(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Textual History

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.

Critical reception

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.