Although the fables themselves did not originate from folk tradition but rather from a particular, skilled storyteller, they nevertheless reflect a wisdom important for understanding certain lessons in everyday living. These lessons do not prescribe ethical actions by which one may improve one’s character and be judged a good person. Rather, more often they offer advice to help the reader secure a safe future—a future marked by fewer mistakes in judgment. In this way, the animal protagonists may represent the worst of human nature and suggest the ramifications of such behavior on one’s personal fortune. In the popular fable of “The Fox and the Grapes,” for example, a hungry fox who fails to jump high enough and reach the tantalizing fruit above snidely concludes in his frustration that the grapes must be sour. The fable thus satirizes the less industrious who would rather find fault in challenging tasks rather than work harder for a worthy profit.
Often, the fables describe a contest between two animals of different species and character. The famous fable of “The Hare and the Tortoise,” for example, illustrates and recommends the benefit of being steady in one’s attitude toward life and success. Often in the fables, scores are evened between two protagonists. In these cases, the motive may be turnabout or revenge: The fable of “The Fox and the Crane” provides an excellent example of this simple aspect of human nature. In other cases, the motive may be repayment for a previous act of kindness. Perhaps the best-known example of this lesson is the fable of “The Lion and the Mouse,” in which the former spares the life of his little suppliant and later finds the act repaid in full when the mouse gnaws through a net that holds the lion captive. In this way, the fables of Aesop do not merely illustrate or poke fun at certain human behavior; they also suggest a practical magnanimity that may eventually be profitable.
The fables are not, however, always proponents of such good-spiritedness. They often suggest ways in which one may gain from another’s mistake. In so doing, they also recommend against imprudent acts and poor judgment. In the fable of “The Fox and the Raven,” the fox outwits the bird into dropping a savory and coveted morsel of cheese. The trickery of the wily fox is to be admired and perhaps emulated as much as the foolishness and vanity of the raven is to be avoided. In a similar fashion, Aesop’s fables strongly warn against the acceptance of things on their face value, for appearances may deceive the unwary: A wolf may easily hide in sheep’s clothing.
Aesop’s fables often provide a mild if not humorous account of improper social behavior. For example, the fable of “The Wolf and the Crane,” while it depicts with the highest wit a wolf who repays a crane’s favor—the bird removed a bone from the wolf’s throat—with a trick, it also illustrates the dangers of greed. Similarly, the fables regularly recommend that one both adhere to one’s position in life and avoid impulsive desires. In this way, the stories reinforce the practical wisdom that one cannot ask for too much without running the risk of serious trouble. The best-known—and most mild—version of this wisdom is the fable of “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” in which the influence of one’s upbringing is charmingly emphasized.
Above all, the fables direct the reader to activity that brings a profit or, conversely, admonish those actions that would threaten one’s security. The fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” for example, illustrates the importance...
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of taking the opportunity to prepare in prosperous times for harder days to come. As the story suggests, one must never expect security and must always be responsible for one’s own welfare.
Aesop’s fables were not originally intended for a young audience, and their introduction to children came when they found favor among the folk and then were incorporated into a young man’s education in rhetoric. Their simple wisdom has been so attractive and persuasive, however, that they have repeatedly been welcomed into the education of the young.