Form and Content

Several hundred fables have been associated with the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop. It is difficult to determine with certainty the number of fables composed by him (the estimate stands at about 231), because little is known of the legendary fabulist himself. The fifth century b.c.e. historian Herodotus writes that Aesop was a slave who belonged to Iadmon, a man who lived on the Greek island of Samos. Impressed by Aesop’s stories, Iadmon apparently freed him. Herodotus also notes that Aesop lived during the reign of the Egyptian pharoah Amasis; that is, during the mid-sixth century b.c.e. Tradition holds that Aesop was murdered at the Greek city of Delphi in a dispute with the inhabitants. Still later, colorful tales were added about his life; most notable was the rumor that he was disfigured, ugly, and mute.

The absence of an established text presents another difficulty in determining which fables were originally composed by Aesop. It is not likely that he wrote down his stories himself. The task of recording the fables was undertaken by later writers, notably the first century c.e. Latin writer Phaedrus and the second century c.e. Greek writer Babrius. This act of preservation provided ample opportunity to add new stories, a practice that continued throughout the centuries and that further increased the difficulty of identifying...

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Places Discussed

Earthly settings

Earthly settings. Tales in Aesop’s Fables rely on diverse settings to frame the ethical conflicts that lead to the point of each fable—a moral lesson illustrated by the actions and comments of both humans and animals with humanlike qualities. Specific geographical references are sparse, but some tales contain allusions to places, such as a tale concerning an Arab and a camel, a tale set in the fields near Rome, a tale about a man in the East, and one involving a vat of blue dye that could only be made in the East. Allusions such as these were familiar to audiences of antiquity, as well as to those of the era when the tales were first translated into English. Setting the fables among images evoking predictable responses made them more likely to achieve their goal of moral instruction.

Reflecting and reinforcing the moral consequences of good and evil actions, dualities frame more than one fable and can be found both in place and title, including town and country, sky and moon, and wind and sun. Familiar and timeless, these elements too, and the animals and human characters who speak from them, are comfortable constructs for the preservation and communication of social values. The pairing of dichotomies echoes the moral choices faced by characters in the fables and simplifies most life choices to an either/or dilemma, a comfortable logic for children’s tales. Important too, as is reflected in these settings, is the suspension of disbelief that fables, by their nature, require. Rooted in superstition and early pagan and mythical belief systems, speech among animals and elements of the sky is presented as a naturally occurring event in the times and places where the tales are set.

Celestial and exotic settings

Celestial and exotic settings. At least one fable betrays its Greek classical origins because it...

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Aesop. Aesopica. Edited by Ben Edward Perry. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1952. The most thorough and scholarly collection of Aesopic texts. Contains the fables themselves and texts relating to the life of Aesop. The best place to begin for those who wish to undertake advanced study of the Aesopic canon.

Babrius and Phaedrus. Babrius and Phaedrus. Edited by Ben Edwin Perry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Original texts and English translations of all Aesopic fables by the authors Babrius and Phaedrus. Includes a valuable historical introduction and a comprehensive survey of all Greek and Latin fables in the Aesopic tradition.

Blackham, Harold John. The Fable as Literature. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1985. Blackham does not confine himself to Aesop, but this is the best introductory study to the literary use of fable. Includes an index and a bibliography.

Halliday, William Reginald. Indo-European Folk-Tales and Greek Legend. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1933. Although somewhat dated, Halliday’s discussion of Greek legend and its origin in Indo-European folklore is still a valuable survey of the origins of myth, saga, and fable.

Keidel, George Charles. A Manual of Aesopic Fable Literature. Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine Reprints, 1974. Useful reference on the sources of Aesopic animal fable from antiquity to 1500.

Patterson, Annabel M. Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. An extensive and highly readable study of Aesop’s influence and of the imitations of his fables in English literature during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discusses the continuing role that Aesop’s fables have played in European society.