show how the oral tradition preserves the original relationships between animal actors and between action and moral better than the written tradition does.]
It can be said concerning both folktales and fables that oral tradition preserves the original relationships more intact than does literary tradition.1 This is especially true of Æsop's tales which, because of their shortness and their moral content, were used in the Schools of Rhetoric for centuries for the practice of students in writing correctly. They thus became linguistic essays whose main virtue was their concise form.2 The "joy in relating" which is supposed to have attached to the old Æsopic fables, as Otto Keller3 and Aug. Hausrath4 rightly say, is not evident from the concise versions of the preserved collections. Of course, it is impossible for us to know how long these tales had survived in oral tradition before Demetrius Phalereus made the first collection of these tales in 316 B.C.
Thus, concerning both folktales and animal tales, the investigator...
(The entire section is 6371 words.)
SOURCE: Spurgeon W. Baldwin, Jr., "The Role of the Moral in 'La Vida del Ysopet con sus Fabulas Historiadas'," in Hispania, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, December, 1964, pp. 762-65.
[In the following essay, Baldwin informs the reader that the moral in the fables of the Spanish Aesop under consideration is usually presented as a negative warning of punishment in a direct statement outside the story directed toward peasants more often than toward the aristocracy.]
The first collection of fables to appear in Spain, made up primarily but not exclusively of fables attributed to Aesop, was printed at Zaragoza in 1489, and was given the title: La Vida del Ysopet con sus fabulas historiadas. This collection is available to us in a facsimile reproduction, with a prologue by Emilio Cotarelo y Mori, published by the Real Academia at Madrid in 1929. Although the Zaragoza edition is a translation of a volume printed in Germany, it occupies an important place in Spanish literary history for two reasons: first, it was probably one of the most widely read books of the time, judging from the large number of editions: second, it is the first known Spanish version of these fables, and served as model for a series of collections of Aesopic fables, having a popularity in Spain lasting almost down to the present time.
Cotarelo's valuable prologue is the lone twentieth-century study, and the only other detailed...
(The entire section is 2419 words.)
SOURCE: Ben Edward Perry, in an introduction to Babrius and Phaedrus, edited by Ben Edward Perry, Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. xi-cii.
[In the following excerpt, Perry discusses the development of fable writing in Classical Greek and Roman literature, the transmission of the text of the fables, what constitutes a fable, and the influence of the ancient Near East on Greek fable lore.]
1. The Aesopic Fable in Antiquity
In the long history of Aesopic fable, generically so called, the publication of a series of fables in verse meant to be read consecutively, each for its own interest and literary value, without a context or a specific application, is relatively late to appear. Phaedrus, in the time of Tiberius, is the first writer whom we know to have produced such a book, and his example was followed soon afterwards by Babrius, writing in Greek verse. The creations of these two poets mark a new epoch in the history of fable-writing and a midway point, as it were, in almost four thousand years of literary practice. Before Phaedrus, fables written in Greek prose were gathered into collections intended to serve primarily as repertoires of rhetorical materials, comparable to a collection of proverbs or apothegms of famous men, which would serve the needs of speakers or writers in quest of illustrations to be used within the context of an oration, a history, or an essay of...
(The entire section is 6848 words.)
SOURCE: Kirby Congdon, "Aesop Revisited," in Américas, Vol. 18, No. 10, October, 1966, pp. 1-2.
[In the following essay, Congdon suggests that fables, using animals as abstract qualities, show individuals that they cannot control God but they can control themselves.]
Since there was probably never, at least in later times, any standard text of the fables, it was inevitable that both the range and their style of composition should change in accordance with the literary fashions of the day and the fancy of individual authors—Ben E. Perry. Studies in the Text History of the Life and Fables of Aesop. American Philological Association, 1936, (Philological Monographs, No. 7), p. 160.
The appeal of animal characters in fables lies in the fact that we, the reader, or listener, help create them in our minds. As with puppets and marionettes, we supply life to the disjointed action, expression to the immobile face, and finally meaning to the old and familiar roles of the animals. We clothe the minds and motivations of animal characters with the attire of human action or thought. The advantage is that they still remain removed from us, yet illustrative. If they were people, our tolerance, amusement and understanding would be short-lived because the satire or ironies would come too close to home and we would react in an emotional and subjective way...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)
SOURCE: Margaret Blount, "Folklore and Fable," in Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction, William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1975, pp. 23-41.
[In the following excerpt, Blount compares the Aesopic fable to folktale and fairytale, and describes the effect that illustrating fables has on the interpretation of a fable.]
'Long ago, when the animals could speak.' The golden age is somewhere in the past—perhaps in Eden or before the Flood, perhaps nearer, just beyond the memory of the oldest story teller; and in that time the gulf between animals and men had not been opened, the distinctions were not so sharp, magic was all about. As youthful things and creatures are always more alike than adult ones, as seeds are always more similar than plants and animals that grow more like themselves and so more different from each other every day, so in tales that belong to this youthful time animals and people were more alike, could communicate, have equal stature and often a similar moral life.
Folklore and myth bring animals nearer to men while fables and satire, while apparently doing the same thing, do the opposite; they are divisive and put animals in their place—further off.
The folklore story abounds in talking animals, clever animals that have an ambiguous or helpful role, or even appear to have private lives and families on the human model while co-existing with...
(The entire section is 3767 words.)
SOURCE: George Clark, "Henryson and Aesop: The Fable Transformed," in English Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Clark analyzes the significant differences between Robert Henryson's version and the more established version of Aesop's fables of "The Cock and the Jewel" and "The Swallow and the Other Birds."]
Robert Henryson's Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian have inspired his admirers to formulate radically differing explanations of the literary merit we recognize in these minor masterpieces. Older readings of these fables assumed that Henryson took up Aesop's plots but not his purposes, saw the excellence of the poems as the result of unAesopian "humor, realism, [and] compassion,"2 and usually viewed the Aesopian moralizations as vestigial remnants of an earlier evolutionary stage.3 Newer readings treat Henryson's Fables as emphatically Aesopian and moralizing and therefore good. One such critic writes that "The very intensity of Henryson's religious views accounts for the quality of personal involvement which makes his Morall Fabillis the finest Aesop of the Middle Ages,"4 and complains that the older criticism dealt with agreeable aspects of Henryson's poems, but neglected them as literary wholes, particularly as perfect unions of story and moralization. In the most important exposition of this...
(The entire section is 6316 words.)
SOURCE: P. Gila Reinstein, "Aesop and Grimm: Contrast in Ethical Codes and Contemporary Values," in Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 44-53.
[In the following essay, Reinstein shows that Aesop's fables, which reflect a non-idealistic and self-reliant approach to human interactions, were preferred by older, married, non-white, working-class students as a tool for educating the young, but that Grimm 's fairy tales, which reflect an idealistic and self-sacrificing approach to human interactions, were preferred by young, single, white, middle-class students.]
People often think of Aesop's fables and the folk tales of the brothers Grimm together, since both are collections of traditional folklore, classics of children's literature, and important sources of American popular culture. Both are retold in elementary school readers; both are regularly selected by artists for reinterpretation and reissue as picture books. Political cartoonists and advertising campaign designers take advantage of the public's familiarity with Aesop and Grimm for purposes of their own. Aesop and Grimm appear to have been adopted by and incorporated into our culture, to the degree that few children grow up today without somewhere along the way absorbing the plight of Cinderella and the fate of the tortoise and the hare. Sometimes these stories are first encountered in library books or school texts,...
(The entire section is 3721 words.)
SOURCE: Agnes Perkins, in an introduction to "The Five Hundredth Anniversary of Aesop in English," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 60-75.
[In the following essay, Perkins argues that Aesop's fables do not promote the morality of kindness and generosity that the fables of the Indian "Jatakas" do, and that Aesop's fables present what is to one's personal advantage through a satiric representation of human-like foibles.]
In 1484, William Caxton printed his translation of Aesop's Fables on the first English press. It has remained in print ever since; the book is still available in at least sixteen versions for children published in the United States alone. Five hundred years is a good long run for a book; it behooves us to try to understand its lasting quality.
When a current political figure proposed that the budget could be balanced by increasing defense spending and cutting taxes, and an opponent called it a scheme to bell the cat, he did not need to explain or add the "moral": "It is easy to propose impossible remedies." We are so familiar with Aesop's stories that we seldom look closely at just what they are saying and how they are saying it; as Aesop himself would say, "Familiarity breeds contempt." We may dismiss them as we do much of the didactic literature of the past as too moralistic for modern taste. But a rereading of...
(The entire section is 2358 words.)
SOURCE: Barbara Mirel, "Tradition and the Individual Retelling," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 63-66.
[In the following essay, Mirel analyzes the treatment given to the Aesopic fable of "The Fox and the Crow" by various authors representative of ways of interpreting Aesop labelled as the instructive approach, the empathetic approach, and contextualized-example approach.]
In the past fifteen years, the noted children's authors Eric Carle, Jack Kent, Eve Rice, and Paul Galdone, and the less familiar writers Heidi Holder, Jack McFarland, Harold Jones and Ruth Spriggs have all published retellings of the ancient Works of Aesop. In addition, Joseph Jacobs' and Randolph Caldecott's collections have been republished. The existence of all these collections reaffirms that those writing and publishing for children still value these traditional fables; but as well as transmitting part of our cultural and literary heritage, each of these collections also engages readers in its own world view. Since readers get more from these collections than just a basic knowledge of some fables' storylines, any assessment of them must begin with an examination of the nature of an author's individual stamp on the retelling.
There seem to be three approaches to retelling Aesop. The first has traditionally occurred in a religious approach to fables. Even when...
(The entire section is 3576 words.)
SOURCE: Anita C. Wilson, "To Instruct and To Amuse: Some Victorian Views of Aesop's Fables," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Sum mer, 1984, pp. 66-68.
[In the following essay, Wilson surveys opinions of various Victorian writers regarding the explicit moral statements in Aesop's fables, showing that writers believed their readers wanted to be amused or instructed through an amusing story rather than through explicit moral statements.]
During the Christmas season of 1847, the Spectator featured a notice of a new book entitled A Selection of Aesop's Fables versified and set to Music, "with Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Pianoforte" (11 December 1847). The appearance of such a work testifies to the popularity of Aesop's Fables during the Victorian era. Among numerous editions were the translations by Thomas James (1948; illustrated by Tenniel) and George Fyler Townsend (1867), and the illustrated editions by Charles Bennett (1857), who also wrote his own text; by Harrison Weir (1860); by Thomas Dalziel and others (1867); by Ernest Griset (1869); by Randolph Caldecott (1883); and by Walter Crane, whose version for the youngest children, The Baby's Own Aesop, appeared in 1887. The fable is, by definition, didactic. But the degree to which the lesson is thrust upon the reader may vary, and for that reason, Victorian attitudes to Aesop are particularly...
(The entire section is 2671 words.)
SOURCE: Pat Pflieger, "Fables into Picture Books," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 73-80.
[In the following essay, Pflieger discusses the effect that the use of illustrations has on the interpretation of individual fables.]
With their minimal plots, fables seem a natural choice for picture books. The author and illustrator can embellish the tale and give it a personal touch. In picture books, the main characters in fables lose their anonymity and become more individual. These books stress the entertaining qualities of the tales, though without sacrificing the lessons, which are sometimes even strengthened by the text or the illustrations.
Most of the fables presented singly in picture books are those of Aesop or La Fontaine. Eighteen of the twenty-six picture books I investigated are based on tales from Aesop or on La Fontaine's version of them, two on a story in La Fontaine that does not appear in Aesop, and five on tales from Indian tradition, mostly from the Panchatantra. One picture book—The Hare and the Tortoise and the Tortoise and the Hare, by William Péne du Bois and Lee Po—retells and links together an Aesop fable and a tale similar to one found in the Panchatantra.
Many of these books are retellings of but a handful of fables. "The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass," one of Aesop's fables, is retold in...
(The entire section is 2581 words.)
SOURCE: Mary-Agnes Taylor, "The Literary Transformation of a Sluggard," in Children's Literature, Vol. 12, 1984, pp. 92-104.
[In the following essay, Taylor discusses how and why various poets change the moral of the "The Grasshopper and the Ant."]
I cannot claim that I learned to read from Dick and Jane; I can, however, say that I remember quite well the first time that I was able to decipher Baby Ray. I can also remember that our class was not allowed to linger with such innocent reading matter. Rather quickly we moved to more substantial tales such as those found in a collection of Aesop's fables. From the very beginning we were made to understand that the selections were somewhat akin to our Sunday School lessons. But in spite of such exalted status, there was one story which particularly troubled my child mind: how could those miserly ants be so unkind to the grasshopper? Traditionally, from the fifteenth century to the present, adults have supported a utilitarian version of poetic justice: the frugal ant enjoys the fruits of his labor, while the shiftless grasshopper suffers the consequences of his indolence. However, happily for me, a few wise poets in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have transformed the much maligned singer by giving value to his calling.
The first printed offering of the tale for English-speaking children came from William Caxton in 1484....
(The entire section is 3619 words.)
SOURCE: John F. Priest, "The Dog in the Manger: In Quest of a Fable," in The Classical Journal, Vol. 81, No. 1, October-November, 1985, pp. 49-58.
[In the following essay, Priest discovers the first appearance of "The Dog in the Manger" fable in the 1476/7 collection of Steinhöwel, traces the authority for its inclusion in this edition to the classical writers Lucian and Strato, and rules out known Near Eastern fables and proverbs as possible sources for the fable.']
Locating the historical, cultural and geographical origins of gnomic sayings, is, at best, a precarious enterprise. Emerging as they do from the universals of human experience, proverb, maxim, and fable tend to be both cross cultural and trans-cultural. That "the burnt baby avoids the fire" was as true when fire was discovered or invented as it is today. Detailed folkloristic studies confirm the preceding generality.1 Nevertheless, when a well-known saying is found in a most unexpected quarter, the curiosity cannot but be piqued and investigation pursued. The following note is the consequence of such a discovery.
The proverb, or fable,2 of the dog in the manger is one of the best known in the Aesopic corpus.3 Even those who are only vaguely aware of its connection with Aesop have no hesitance in describing some actions as being like those of the dog in the manger. "He can't or won't use...
(The entire section is 5109 words.)
SOURCE: H. J. Blackham, in an introduction to The Fable as Literature, The Athlone Press, 1985, pp. xi-xxi.
[In the following excerpt, Blackham defines the fable through a discussion of its traditional definition, its relation to parable and allegory, its images, its purpose, and its sources.]
A reviewer who refers to a book as 'fable', casually or more intentionally, probably has in mind an eighteenth-century 'conte philosophique ', described by Voltaire as a work which says more than it seems to say; he might indeed be thinking of Candide. Any non-literary person asked about fable would most likely think of Aesop. The two are not as far apart as they seem. Aesop's Fables, in one compilation or another, have an honourable lineage in literature and in education; they are fables, not nursery tales. In the early days of Greek and Latin fiction, when different forms were being tried out, comic fiction took the kind of liberties made familiar in Aesop and popular on the stage. Improbable but amusing stories were invented to provide, in a striking way, something to be thought about. It can be said that the embryo of the fable of which Aesop was one parent was fully formed in classical culture by the end of the second century AD, to be developed down the centuries in different cultural contexts by different applications and uses, to become a vehicle of literary...
(The entire section is 4698 words.)
Adrados, Francisco R. "The 'Life of Aesop' and the Origins of Novel in Antiquity." Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica, n.s. I (1979): 93-112.
Discusses various incidents in the ancient "Life of Aesop" while arguing that the comic-realistic novel resulted from the merging of a Hellenic adaptation of the legend of Ahikar with the legend of a fable-telling Delphic pharmakos, or scapegoat.
Baker, Howard. "A Portrait of Aesop." Sewanee Review LXXVII, No. 4 (October-December 1969): 557-90.
Discusses various incidents in the "Life of Aesop" while arguing for the aptness of the traditional description of Aesop as ugly in the sense of a comic or Socratic figure.
Goldsmith, Oliver. "Life of Aesop." In Bewick's Select Fables of Aesop, pp. i-ix. New York: R. Ellis for Cheshire House, 1932.
Summarizes the major events of Aesop's life mentioned in the controversial "Life of Aesop" as well as commenting on Aesop's character, the invention of the fable, and various representations of Aesop.
Keller, John E., and L. Clark Keating, trans. "The Life of Aesop." In Aesop's Fables, with a Life of Aesop, pp. 7-51. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
(The entire section is 1415 words.)