The fox, who appears the most frequently of all the animals in Aesop’s fables. Although usually representing cunning, deceit, or treachery, the fox also occasionally serves as a more general figure when a basic representative of humanity is needed. Although the fox is often successful because of his trickery, he should not be seen as a hero in the traditional sense. The fox’s slyness usually is accompanied by cowardice, disloyalty, greed, or dishonesty. These negative qualities often prove to be the fox’s undoing at the end of the story. In “The Swollen Fox,” for example, the fox cleverly crawls into the hollow of an oak to eat the food left there by a group of shepherds. He ends up being too clever for his own good, however, because the meal renders him too fat to escape by the same route that he had used to enter.
The ass, who represents stupidity and frequently is either killed or ridiculed in the fable. In “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin,” for example, this character frightens other animals by wrapping himself in the skin of a dead lion. When his own foolishness leads him to bray rather than roar, he reveals his true nature and becomes the laughingstock of the other animals. In “The Ass in Office,” the ass carries the statue of a god on his back in a religious procession. When all the people of the city bow down in reverence before the statue, the ass foolishly believes that he is the one being honored. He slows down to receive their homage, and the resulting blows of his master’s stick shatter his illusions.
The goat, a foolish character similar to the ass, although he is slightly more gullible than stupid. The goat’s naïveté often leads him to fall into the fox’s traps. In “The Fox and the Goat,” for example, the fox lures the goat into a well so that the fox can be boosted to safety. When the goat then demands this same favor in return, the fox merely dismisses him by uttering the moral “Next time, look before you leap.”
The lion, who represents ferocity and is the most feared character in Aesop’s fables. In “The Vain Wolf and the Lion,” a wolf is admiring his own shadow, which, because of the late afternoon sun, is immense, extending down the slope of an entire valley. While the wolf’s attention is thus distracted, a lion attacks him and eats him, proving that the lion’s own might is more than a mere illusion. At times, Aesop introduces the lion as a symbol for royalty. In “The Lioness,” for example, various animals boast of how many children they have. When it comes time for the lioness to boast of all her children, she admits that she has had only one. “But that one,” the lioness concludes, “was a lion.”
The wolf, who represents rapacity. He is as fierce as the lion but lacks the latter’s noble stature. For example, in “The Wolves and the Sheep,” the wolves persuade the sheep that there can be peace between them if only the dogs stop inciting them to endless strife. When the sheep foolishly accept this proposal and dismiss the dogs who were protecting them, the entire flock falls prey to the wolves. In “The Wolf and the Shepherds,” a wolf blames a group of shepherds for their ferocity in killing a lamb, forgetting that he would have done the same thing if only he had had the chance.