The Aesopic Fable Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Aesopic Fable

Stories and verses based on fables believed to have originated with a Greek slave named Aesop (circa 620 B.C. to circa 564 B.C.) have been popular for centuries. The Aesopic fable—a short allegorical tale usually featuring personified animal characters displaying the foibles of human nature—is so well-known that it is regarded as the standard example of the fable genre.

Aesopic fables have been collected and translated into a variety of languages. Prose versions in Latin were used to teach this language in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Heinrich Steinhöwel published a Latin-German edition in 1476-77, and William Caxton brought out an English version in 1484. A Spanish edition became available in 1489. According to John E. Keller and L. Clark Keating, Aesopic fables were extremely popular in Spain, where they had originally been circulated by Greek colonists and Roman conquerors. In the seventeenth century, the French writer Jean de La Fontaine drew on Aesop's works to produce his own collection of fables in verse, which are among the most renowned and popular in world literature.

During Aesop's time fables were often used as an indirect method of conveying subversive messages. Tomoko Hanazaki asserts that "the use of fictitious beasts to attack political powers or persons is the very essence of the Aesopic tradition." Annabel Patterson has shown that in seventeenth-century England, when Aesopic fables were used to teach ethics and morals, a strong tradition also existed of employing fables politically as a form of satirical commentary on abuses of power and even philosophically to question the morality of the actions of the state.

Throughout their long history, however, Aesopic fables have served primarily to instruct and entertain. With the advent of didactic children's literature in the nineteenth century, editions of Aesop generally included a brief summation of the moral that the reader or listener should learn from the tale. In a reaction against this trend, Lloyd W. Daly produced Aesop without Morals in 1961. Throughout the twentieth century, the fables have been most commonly regarded as entertainment for children, and numerous illustrated editions have been produced. In additional, audio tapes, compact disks, animated television shows and films, and online sources make the ancient fables newly accessible.