Aesop's Fables

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Aesop's Fables


Stories and verses believed to have originated with a Greek slave named Aesop (circa 620 B.C. to circa 564 B.C.).


One of the earliest and most enduring forms of human literature, the fable has been employed as both entertainment and instructional tool as a part of the children's literature canon; the presumed Greek master of the form, Aesop (whose name has been variously transliterated as Aesopus, Hesopus, Esope, or Esop), is often credited with a popular redefining of the genre. The Aesopic tradition is the foundation for a sizable library of familiar stories that have become a fixture in the Western literary tradition. The fable itself is generally defined as a brief narrative story that presents an acute representation of a singular behavioral trait demonstrated through the actions of a profiled protagonist. Aristotle saw fables as a seeming inevitability of human cultural development, noting in his influential treatise Rhetoric: "Fables are suited to popular oratory and have this advantage that, while historical parallels are hard to find, it is comparatively easier to find fables. For fables have to be invented, like illustrations, if one has a faculty of seeing analogies, and invention is facilitated by cultivation." Pack Carnes has further classified the fable as containing three primary aspects: they follow a traditionally brief pattern, they contain a "simple motif," and they act as a metaphor for a defined aspect of life, often with moral implications. In fact, the Aesopic methodology is marked by its summary of the fable's intended message in a one line affix attached to the end of the tale. Called the epimythium (after the Greek root words "epi" and "mythos," literally "after story"), it is commonly placed in italics and spaced apart from the story to offer added significance. For example, the epimythium for the fable "The Tortoise and the Hare"—where the significantly slower tortoise beats the over-confident hare in a foot race—is often given as "Slow and steady wins the race." Indeed, several of Aesop's epimythiums have entered the English language as well-known proverbs. Fables in the Aesopic tradition also occasionally feature a promythium (in Greek, "pro-mythos" or the "before story"), a brief state-ment prefacing the fable, intended to provide a link between the reader and the setting of the story. Aesopic fables are frequently identified by a series of letters and numbers; these tags are meant to define the collection source as fables may vary in language or form depending on the preferences of their adaptor or compiler. For instance, the well-known story of "The Fox and the Grapes" is sometimes referred to as "P 15," which marks it as part of Ben Edwin Perry's definitive modern fable collection, Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to Him or Closely Associated with the Literary Tradition which Bears His Name (1952). Other well-known collections that utilize this methodology are volumes assembled by Babrius, Jean de la Fontaine, and Phaedrus.

The Aesopic fable is often distinguished by its use of animals as primary protagonists, as in such famous tales as "The Grasshopper and the Ant" (or "The Cicada and the Ant") and "The Fox and the Grapes," although scholars have noted that this perception is a more recent development as many of Aesop's original fables used humans in similar capacities. Regardless, the inclusion of animals in fables is generally acknowledged as a regular facet of the Aesopic tradition today. This feature, in addition to the fables' value for moral instruction, has particularly enabled the stories to function as a reliable part of the larger children's literature canon. Stories with animals in central roles often hold stronger appeal for children, offering sympathetic protagonists that may be more relatable on both emotional and intellectual levels. As scholar Margaret Blount has noted, "The genius of Aesop was to use the animal as the fixative, in an unforgettable way."

Aesop is not credited with the creation of the fable, which is considered one of the oldest known literary forms, possibly dating as far back as the Sumerian period (3000 B.C.E.). However, he is widely acknowledged as the primary figure responsible for preserving the popular fable tradition. Spotty historical accounts have allowed scholars to assemble a basic outline of Aesop's life, though many of these accounts are unreliable at best. Allegedly born as a slave in Thrace, Greece, around 620 B.C.E., Aesop is usually described as a man of short stature and quick intelligence whose ability for keen-sightedness made him both an invaluable resource and a danger to his masters. One hypothesis postulates that he may have been of African origin, a theory which is based upon the similarity of his name to the word "Ethiop," an Ancient Greek word for "a dark-skinned person of African origin." Known for outwitting many of his owners, he was sold several times throughout his life, ending up in the household of a philosopher named Xanthus, who took Aesop to the Greek island of Samos. There, Aesop used his fabulist gift (in some versions granted to him for a past kindness by the goddess Isis) to convince their King, Croesus of Lydia, to eliminate his high taxation of the locals through a series of apropos fables. Now a free man of growing legend and respect, he served as a counsel to Croesus, as well as King Lycurgus of Babylon. He is said to have adopted a son, Enus, who committed suicide after a betrayal of his father at the Babylonian court. Aesop is believed to have died at the hands of the Delphians in 564 B.C.E. The most common reason indicated for the Delphian attack was a supposed slight Aesop made against Apollo, the Delphi patron god. Whatever the cause, as the story goes, several aggrieved Delphians planted a sacred Apollonian relic among Aesop's possessions and used it as evidence to condemn Aesop to death. In revenge for his murder, Delphi was wracked by a series of natural disasters as well as reprisals from both Greece and Babylon. To atone for their crimes, the Delphians are said to have built a temple in honor of Aesop. While many doubt the validity of the few historical details surrounding Aesop's life, there are similar doubts regarding the origins of Aesop's fables. It is impossible to ascertain whether Aesop was the fabricator of his legendary tales or merely the collector of a pre-existing canon of local mythology. Further, of the contemporary fables commonly ascribed to Aesop, it is difficult to determine which stories can actually trace their literary lineage directly to Aesop.

Nevertheless, these same questions of ancestry may have actually enabled the Aesopic tradition to flourish. Left with only a vague mythological record, translators and retellers were able to mold both the figure of Aesop as well as his fables into nationalistic structures. Edward Wheatley has argued that, "the very indeterminacy of fable's form and the fragmented biographical materials on its founding father that discomfit modern scholars served medieval readers and revisers of fable as an open field of opportunity for appropriation and translation of fable (and to some extent, of Aesop himself)." Wheatley added, "in such titles as Steinhöwel's Aesop (c. 1480) and Caxton's Aesop (1484) they transfer ownership of the textual Aesop to his translators." Various sources date written accounts of "Aesop's Fables" as far back as the first century A.D. Aesop and his fables are referenced in documents by Plato and Aristophanes, though these writings make no attempt to record the tales for posterity. In 320 B.C.E., Demetrius Phalereus, a Greek, became the first known compiler of Aesop's fables with Assemblies of Aesopic Tales, a volume containing approximately two hundred complete fables attributed directly to Aesop. No known copies of this collection exist today. A more famous anthology (called the Romulus collection) is attributed to the Macedonian Phaedrus, himself a former slave, who translated a series of Aesopic fables into Latin in the first century A.D. Other important extant collections include a series of choliambic verses by Greek/Roman poet Valerius Babrius from the third century, a fourth-century Latin translation of Babrius by the writer Avianus, and a ninth-century collection of fifty-five fables by Ignatius Diaconus from which the fourteenth-century Byzantine monk, Maximus Planudes, fashioned his own authoritative version of Aesopic fables. In 1484 Englishman William Caxton published the first English-language copy of Aesop's Fables, which was updated by Sir Roger L'Estrange in 1692 as A Hundred Fables of Aesop. Circa 1480, Lorenzo de Medici commissioned a special volume of Aesop's fables for his young son Piero (called the Medici Aesop), which is one of the first known examples of the fables being printed specifically for a children's audience.

Within the last century, the Aesopic tradition has undergone yet another evolution, with authors producing more subversive and ironic adaptations of the traditional fables. Pack Carnes has asserted that the "modern fabulist rarely tells his story for the same reasons as his traditional ancestor, indeed he is often found taking pains to demonstrate that the earlier forms of these narratives had it all wrong." To that end, present-day writers such as James Thurber have taken it upon themselves to twist the traditional aphorisms of classical Aesopic fables, a trend typified by Thurber's satirist take on "The Tortoise and the Hare." In his revision of the classic tale, Thurber has a literary ancestor of the famous tortoise challenge a hare to a race, believing his win to be inevitable due to his knowledge of the outcome of the previous race. However, this race goes more predictably with the overconfident tortoise having only gone "eight and three-quarter inches" when the hare crosses the finish line. Thurber's moral is: "A new broom may sweep clean, but never trust an old saw." Using parody and humor, these contemporary retellers capitalize on the strong foundational familiarity the reader has with Aesopic fables. After two thousand years, writers such as Thurber, Ambrose Bierce, William Saroyan, Jean Anouilh, and Hoshi Sin-ichi, among others, seek to refresh the fable form by twisting their morals into unfamiliar, but potentially more apt, messages for a modern readership.

Initially intended for an adult audience, Aesop's fables are now considered as the exclusive domain of children's literature. Lloyd W. Daly, author of Aesop without Morals: The Famous Fables and a Life of Aesop (1961), has argued that, "Aesopic fables have been pap for children in schools for so many hundreds of years that it is perhaps difficult to think of them in any other light, but the cynical vein of the stories themselves runs so strong that it must be obvious they were not intended for the edification of youth." P. Gila Reinstein has further noted that the fables were "originally designed as political criticism in an age of repression. The fables are not simplistic children's stories, but highly intellectual exercises which take abstract ideas and translate them into formalized dramatic encounters." However, most scholars have acknowledged that the simplistic imagery, concise storytelling, and potential value for moral and logical instruction within Aesopic fables is particularly well suited to the needs of the children's literature genre. Joanne Lynn has stated that, "Aesop's fables remain viable as children's literature not solely because of their longevity in the culture, or because of their 'morals,' not even as some have claimed, because they are 'about animals.' Aesop's fables belong to children because the concerns of Aesop's fables make common cause with the condition of childhood. Aesop speaks for the underdog, the common man, the politically and socially disenfranchised."


Medici Aesop: Spencer MS 50 from the Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library (fables) c. 1480; translated by Bernard McTigue, 1989
Athoan Codex (fables) c. 900 A.D.
John Bierhorst
Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables [adaptor; illustrations by Wendy Watson] (fables) 1987
Randolph Caldecott
Some of Aesop's Fables with Modern Instances [illustrator; edited and compiled by Alfred Caldecott] (picture book) 1883; also published as The Caldecott Aesop: Twenty Fables, 1978; and as Aesop's Fables, 1990
Eric Carle
Twelve Tales from Aesop [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 1980
William Caxton
Aesop's Fables (fables) 1484
Émile Chambry
Ésope Fables [Aesop: The Complete Fables] (fables) 1925–1926; translated by Robert and Olivia Temple, 1998
John Ciardi
John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan: A New Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant [illustrations by Madeleine Gekiere] (fables) 1963
Walter Crane
Baby's Own Aesop, Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme [illustrator; text by William Linton] (fables) 1886
Lloyd W. Daly
Aesop without Morals: The Famous Fables and a Life of Aesop (fables and biography) 1961
Jean de la Fontaine
Fables Choisies, mises en vers [illustrations by François Chauveau] (fables) 1668
Robert L'Estrange
A Hundred Fables of Aesop (fables) 1692; published as Fables of Aesop according to Sir Roger L'Estrange, illustrations by Alexander Calder, 1931
Paul Galdone
Three Aesop Fox Tales [adaptor] (fables) 1971
Laura Gibbs
Aesop's Fables [translator] (fables) 2002
S. A. Handford
Fables of Aesop [editor and translator] (fables) 1954
Robert Henryson
The Moral Fables [translator] (fables) 1568
Leopold Hervieux
Les Fabulistes latins (fables) 1893–1899
Heidi Holder
Aesop's Fables [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 1981
Joseph Jacobs
The Fables of Aesop [illustrations by Richard Heighway] (fables) 1966
Harold Jones
Tales from Aesop [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 1981
L.A. Goal
Disabled Fables: Aesop's Fables Retold and Illustrated by Artists with Developmental Disabilities [illustrations by various artists] (fables) 2005
Tom Lynch
Fables from Aesop [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 2000
Michael Morpurgo
The McElderry Book of Aesop's Fables [adaptor; illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark] (fables) 2005
Doris Orgel
The Lion and the Mouse: And Other Aesop's Fables [adaptor; illustrations by Bert Kitchen] (fables) 2001
Ben Edwin Perry
Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to Him or Closely Associated with the Literary Tradition which Bears His Name [translator] (fables and criticism) 1952
Gaius Julius Phaedrus
Codex Pithoeanus. 5 vols. (fables) c. 800 A.D.
Jerry Pinkney
Aesop's Fables [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 2000
Ernest Rhys
Aesop's Fables: An Anthology of the Fabulists of all Countries [editor] (fables) 1913
Eve Rice
Once in a Wood: Ten Tales from Aesop [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 1979
Ruth Spriggs
The Fables of Aesop: 143 Moral Tales Retold [adaptor; illustrations by Frank Baber] (fables) 1975
Leo Tolstoy
The ABC Book (children's primer) 1872
The New ABC Book (children's primer) 1875
Louis Untermyer
Aesop's Fables [editor; illustrations by Alice and Martin Provenson] (fables) 1965
Gert-Jan van Dijk
Ainoi, Logoi, Mythoi [editor] (fables) 1997
V. S. Vernon-Jones
Aesop's Fables [translator; illustrations by Arthur Rackham; introduction by G. K. Chesterton] (fables) 1912
Helen Ward
Unwitting Wisdom: An Anthology of Aesop's Fables [adaptor and illustrator] (fables) 2004
Robert L. Zimler
Aesop Up-to-Date [illustrations by Roy McKie] (fables) 1964


Lloyd W. Daly (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Daly, Lloyd W. "Introduction." In Aesop without Morals: The Famous Fables and a Life of Aesop, trans-lated and edited by Lloyd W. Daly, pp. 11-26. New York, N.Y.: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961.

[In the following essay, Daly offers a general introduction to Aesopic fables, offering background on the historical figure of Aesop and the several different versions of his legendary fables that have emerged over the years.]

The Fables

"Know thyself," commanded one of the legends inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and Socrates echoed to the Athenian court that condemned him, "the unexamined life is not worth a man's living." This introspective bent, this disposition toward self-criticism, was part of the Greek genius for "seeing life steadily and seeing it whole." It might express itself in tragedy, or it might express itself in comedy; Nietzsche labeled its more austere and measured expression Apollonian, its more enthusiastic and irrational side Dionysian.

When the Greek looked at himself, he was not always happy with what he saw. The extreme reaction is represented in the story of King Midas' capture of the sage Silenus, the boon companion of Bacchus and an embodiment of the proverb in vino veritas. When forced to answer the foolish king's question, Silenus said that the best thing for man was never to be born and the second best to die as soon as possible. The outlook finds its standard portrayal in the legend about the philosopher Diogenes who went about with a lantern and, when asked what he was looking for, replied simply, "An honest man." Though ancient Cynicism did not deny human sincerity and goodness, it found these qualities rare.

The Aesopic fables are one of these reflections from the mirror of self-examination. The Greek looks into his glass and sees a horrible picture of himself. It is always difficult to be honest with oneself, and it is as though the fables were saying, "It is not I but the animal in me that is like this." Then comes the moralist and says, "No, you fool; this is yourself even more truly than any ideal you may have." The Aesopic fables have been pap for children in schools for so many hundreds of years that it is perhaps difficult to think of them in any other light, but the cynical vein of the stories themselves runs so strong that it must be obvious they were not intended for the edification of youth, and it is in such a light that I would present them in this new translation, freed from the encumbrance of the added morals, which are at best supererogatory.

If we dispense with the morals, which are little more than an insult to our intelligence, how are we to understand the existence of such a collection of tales? If these fables were not intended to serve a moral and instructional purpose, were they brought together to serve any other purpose? The answer to this question is not, perhaps, too difficult to divine, for we know something of the place the fables occupy in our own consciousness. Pointed stories capable of a wide variety of application have always been in demand. We have only to recall fishing in muddy waters, out of the frying pan into the fire, the goose that laid the golden eggs, the dog in the manger, the boy who cried wolf, the ant and the grasshopper, the hare and the tortoise, and the wolf in sheep's clothing to realize the proverbial and paradigmatic function the stories serve with us. We depend on the very mention of a fable to say, "Oh yes, everyone recognizes that kind of behavior; it's just like that of the animal in the fable." Still, the analogy of modern understanding is not always a reliable index to the attitudes of other times or other places, and a proper insight into a literary product of any age other than our own can be gained only by looking at it in the light of what we know of its genesis and development.

The first appearance in the Hellenic world of anything that can be identified as an Aesopic fable is in the Works and Days (lines 201 ff.) of the poet Hesiod, whom the ancients regarded as a contemporary of Homer and who may have lived as early as the eighth century before Christ. Hesiod says:

And now I will tell a fable for kings even though they are wise: Thus spoke the hawk to the speckled-necked nightingale as he seized her in his claws and carried her up among the clouds—and pitifully did she whimper as the crooked claws pierced her through—masterfully did he bespeak her: "Simple creature, why do you cry aloud? One far mightier than yourself now holds you in his grip, and you will go wherever I take you for all your singing, and I will make a meal of you if I choose, or I will let you go. Foolish is he who would match himself against those who are stronger; he is robbed of victory and suffers pain as well as shame."

The fable is told as something that is already familiar, for it begins in the middle; to judge from the lesson that is drawn, it should have begun by saying that the nightingale was inordinately proud of her song, so proud that she boasted she was the better of any winged creature.

Other early Greek poets make use of similar talking-beast tales, but it is not until the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ that we find such writers as Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle ascribing the stories they tell to Aesop. These stories obviously had currency by word of mouth for a long time, even, to use a close parallel, as shaggy-dog stories have in recent times.

A story told by Plato of Socrates sheds an interesting light on the status of the fables in his day. In the Phaedo (60 D ff.) one of the friends of Socrates, who is in prison awaiting execution of his sentence, asks him about some poems he is said to have been composing there. Socrates says that he has been doing this in response to a command that he had often received in a dream. He says that he has composed a hymn but "realizing that the poet, if he is really to be a poet, must write stories rather than addresses, and since I was no storyteller, I took the fables of Aesop, which I knew and came readily to hand, and turned the first ones that occurred to me into verse." It is reasonably certain that Socrates is not supposed in this anecdote to have had a copy of Aesop's Fables at hand in the prison. Indeed there is no reason to suppose that there was in existence among the Greeks any such collection of what would have been looked upon as trivialities in this day when books were still a relatively scarce commodity. Socrates would merely have drawn on his familiarity with such fables for simple plots. It will also bear noticing that this is the first instance in which there is any suggestion of the idea of versifying Aesop, an idea that has since borne generous fruit.

These instances in which fables were used by ancient poets and other writers of Greece also give us an opportunity to see in what way the fables were used in this period before there is any evidence of their having been brought together into a collection. The example chosen from Hesiod above is perhaps somewhat misleading, for it is only he and a moralist such as the Socrates of Xenophon's Memorabilia (II 7,13) who make use of a fable to point a generalized moral lesson. In most of the other instances in which there is sufficient context preserved to allow us to make any observation, the fables are used to make a point or support an argument. The Greeks are known for their love of disputation, and this use of the fable is only one of their many devices for forceful expression aimed at making a point or carrying conviction. And there was more than one way of using a fable for such a purpose. Herodotus in his History (I 141) tells how Ionian Greeks, who had resisted the Persian king, Cyrus, once they heard that Croesus and the Lydians had already been subjugated, sent an ambassador with offers of submission. Cyrus' only reply was to tell a fable. "A flute player saw some fish and started to play, with the idea that the fish would come out on the land. When they disappointed him, he took a net, cast it, and hauled out a great quantity of fish. When he saw them jumping around, he said to them: 'You don't need to dance for me now, since you wouldn't come out and dance when I played my flute.'" Herodotus assures us the Ionians did not miss the point of Cyrus' fable.

The romanticized biography of Aesop gives a perfect illustration of this allegorical use of a fable. Aesop, a slave recently freed for his good advice to the people of Samos, was called upon for further advice. Croesus had demanded tribute of the Samians, and their public officials had advised sending it. But the assembly of the people asked Aesop's advice. The master of the fable replied, "If I say 'don't give it,' I'll mark myself as an enemy of Croesus." The assembly still called loudly for him to speak, and reluctantly he responded, "I will not give you advice but I will speak to you in a fable. Once, at the command of Zeus, Prometheus described to men two ways, one the way of freedom and the other that of slavery. The way of freedom he pictured as rough at the beginning, narrow, steep, and waterless, full of brambles and beset with perils everywhere, but finally a level plain amid parks, groves of fruit trees, and water courses where the struggle reaches its end in rest. The way of slavery he pictured as a level plain at the beginning, flowery and pleasant to look upon with much to delight, but at its end narrow, hard, and like a cliff." In his Rhetoric (II 20) Aristotle comments on this use of the fable. "Fables," says he, "are suited to popular oratory and have this advantage that, while historical parallels are hard to find, it is comparatively easy to find fables. For fables have to be invented, like illustrations, if one has a faculty of seeing analogies, and invention is facilitated by cultivation."

The first indication that any Greek took the fables seriously enough to make a written collection of them does not come until the fourth century B.C. Diogenes Laertius in his biography of Demetrius of Phalerum (V 5, 80) reports that this scholar left, among many other works, "collections of Aesopic Fables." These collections have not survived, but fragments of a papyrus scroll of the first century after Christ have been found containing fables in Greek prose, and this scroll may well be a copy of them.

The earliest extant collection is a versified Latin version of some of the fables done by the freedman Phaedrus in the first century of our era. The five short books of Phaedrus contain not only Aesopic fables but also anecdotes and topical material of contemporary interest, which indicates how little feeling there was that the fables had a fixed form and independent existence in their own right rather than being floating, common property. Phaedrus retold the fables he chose in iambic verse, which had always been felt to be appropriate for satire or invective. The fables do not in themselves point a satirical finger at anyone, at least not explicitly. In a collection who can say that any one fable is aimed at an individual? Some of them may be so aimed, and those who are sensitive or vulnerable may feel wounded. Some, at least, of Phaedrus' fables were taken as personal satire, for we are told that under the emperor Tiberius he was punished for offence he gave through his fables to the emperor's powerful favorite, Sejanus. This satirical bent eventually found its fullest expression in the French Fables of La Fontaine, many of which are based directly upon Phaedrus.

In France the Fables of La Fontaine have been familiar to generations of school children through exercises in memorization, recitation, and paraphrasing. This is precisely the pedagogical practice advocated for Roman school children by Quintilian in the first century in his Education of the Orator (I 9, 1). The pupils of the elementary teacher "should," he says, "learn to paraphrase Aesop's fables, the natural successors of the fairy stories of the nursery, in simple language, and subsequently to set down this paraphrase in writing with the same simplicity of style: They should begin by analyzing each verse, then give its meaning in different language, and finally proceed to a freer paraphrase in which they will be permitted now to abridge and now to embellish the original so far as this may be done without losing the poet's meaning." The poet in this case we can only presume to have been Phaedrus.

Phaedrus did not find an emulator in Latin until about 400 A.D., when Avianus turned forty-two fables into elegiac verse, which enjoyed the greatest popularity throughout the Middle Ages and served as a mediator of the fable to modern times. But Avianus' model was not Phaedrus. His stories are all taken from Babrius, who, at an uncertain date not later than the second century, did the work Socrates had conceived and left iambic renderings in Greek of the fables in ten books, of which we now have two.

But it is the prose versions of the fables with which we are here concerned. Aside from the one small papyrus fragment already referred to, the Greek prose versions are preserved by manuscripts written at various times ranging from the tenth to the sixteenth century. Yet the formation of the collection upon which these late copies are based may be assigned with confidence to some time within the first three centuries after the birth of Christ. This is not to say that every fable in the collections has been preserved in precisely the form in which it would have appeared in the original collection; it is, in fact, clear that the precise literal form of the fables was not regarded as anything like sacrosanct and that variations on the nature of the collections were produced from time to time by the addition, omission, and rearrangement of fables.

It is these prose versions of the Fables which may be considered as the true Aesop, the basis in one sense or another for all others. While it is clear from allusions in the poet Archilochus that some of these fables are as old as the seventh century before Christ, at least one (262) was pretty clearly added in Christian times, since it is the fable told by Jotham to the men of Shechem in the book of Judges (IX 8).

The fables are, as everyone knows, beast stories in which the beasts not only talk but also behave in other ways very much like humans. Isidore, the seventh-century Bishop of Seville, says that fables are told in order to produce a recognizable picture of human life through the conversations of imaginary dumb animals. He goes on to say that fables are either Aesopic or Libystic. "They are Aesopic when dumb animals or inanimate things such as cities, trees, mountains, rocks, rivers are supposed to have talked to one another, but they are Libystic when there is supposed to be some oral communication of men with beasts or beasts with men." There are fables of both kinds represented in our collections, but there are also other kinds, and the distinction is of no significance. Some fables, such as that of The Thieving Boy and His Mother (200), have only human characters.

Far from being highly moral stories, the fables are not always even conducive to moralizing. The fable of The Boys and the Butcher (66) presents two juvenile delinquents of antiquity stealing from a butcher. The point of the story lies in the boy who stole the meat saying that he didn't have it and the one who had it saying he hadn't stolen it. The butcher's remark that even if they deceive him with their lies, they will not deceive the gods, is very lame indeed. Again in the story of The Bat and the Weasels (172), in which the bat escaped death at the hands of wea-sels once by claiming to be a mouse instead of a bird and again by claiming to be a bird instead of a mouse, there is no moral content, and even the moralist can only say, "Obviously, we too must not always stand on the same ground but remember that people who adapt themselves to circumstances often manage to escape the most serious perils." On occasion they may serve very special purposes. For example, the fable of The Bat, the Bramble, and the Coot (171) is aetiological, that is it serves to explain the origin of the peculiar habits of each of the members of this trio. That of Zeus and the Turtle (106) is a Just So Story explaining how the turtle got his shell. Still the vast majority of the fables are paradigmatic, which is to say that, whatever their content, they serve as examples, usually horrible, of human behavior. You may take them as you like, but they must usually have been told in antiquity with the expectation that someone specific would find that the shoe fit and would have to put it on. That is why they so readily turn into satire in the hands of Phaedrus or La Fontaine.

In our collections nearly all the fables are equipped with morals at the end. This fable teaches is one of the familiar introductory formulae. Upon such formulaic pegs are hung the generalized lessons which are independent of the stories and are presented as the comment of Aesop or an anonymous narrator and not of the animals or characters of the stories. There is good reason for retelling the fables without these morals. The history of the collections pretty clearly indicates that the morals were not a necessary or standard accompaniment of the fables from the beginning. The fables are commonly arranged in the collections in an alphabetical order determined by the initial letter of the first word of each so that, for example, all fables beginning with the word Fox are grouped together. It is thus fairly easy to find most of the Fox fables but not so easy to find a fable to illustrate a particular point. It appears that the collectors began to give some help in this direction by adding brief promythia, or explanations, at the head of the fables. As the purpose of writing these shifted from that of indicating interest and point to one of interpretation, it was natural that the explanation should be made to follow rather than precede the fable it explained. As B. E. Perry, who has studied this history, puts it, the collectors "began to think of themselves no longer as mere compilers but somewhat as literary men speaking to the public in the capacity of interpreters and moral advisers."

The style of the fables is simple and direct. They are told in language that is unpretentious and free alike from high-flown verbiage and from colloquialism. When one stops to think that the fables are not all the product of the pen of a single author, he will realize that this feature of their style is one that had been fixed by convention and represents deliberate restraint rather than inept colorlessness. This restraint is in keeping with the general crispness and economy of narrative that is everywhere observed. The situation is usually described in a very few words, an incident is outlined with equal brevity, and a result indicated. The fable of The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs (87) is a good example. It consists of three sentences. The first sets the stage: "Hermes was worshiped with unusual devotion by a man, and as a reward he gave the man a goose that laid golden eggs." The second tells what the man did: "The man couldn't wait to reap the benefits gradually, but, without any delay, he killed the goose on the supposition that it would be solid gold inside." The third tells the result: "He found out that it was all flesh inside, and so the result was that he was not only disappointed in his expectations but he also lost the eggs."

Still, even with all this brevity, space may be found for a dramatic touch. Most fables end with the words of the principal character. They may simply be his last words, as in the fable of The Crab and the Fox (116), but very frequently they provide the fable with an epigrammatic climax, a punch line. This punch line can be seen in the fable of The Pig and the Sheep (85), which also shows the further dramatic refinement of miniature dialogue.

Effective character drawing is not to be expected in such brief scope. In the Fables of La Fontaine the individual animals often bear a stock character equivalent to some type or class of person in contemporary court society, but this is not so in the Aesopic fables. The fox may show some signs of being sly like his medieval counterpart Reynard or his more modern descendant Br'er Fox, as in the fable of The Fox and the Leopard (12), but he is so far from being consistently clever that he appears as a very prototype of stupidity combined with gluttony in the fable of The Fox with the Swollen Belly (24). The faithfulness of the dog, the long-suffering of the ass, and the timorousness of the deer are all recognized in the fables, but they are not so fixed as characteristics that these animals cannot be presented in other lights.


We may talk positively of the fables as of something which we know directly, but of their authorship little can be said that is definite and unquestionable. It was not supposed in antiquity that the fables all origi-nated at one time or with one person. It was clear, for example, that there were fables in the time of the poet Archilochus, who lived before the time to which Aesop was assigned. They were properly called Aesopic, as belonging to a type, and not Aesop's. He could neither be thought of as their author nor as their originator. The rhetorician Theon explained that they were called Aesopic simply because Aesop used them so constantly and so skillfully.

We know almost as little of Aesop as we do of Homer. Like Homer, he is a legendary figure. An anonymous life of Aesop is preserved in the manuscripts along with the prose versions, but this is obviously fictional and romantic. According to it, he was a slave born in Phrygia. He was dwarfish and had a swarthy skin, a potbelly, a pointed head, a snub nose, bandy legs, short arms, squint eyes, etc. In addition to all this, he was dumb until speech was given him by the goddess Isis in repayment for a kindness he had done one of her priestesses. His keen wit and ingenuity are pictured in strong contrast not only to the grotesqueness of his body but also to the stupidity and obtuseness of those about him. This superiority does not, of course, endear him to those whom he outwits, and he soon becomes the property of a slave dealer who promptly unloads him on the philosopher Xanthus of the island of Samos. The philosopher purchases this unlikely slave as a bargain for his wife, but he and his wife find that Aesop outwits them at every turn. Their efforts to find an excuse to punish him invariably backfire, but eventually, as a result of Aesop's readily solving problems that baffle even the philosopher, Xanthus grants his freedom. His reputation for wisdom has by now grown to such a degree that he is consulted by the Samians on their relationships with Croesus, the powerful king of nearby Lydia. Although he is treacherously surrendered to Croesus, he dissuades the king from attacking the islanders and upon his return to Samos is richly rewarded.

His first act is to erect a shrine to his patronesses, the Muses and their mother Mnemosyne. After many prosperous years in Samos he sets off to see the world. At Babylon his sagacity wins for him the position of minister to the king, a capacity in which he makes many other peoples tributary to Babylon. After many adventures he takes leave of the king to visit Delphi, the famed seat of the Pythian oracle of the god Apollo in Greece. On his journey he visits many cities, giving public demonstrations of his wisdom and culture. But although he was well received everywhere else, at Delphi the throngs fail to show themselves properly appreciative. Incensed at this treatment, Aesop publicly castigates the Delphians and prepares to take his departure. Apprehensive of his spreading this low opinion of them on his travels, the Delphians lay a trap for Aesop. By stealth they secrete a golden bowl from the temple in his baggage; then as he starts off through Phocis, they overtake him, search his baggage, and find the bowl. Haled back to Delphi, Aesop is found guilty of sacrilege against Apollo for the theft of the bowl and is condemned to death by being hurled over a cliff.

Curiously enough, the story makes it clear that Aesop's death was the vengeance of the god Apollo, whose wrath he had incurred by not honoring him as leader of the Muses in the shrine he had erected on Samos. In other words, Aesop had shown his gratitude to the more popular goddesses—the little man and the little gods—and had shown no recognition of the great god Apollo, to whom the Greeks normally looked in matters of culture and literary accomplishment. This somewhat Cynical outlook pervades the whole Life. The ill-favored and even repulsive Aesop, a slave, laboring under every possible physical disadvantage, achieves moral triumph over Hellenes and Hellenic culture. About half of the account is devoted to Aesop's service to Xanthus, and in this relationship the philosopher, who is pictured as a man of great repute about whom students and followers gather in flocks, is made to appear a dunce and nincompoop who is not only fooled and ruled by his wife but also has his vaunted wisdom set at naught by the meanest of his slaves. Aesop outwits the philosopher in simple matters in the privacy of the household, outshines him with common sense before his students, and answers questions that baffle Xanthus before the public assembly.

In the end, the vain Xanthus owes his very life to Aesop, and the selfish and corrupt citizenry of Samos is saved by him from the armed might of the Lydian king. This is as much as to say that the proud philosophy of the Greeks and their famed political wisdom is as naught against the native wit and common sense of a mentally well-endowed slave, even though he suffer from every other drawback. A similar outlook is familiar from Greek New Comedy, such as that of Menander, in which the sly and clever slave customarily triumphs over his dull-witted social superiors. This outlook, if it were taken to be that of a Greek—and the language of the Life is Greek—would indicate a relatively late date—fourth century B.C. or later—for the origin of the whole Life, since such anti-intellectualism is more characteristic of the period after the Peloponnesian War, when Hellenic self-assurance began to waver in the midst of rapid social and political change.

However this may be, it is evident that some of the features of the Life were familiar at least as early as the fifth century, for Herodotus is familiar with Aesop's servitude on Samos, Heraclides Ponticus knows him as the slave of Xanthus, and Aristophanes knows the story of his death at Delphi.

We must suppose that the story was retold and rewritten many times. There are, in fact, several extant versions of this Life, and they are of unique importance in the history of prose fiction. Greek literature, which is so rich in myth and other forms of the storyteller's art, knows nothing comparable to them. The reasons for this are apparent when we consider what is known of the origin of the story.

The version which I have chosen to present in translation here as a preface to the Fables has never been translated before and was first edited by Professor Ben Edwin Perry in 1952. It is preserved in a tenth-century manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library. Similarity between this earliest completely preserved version and that preserved in part by a Berlin papyrus fragment shows that the Life existed in essentially the form in which we have it as early as the second century after Christ. Internal evidence makes it likely that the Life was written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian, in Egypt, probably in the first century after Christ. Some of the more obvious signs of this are the prominence of the Egyptian goddess Isis in the story and the particular brand of hostility it shows toward Hellenic learning. The language in which the Life is written is, then, about the only thing about it that is Greek.

The Life was put together out of a variety of more or less ready-made material. In the first place there is the tradition of Aesop's servitude to Xanthus on Samos and of his death at Delphi, which we have seen was known to Greeks of the fifth century before Christ. Another source is represented by sections 101 to 123 which tell of Aesop's experiences at Babylon and in Egypt. The substance of these chapters was drawn from a similar romance dealing with the adventures of Ahikar, a legendary scribe at the court of the Assyrian Sennacherib, a romance which is known from an Aramaic manuscript of the fifth century before Christ as well as from reference to Ahikar in the apocryphal book of Tobit. These two elements account for a major portion of the Life. The clearest contribution of the author himself is the anti-Hellenic bias.

Although he has achieved a lively effect, it is not as a result of the exercise of his own imagination but rather thanks to his eye for a story and his knack as a raconteur. There can be little doubt that he has strung his anecdotes together on the string provided by the tradition he already knew about Aesop, adding beads from what must have been a considerable store of popular stories. His art in composition is hardly art; it is his style in telling the individual anecdotes which gives them their character. Touches of realism in description and dialogue are his contributions. The elaborate description of the surroundings in which Aesop takes his siesta (6) is a purple patch in the whole fabric. It is a feature of style known to ancient rhetoric as an ecphrasis and was probably either borrowed by our author or imitated by him from some classical source. If it is noticeable that the quality of the narrative style is uneven throughout the Life, it must be remembered that we do not have it as it left its author's hand. The other versions of the Life show clearly how it continued to be debased and abbreviated in the course of transmission.

The version of the Morgan manuscript is somewhat mutilated so that parts must be supplied from the other principal Greek version and from other sources. These supplements are indicated in the translation by square brackets.

To return to Aesop himself, it will be evident that such a document as the Life cannot be taken seri-ously from the historical point of view. It must be taken for the fiction that it is.

Forerunners of Aesop

Up to this point I have spoken of the Fables as a creation of the Greek spirit. So far as the collection here presented is concerned, that is true, and until almost yesterday there would have been no reason to qualify the impression I have given. But through the magic of archaeology and the painstaking labors of devoted scholars we learn many new truths about our past.

Out of the mud-brick ruins of ancient Mesopotamia have come clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform which, when interpreted, open up a whole new—or should we say old—world, with law codes older than Hammurabi and a literature of startling variety. The most recent revelations from this realm of forgotten literature are collections of Sumerian proverbs from the Old Babylonian period. These collections, written down in the first third of the second millennium before Christ and presupposing the still earlier existence of such material before collections were formed, contain primarily proverbs in which animals play an important part. Some are quite simple, such as the one which says, "No one will give away a cow for nothing." Others suggest a story. "The dog snarls at an ox which is being scrubbed." Presumably if we knew the story, we would understand the significance of the proverb, just as we understand what is meant when anyone refers to the "goose that laid the golden eggs." A few are full-fledged fables. One, for example, we might label The Dog and the Ass. It runs:

The ass was swimming in the river, and the dog held tightly on to him, saying:

"When will he climb out and be eaten?"

We need not be told that such fables are forerunners of the Greek. It is another question whether they provided, by some indirect route of transmission, the models for Greek Aesopic fables. Fables are such simple things that one would not be bound to suppose that they could not have originated and come to be popular in more than one place independently. Still, although there is a great gap in time and space between Sumerian and Greek, the gap can be bridged at least in our imagination. From Sumerian to Assyrian in time and northward to Hittite in space we are led by real links of connection until we come to the Phrygians of central Asia Minor. And was not Aesop a Phrygian? Perhaps this is the route of transmission of the fables to the Greek world. The track is too tenuous to follow, but even now the site of Gordium, the capital of Midas, king of Phrygia, is being excavated, and who can say what we still may learn of the contacts we know existed between the Phrygians of the interior of Asia Minor and the Greeks of the seacoast?1

The Translation

There has been no lack of English versions of the Aesopic Fables in many editions and revisions, but they most commonly suffer from a number of shortcomings: They are couched in archaic English reminiscent of the King James version of the Bible, they give only a small selection of the fables, they are practically never translated directly from the original Greek, and they sometimes offer the most egregious nonsense and misinformation about both Aesop and the Fables.


1. The translations I have given of Sumerian proverbs and fables are taken, along with the basic information about them, from Edmund I. Gordon's "Sumerian Animal Proverbs and Fables," reprinted from the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. XII, Nos. 1 & 2 (1958).

Barbara Mirel (essay date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Mirel, Barbara. "Tradition and the Individual Retelling." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 2 (summer 1984): 63-6.

[In the following essay, Mirel examines how Aesop's fables have been retold and reinterpreted by authors and illustrators from the Victorian Age to the present. Mirel notes, "In choosing versions of such stories we should be aware of the distinct nature of each one, and realize that young readers can be taught how to engage texts so that they see in them more than simple repetitions of the same story."]

In the past fifteen years, the noted children's authors Eric Carle, Jack Kent, Eve Rice, and Paul Galdone, and the less familiar writers Heidi Holder, Jack Mc-Farland, Harold Jones and Ruth Spriggs have all published retellings of the ancient works of Aesop. In addition, Joseph Jacobs' and Randolph Caldecott's collections have been republished. The existence of all these collections reaffirms that those writing and publishing for children still value these traditional fables; but as well as transmitting part of our cultural and literary heritage, each of these collections also engages readers in its own world view. Since readers get more from these collections than just a basic knowledge of some fables' storylines, any assessment of them must begin with an examination of the nature of an author's individual stamp on the retelling.

There seem to be three approaches to retelling Aesop. The first has traditionally occurred in a religious approach to fables. Even when stripped of religious overtones and set in a secular context, these instructive fables emphasize the authority of the "truth" shown in the fable's lesson. This approach uses our recognition of moral truth to direct our pursuit of individual betterment. The potential effect of such an approach is for readers to feel chastened, or at least cautioned, against foresaking "the straight and narrow," because of the consequences which the fable shows accompany moral failings.

A second type of retelling is lighter in tone. Fables using this approach convey the humorous side of human foibles. Instead of placing the focus on achieving moral betterment, such fables emphasize the shared nature of our human condition. Ideally, this type of retelling might move readers away from egocentricism, as they begin to feel a part of the larger human community in which we understand and accept our failings.

The third approach seems more akin to the classical Aristotelean vision of fables as they function in the context of "rhetorical argument." Here fables become examples which can clarify deliberations about larger social and political issues. When fables are presented in this manner, readers might be prompted toward an awareness of their own abilities to judge and act.

One qualification to make about dividing the retellings of fables along these lines is that humor is often present not just in the empathetic approach but in the other two also. But in the instructive group of retellings, humor often underscores the message of "just desserts," while in those with the contextualized-example approach it usually takes the form of social or political satire.

Holder, Rice, Spriggs and, to some extent, Jacobs fall into the "instructive" category. Kent, Jones, Lobel, Galdone and McFarland humourously highlight the human condition. As part of the third group of "contextualized" fables, Carle not only follows Caldecott's lead through suggestive illustrations, but also through a text that is somewhat more morally ambiguous than other retellings of fables.

Perhaps the most useful way to see how authors turn their literary choices to different ends is to examine the different treatments given to the same fable. "The Fox and The Crow," included in almost all the books under consideration, is about a fox who uses flattery to trick a crow out of its cheese. The fox's goal is to get the crow to open its beak so that the cheese will drop down to where the fox stands.

In her rendition of this fable, Ruth Spriggs presents a very balanced interchange between the fox and the crow, told equally from both points of view. Beginning with a focus on the crow who has stolen the cheese, it then shifts to the fox who sees the crow, desires the cheese, and acts to get it. The focus continues to shift back and forth, first to the flattering words of the fox, then to the proud reactions of the crow. The shifting perspective stops once the crow opens her mouth to prove she can indeed sing. Then the cheese, itself, becomes the focal point, and we see it falling right into the fox's mouth. The victorious fox then parts with words of instruction. "You may have a voice, but no brains," he tells the crow.

Throughout the fable, the even-handed presentation of these characters make neither of them altogether guilty nor altogether innocent. Thus, we are left honestly wondering if the fox is really any less entitled to the cheese than the crow, who obtained it by illicit means. In fact, since our perspective has been so equally balanced all along, our judgement can be easily swayed by the last word at the end. This judgement is pronounced explicitly by the fox: the bird lacks brains. An active wit differentiates the fox from the crow. Both are prompted by desire to commit unscrupulous acts—thievery in the crow's case, false flattery in the fox's. Yet it is not the means which we are to judge, but the ultimate consequence, and here the crow comes up short. The reason for the crow's failure is that she has not put reason to work alongside desire. The fox, on the other hand, not only has done a masterful job of combining the two but, even more important, in doing so has somehow avoided any kind of sullied representation of his desire. Unlike other renditions such as Caldecott's or Jacobs' where the fox "pounces on" or "snaps up" the cheese, the fox in Spriggs' story displays no such ravenous or base instincts (with the cheese conveniently falling right into his mouth). In this type of simplified narrative where cause and effect are so evenly developed, no extraneous details leave readers wondering if perhaps there is more than one way to interpret events. The judgement clearly goes against the crow, and the lesson to be learned is obvious: "Vanity is expensive."

Jacobs' treatment of this tale does not paint such an even-handed picture of the fox and crow; it achieves the effect of moral certainty through a different tactic. The focus of the fable is predominantly on the fox, and his character colors our interpretations of the course of events. We readily blame the fox for being callously desirous, scheming, and manipulative; at the hands of such a protagonist the fate of the crow's cheese is a foregone conclusion. So much is the focus on the fox that we never learn how the crow has gotten the cheese, and she is entirely passive until she "lifted up her head and began to caw her best." The fox snaps up the cheese and smugly imparts a bit of his "worldly wisdom" to the crow: "Don't trust flatterers." It little matters to him, or to readers, that implicit in his advice is a condemnation of himself. The fox knows the secret of all good con-men: his "sting" can only succeed if his "mark" suffers from a moral weakness like the crow's vanity. The lesson of the tale comes across through reference to the fox's point of view; we learn about the need to rectify our character flaws by means of our attention being drawn to the flatterer, not to our vanity.

Eve Rice also builds toward an irrefutable moral lesson: but she does so by tipping the initial balance between fox and crow to favor the fox. Rice effects this tilt in point of view when she writes, "Crow, of course, began to sing." In "of course" Rice subtly gears our interpretation of crow to accord with the fox's perspective. "Of course" enlists readers' tacit acknowledgements that, like fox, they knew all along that crow would inevitably fall for the ploy. Yet, more than just proving fox a crafty fellow, this "of course" affirms our right to judge crow harshly. Since no actual coercion is involved in fox's attempts to make crow sing, crow herself is responsible for the motives that result in her losing the cheese, and having to listen to the fox's words of mixed warning and advice. After the cheese falls directly into fox's jaws, he says, "Beware of those who flatter / and tell lies meant to please— / and be glad, you foolish bird, / you only lost your cheese." The con-man threatens danger. Thus, the shift to the fox's perspective not only functions to show that the crow's moral flaws and foolishness have given the fox control over the situation, but also to suggest that underneath this situation lies a more violent universe. Allusions to physical danger never occur before this endnote; apparently, Rice is not willing to rely solely upon the way the body of the fable is developed to convey the important lesson. To insure that there can be no misunderstanding about the moral's urgency, she creates an additional level of instruction at the end.

Comparing Caldecott's retelling to those in the "instructive" group reveals the dramatic divergences that can be caused by slight differences. Like Rice, Caldecott interjects "of course" into the narrative to evoke a sense of participation by the reader; he writes, "The Crow … began to caw vigorously, of course dropping the cheese." This "of course" enlists the reader's agreement, not in judging the crow foolish, but in recognizing the inevitability of the cheese falling. The first entails a subjective judgement of cause and effect, the second an objective judgement based on observable natural laws: with nothing to hold it, the cheese will fall. The instructive edge built in by Rice's use of "of course" is absent.

Caldecott tells the whole tale in four sentences, with consistent alternations in focus between fox and crow. By revealing the outline of the scenario in such a manner, Caldecott's narrative becomes a model framework in which fits a number of like situations, so that readers are able to translate the insights from this tale to other relevant circumstances in a direct way. Because the storytelling is so sparse, it is the few specific details that determine the meaning of the actions. The crow has stolen the cheese; the fox resorts to hyperbolic lies ("he went so far as to say that she had the best claims to be made Queen of the birds"); and the fox reveals the predatory nature of his desires as he "pounced" on the cheese. The last sentence of the tale, which is the only direct dialogue between the fox and crow, belongs to the fox, who says, "My good friend Crow, you have every good quality; now try to get some common sense." Such a critique of the crow's foolishness, and the story's implication that her foolishness is a function of her vanity, are a far cry from Rice's condemnation. Rather it is in the spirit of "fair play": both fox and crow are thieves, crow able to come by her goods by her physical ability of flight, fox by his prowess of wit. He has earned the right to instruct her because he was more successful than she was.

Caldecott picks up on this somewhat open-ended message in his illustrations. Characteristic of his style are dual illustrations, on one page depicting the literal events of the story, on the next page showing how the tale relates to human society. His example here is a split frame set in a parlor which first shows a suitor in pursuit of a delicate looking woman while a heavy-set matron sits between the two, guarding the young woman from had advances. The suitor is directing his conversation to the matron, beckoning her to move to the piano, and we can imagine the flattering words with which he cajoles her to delight them with her musical talent. In the next frame, we see the chaperone thoroughly absorbed in her piano and song as the suitor, now placed on the couch next to the still demure young woman, kisses the hand of this object of his desires. In a word, the suitor's scheme is more "civilized"—and in the long run, more effective—than just resorting to grabbing what he wants, and perhaps, this can be said of the fox also. Thus we begin to see the interchange between fox and crow in terms of the varying levels of sophistication that mark people's behavior rather than in terms of moral prescriptions.

Eric Carle's efforts to contextualize fables also depend upon relatively open-ended presentations of the stories. His retelling of "The Fox and The Crow" is unique among all the collections. The crucial cues for effect are not found so much in sentence structure as they are in the apparent liberties he takes with the whole storyline and the twists he weaves into it. In his retelling, we do not discover how crow came by the food, we find him in a tree, beneath which sit Mrs. Fix and her son on a park bench. Young fox is hungry, and mother fox lights on the idea of feeding him by tricking the crow out of its food. The park bench, a human contrivance, has no direct relevance to the events of the story (as, say, the presence of equally human eating utensils do in fables like "The Fox and the Stork"). Rather it functions to create a setting outside the natural kingdom, one which has a number of social connotations attached to it. In fact, Carle plays on the association between park benches and the outcasts of the world in his illustration, which shows the two foxes somewhat huddled together on the bench, mother wrapped in a shawl, son dressed in clothes a bit too small for him. The angle of the drawing, looking from the crow in the tree down on the foxes, gives them a size strikingly smaller than the crow's, a large bird even more commanding by his apparel of tail-coat and tuxedo pants, and by the fine spread of sausages and wine which he has laid out before him. The foxes' neediness is reinforced as mother casts her eyes above to the feast and son fixes his gaze trustingly on his mother. As text combines with illustration, the connection between tale and social relevance is inescapable. The relevance is too colored by humor to seem heavy-handed; the tailcoat is an outgrowth of the crow's anatomy and the shawl a tattered version of fox-fur.

Carle also switches the conventionally assigned sexes of the characters for effect. Instead of the usually male fox who preys on the weakness of a female, his fox is a protective, nurturing mother who plays on the vanity of a prosperous male crow. Reversing the traditional expectations which permit us to see consistency in the notion of a female's vanity enhancing a male's power over her, Carle provides an equally consistent scenario of a female's resourcefulness outwitting a male's pride and sense of self-importance. Carle's reversal underscores the importance that social and political contexts have in shaping our interpretations, be they based on sex roles or some other criteria.

Carle also splits the fox persona into the two aspects of mother and son, with son serving as the personification of the motivating desire and mother as the craftiness which will satisfy that desire. Once she succeeds in getting crow to drop the food down next to the park bench, Mrs. Fox hands it to her son, saying, "Didn't I tell you that you'd have something good to eat?" Our sympathies rest with the foxes, as we see Mrs. Fox flattering crow not for her own benefit but for her son's. Method is separated from selfish appetite, and desire, in turn, is attributed to a youth too little to fend for himself. By showing the "want" and the "getting of it" as directly related but occurring between two distinct agents, Carle can build into the "fox character" more socially acceptable explanations for its conduct than when it is but a single actor.

The conventional focus on the need for the crow to mend its character is as present in Carle's retelling as it is in others. But in the tale's conclusion the crow is left singing, with the foxes quietly removing themselves from this irritating voice. Unlike other retellings, there is no direct instruction to the crow by the fox. Perhaps once the crow realizes his assumed audience is gone he will begin to question both the sincerity of the fox's words and his own wisdom in believing them. Then again, he might not. Thus, the reader's insights occur outside of the inner workings of the story.

Finally, Jack Kent's version of "The Fox and The Crow" represents the third group of "empathetic" retellings. Kent directly recounts just the essentials of the plot, favoring neither the fox nor the crow's point of view. His lightness of tone injects simplicity and humor into the course of events; the simplicity creates the effect that these events could happen to anyone and the humor works to take the edge off a moral rebuke. The fox's simple words of flattery give him no aura of being a master of words. In fact, he repeats his adjectives rather than building to a more and more powerful appeal to the crow's vanity: "What a beautiful bird!" said the fox, loud enough for the crow to hear. "Surely such a lovely bird has a lovely voice. How I long to hear her sing." Such commonplaces are obviously sufficient to entice the crow to open her mouth to sing. Yet Kent narrates this fateful move on the crow's part with a humorous turn as he writes, "But all that came out was a 'caw' and the cheese." Kent's syntax sets up the expectation that the "all that came out" will lead to some expression about her singing capabilities, and there is a verbal delight in seeing juxtaposed to this comment on her voice a reference to the cheese also.

Kent's illustrations add to the humorous nature of the retelling. The characters are cartoon-like, the crow wearing a derby reminiscent of Heckle and Jeckle, the fox wearing Groucho Marx-like top-coat and hat. The illustrations conjure up images of lovable rogues. The fox's motions with his hat first parody motions of sincerity (with hat held at breast as he speaks) and then reveal true intent (as he turns the hat upside down, extending it to catch the falling cheese). The crow's expressions, too, effect exaggeration. Her ludicrous attempt to belt out a song is highlighted by closed eyes and wide open beak with a big read "CAW" painted in. Also, after losing the cheese, the crow is shown leaning down from her branch over the fox as she watches the wide-eyed disbelief him eating her cheese. On the same page the text gives the fox's concluding instruction: "I see you do have a voice Madam Crow. What you seem to be lacking is brains." Kent succeeds in cultivating readers' understanding attitude through the matter-of-fact and light-hearted nature of his presentation. We so readily find humor in the course of events not because we side with one character or the other, but in part because we too have experienced similar situations. Even if we have been on the losing end, we can see that there is a funny element in such situations. Not only Kent's illustrations show this comic element but his italicized moral at the end does too. Reinforcing the "practical joke" side of the circumstance, the tale tells us, "Don't be fooled by flattery." Thus, though there is a moral lesson which can be taken to heart about vanity, readers also come away learning not to lose their ability to laugh in the face of character lapses.

It should be clear from this analysis that there are particular world views in each of these retellings of a very simple story. In choosing versions of such stories we should be aware of the distinct nature of each one, and realize that young readers can be taught how to engage texts so that they see in them more than simple repetitions of the same story. The beauty of these works is that they have tremendous potential for use in refining young people's literary sensibilities. Beyond their traditional plots these tales offer young readers the opportunity to recognize such important literary aspects as detail, nuance, context, characterization, and writer's intent. None of these features in the fables are so subtle that children cannot begin to recognize them. By exploring the relation among such textual features children will begin to move toward a discovering of meaning through language. Treated in this way, fables can take on an exciting dimension well beyond the simple didactic messages usually associated with them.


Caldecott, Randolph. The Caldecott Aesop. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.

Carle, Eric. Twelve Tales from Aesop. New York: Philomel, 1980.

Galdone, Paul. Three Aesop Fox Fables. New York: Seabury, 1971.

Holder, Heidi. Aesop's Fables. New York: Viking, 1981.

Jacobs, Joseph. The Fables of Aesop, illus. Richard Heighway. New York: Schocken, 1966.

Jones, Harold. Tales from Aesop. London: Franklin Watts, 1981.

Kent, Jack. Jack Kent's Fables of Aesop. New York: Parents', 1972.

――――――――. More Fables of Aesop. New York: Parents', 1974.

McFarland, John. The Exploding Frog, illus. James Marshall. Boston: Little Brown, 1981.

Rice, Eve. Once in a Wood: Ten Tales from Aesop. New York: Greenwillow, 1979.

Spriggs, Ruth. The Fables of Aesop. New York: Rand McNally, 1975.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Aesop." In Encyclopedia of Fable, pp. 8-15. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1998.

[In the following essay, Snodgrass offers a critical introduction to Aesop and the Aesopic fabulist tradition, emphasizing the recurring moral messages in and the unique cultural interpretations of Aesop's fables.]

The most accessible of moral fabulists from the ancient Mediterranean, Aesop (ca. 620–560 B.C.E.), is a semi-legendary character described as slave, shrewd teller of explanatory and representational stories, and the Greek father of the Western fable. According to a preface written by the fourth century C.E. fabulist Avianus, a Roman imitator, Aesop was divinely commissioned to found the genre. In Avianus's words, "My pioneer in this subject, you must know, is Aesop, who on the advice of the Delphic Apollo started droll stories in order to establish moral maxims." (Duff and Duff 1982, 681) Because metaphoric lore such as fable, allegory, and parable was invented after the time of Homer two centuries earlier, Aesop may have achieved popularity less for origination than for the novelty of his witty beast stories, whose brevity is a welcome break from ponderous epics. His classic miscellany of 350 satiric beast satires lampoons the standard human failings of pride, arrogance, greed, and folly. G. K. Chesterton accords the fabulist a left-handed acknowledgement in his declaration that, within human history, "whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting [fables], and afterwards the fame of creating them." (Aesop's Fables 1968, v)

The facts of Aesop's biography are sketchy. Legend contends that Aesop was not a continental Greek but a Semitic enslaved in Thrace—or possibly an islander from Samos, a Phrygian from Cotiaeum, or a Lydian, although these suppositions are tenuous. Chesterton notes the peculiar coincidence that both Aesop and Uncle Remus, a pair of fabulists oppressed by masters, were fascinated by the comparatively free choice enjoyed by the animal kingdom. Although of obscure origin, Aesop caught the attention of Eugeon (or Euagon) of Samos, author of Horoi Samión (sixth century B.C.E.), who named Aesop's hometown as Mesembria in Thrace. Aesop also merited mention as "maker of stories" in Book II of Herodotus's Histories (ca. 425 B.C.E.). Less than a century later, Aesop earned secondhand praise in Plato's Phaedo (ca. 345 B.C.E.), in which the doomed philosopher Socrates whiles away his final days in prison by translating Aesop into verse, and by Aristotle, who, in Constitution of the Samians and Book II of Rhetorica (ca. 330 B.C.E.), refers to an instance when the storyteller impressed the Samians during the trial of an embezzler by reciting "The Fox and the Hedgehog." Although it is probable that Aesop never issued collections of his iambic beast fables, which, in his milieu, were not serious enough to rate publication, he received at least two notable tributes. Around that same time period, the sculptor Lysippus created a likeness of him in Athens; some two millennia later, the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez painted Aesop's portrait.

According to legend, Aesop was no stranger to labor. He worked first for Xanthus and then for Iadmon (or Jadmon). His second master freed him as reward for his brilliance. Five centuries after Herodotus's description, the biographer Plutarch named Aesop as the court counselor of King Croesus in Sardis, Lydia. Other nebulous traditions move Aesop about the eastern Mediterranean, placing him on the Black Sea, in modern Bulgaria or Romania, and as far south as Phrygia, a landmass south of the Black Sea in what is now eastern Turkey. Unfortunately, no literary historian can reconstruct Aesop's life, although it appears certain that he was a contemporary of Sappho of Lesbos, who flourished late in the sixth century B.C.E., and that a tablet on the Troad dated to that same century B.C.E. records the Greek name Aisopos. Details are hopelessly marred by surmise and outright fiction. The comic playwright Alexis of Thurii repeats some of the innuendo about Aesop the trickster in a play, Aesop (ca. 350 B.C.E.), which was lost in antiquity. In the early third century, the poet Poseidippis eulogizes the fabulist in Aesopia, an elegy that allies Aesop with a fellow slave, Doricha, who became the famed courtesan Rhodopis.

In the fourteenth century, the translator Maximus Planudes, a monk and envoy from Constantinople, wrote a spurious introduction to Aesop's life and fables. A lengthy work in the Christian tradition, the biography is hopelessly anachronistic and steeped in the stylistic detail and virtues of the Middle Ages. Planudes perpetuates legends and isolated anecdotes claiming that Aesop was born hideously deformed with an oversized head, drooping jaw, and wry neck. Large, bumbling, and hunchbacked, he stammered when he spoke. As is common in victim lore, the boy Aesop compensated for unsightly physical appearance with a piercing intelligence. Legend has it that he was sold into slavery and transported to Aristes of Athens, who placed him under the management of Zenas, a cruel and devious superintendent of field workers. Falsely accused of eating his master's figs, Aesop was unable to defend himself verbally. Instead, he vomited up the contents of his empty stomach and asked his accuser to force the real culprits to do the same. Because the results were obvious, Aesop was exonerated.

According to Planudes, the next day Aesop elevated himself through genuine piety. He helped Ysidis, a lost priest, by leading him out of the sun to a shady fig tree, offering him bread, olives, and a dessert of figs and dates, then setting him on the right road to Athens. For his kindness, Ysidis prayed that the gods would reward the wretched slave with divine beneficence. While Aesop slept at the noon hour, the goddess Isis blessed him with a clear, sweet voice and an understanding of all birds and beasts. At the goddess's command, he achieved an instantaneous mastery of fable. When the slave boy awoke, he was a different person.

Upon Zenas's return to the fields, he discovered that Aesop was able to relate plainly the overseer's former cruelties and could inform Aristes of the other slaves' sufferings. Zenas ran to meet his master in town and to accuse Aesop of blasphemy and of slander against Aristes. The master was outraged and gave Zenas full control of Aesop. By chance, a slave buyer came through the area seeking animal and slave stock for the fair at Ephesus. Zenas pointed out Aesop, whose ugliness repulsed the slave dealer. Aesop pursued the merchant, promising to serve him as manager of shy, inexperienced slave boys. For three gold coins, Zenas gladly parted with him.

Though small and weak, Aesop quickly proved himself useful and astute. On his master's journey to Ephesus, Aesop volunteered to shoulder the heaviest burden—the slaves' supply of bread for the journey. His fellow slaves admired his spirit until they realized that the loaves dwindled at each meal, leaving Aesop to carry an empty basket over the final leg of the journey. At the market, the merchant sold all his stock except the fabulist, a musician, and a grammarian. To rid himself of the three, the merchant sailed with them to the island of Samos off modern Izmir, Turkey, and sold them to Xanthus, a philosopher and teacher, who paid only 60 coins for Aesop and 3,000 coins for the other two.

In lengthy episodes in which Aesop deflates his masters by making them look foolish, he proved himself so wise and cautious that the villagers of Samun sought his advice. When Croesus sent formal demands for tribute, the villagers chose Aesop as their emissary. Moved by his fables about the locust, an insect that does no harm and makes sweet harmony, Croesus exempted the Samnians from taxation. Aesop, now an honored savant, dedicated his life to teaching useful fables and spreading worthy counsel. He journeyed to the court of Lycurgus, king of Babylon, where Aesop's adopted son Enus plotted against his father and turned Lycurgus against him. While Aesop hid in a tomb, Enus usurped his possessions. After the king repented of his murderous urge, the servant charged with executing Aesop returned him to court to assist Lycurgus in answering a difficult riddle posed by Nectanabo, king of Egypt. The frail old fabulist then renewed his parental custody of Enus, who was so shamed by his greed and treachery that he leaped to his death from a tower.

As emissary to Egypt, Aesop quickly established a reputation for wisdom and cunning by answering King Nectanabo's riddles. On return from collecting an outstanding debt that Egypt owed Babylon, Aesop delighted Lycurgus, who commissioned a gold statue of Aesop, which the Roman imitator Phaedrus noted in the epilogue of Book II of his fables. Lycurgus also dispatched the old storyteller on a tour of central Greece, which allowed him to see much of the area, including Sardis, Corinth, and Athens.

According to Eusebius, a fourth-century bishop, and to Plutarch's Banquet of the Seven Sages (second century C.E.), Aesop died at Delphi in 564 B.C.E. He had arrived at the sacred center of Apollo worship in central Greece as a courier from Croesus of Sardis to distribute gold among the citizens. Instead, he insulted them by accusing them of milking truth-seekers who came to the oracle for advice. Local plotters then hid Apollo's treasured wine bowl in Aesop's luggage, pretended to search for it, and found him guilty of sacrilege. In punishment, they hurled him to his death from the Delphian crags. Plutarch's Vita Aesopi [Life of Aesop] (ca. 100 C.E.) corroborates the story as a plausible requital for slighting Apollo by naming Mnemosyne as the head of the Muses. In the episode, Aesop chooses unwisely by taking refuge at the Muses's shrine. Before his execution as a common thief, he predicted that Greece and Babylon would join forces to avenge his death. As he had foreseen, Delphians suffered reprisals as well as internal discontent, disease, and famine. Zeus's oracle advised them to propitiate the angry gods by raising a temple to Aesop.

No clear motivation exists for Delphi's savagery beyond envy of a former slave; however, Plutarch's version gains credence by including Iadmon's grandson, who purportedly demanded payoffs in recompense for the senseless killing of a harmless elder. Another telling claims that a Delphian carried bags of gold to Samos to offer Iadmon's household because their city had suffered a plague and their collective guilty conscience forced them to atone for the old man's murder. Whatever the cause of Aesop's cruel death, there rose from his life story the forbidding warning of "the blood of Aesop."

Traditionally, Aesop's comic prose tales are described in the same mode as the clever dialect adaptations of African lore written by Joel Chandler Harris—a blend of original beast fables and collected moral stories that Aesop may have derived from earlier sources. To free them of weighty human baggage, he tended to strip them of human characters and recast them with anthropomorphic animals, both domestic and wild. Often, the animals appear in pairs—bull with calf, dog with fox, hen with swallow, and wolf with lamb. In some tales, such as "The Old Woman and the Wine-Jar," "The Countryman and the Snake," "The Boy and the Scorpion," and "The Ass and His Purchaser," simple-minded folk interact with animals and often come up short in comparison by displaying poor judgment, venality, or questionable character. A pragmatic ethicist, Aesop salted these brief stories with sensory detail—the plop of frogs into a pond, the shriek of the porker nabbed by the shepherd, and the hum of flies about the honeypot. He concluded each with a clearly stated universal moral, usually lauding caution, moderation, planning, and judgment.

The oldest written compendium of Aesop's stories, which contains 231 fables, is the Augustana codex, named for its location in Augsburg, Germany. The manuscript, which was unknown to Phaedrus and only faintly influenced by Babrius, appears to derive from the second century C.E. Subsequent generations have embraced Aesop and recast him according to the styles and tastes of the times. About two and a half centuries after he flourished in the eastern Mediterranean, Demetrius of Phalerum (or Phalereus) systematized the oral canon of folklore, myths, aphorisms, trickster motifs, and animal yarns into a single written manuscript. The text survived for 500 years. Augmented and refined, Aesop's canon took on new meanings and settings in the four volumes produced by Roman freedman Gaius Julius Phaedrus (ca. 15–50 C.E.) during Tiberius's reign. Further adaptation appears in the versions of Roman fabulists Valerius Babrius (second century C.E.) and Avianus (fifth century C.E.). These romanized stories deviate from the eastern Mediterranean influence but maintain two key qualities: an admirable wit and a didactic intent suited to molding the character of young children, who studied both the ethics and rhetoric of fable as models for their own writing. As did the mentor in the Indian Panchatantra and Zen disseminators of jataka tales, teachers of royal youth chose fables as sound expressions of statecraft and discretion, both essentials to princelings.

Throughout the Mediterranean, the fables flourished into modern times. The clergy read them from the pulpit, calligraphers added them to illuminations, tapestry makers copied their graphic images, and other artists and artisans depicted them in fresco, wood, ivory, and stone. Educated people retained and profited from Aesop's images—the cat's paw, the goose that laid the golden egg, sour grapes, and dog in the manger—and his simple, aphoristic homilies:

  • Some men will never accept servitude.
  • Don't complain—there is always someone worse off than you.
  • Changing place does not change your nature.
  • Don't consort with evil companions.
  • Don't tempt trouble.
  • Don't undervalue the ordinary.
  • Fine feathers don't make fine birds.
  • Expect times when the small triumph over the weak.
  • Familiarity breeds contempt.
  • Ignore tiresome yappers who hate being ignored.
  • There is strength in numbers.
  • Danger lies where you least expect it.
  • Look before you leap.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention.
  • Pride goes before a fall.
  • Slow and steady wins the race.
  • Speak up—the squeaking wheel gets the grease.

Aristophanes claims that the verses were favorite dinner recitations as well as sources of the Greek comedic allusions—the fox and the grapes, the ostentatious peacock, the foolish pup, the one-eyed doe, the proud lion—that permeate Greek comedy.

Throughout history, the Western canon has paid homage to Aesop. He is mentioned in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (ll. 2139-2143) and in William Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Pt. 2 (V, v, 25-26). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, additional citations appear in John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther, John Donne's Epigram—Mercurius and Satire V, and Oliver Goldsmith's Epilogue Spo-ken by Mr. Lee Lewes. In the Romantic and Victorian eras, John Clare speaks of Aesop in "Written in Prison"; Rudyard Kipling opens The Fabulists with a four-line tribute to the master fable-maker. In the twentieth century, literary historians and scholars—notably Ben Edwin Perry, compiler and editor of Aesopica (1951)—scramble to preserve the earliest reliable sources of oral lore.

Still faithful to Aesop's tradition of oral delivery, performers and updaters of Aesop's fables thrive in library, concert hall, children's literature, and family circle. A modern proponent of Aesopic lore, Jim Weiss, founder of Greathall Productions, Benicia, California, aims to make fables more widely accessible and enjoyable. In 1990, he produced Animal Tales, a tape suitable for young children featuring Aesop's "The Crow and the Pitcher," "The Lion and the Mouse," and "The Tortoise and the Hare," plus Geoffrey Chaucer's "Chanticleer and the Rooster" and Horace's "The City Mouse and the Country Mouse." Harper Caedmon features an audiocassette of Aesop's fables performed by film star Boris Karloff. Philadelphia's storytelling maven Mary Carter Smith maintains a career in platform performance, audiocassette, and print publication of updated Aesop's fables. A traditional griot in African robes and headdress, she arms herself with a cowtail switch and takes the stance of the mighty mythopoet to enhance her authority. In 1993, she taped Mary Carter Smith—Nearing Seventy-Five, a program featuring "Tales of Aesop from Jamal Koram."

Laura Gibbs (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Gibbs, Laura. "Introduction." In Aesop's Fables, pp. ix-xxxi. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Gibbs presents a detailed historical analysis of both the structure and origins of Aesopic fables, citing the individual qualities of several ancient and modern translations of Aesop's fables.]

Aesop and His Fables

Aesop in the Ancient World

The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BCE, considered Aesop to be a historical figure who lived on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea, near the coast of modern Turkey. According to Herodotus, Aesop originally came from Thrace (modern Balkans), while other ancient sources maintained that he came from Phrygia (modern Turkey or Armenia). The Life of Aesop, an ancient Greek novel of uncertain provenance (perhaps dating to the first century CE, but almost certainly relying on earlier prototypes), provides us with an elaborate and extremely humorous account of Aesop's adventures both as a slave and later as a freedman. In its opening lines, we learn about the many disadvantages that Aesop had to overcome:

Aesop, our great benefactor, the storyteller, chanced to be a slave, and by birth he was a Phrygian from Phrygia. He was extremely ugly to look at, filthy, with a big fat belly and a big fat head, snub-nosed, misshapen, dark-skinned, dwarfish, flat-footed, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, and fat-lipped, in short, a freak of nature. What's more, there was something even worse than this physical deformity: Aesop was mute and unable to speak.

The story then tells how the mute Aesop treated a priestess of the goddess Isis with such great kindness that he was rewarded with the gift of speech. As soon as he could talk, Aesop proceeded to denounce the overseer of the slaves for his inordinate cruelty. As a result, Aesop was put up for sale and was eventually purchased by a philosopher from the island of Samos named Xanthus. The bulk of the Life of Aesop describes the many occasions on which Aesop was able to outwit his master and humiliate his master's wife. Aesop eventually won his freedom and became an advisor to the king of Babylon. He then helped the king of Babylon to win a battle of wits with the king of Egypt, for which he was handsomely rewarded. By that point, Aesop had become famous throughout all the world, but when he went to the Greek city of Delphi, he insulted and provoked the citizens of Delphi to such a degree that they decided to kill him. Without Aesop's knowledge, the Delphians planted a golden cup from the temple of Apollo in his baggage and then arrested him for theft. Although he pleaded for his life by telling a series of stories, the Delphians finally executed Aesop by hurling him from a cliff. Aesop's unhappy fate might suggest that the fables were not an especially effective genre of persuasive speech, but the history of the fables themselves proves otherwise. Even if the fables in the Life of Aesop were not able to rescue Aesop from the Delphians, 'Aesop's fables' are one of the longest-lived and most widely diffused genres of ancient Greek and Roman culture. The tradition flourished for more than a thousand years in Greece and Rome, and then sprang back to life in the later Middle Ages, enjoying another millennium of popularity lasting from the tenth century until the present day.

As shown by the testimony in Herodotus, the legend of Aesop and his fables was already widespread and well-attested in classical Greece. That is why the comic playwright Aristophanes (late fifth century BCE) could safely assume that everyone in his audience was well acquainted with Aesop and his fables, as we can see in this exchange from The Birds, which concludes with the fable of the lark and her crest (Fable 499):

      I feel so badly for all of you, who used to be kings.

      We were kings? Over whom?

      You were kings of everything in existence, of me, and of this man, and even of Zeus himself. You are older than Cronus and the Titans; you were born even before Gaia, the Earth herself.

      Older than the Earth?!

      I swear it by Apollo.

      By Zeus, I never heard that before!

      That's because you are ignorant and lacking in curiosity, and have failed to go over your Aesop, who says that the crested lark was the first bird to be created, even before Gaia, the Earth. As a result, when the lark's father became sick and died, there was no earth to bury him in. On the fifth day that his body had been lying there, the frustrated lark, not knowing what else to do, buried her father in her own head.

What exactly does Aristophanes mean by someone 'going over' their Aesop? The Greek verb he uses is pepatekas, which literally means to 'have walked through' or 'gone over' Aesop. Citing precisely this passage in Aristophanes, the Liddell-Scott dictionary of Greek suggests that the verb should also mean 'to thumb through', or 'to be always thumbing Aesop'. Such a translation, however, misses the mark. To 'thumb through' Aesop implies that there was a text of Aesop to read, like the book you are holding in your hands right now and which you can certainly 'thumb through' at your leisure. In fifth-century Athens, however, there were no books of Aesop to be thumbed through, since the first written collections of Aesop did not yet exist. It is very hard for us as modern readers to appreciate the fact that Aesop could still be an authority whom you had to consult, even if he were not an author of books to be kept on the shelf. To 'go over' or 'run through' Aesop meant to bring to mind all the many occasions on which you had heard the stories of Aesop told at public assemblies, at dinner parties, and in private conversation. Aesop's fables and the anecdotes about Aesop's famous exploits were clearly a familiar way of speaking in classical Greece, a body of popular knowledge that was meant to be regularly 'gone over' and brought to mind as needed.

Over time, as writing penetrated more and more deeply into the ancient Greek and then the Roman world, the fables of Aesop became known as both a written and as an oral tradition. The oldest extant collection of written fables is the work of Phaedrus, a freedman poet of ancient Rome who composed his fables in verse sometime in the early first century CE. Not long afterwards, an otherwise unknown poet named Babrius set about composing fables in Greek verse. By writing their fables in verse, both Phaedrus and Babrius openly declared their literary aspirations and paved the way for later experiments in versifying the fables, such as the medieval fables of the poetess Marie de France or her later compatriot Jean de La Fontaine, whose verse fables are one of the masterpieces of French literature. In addition to attracting the interest of the poets, Aesopic fables were also put into collections that were used for teaching purposes by the grammarians and rhetoricians (the fables of Aphthonius, dating to the fourth century CE, belong in this category). Yet while some of the fables were recorded in the handbooks of the grammarians and rhetoricians, Aesop's fables were not considered 'children's literature' in the ancient world. In fact, this notion of a children's Aesop begins only with early modern collections of fables such as Roger L'Estrange's English translation of 1692, which aimed to 'initiate the Children into some sort of Sense and Understanding of their Duty'. The Aesop's fables of ancient Greece and Rome were told by and for adults, not children. This does not mean, however, that the ancient fables did not serve a didactic purpose. Quite the opposite, in fact: the didactic morals of the fables are one of the most characteristic elements of the genre.

The Moral of the Story

While there is no hard and fast definition of an Aesopic fable, it is the moral of the story that most clearly distinguishes the fables from other kinds of humorous anecdotes or jokes: jokes have punch-lines but fables have morals. Typically, the moral of the story is expressed by one of the characters in the story's very last words, the same position occupied by the punch-line of a joke. Unlike a punch-line, however, a moral conveys a message or lesson. The character who pronounces the moral verbally corrects a mistaken judgement, which might be his own mistaken judgement or that of another character in the story. Consider, for example, the story of the wild ass, or onager, and the domesticated donkey (Fable 4):

An onager saw a donkey standing in the sunshine. The onager approached the donkey and congratulated him on his good physical condition and excellent diet. Later on, the onager saw that same donkey bearing a load on his back and being harried by a driver who was beating the donkey from behind with a club. The onager then declared, 'Well, I am certainly not going to admire your good fortune any longer, seeing as you pay such a high price for your prosperity!'

In this case, the story is based on a single character: the onager. The story opens as the onager makes a mistaken judgement: he thinks that the fat donkey standing in the sunshine is leading an enviable life. Later on, when the onager sees the hard labour and abuse that afflict the donkey, he realizes that he was mistaken and he voices his new understanding in the fable's final words. Although the onager nominally directs his words at the donkey ('I am certainly not going to admire your good fortune any longer'), the fable is oriented around a single character whose conscious thoughts are revealed in the fable and expressed in speech: the wise onager says aloud the lesson he has learned.

Other fables are based on a dramatic interaction between two characters, as in the famous story of the fox and the lion in the cave (Fable 18):

A lion had grown old and weak. He pretended to be sick, which was just a ruse to make the other animals come and pay their respects so that he could eat them all up, one by one. The fox also came to see the lion, but she greeted him from outside the cave. The lion asked the fox why she didn't come in. The fox replied, 'Because I see the tracks of those going in, but none coming out.'

In this story, the lion is trying to lead the fox into making a potentially fatal mistake, walking into his cave as all the other foolish animals did before her. The fox, however, is not fooled, and she explains her wise reasoning in the fable's final words. The dramatic tension between the fox and the lion is resolved in the fox's favour, and the lion has to go hungry. Both of these fables are positive exempla in which the onager and the fox provide examples worthy of imitation: 'be like the onager: don't envy the fat donkeys!' or 'be like the fox: watch out for those lions!'

In many cases, however, the Aesopic fable provides a negative exemplum, an example of some foolish behaviour or mistaken judgement which we would do well to avoid. Greedy creatures, for example, regularly come to a bad end in Aesop, as in the story of the deer and the vine (Fable 80):

A deer who was being pursued by hunters hid under a grapevine. When the hunters had passed by, she turned her head and began to eat the leaves of the vine. One of the hunters came back, and when he saw the deer he hurled his javelin and struck her. As she was dying, the deer groaned to herself, 'It serves me right, since I injured the vine that saved me!'

A similar fate is in store for creatures who aspire to be something more than they are, or who pretend to be something they are not, as in the story of the wolf and his shadow (Fable 265):

There was once a wolf who went wandering in the desert as the sun was sinking and about to set. Seeing his long shadow, the wolf exclaimed, 'Should someone as great as myself be afraid of a lion? I'm a hundred feet tall! Clearly I should be the king of all the animals in the world!' As the wolf was boasting, a mighty lion seized and devoured him. Realizing his mistake after the fact, the wolf exclaimed, 'My self-conceit has been my undoing!'

In these two fables, the moral is expressed in the dying words of the principal characters, as the deer and the wolf confess the error of their ways with their last breath. Other fables end with castigation rather than confession, as in the famous story of the ant and the cricket (Fable 126):

During the wintertime, an ant was living off the grain that he had stored up for himself during the summer. The cricket came to the ant and asked him to share some of his grain. The ant said to the cricket, 'And what were you doing all summer long, since you weren't gathering grain to eat?' The cricket replied, 'Because I was busy singing I didn't have time for the harvest.' The ant laughed at the cricket's reply, and hid his heaps of grain deeper in the ground. 'Since you sang like a fool in the summer,' said the ant, 'you had better be prepared to dance the winter away!'

This fable depicts lazy, careless people who indulge in foolish pastimes, and therefore lose out.

In this case, the ant both refuses to take pity on the cricket and makes fun of him as well, using the last words of the fable to viciously correct the cricket's mistake. The reader will of course notice that in addition to the last words of the fable spoken by the ant, there is an additional sentence, represented here in italics. In technical terms, this italicized sentence is an epimythium, something that comes after the story (Greek epi-mythos, 'after-story'). The epimythium is added by the teller of the fable to make sure that the point is absolutely clear: lazy people will turn out to be losers, just like the cricket. In other fables, there may be instead a promythium, a moral that actually comes before the fable (Greek pro-mythos, 'before-story'). Unlike the moral which is fully immersed inside the fable (i.e., the witty and vicious words spoken by the ant), the promythium or epimythium draws an explicit link between the world of the fable and the world in which all of us lazy people live. This link between the fable world and our own world is a key element in the fable's didactic function, and a promythium or epimythium explicitly promotes this process of identification.

When fables are performed for an actual audience, the epimythium is sometimes needed to decode the meaning of the story so that the audience can understand how to apply it to their lives. Consider, for example, the account of Aesop defending a hated politician on the island of Samos (Fable 29):

Aesop was defending a demagogue at Samos who was on trial for his life, when he told this story: 'A fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn't get out. Meanwhile, there were ticks swarming all over the fox's body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the ticks, but the fox refused. The hedgehog asked the reason why, and the fox replied, "These ticks have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these ticks away, others will come and those hungry new ticks will drink up all the blood I have left!" And the same is true for you, people of Samos: this man will do you no harm since he is already wealthy, but if you condemn him to death, others will come who do not have any money, and they will rob you blind!'

In this account, Aesop tells a fable about a fox and a hedgehog, and the fox pronounces the moral of the story, correcting the hedgehog's mistaken judgement: the hedgehog thinks it would be a good idea to get rid of those ticks, but the fox knows better. In the epimythium added by Aesop, who is shown here as a fable performer, there is an explicit link between the timeless, fictional world of the fox and the actual trial which is taking placing right now at Samos: the man on trial is a tick swollen fat with blood (wealthy man), but if the people of Samos remove (execute) him, then other ticks will come and drink their blood (rob them blind). This depiction of a fable in performance shows what might be called the fullest form of the Aesopic fable, in which the fox's moral inside the fable and Aesop's moral outside the fable combine to promote the fable's entertaining and educational functions.

When Aesop's fables were later recorded in writing, however, the role of the fable's author began to hold greater and greater sway, so that the moral inside the story (pronounced by one of the story's characters) began to give way to an increasing emphasis on the moral appended by the fable's author in the form of a promythium or epimythium. In fact, what might be called the endomythium, the moral inside the story (Greek endo-mythos, 'inside-story'), was sometimes omitted entirely, as can already be seen in the first extant collection of fables, the poems of the Roman freedman Phaedrus. Consider, for example, Phaedrus' version of the story of the fox and the goat at the well (Fable 113):

As soon as someone clever gets into trouble, he tries to find a way out at someone else's expense.

A fox had unwittingly fallen in a well and found herself trapped inside its high walls. Meanwhile, a thirsty goat had made his way to that same place and asked the fox whether the water was fresh and plentiful. The fox set about laying her trap. 'Come down, my friend,' said the fox. 'The water is so good that I cannot get enough of it myself!' The bearded billy-goat lowered himself into the well whereupon that little vixen leaped up onto his lofty horns and came up out of the hole, leaving the goat stuck inside the watery prison.

In his version of the story, Phaedrus provides a promythium in which he introduces in advance what will be the moral action of the fable. Having promised a story about a clever character and a foolish victim, he then tells how the clever fox tricked the foolish goat. But what about the endomythium, in which the goat would admit his foolish mistake or the fox would make fun of him? Phaedrus does not feel a need to supply us with this type of moral inside the story. Throughout his fables, Phaedrus con-sistently includes either a promythium (as here) or an epimythium, while he often omits the endomythium, the moral pronounced inside the story.

There are, however, other versions of this fable about the fox and the goat which do include an endomythium, in addition to the promythium or epimythium. Caxton's fifteenth-century English version of the fables follows this tradition, reporting the vicious and witty words with which the fox mocks the goat, adding insult to injury:

And thenne the foxe beganne to lawhe and to scorne hym | and sayd to hym | O mayster goote | yf thow haddest be wel wyse with thy fayre berde | or euer thow haddest entryd in to the welle | thow sholdest fyrst haue taken hede | how thow sholdest haue comen oute of hit ageyne.

Phaedrus and Caxton, separated from one another by more than a millennium of time and an even greater cultural gap, are both telling the 'same' fable, but they do so according to different styles of storytelling.

Sometimes there is more at stake than style, and the contents of the moral become a matter of disputed interpretation. The moral inside the story may provide one lesson, with the moral outside the story reaching an entirely different conclusion. The story of the fox and the eagle provides an example of this kind of discrepancy (Fable 83):

An eagle was once caught by a man who immediately clipped his wings and turned him loose in the house with the chickens. The eagle was utterly dejected and grief-stricken. Another man bought the eagle and restored the eagle's feathers. The eagle then soared on his outspread wings and seized a hare, which he promptly brought back as a gift for the man who had rescued him. A fox saw what the eagle was doing and shouted, 'He's not the one who needs your attention! You should give the hare to the first man, so that if he ever catches you again, he won't deprive you of your wing feathers like the first time.'

The fable shows that we should give appropriate thanks to our benefactors, while avoiding evildoers.

The endomythium pronounced by the fox is perfectly suited to the fable in which one character corrects the mistake made by another: the naive eagle thinks that he should reward the man who already regards him as a friend, but the clever fox knows better. The fox offers the eagle a quite practical piece of advice, but the point of the fox's speech seems to have been lost on at least some of the later authors who collected and transmitted this fable. The epimythium takes a completely different approach, as if the eagle would do better to avoid the man who clipped his wings and devote himself to his benefactor. The author of this epimythium is thus hoping to make the Aesop's fable into an illustration of gratitude, while the fox is advocating a strategy worthy of Machiavelli. This blatant contradiction between the moral inside the story and the moral outside the story has often aroused the contempt of modern editors and translators of the fables. Lloyd Daly went so far as to consign all the epimythia to an appendix in the back of his translation of the fables, which was defiantly entitled Aesop without Morals (1961). Yet surely this conflict between the endomythia and the epimythia is worthy of our attention, allowing us to glimpse what are in effect two different moral codes confronting one another in a sustained moment of unresolved tension.

Finally, a number of modern editors have also been disconcerted by the quantity of material in the ancient collections which does not seem to teach any kind of moral lesson whatsoever. There are numerous jokes in these ancient collections, as well as aetiological stories and allegories, myths and legends, and even contemporary gossip about the rich and the famous. For each of these related genres, it is easy to see what might have prompted their inclusion together with the fables in a collection. For example, given that the endomythium of a fable is so much like the punch-line of a joke, it only makes sense that other jokes and witticisms would be included in the fable collections. Moreover, Aesop himself was the subject of many jokes and anecdotes, and these naturally made their way into the ancient fable collections. Aesop was also a teller of riddles and an interpreter of enigmas, so these forms of folklore and popular wisdom can likewise be found in the ancient collections. In addition to Aesop, there are other famous figures of popular wisdom who appear in the fables, such as Thales, one of the legendary 'seven sages' of ancient Greece, as well as other legendary wise men such as Simonides and Socrates.

Animal Lore and Legend in the Fables

More than the human characters, however, it is the animal characters—the talking animals—who catch our attention in the fables. Modern readers are often surprised, in fact, to discover that Aesop's fables are not strictly limited to animal stories. Yet at the same time that the fables so often involve animal characters, there was no special relationship between the legendary Aesop and the world of animals; Aesop was by no means an ancient Doctor Dolittle who could 'talk to the animals'. Instead, Aesop talked about animals (but not exclusively about them), using jokes and stories about talking animals in order to make a sharp critique of human foolishness. We already saw how Aesop used the fable of the fox and the hedgehog when defending a politician on trial at Samos (Fable 29). Likewise, when Aesop saw some people celebrating the wedding of a thief who lived next door, he told a story about some foolish frogs in order to chastise the people's foolish behaviour (Fable 436). Aesop was also famous for his aetiological stories, much like Kipling's 'just-so' stories, explaining how the tortoise got its shell (Fable 508), how the crested lark got its crest (Fable 499), and so on. Given the presence of animals in so many of Aesop's fables, it is therefore not surprising that over time some anecdotes and legends from the natural-history writers were also adopted as Aesop's fables. There were many strange and fascinating legends about animals in the ancient world—stories about hermaphrodite hyenas, self-castrating beavers, swans who sing their 'swan-song' at the moment of their death, among others—all of which found their way into the fables. Likewise, there are also some animal stereotypes that come into play: the fox is often sly (but not always), the lion is typically brave (but not always), the rabbit is generally a coward, the peacock proud, and so on. Yet precisely because Aesop's fables revel in surprise and paradox, things often turn out other than expected: the lion may be big and brave, but he can become indebted to a mouse; the wolf may be a crafty predator, but he can be outwitted by a goat, and so on. The encounters between the animals are not determined by any kind of rigid formula in Aesop: you can never be sure of what is going to happen when the wolf encounters a sheep, or when the donkey challenges the lion.

The animal characters of Aesop's fables bear a sometimes uncanny resemblance to those in the ancient folktales of India collected both in the Hindu story-book called the Panchatantra (which later gave rise to the collection entitled Kalila wa Dimnah, a book which served as a source for many of the didactic animal stories in the Islamic mystical poet Rumi) and also in the tales of the Buddha's former births, called jatakas. Like Aesop's fables, the stories in the Panchatantra and in the jatakas are didactic tales that illustrate a specific point or moral, generally with talking animals as their principal characters. Yet unlike the disjointed Aesop's fables, both the jatakas and the Panchatantra stories are narrated within the over-arching structure of a frame tale: there is an external narrative, the frame, which includes as part of its plot the telling of a story, while the moral of this inner story conveys a message to the characters in the framing narrative. The jatakas, for example, consist of two parts: a story of the present, in which the Buddha is often mediating a dispute among the monks of his monastery, and a story of the past, in which the Buddha was incarnated as a person, or animal, or even a plant in a past life. These stories of the past, like Aesop's fables, convey a pointed message meant to educate the audience listening to Buddha's recitation in the world of the present. Similarly, the Panchatantra features elaborate framing narratives, as when the animals in the court of the lion king plot and scheme against one another, telling each other stories in order to defend their goals and strategies. In the written tradition of Aesop's fables, however, we very rarely find such elaborate framing narratives. In a few cases, Aesop is depicted as telling a story in order to instruct his contemporaries, as in the story of the frogs told at the thief's wedding or the various moments in the Life of Aesop when Aesop tells an illustrative story. For the most part, however, Aesop's fables stand alone: they were not transmitted as stories embedded in framing narratives.

It is only in medieval Europe that a more elaborate narrative form begins to emerge with the medieval 'beast epic' stories of Reynard the fox, inveterate rival of Ysengrimus, the wolf. In the beast epics, the animals become self-aware individuals, endowed with memory, motivation and—perhaps most importantly—personal names. It is but a slight jump from this tradition to the horse named Boxer in Orwell's Animal Farm, the famous pigs named Wilbur or Babe or Porky, not to mention Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and innumerable other cartoon animals, along with the extraordinary comic-book animals in Spiegelman's Maus. The characters in Aesop's fables, on the other hand, are still basically generic representatives of their species; they have not yet become specific individuals.

Sources of the Fables

Anonymous Collections

Approximately one-third of the fables in this book are taken from the anonymous Greek collections of fables attributed to Aesop, which consist almost entirely of prose versions of the fables. The dating of these anonymous collections is a subject of much scholarly disagreement. It is generally agreed that the first collection was the work of Demetrius of Phalerum (d. 280 BCE), who is supposed to have written a book of fables called Aisopeia, 'the things of Aesop'. Except for (perhaps) a single fragment of papyrus, Demetrius' book has disappeared completely and the relationship between this lost text and the later collections of the fables is a subject of considerable study, based largely on conjecture as well as wishful thinking. While it is quite likely that Demetrius did compose this first written collection of Aesopic fables, there is no reason to doubt that he later had many imitators, and the anonymous Aesopic collections that have survived might have been assembled almost anywhere in the ancient Greek or Roman worlds with or without access to Demetrius' Aisopeia. The Collectio Augustana (so named because its principal manuscript was at one point housed in Augsburg) is probably the oldest of these collections, dating to the second or third century CE (although some scholars date it later, to the fourth or fifth century). The Augustana contains approximately 230 fables arranged in alphabetical order based on the first word of each fable. It gave rise to two other major collections, the so-called Collectio Vindobonesis (which takes its name from a manuscript housed in Vienna) and the Collectio Accursiana (named after the editor of the first printed edition, Bonus Accursius, who published this collection of Greek fables in the late fifteenth century). These various collections continued to grow over time, as the authors of the different manuscript traditions incorporated the Aesopic fables that they heard or read elsewhere, until eventually there were over 350 fables circulating in the anonymous Greek collections, copied and recopied over the centuries by Byzantine scholars and scribes.


The Roman poet Phaedrus was a freedman of the emperor Augustus who certainly lived during the reign of the emperor Tiberius and perhaps as late as the reign of Nero. This allows us to date his fables to the early first century CE, making the poems of Phaedrus the earliest extant collection of fables. There are approximately 120 verse fables of Phaedrus that have survived (written in a Latin metre called iambic senarii), of which slightly over 100 are translated in this book. Aside from the historical period in which he lived and his status as a freedman (former slave), very little is known about Phaedrus. Despite his great ambitions, about which he is very explicit in his poems, he seems to have made little or no impression on later generations of Roman writers. His poems are addressed to patrons named Eutychus and Particulo, but these persons are also otherwise unknown. Poems from five different books of fables by Phaedrus have been preserved in a ninth-century manuscript, the so-called Codex Pithoeanus, but not all of the books are complete. There are medieval prose paraphrases of Phaedrus that reflect a more complete collection of poems than what has come down to us directly (see below), and there is also a separate collection of fables copied from a manuscript of Phaedrus discovered by the humanist scholar Niccolo Perotti in the fifteenth century. This manuscript has since been lost, but Perotti's copy was preserved and is commonly referred to as 'Perotti's Appendix'. The fables transmitted by Perotti do not, however, contain the promythia and epimythia (regular features of Phaedrus' fables) and instead Perotti substituted his own editorial morals in prose, which are included here in the notes to the fables. It is not known what sources Phaedrus used to craft his poems. Presumably some of these were Greek, although there are many fables in his collection which are not found in any extant Greek source.

One of the most curious features of Phaedrus' fables is his attempt to supply fables about exploitation and injustice with a more pious conclusion than would otherwise be expected from the Aesopic tradition. For example, in the gruesome story of the fox's murderous vengeance against the eagle for having killed her cubs, Phaedrus supplies an ending in which both the cubs and the eagle's chicks live happily ever after (Fable 154). This is not to say that Phaedrus does not share the vicious sense of humour that is characteristic of the Aesopic fable tradition. His story of the dog who starves to death while guarding a treasure (Fable 405, not attested in any extant Greek source) is Aesopic storytelling of the highest order, in which the dog not only suffers a fatal punishment, but is also insulted by the vulture after his death. Another notable feature of Phaedrus' fables is the large number of stories which he tells about Aesop himself: he frequently appears both as a storyteller (see Fable 436, when he tells the story of the frogs and the sun to the foolish people celebrating the thief's wedding) and as the story's protagonist (see Fable 537, when Aesop challenges a man with the riddle of the bow).


While we know little about the Latin poet Phaedrus, we know even less about Babrius, whose identity will probably always remain in doubt. Current scholarly opinion casts him as a Hellenised Roman who lived and worked in Cilicia (modern Turkey or Armenia) during the reign of a certain 'King Alexander' in the late first century CE (see Fable 502). Babrius wrote his fables in an unusual style of Greek verse (choliambics) and there are slightly more than 140 fables extant, of which just short of 100 are included in this book. The most important manuscript of Babrius is the so-called Athoan Codex from Mt. Athos in Greece, which dates from the tenth century and contains just over 120 fables arranged alphabetically. Given that the manuscript breaks off abruptly at the letter 'O', scholars speculate that Babrius originally composed something like 200 fables. As in the case of Phaedrus, it is not clear what sources Babrius used for his fables. The two poets tell many of the same fables, but there are also fables in Babrius and in Phaedrus that are not extant in any other ancient source. Of all the fable collections preserved from antiquity, Babrius is probably the most typically Aesopic and the most consistently humorous. Babrius' fables tend to be brief and sometimes even terse to the point of obscurity, but he also wrote some longer and more intricate fables, including the extraordinary fable of the lion, the fox, and the deer (Fable 600), which is over 100 lines in length. There is considerable debate over the epimythia appended to the fables of Babrius. Many scholars consider these to be the work of later editors of the text and not of Babrius himself. In this book, the disputed epimythia can be found in the notes to the fables.


Aphthonius was a scholar and teacher of the fourth century CE associated with the school of Libanius. The fables of Aphthonius are forty in number, of which twenty-five are included in this book. In general, Aphthonius' fables are attested in other ancient sources, although there are a few fables which are otherwise unknown. As a rule, his fables are quite brief and, with few exceptions, he includes both a promythium and an epimythium for every fable. Given this abundance of editorial moralizing, it is not surprising that in the majority of Aphthonius' fables there is no endomythium, those witty last words spoken by one of the characters inside the fable itself. In his rhetorical treatise, the Progymnasmata (conveniently reprinted as van Dijk G54), Aphthonius states that Aesop was the best of all the writers of fables. Clearly, for Aphthonius, Aesop is no longer a story-teller so much as he is a writer and scholar like Aphthonius himself.


There are just over forty fables ascribed to Avianus (written in Latin elegiac couplets), of which fifteen are included in this book. Although there are still some arguments as to Avianus' historical identity, it seems reasonable to identify him with the 'Avienus' who is described as a participant in the Saturnalia of Macrobius, in the early fifth century CE. Avianus dedicates his fables to a certain 'Theodosius', who may be this same Macrobius (i.e. Ambrosius Macrobius Theodosius). Although Avianus mentions both Phaedrus and Babrius in the introduction to his poems, it is clearly Babrius who is his model (apparently via a Greek prose version later rendered in Latin prose which Avianus then put into verse). However, Avianus tends to write longer, more intricate fables, without the brevity and wit that is so characteristic of Babrius. The Latin poems of Avianus remained quite popular throughout the Middle Ages and spawned many imitators.


The fables attributed to 'Syntipas' are actually the work of Michael Andreopulus, a Greek scholar of the eleventh century who translated a collection of Syriac fables into Greek. Those Syriac fables, in turn, had originally been translated from Greek either in late antiquity or even well into the Middle Ages. There are slightly over sixty fables in this collection, most of which are included in this book. The significance of the Syntipas fables becomes clear when we realize that fifteen, approximately one-quarter of the collection, are not attested elsewhere in the Aesopic corpus. Thanks to their preservation in Syriac, the fables of Syntipas escaped extinction, while we can only speculate about the hundreds or even thousands of other Greek fables that vanished along with their manuscripts (not to mention all the fables that were never even recorded in written form). Although the fables of Syntipas reach us by a roundabout path (from Greek to Syriac and back into Greek again), they remain quite lively. Most importantly, the fables of Syntipas regularly include an endomythium, the witty moral inside the story, in addition to the moralizing epimythium that concludes the tale.

Other Greek and Latin Sources

Aesop's fables are widely reported in various Greek and Latin authors, and in some cases the fables translated in this book have been taken directly from these literary sources. Not infrequently a fable first reported in a literary source later makes its way into one of the Aesopic collections, sometimes verbatim. In such cases, preference has been given to the version reported in the collections, although the notes provide references to the literary sources as well.

Poetry and Prose

While Phaedrus and Babrius appear to have been the first authors to have considered the Aesopic fable to be a literary genre, there are Aesopic fables attested in Greek and Roman literature reaching as far back as the archaic Greek poets Hesiod and Archilochus. There are also fables in the fragments that survive of the archaic Roman poet Ennius. The Greek Anthology (a collection of poetry which includes Greek poets of all periods) contains a number of fables. The most significant literary source for the fables is the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes. In Latin, the most important source is Horace, who frequently recounts or alludes to Aesopic fables in his poems. In prose, there are Greek fables found in the satirist Lucian and the novelist Achilles Tatius, as well as numerous fables included in the novel known as the Life of Aesop (discussed above).

Oratory and Rhetoric

As a form of public discourse, Aesop's fables were used by the orators of Greece and Rome and were a subject of rhetorical study. There are fables included here which were reportedly used by the classical Greek orators Demosthenes and Demades, as well as by the orators of later periods such as Maximus of Tyre, Themistius, and Dio Chrysostom. Some fables can also be found in the rhetorical treatises of classical authors such as Aristotle and later authors such as Hermogenes and Diogenian, among others.


Accounts of Aesopic fables can be found in the historical writings of the Greek historians Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch and also in the Roman historian Livy. These historians recount specific fables that were reportedly used in speeches by historical figures, providing further evidence for the orators' performance of the fables. For example, the famous speech by Menenius Agrippa to the plebeians of Rome in 494 BCE (Fable 66) is reported in Livy's history of Rome and is also found in Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus.

Symposiastic Writing

Another important source for Aesopic fables is the 'symposiastic' or 'table talk' literature of such writers as Xenophon, Plutarch, and Athenaeus in Greek, and Aulus Gellius in Latin. Unlike the fables used by the orators and politicians, the speakers at a symposium provide a glimpse into a somewhat more private mode of 'going over' the fables. Plutarch's Banquet of the Seven Sages is a symposiastic composition in which Aesop himself appears as a character.

The Medieval Latin Fables

During the Middle Ages, the Aesopic tradition remained popular in the Greek East (and there are several fables included in this book that come from Byzantine sources, such as the ninth-century Aesopic poetry of Ignatius Diaconus), but it was in the Latin West that the fables truly thrived, thanks largely to the prose paraphrases of the Roman poet Phaedrus. As mentioned earlier, only a portion of Phaedrus' actual poems have reached us intact, but there are prose paraphrases made of the missing poems which are preserved in the medieval tradition under the name of 'Romulus'. The manuscripts of the Romulus tradition date to the tenth century and later, although it is unclear exactly how and when the first versions of the Romulus collection were assembled. Do all the materials in the early Romulus collections derive from Phaedrus? By what intermediary stages did the poems of Phaedrus reach the form that we find in these later prose paraphrases? These are subjects of much debate among scholars. In any case, there are a number of poems in the Romulus manuscripts which are almost certainly based on poems of Phaedrus, so much so that some scholars have attempted to reconstruct the lost poems on this basis.

Over time, however, new fables were clearly added to the Romulus collections, and as a result the collections vary considerably in contents and style. The new additions include both fables that were taken from other collections as well as some added by the medieval authors who both retold familiar fables in markedly new variations and recorded the oral stories that were circulating in their own communities. Later versions of the Romulus collections were also versified, putting the prose back into poetry (although using medieval poetic forms that are quite different from Phaedrus' own iambic senarii). Slightly fewer than twenty fables from the Romulus collections are included in this book, and each reference indicates the particular version of Romulus which is being translated. When the reference 'Romulus' appears by itself, it refers simply to the so-called Romulus vulgaris, or common edition. The Romulus ad Rufum refers to a collection dedicated to an otherwise unknown 'Rufus'. There are also a few fables taken from the Romulus collections which circulated in England (the Romulus Anglicus and the more extensive Romulus Anglicus cunctis) as well as the Romulus Monacensis, or 'Munich Romulus'.

Ademar of Chabannes

Ademar of Chabannes was a monk and scholar who is best known as the author of the Chronicon, a history of France covering the years 399 up to 1030. He was also the author of sermons and liturgical works as well as devotional Christian poetry. Fortunately for us, he also produced a collection of sixty-seven Aesopic fables, about half of which are included in this book. Ademar's work has a special place in the medieval Latin tradition because the fables he included are rather different from the usual Romulus corpus. Of the sixty-seven fables, there are thirty which follow the Romulus paraphrase of Phaedrus, but there are fourteen fables based on extant poems of Phaedrus that are not found elsewhere in the Romulus collections (along with an additional five fables which seem to be a combination of the Romulus version with the original of Phaedrus, or with a markedly different paraphrase of Phaedrus). Clearly, Ademar had at his disposal either the original poems of Phaedrus or, at a minimum, some paraphrase of Phaedrus that was both more complete than the paraphrase represented by the Romulus collections and, for that matter, more complete than the surviving poems of Phaedrus which are known to us. This makes it highly tempting to suppose that at least some of the other eighteen fables in Ademar which are not attested in any other source could, in fact, represent additional fables of Phaedrus that we can recover from the medieval tradition. However, it is also entirely possible that these fables are Ademar's rendering of stories that he heard or read elsewhere. As the anonymous Greek collections show, the fable collections were extremely fluid, growing and expanding to accommodate new material. Yet, given Ademar's probable access to some more extensive version of Phaedrus, it is at least possible that some of his 'original' fables date back almost exactly a thousand years, to the reign of the first Roman emperors.

Odo of Cheriton

In addition to the anonymous Romulus collections and the fables of Ademar, there is another extremely important source for the medieval Latin Aesop: the parables of Odo of Cheriton, a notable scholar and cleric of the thirteenth century. Of the 120 parables included in this collection, approximately ninety can be considered Aesopic fables of a sort, although the majority of Odo's stories are not attested in earlier fable collections. There are eighteen of Odo's fables included in this book, some of which are variations on traditional fables and some of which are attested only in Odo. Unlike Ademar and the other authors of the medieval Romulus tradition, Odo situates his fables in a strongly Christian context, arming his stories with allegorical sermons which occasionally go on longer than the stories themselves. The sermons have not been included here, although the following can serve as a typical example of Odo's interpretive style (Fable 328):

A fable against people who boast that they have something they do not.

There was a crow who saw that she was ugly and black, so she complained to the eagle. The eagle told her to borrow some feathers from her fellow birds. The crow did as the eagle suggested, taking feathers from the tail of the peacock, from the wings of the dove, and so on and so forth, appropriating the other birds' feathers. When the crow decided that she was sufficiently well dressed, she began to laugh at the other birds and yell at them. The other birds then went and complained to the eagle about the boastful crow. The eagle replied, 'Let every bird take back her feathers, and thus humiliate the crow.' This is what they did, and so the crow was left ugly and naked.

In the same way man, that miserable creature, boasts of his adornment. But let the sheep take back her wool, and the earth its clay, and the cattle and the goats their hides, and the porcupines and the rabbits their pelts, and that miserable man will be left naked and ugly, and this indeed is how he will be on the day of his death, when he will be unable to carry away with him any of his earthly goods.

This fable can also be used against wealthy men who boast of the extent of their riches: the Lord will take everything away in time and thus the rich are humiliated.

Odo's approach to the fables has clearly been influenced by the Christian allegorical and exegetical traditions of the Middle Ages. Far more than the traditional moralizers of the fables, Odo seizes on specific words and images from the text of the story in order to craft his sermon, as when he carefully echoes the 'crow left ugly and naked' with the 'man left naked and ugly'. Yet at the same time that Odo's commentaries exceed the bounds of the Aesopic epimythium, he is nevertheless a master storyteller (see, for example, Fable 105, the wonderful story of the cat and the stork, a variation on the traditional story of the fox and the crow). In addition, Odo appears to be the first collector of fables who tries to arrange at least some of his fables in thematic groups. The opening fables of his collection, for example, are all concerned with the process of choosing a ruler: Odo begins with the biblical fable of the trees electing a king (Fable 26), followed by fables of animals electing a king (ants, frogs, birds), and finally a human story of monks choosing their abbot (Fable 28). It is also worth noting that Odo includes a number of natural-history anecdotes in his parables, such as the story of the phoenix who is born out of the fire and the pelican who revives his chicks by letting them drink his blood. These are again markedly Christian allegories (often derived from the Physiologus or the later bestiary tradition), but their presence in a book of fables parallels the inclusion of natural-history anecdotes in the ancient Greek and Roman collections.

Modern Editions


There are several modern editions of Aesopic fables referred to in these pages. Most important is the monumental work published by Ben Perry in 1952, which is entitled Aesopica. This is the only modern edition that attempts to cover both the Greek and Latin traditions, and Perry's numeration of the fables is the standard which is followed here. The book is a veritable treasure trove but at the same time it is in-tended exclusively for specialists. Aside from an eleven-page introduction in English, the remaining 750 pages consist entirely of Greek and Latin. Perry's discussion of the fables is written entirely in Latin; even the instructions for using the indexes in the back of the book are written in Latin. In 1965 Perry published a translation of the poems of Babrius and Phaedrus for the Loeb Classical Library, with an appendix containing hundreds of additional fables translated into English along with extensive English indexes. Readers who want to learn more about the Aesopic tradition but who do not know Greek and Latin will want to consult the appendix to Perry's Loeb edition rather than trying to use the indexes of his Aesopica.


The anonymous Greek fables were carefully collated and edited by the French scholar Émile Chambry, who first published his results in a two-volume edition for the Belles Lettres series in 1925–6, which was then reduced to a single volume for the second edition in 1927 (it is this second edition which was recently translated by Robert and Olivia Temple under the misleading title Aesop: The Complete Fables). As Chambry explains in the opening words of his introduction to the first edition, numerosi sunt Aesopi codices, 'many are the manuscripts of Aesop'. To be precise, Chambry lists ninety-four manuscripts held in public libraries and explains that he spent seven years analysing their contents, finally printing an edition of the fables containing over 880 individual fables arranged according to slightly over 350 fable types (some fables being represented by one or more variant versions). The fables were organized according to the traditional alphabetizing method based on the first word of the first fable listed for each type. Unfortunately, when Chambry sometimes selected different fables to appear in the second edition, it caused a disruption of the alphabetical system, so that the numeration of the first and second editions is slightly out of kilter.


For the medieval Latin fables, the standard reference is still Leopold Hervieux's Les Fabulistes latins (1893–9). The first volume contains an edition of the poems of Phaedrus which has largely been superseded by more recent editions, but the second volume, which contains the medieval paraphrases of Phaedrus, is for the most part still the standard edition, which is also true for Hervieux's edition of Odo's fables, found in volume four.

van Dijk

The notes to the fables contain several references to recent work by Gert-Jan van Dijk, who has undertaken the monumental task of reviewing the literary evidence for the Aesopic fables in Greece and Rome. His Ainoi, Logoi, Mythoi (1997) contains important texts in Greek and Latin (especially excerpts from the ancient grammarians), together with commentary and analysis of the fables. Although it is not an edition in the strict sense of the word, van Dijk has identified at least one important fable which was omitted from Perry's inventory (Fable 239), and he provides some very useful discussions about the interpretive context for the relatively few fables which are attested in ancient literary sources.


P. Gila Reinstein (essay date March 1983)

SOURCE: Reinstein, P. Gila. "Aesop and Grimm: Contrast in Ethical Codes and Contemporary Values." Children's Literature in Education 14, no. 1 (March 1983): 44-53.

[In the following essay, Reinstein compares the methodology and morality of the folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm with the classical fables collected by Aesop. Rein-stein argues that, "Although both are examples of traditional folklore, still alive and meaningful, as well as entertaining and emotionally satisfying, they speak to different kinds of lives, reflect different needs, foster different dreams."]

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Joanne Lynn (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Lynn, Joanne. "Aesop's Fables: Beyond Morals." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 4-13. West Lafayette, Ind.: ChLA Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, Lynn addresses the question of whether Aesop's fables should be classified as children's literature—despite having been originally written for adult audiences—asserting that the morality and humor of the stories make them ideal for young readers.]

All of us, whether we've ever owned an Aesop or not, have at least a handful of fables rattling around in our heads: the fox mutters "sour grapes," the tortoise forever beats the hare, the dog keeps cows from getting at the hay in the manger, the boy learns too late not to cry "wolf!" Aesop and his fables are probably better known than Homer and his epics. The fables entered western European literature in written form shortly after Homer's epics, and in the popular mind, Aesop shares a reputation for wisdom and venerability with Homer, Socrates and the wisdom books of the Bible. Though the original collections of fables were meant for adults, these days we mostly think of Aesop as tales for children. Partly because of their verbal brevity and their visual appeal (since the invention of the printing press, Aesop's fables have often been accompanied by illustrations), we take for granted that the fables are part of the canon of children's literature.

The book chosen to represent Aesop as a touchstone of children's literature, Aesop's Fables as selected and retold by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provenson (Golden Press, 1965), is a handsome enough edition; it meets the criteria of clarity of text and illustration that are appropriate to a children's version of adult oral literature. Unfortunately, it is also out of print. Not to worry. The charms of Aesop and the reasons for including fables in a canon of children's literature go far beyond the limits of a particular edition.

Almost any of a number of editions, new or old, will do for adults concerned with passing along Aesop to children, for, in whatever form they are first encountered, Aesop's fables belong in the human voice and in the head. What interests me here more than which edition a child owns is why these brief and some-times astringent little narratives should continue to be part of a child's literary heritage. Aesop's fables remain viable as children's literature not solely because of their longevity in the culture, not because of their "morals," not even, as some have claimed, because they are "about animals." Aesop's fables belong to children because the concerns of Aesop's fables make common cause with the condition of childhood. Aesop speaks for the underdog, the common man, the politically and socially disenfranchised. The dry wit and self-respecting sanity of the fables counter intrinsic powerlessness—with humorous acceptance, not docility, with wry common sense, not fear. These qualities, rather than those more frequently cited, make Aesop's place in the canon secure, regardless of the form in which children first encounter him.

Caxton was surely aware of their broad base of popularity as well as their traditional cachet when he chose to print these fables with the fifteenth-century Ulm woodcuts as an early venture in a new medium. Every age from Hesiod's time to our own had held them a vital part of the culture, and has circulated them in a variety of versions, mostly for adult audiences. When, as Daley tells us, Hesiod illustrated his pessimistic view of absolute power in Works and Days with the fable of the hawk and the nightingale, he assumed his eighth-century audience knew the tale well (17). The anonymous "biography" of Aesop often attached to collections of fables emphasizes Aesop's lowly origins. With delicious irony, the legend shows the master storyteller born dumb, this eventual advIsor to despots and kings born a slave, this deformed, phallic body, the "property" of an absent-minded philosopher whose mind needs Aesop's aid. Certainly by the time Caxton began to print his translation of Aesop from the French in 1483, "Aesop's Fables" had become the common property of all ages, and the term had become generic for collections of brief prose narratives illustrating a keen observation of human nature. Derived probably from a number of sources, their origins now seem to defy discovery. Reasons for their persistence in the culture invite speculation.

Some assume that the chief reason for inclusion of Aesop's fables in the canon is simply that for ages they were part of the school curriculum. True, they have been schoolboy fodder for a long time. From at least Roman times through the nineteenth century they were considered an appropriate part of the education of young males. Both Phaedrus' first century text and La Fontaine's Fables were memorized, recited, and paraphrased as part of the school curriculum. Quintilian recommends them for just this purpose in his first-century A.D. textbook:

The pupils of the elementary teacher should learn to paraphrase Aesop's fables, the natural succesors of the fairy stories of the nursery, in simple language, and subsequently to set down this paraphrase in writing with the same simplicity of style: They should begin by analyzing each verse, then give its meaning in different language, and finally to proceed to a free paraphrase in which they will be permitted now to abridge and now to embellish the original so far as this may be done without losing the poet's meaning.

                                    (Daly 15-16)

These are still excellent linguistic and interpretive exercises. But the purpose of passing on the fables has changed considerably. Quintilian's text was designed to train young men as orators in the forum, and La Fontaine's served to educate future courtiers and statesmen. Yet the fables have not served merely to educate a male elite. Their audience has always been wider and deeper.

Received opinion assumes that this wider and deeper audience includes children because Aesop teaches good behavior, socializes the child, smooths the path to adulthood by means of "morals." Never mind that the early collections of Aesop were written down without explicit morals. (In fact, orators on both sides of the political fence can use the same anecdote to different ends.) Caxton introduced each fable with a generalization about what the story was intended to illustrate, and reiterated the point in the form of a moral at the end. But Caxton's conclusion that "he is wyse / whiche fayneth not to desyre that thynge the whiche he may not haue" (Lenaghan 122) differs a good deal from Untermeyer's mild injunction about rationalization: "There is comfort in pretending that what we can't get isn't worth having" (Provenson 23). Fortunately, though some children's literature texts still retain the unqualified view that Aesop is useful for teaching morals, recent studies of Aesop for children, such as those by Barbara Mirel, Kristin Lehman, and Anita Wilson in a recent special section of the ChLA Quarterly devoted to the fables, challenge the assumption. By showing how those who retell the fables always manage to find "morals" that mirror their own values, these studies reveal how unimportant a part of the effect of these fables are the specific messages we attach to them.

If we consult our own childhood acquaintance with Aesop honestly, in fact, we're likely to have to decide that "morals" do not fully account for the influence and charm of Aesop. I'm sure I was told "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" as a hopeful corrective to my tendency to tell "stretchers," but, city kid that I was, I was far more interested in the boy's good fortune at having sheep to look after. My childhood acquaintance with fables—whether I heard them aloud (Sunday school teachers forever wanted to tell us "The Wind and the Sun") or pored over them in a battered set of The Book of Knowledge—left me with that same wonderful sense of puzzlement that I associated with fairy tales: How could a young man climb up Rapunzel's hair without it pulling and hurting awfully? Why would a fox want to eat grapes anyway? For me, and for the children I have known best, the fables stuck with us because they suggested a some- times inexplicable adult world that had nevertheless to be coped with. Like the folktales, fables fascinated because they were faintly puzzling, numinous, compelling because of, not in spite of, their creation of a faintly familiar world in which justice did not necessarily prevail, a world which raised more questions than it answered.

Many commentators on Aesop for children assume that Aesop's fables mean beast tales, and that their popularity with children results from a child's natural affinity with animals. A substantial proportion of fables does employ animals as chief characters, but another sizeable proportion features human beings instead. Of the "animal" group, a number of the "animals" are actually insects, reptiles or amphibians, even an occasional fish. In addition, some fables allot the speaking parts to inanimate objects or natural phenomena: plants, trees, rivers, axes, pots, sun, moon, and wind. If one examines actual texts, then, the "affinity with animals" argument will not bear scrutiny. Human characters offer even less possibility of identification. Most are peasants, ordinary folk of other eras: in Greek prose versions, fishermen, potters, shepherds; in Caxton, hunters, farmers, woodcutters, or the generic "man," or "old woman," an occasional teenage boy. Significantly absent from the cast are the aristocrats of epic and märchen: kings, knights, courtiers. Or the professional types of old comedy: lawyers, doctors, teachers, priests.

In Phaedrus, of 332 tales, 179 feature animals protagonists alone, while in 135 at least one human character stars. The remaining eighteen feature inanimate objects. In Caxton a similar proportion prevails: of 133 tales, seventy-one feature animals, fifty-four employ human characters, and inanimate objects perform in the remaining eight. By comparison, in the Provenson edition for children the proportion shifts radically in favor of animals: of thirty-four tales, only five feature human beings, and three, inanimate objects. The largest group by far, twenty-six tales, employs animals. Still, one cannot then argue that children's collections feature more animals because children like them. Adults, after all, have made the selections. Decisions have just as likely been made on unexamined adult assumptions about children's preferences as on the preferences themselves.

Another false notion about the fable is that the animals take on stereotypic, and thus predictable, roles: the Fox is always cunning, the Lion always noble, the Wolf always the predatory villain. While this may be true of certain medieval fabliaux (a different generic form), it is not particularly true of Aesop's fables. Though the fox is often a cunning predator, he is just as often the victim of flattery or pride, or even stupidity. The ass is not always an ass; he sometimes outsmarts the man. Though the lion usually represents power, he can be foiled or fooled. The characters of fables are chosen for their emotional distance from, rather than their closeness to, their audience. The key factor is displacement. Because the fable's chief reason for being is to make a sharp and potentially unpalatable observation about human nature, characters must keep their impersonal distance from auditor/reader (child or adult) in order for the point to penetrate without emotional resistance. In an introduction to the fables, G. K. Chesterton once declared that their characters must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. Thus the cat who flatters the beasts with an invitation to a feast is not a domestic house pet, a resourceful Puss-in-Boots, nor even a real villain. (In Provenson the "beasts" become mice, rabbits and birds; the occasion is the cat's ninth birthday party.) The tale is cautionary, of course: a warning against credulity. The child is not invited to identify with cats, birds, or mice as such, but to absorb the action. The characters of fables are neither people nor animals we know in any realistic sense; they are metaphors for aspects of human nature. Thus the fabulist has the liberty of continually shifting the terms of his tenor and vehicle in the service of his view of human nature.

Just what version of human nature does Aesop offer? A hardheaded, pragmatic, predominantly cynical one, if we consider the entire body of fables as they were collected from classical times to Caxton. Such a view runs counter, one might think, to sentimental notions of childhood and childhood's needs. But despite the Wordsworthian perception of childhood as a time of spiritual insight, or the twentieth century's insistence on a "child centered" universe, the real situation of childhood inevitably shares with serfs, slaves and yeomen of past ages the condition of powerlessness and vulnerability. The child necessarily lives in a world of baffling power, apparent injustice, almost certain irrationality. Like the disenfranchised adult he needs means of psychic survival: an ability to cope with inexplicable tyrannies and a route to escape into fantasies of the cunning and victorious underdog. The fables serve these needs.

As we have seen, the early collections of Aesop's fables served adults, or adults-in-training as orators. Consequently, the majority of fables in the old collections are inapplicable to, or downright inappropriate for, children. Little by little, subsequent collections have culled the vulgar or the salacious. Thus Caxton leaves out the fable of the boy who vomits after overindulging on entrails, but retains "The Wulf whiche made a fart" (149). Later editions eliminate both. Nor does Caxton include the amusing tale of human self-deception, "the Youth and the Woman" (Daly 226) in which a strong youth lusts after the older woman he has carried on his shoulders out of pity. He satisfies both their consciences by telling her he intends "to chisel off some of [her] flesh." Instead of registering conventional horror as he continues to bear her along the way, she responds with feigned compassion: "If I am still heavy and burdensome for you, put me down again, and chisel off some more." The quasi dirty joke may disturb modern feminists, who will note perpetuation of a myth of the lustful older woman, but the honest will admit its comic truth. While these omissions need not be lamented in children's collections, their shrewd earthiness underscores the cynical realism that nonetheless remains in modern collections for children like the Untermeyer-Provenson edition.

This edition, like the Caxton (1484) and James (1848) fables chosen for the Everyman edition (1915), features plenty of tales warning against pretension and greed, tales advocating loyalty, truthfulness and industry. These tales represent what most people now think of as the wisdom of Aesop, a wisdom not exclusively the property of the disenfranchised. It's not surprising that such "lessons" comprise a healthy proportion of fables in modern collections for children. Yet, an astonishing number of tales deal shrewdly and realistically with power—and how to cope with it—from the underdog's point of view: acceptance, resignation, cunning, persistence, escape into fantasies of revenge. The "morals" inculcated by the fables collected for children turn out to be not so much guides to adult conduct as internal recognitions of a state much like children's own.

The Provenson illustrations to Untermeyer's spare text instinctively reinforce the notion that the fables deal with power relations. In a sense, two texts illuminate the point: Untermeyer's text proper, a modern economic, formal idiom consonant with the best tradition of Aesop redactions, and the Provenson illustrations, a visual retelling, often taking more space than the verbal text. The verbal text is illustrated on facing pages or on double-page spreads following the retelling. The paintings and drawings are usually accompanied by conversational balloons in which an animal "chorus" comments on the action in a breezier, less formal idiom. Animals are stylized, anthropomorphic; perspective and proportion are arbitrary, impressionistic. The period is vaguely Edwardian; settings mix U.S. rural with eastern European urban (Russia? The Balkans?) and an exotic near east (Greece? Turkey? North Africa?). These choices allow appropriate distancing, yet suggest times when and places where power was or is more arbitrary than we like to believe of our own place and time. In the illustrations, as in the verbal text comedy diffuses but does not disguise the pragmatic, sometimes cynical, point.

Predictably, the collection contains familiar fables ridiculing pretension and greed. In one of the bestknown, "The Jackdaw's Fine Feathers" (47), the ridiculous, clumsy jackdaw makes a public fool of himself while an audience of birds mouths platitudes. The Provenson illustrations of "The Lioness and the Vixen" particularize pointedly. The imposing lioness in flowered print hosts Mrs. Fox, gloved and hatted, perched on a Victorian side chair. She surveys her spoiled brood as they clamor: "I want a balloon," "Look at me ride," "I have party shoes on." Mama Fox coos, "I love a big family, don't you?" Her social superior, Mrs. Lion, merely smiles smugly, offering her one "quality" cub without comment. In "The Ass in the Lion's Skin" (32-33), the fox exposes pretensions, as he does also in "The Fox and the Crow" (60-61). Sporting jaunty Tyrolean garb, he flatters the more formally dressed crow to his defeat.

Fables on greed, honesty and industry are also illustrated with mild visual social satire. The Provensions' visual interpretations emphasize the social reality of being a little guy. In "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs" (34-35), a derbied mustachioed gent in pink coat attacks the straw-bonneted goose who warns: "STOP! THINK!" In "The Dog in the Manger" (44-45), the selfish dog barks at smocked and overalled farmhands, headed by the stolid bull. The bridge in "The Dog and His Shadow" (37) crosses a river flowing through an eastern European city. Several bourgeois bystanders (hen, sow, cat, vixen) comment on the foolish behavior of the greedy dog, a dandified "gentleman." "The Boy and the Wolf" (17) takes place in a vague version of Turkey; thus the villagers who provide the negative injunction to honesty are not parental authority figures, but the voice of reasonable common sense.

That fable dearest to the heart of puritan values and Victorian capitalism, "The Grasshopper and the Ant" (12) is illustrated only by two small ink drawings: the grasshopper's portrait in a large, ornate frame, the ant's, small and plain. Its not too surprising that this fable celebrating the virtues of amassing of worldly goods has been visually underplayed, given the devastating effect of Ciardi's reversal of meaning in John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan and Joyce's ant and "gracehoper" of Finnegan's Wake, not to mention Thurber's subversion in "The Moth and the Star." The very familiarity of such fables has laid them open to parody and satire which questions the values they have come to support.

A much larger group of fables than these which feature everyday "sins" dramatizes coping with power, in ways noted above: acceptance, resignation, cunning, persistence, escape into fantasies of revenge. In "The Lion's Share" (Provenson 20-21), the lion ends a cooperative hunt by appropriating the whole kill: "For the mighty man is never faithful to the poor," concludes Caxton (6) in his version, "The Lion, and the Cow, the Goat and the Sheep." Untermeyer interprets more tentatively: "Some people believe that Might makes Right" (21). Both versions illustrate matter-of-fact acceptance that the little guy doesn't stand much of a chance. "The Hungry Wolf and the Lamb" demonstrates the same naked tyranny. What in Caxton reads as a clearly political fable, "the frogges and lupyter" (90-91), i.e., be content with a do-nothing stupid leader (log), or risk a rapacious one (stork who eats frogs) Untermeyer reduces to "Be content with what you have" (42-43). The familiar fable of "Belling the Cat" may be extended to generalize about human cowardice, but it is the practical cowardice in the face of genuine power, that wisdom which is the better part of valor. The narrative in all cases presents a realistic, even cynical, view of what happens when the weak confront the strong.

"The Lions and the Hares" (71) is blatantly about power. Untermeyer's moral has tried to give the generalization an ethical flavor: "Actions speak louder than words." But the hares' impassioned plea for rights, justice, equality—which would have seemed an unrealistic absurdity to Aesop's audience—is likely to make more sense to twentieth-century children than the lions' very realistic observation that they, after all, have the power whether the hares like it or not. The Provenson illustration has turned it into a political comment that works against the printed moral. The lions are Tammany boss and henchman. Boss Lion flaunts a cigar. Both tower over the mob of demonstrating hares who bear placards: "Lettuce unite!" "We want justice and dessert." "The bill of fare must be changed." The bad puns in the cartoon may diffuse the original point with humor, but the Provensons seem to recognize that Aesop clearly meant the fable as a sardonic description of the underdog's world. Though political ideals may have changed since Aesop's day, the vulnerability of childhood has not.

A number of fables comfort the weak with images of strength achieved through cooperation, adaptation, cunning, persuasion or persistence. "The Strong Bundle of Sticks" (52-53) urges strength through unity. "The Wind and the Sun" (63) advocates gentle persuasion. "The Oak and the Reed" (62) recommends pliant adaptation, "The Crow and the Pitcher" (67) rewards cunning inventiveness, and the cherished "Hare and the Tortoise" (84-85), a dogged persistence. These fables represent successes, but success built on manipulation and acceptance rather than on dominance: a survival kit for the ruled, not the rulers.

According to some fables, the weak can also protect themselves by healthy scepticism: In "The Nurse and the Wolf" (66) the wolf, not the child, is taken in by the nurse's empty threat to her charge. The "Cunning Cat's" guests (Provenson 74-75) see through his ploy to make them the main course. The mice in "The Mice and the Cat on the Wall" (22) outsmart and outwait a tyrannous cat. In "The Fox and the Mask" (82-83), the fox sees through the appearance of a noble being (the mask) to the empty reality. In "The Hungry Lion and the Fox," the aging lion displays cunning, but is balked by the logic of a young fox. Though "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" is usually offered as a warning against duplicity, it can, like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" be read as a caution against credulity, a warning against deceivers.

Still other fables in this volume counsel the weak to accept their place realistically. The fable that La Fontaine turned into a rueful satire on class, "The Iron Pot and the Clay Pot" is omitted from Provenson, but "The Eagle and the Tortoise" (40-41) makes the same point: stick to your last; don't try to play with the big guys. "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" (which can be interpreted as a pitch for the simple life) clearly advocates keeping 'em down on the farm even if they've seen Paree. Only one fable in the Provenson edition, "The Tricky Fox and the Stork" (86), offers the sweet comfort of revenge when the stork reciprocates the fox's invitation to dine on soup served in a flat plate with an invitation to dinner served in a narrow necked jar. The revenge is mild and doesn't counteract the general point that Aesop's fables are for and about the little guy.

All this discussion of Aesop's fables as power politics should not obscure Aesop's most endearing and enduring quality: humor. The Aesop legend, as well as early "portraits" such as the German woodcut Caxton featured in his edition, shows us a funny, vulgar, misshapen little guy who wins against odds with his wits, who prevails over the rich and the powerful. His grotesquerie suggests Priapus, Punch, and other comic subversives. When the Provenson edition was published in 1965, many were outraged by the modern visual interpretations, and particularly by the comic book technique of the double-page spreads. Nonetheless, the grotesquerie and pure corn of these illustrations are very much in keeping with the internal, eternal Aesopian humor. Humor has always been and always will be the underdog's best weapon and defense. Whatever is offered by sobersided analyses (including this one), whatever taint of didacticism that clings to the idea of Aesop's fables, a plunge into re-reading fables with children or on one's own will quickly restore the joyous element of safe rebelion with its dose of comic common sense.


Aesopus. Aesop's Fables: An Anthology of the Fabulists of All Countries. Ed. Ernest Rhys. London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1913.

――――――. Aesop's Fables. Ed. Louis Untermeyer. Illus. Alice and Martin Provenson. New York: Golden Press, 1965.

――――――. Aesop's Fables. Trans. V. S. Vernon-Jones. Illus. Arthur Rackham. Introd. G. K. Chesterton. 1912. New York: Crown, n.d.

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Bush, Joan. "Fables and Illustrations." ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 70-72.

Ciardi, John. John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan: A New Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963.

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Lehman, Kristin. "Tolstoy's Fables: Tools for a Vision." ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 68-70.

Lenaghan, R. T., ed. Caxton's 'Aesop'. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U Press, 1967.

Maharg, Ruth A. "The Modern Fable: James Thurber's Social Criticisms," ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 72-73.

Miner, Robert B., Jr. "Aesop as Litmus: The Acid Test of Children's Literature." Children's Literature 1 (1972): 9-15.

Mirel, Barbara. "Tradition and the Individual Retelling," ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 63-66.

Perkins, Agnes. "The Five Hundredth Anniversary of Aesop in English: Introduction." ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 60-62.

Pflieger, Pat. "Fables into Picture Books." ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 73-75, 80.

Wilson, Anita C. "To Instruct and to Amuse: Some Victorian Views of Aesop's Fables." ChLA Quarterly 9 (Summer, 1984): 66-68.


Kristin Lehman (essay date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Lehman, Kristin. "Tolstoy's Fables: Tools for a Vision." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 2 (summer 1984): 68-70.

[In the following essay, Lehman explores how noted Russian political figure Leo Tolstoy reinterpreted and recontextualized Aesop's fables in a series of children's primers he composed as teaching aids for schools in Tsarist Russia.]

In the icy-grey of Tsarist Russian dawns, Count Leo Tolstoy often stood in the doorway of his free, experimental school, watching his serfs' children trudge toward him. He was preoccupied with involving the Russian masses in their own art, heritage, and eventual brotherhood, and enlightened education of the present children was his initial contribution to that ultimate goal.

Tolstoy believed that the Russian masses must benefit from literature and the arts before their brotherhood and unity could be contemplated. First, though, he understood the need to expose the Russian children to the basics of the language. To do this, he required relevant, accessible reading material to interest the restless young peasants. While writing his two most famous works, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), he also produced two primers, The ABC Books (1872 & 1875), and four readers for the children in his schools. Included in these publications were fables, written and adapted to appeal to his audience. Tolstoy used these ancient literary forms to gain his own revolutionary, complex ends.

Tolstoy envisaged that the Russian masses would emerge as the force destined to continue Russian culture. Preparation for this role, he felt, had to include an understanding of the "true" Russian art, which must be coupled with guides to understanding the moral meaning and significance of that art. He identified the art of the peasant as that dealing with the simple feelings of common life: love, hate greed, kindness, and cruelty. In What Is Art? he described this simplistic art as a "means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity" (43). This art, though was only useful as long as it was accessible. The art of the upper classes reached only one percent of the people, and the popular art of the day was too costly, too strange, and too far removed from the everyday life of the masses. In What Is Art? he wrote, "The remaining ninety-nine percent live and die, generation after generation after generation, crushed by toil, and never tasting this art, which moreover, is of such a nature that, if they could get it, they would not understand anything of it" (59).

Tolstoy concluded that "the business of art lies in just this—to make that understood and feel which, in the form of an argument might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of a truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but had been unable to express it" (89). Fables often clarify and simplify feelings that are obscure or difficult to put into words. In order to understand these feelings, however, the masses must be taught the fundamentals of reading and writing.

In 1859, Tolstoy opened his first school on his estate, Yasnaya Polyana. He based his teaching on the concept that true education took place in life, not in schools. Current theory, he felt, was the villain; it forced children to learn by heart that which was of no use to them and did not address the realities that confronted his students every day. But, aside from Old Testament stories filled with action and didactic reasoning, he found there was a sad lack of appropriate reading material for his grand experiment. Who better to remedy this situation than the renowned author, Leo Tolstoy?

He went to work. Over the next decade he studied, translated, and adapted collections of Russian proverbs, medieval legends, and folklore. He wrote original stories about people, animals, and everyday occurrences. He wrote vignettes explaining scientific phenomenon. The results of his efforts appear in Novaya Azbuka (The New Speller) and in The ABC Book (1872). Tolstoy wrote that he had put more love and work into the latter than into anything else he had ever done.

Tolstoy had to find a way to teach complicated ideas to primitive children in a simple manner. Given his admiration for ancient literary forms and his pragmatic approach to them, it was almost a certainty that he would turn to fables, and that his fables would be clear and simple. Written in the language of the people, they didn't confuse or alienate the children, but rather, encouraged a desire to discuss, probe, and argue. He translated, paraphrased, and simplified Aesop's fables, removing long words, adding simpler dialogue, and deleting the explicit morals that often accompanied Aesop's tales. He also adapted ancient Indian lore, and Novaya Azbuka contained fables, not attributed to other sources, that may be original.

Like other fables, Tolstoy's versions are didactic and short; they contain good, evil, greed, cruelty, power (just and unjust), kindness and foolishness. They were ideally suited to the peasant children's interests and contained elements familiar to every Russian youngster. Imagine the discussion that might have ensued after the peasant children read the famous fable about the boy who cried wolf. Many of the students would have had their own tales of wolves and dangers.

The prominence of animals in fables suited Tolstoy's purposes admirably. The readers were familiar with and understood animals, wild and domestic. Often, their families' survival depended on small flocks of fowl or on several cows and goats. The animals that lived in the forests surrounding the landed estates were abundant, and many were dangerous. According to the children's own experience and knowledge, the wolf in a story was not going to symbolize kindness or mercy.

The length of fables does not allow an author to establish character; but the animals have personalities that the reader can instantly identify. Jackals, wolves, eagles, and polecats represent power and cruelty. Lions and bears indicate sheer strength. Foxes are wily, mice are meek, and rabbits are timid. Any schoolboy would know these things without lengthy explanation. He would be involved in the fable and arrive at the important moral before he knew it. Learning was as simple and as easy as possible.

Many of the fables concern the wielding of power by one character over another. The children of serfs in Tsarist Russia understood power and its uses only too well. Their lives were governed by a chain of absolute domination that began with the Tsar himself and filtered down to the overseer of their masters' estates. The relationship of master to servant was the controlling fact of their lives. Much of the morality of the fables lies in their fatalistic explanations of these social realities. An excellent example is "The Falcon and the Cock," an adaptation of Aesop:

The Falcon was used to the master, and came to his hand when he was called; the Cock ran away from his master and cried when people went up to him. So the Falcon said to the Cock:

"In you Cocks there is no gratitude; one can see that you are of a common breed. You go to your masters only when you are hungry. It is different with us wild birds. We have much strength, and we can fly faster than anyone; still we do not fly away from people but of our own accord go to their hands when we are called. We remember that they feed us."

Then the Cock said:

"You do not run away from people because you have never seen a roast Falcon, but we, you, see roast Cocks."

This fatal kind of power, the power over life and death, was familiar to the children. They knew exactly where the power lay and who had the authority to exercise it.

Tolstoy deleted the obvious moral statements from the ends of his adaptations. In the familiar story, an irresponsible grasshopper sings and chirps while industrious ants toil, preparing for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper starves in the cold while the ants are healthy and well-fed. In most familiar versions of Aesop's Fables, this tale ends with a moral that conveys the meaning: "Then the Grasshopper knew: it is best to prepare for the days of necessity." Tolstoy's smug ants chide the hungry grasshopper, "If you sang in the summer, dance in the winter." Tolstoy challenged his students to make their own moral judgements and draw their own conclusions.

Tolstoy's diction is almost child-like when compared to Aesop's versions, many of which are quite elaborate. This is Aesop's "The Fox and the Grapes":

On a hot summer's day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripened on a vine which had been trained over a lost branch. "Just the thing to quench my thirst," quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump and just missed the bunch. Turning around again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: "I am sure they are sour."


This is Tolstoy's:

A Fox saw some ripe bunches of Grapes hanging high, and tried to get them, in order to eat them. She tried hard but could not get them. To drown her annoyance she said: "They are still sour."

Any word that might possibly confuse a novice reader has been eliminated in Tolstoy's shorter version; but the same character, moral, and action are present.

In his adaptations of Indian tales, Tolstoy placed more emphasis on human actors. These characters have occupations that could be readily understood by the Russian children: hunter, spinner, servant, etc. It is interesting to note that, in some of Tolstoy's versions, he renamed an Indian King with the title of Tsar. "King" would have been an alien and confusing term to his rustic pupils.

The fables that seen to have been written by Tolstoy himself reflect, even more strongly, the reality of the serfs' situation. For instance, the fable of the "The Mouse and the Frog" teaches the lesson of making the most of a familiar life and not venturing into alien territory.

A mouse went to visit a Frog. The Frog met the Mouse on the bank and urged him to visit his chamber under the water. The Mouse climbed down to the water's edge, took a taste of it, and climbed back up again. "Never," said he, "will I make visits to people of alien race."

Other original fables deal with the foolishness of yearning for impossible goals or possessions—wise advice to people who had no hope of rising above their predestined stations in the social scheme.

Fables served a specific function for Tolstoy, the populist-moralist educator. He recognized early the need for the Russian masses to communicate in a unified brotherhood, and he saw children as the spearhead of this new idea. In fables he found the perfect medium for opening the children's eyes to their heritage, and for imparting his personal vision to their receptive minds.


Aesop, selection in Folklore and Fable, ed. Charles W. Eliot. Harvard Classic Series. New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1968.

Simmons, Ernest J. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Little Brown, 1946.

―――――. Tolstoy. Routledge Author Guides. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Tolstoy, Count Lev. N. The Complete Works 7, ed. and trans. Leo Weiner. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

―――――. What Is Art?: The Complete Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1899.

―――――. The Long Exile and Other Stories. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1899.


Brown, Marcia. The Blue Jackal. Illus. by the author. New York: Scribner, 1977.

―――――. Once a Mouse … Illus. by the author. New York: Scribner's, 1961.

Calhoun, Mary. Old Man Whickutt's Donkey. Illus. Tomie de Paola. New York: Parents' Magazine, 1975.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Chanticleer and the Fox. Illus. Barbara Cooney. New York: T. Crowell, 1958.

Ciardi, John. John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan. Illus. Madeleine Gekiere. New York: Lippincott, 1963.

D'Aulaire, Ingri and Edgar Parin. Don't Count Your Chicks. Illus. by the authors. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1943.

du Boise, William Pene and Lee Po. The Hare and the Tortoise and the Tortoise and the Hare. Illus. William Pene du Bois. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Duvoisin, Roger. The Miller, His Son, and Their Donkey. Illus. by the author. New York: Whittlesey House, 1962.

Evans, Katherine. The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Illus. by the author. Chicago: Whitman, 1960.

―――――. A Bundle of Sticks. Illus. by the author. Chicago: Whitman, 1962.

―――――. The Maid and Her Pail of Milk. Illus. by the author. Chicago: Whitman, 1959.

―――――. The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey. Illus. by the author. Chicago: Whitman, 1958.

―――――. The Mice That Ate Iron. Illus. the author. Chicago: Whitman, 1963.

Galdone, Paul. The Hare and the Tortoise. New York: McGraw, 1962.

―――――. The Monkey and the Crocodile. Illus. by the author. New York: Seabury, 1969.

―――――. The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Illus. by the author. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Gobhai, Mehlli. The Blue Jackal. Illus. by the author. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Horace. Two Roman Mice, trans. and illus. Marilynne K. Roach. New York: Crowell, 1975.

Horder, Margaret. The Wind and the Sun. Illus. by the author. London: Angus & Robertson, 1951.

Lionni, Leo. Frederick. New York: Pantheon, Random House, 1967.

Sewall, Marcia. The Cobbler's Song. Illus. by the author. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Showalter, Jean. The Donkey Ride. Illus. Tomi Ungerer. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Wildsmith, Brian. The Hare and the Tortoise. Illus. by the author. New York: Watts, 1967.

―――――. The Lion and the Rat. Illus. by the author. New York: Watts, 1963.

―――――. The Miller, the Boy, and the Donkey. Illus. by the author. New York: Watts, 1969.

―――――. The North Wind and the Sun. Illus. by the author. New York: Watts, 1964.

―――――. The Rich Man and the Shoemaker. Illus. by the author. New York: Watts, 1965.

Young, Ed. The Lion and the Mouse. Illus. by the author. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

Gillian Adams (essay date September 1999)

SOURCE: Adams, Gillian. "The Medici Aesop: A Homosocial Renaissance Picture Book." Lion and the Unicorn 23, no. 3 (September 1999): 313-35.

[In the following essay, Adams discusses the publishing history and homoerotic tendencies of the Medici Aesop, an elaborate fifteenth-century interpretation of the classic Aesopic fables.]

The recent special issue of the Children's Literature Association Quarterly (Fall 1998) on lesbian/gay literature for children and young adults illustrates how explicit the agendas are of such modern books as Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) and Daddy's Roommate (1991) in their effort to promote a greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles and to present positive images of same-sex families. In his introduction to the issue, Kenneth Kidd addresses the problem of earlier, less explicit literature, literature that is "fundamentally homosocial, or concerned with same-sex friendships and family bonds" (114). Using Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows as an example, Kidd comments, "Not a gay text per se, it is certainly about … gendered male-male interaction" (115). Claudia Nelson's essay in the same issue about homodomestic patterns in stories from turn-of-the-century British boys magazines, some of which she terms "homoemotional love stories" (121), is an illustration of another kind of children's fiction that, while also not a "gay text per se," is "fundamentally homosocial." But the further back we go in time, the more difficult it may be to decide where a work fits on what Nelson terms the homoemotional-homoerotic-homosexual continuum (120), and whether it is merely a mirror of prevailing male culture, "proto-lesbian/gay" (Kidd 116), or is deliberately designed to introduce the reader to homoerotic or even homosexual themes, perhaps even to celebrate them. One of these problematic early works for children comes to us from the Italian Renaissance, a small, beautifully illuminated manuscript collection of fables known as the Medici Aesop, dated about 1480. In his introduction to the facsimile edition of the manuscript, now in the New York Public Library, The Medici Aesop: Spencer MS 50, Bernard Fahy remarks that there is "a high degree of probability" that it was made for a Florentine child to facilitate the study of Greek (10). Internal and external evidence indicate that the child was the eight-year-old Piero de Medici, son of Lorenzo de Medici, "Il Magnifico," at the time the most wealthy and powerful man in Florence.


In order to substantiate Fahy's claims that this work was actually written and illustrated for the eight-year-old Piero de Medici, that it was commissioned by his homosexual tutor, Angelo Poliziano (10), and that it contains homoerotic material, it is necessary to elaborate at some length on its cultural context and the particulars of its creation. This historical discussion is the more necessary because of the most significant feature of the work: its stunning set of miniature illustrations. In his 1983 study Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, Norman Bryson argues for the priority of the material circumstances in which art is created, its social context, the historical position of the viewing subject, and the intrinsic connection between the control of images and authority: "the image must be understood … as … the articulation of the reality known by a given visual community" (13). If Bryson's claim, which is consistent with that of new historicists in regard to texts, is true for painting, it should hold even more true for illustration, whose semiotic system is so bound to the text.

The context in which the Medici Aesop was created may be divided into two areas, the social and the domestic. John Boswell's first chapter in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century describes the difficulties in determining the existence of a gay culture in the past and the distinction between that culture and occasional same sex activity, given not only the vagueness of certain terms and texts, but the bracketing of that culture's existence and the deliberate mistranslations and omissions by historians and translators.1 Other difficulties occur in periods when the majority of gay people married and had children but "obviously devoted the bulk (if not the entirety) of their erotic interest to persons of their own gender" (Boswell 10). Moreover, those who took the active role in homosexual activity were far less likely to be condemned than those who were passive, which placed them in the same category as women and adolescents (in general, the age of consent for boys was from twelve to fourteen, and there was often no shame in a homosexual relationship before reaching manhood and marriage). Boswell further notes that "only when social attitudes are favorable do gay people tend to form visible subcultures. In hostile societies they become invisible, a luxury afforded them by the essentially private nature of their variation from the norm" (16). Although sodomy technically remained a capital crime, in fifteenth-century Italy in general, and in Florence under Lorenzo de Medici in particular, homosexuality in persons of ability was often overlooked, particularly when they were protected by those as powerful as the Medici, resulting in the kind of "visible subculture" that Boswell describes. In fact, so visible was that subculture that, according to Elizabeth Crouzet-Pavan's study of young men and their vices in medieval Italy, a war on sodomy and "indecent masculine fashions" was waged by religious and public authorities (186), and churchmen such as San Bernardino of Siena felt it necessary to preach against "the scourge of sodomy" (175).

One reason for the greater tolerance of gay culture in quattrocento Florence was the rediscovery and translation of ancient Greek literature and a subsequent reevaluation and textual stabilization of Latin authors such as Virgil, Ovid, and Statius, who were already part of the curriculum in the medieval period. The works of Plato had reached Italy about 1425, and at the time of the Medici Aesop, all thirty-six dialogues had been translated into Latin by Ficino under the sponsorship of the Medici (Bowen 237). Renaissance Platonism emphasized the centrality of love and the primacy of man's intellect, particularly in its quest for God as the highest good. Renaissance aesthetics saw physical as well as intellectual beauty as a pathway to God, and Platonism provided a philosophical justification for the celebration of the nude body and for homosexual as well as heterosexual love (Hook 142-44). Florentine Platonism and Neoplatonism revolved around the first public library in Europe, founded by the J. P. Morgan of his day, Cosimo de Medici in 1444 (Bowen 235),2 as well as the Platonic Academy of musicians, artists, poets, and philosophers, which had, among its other activities, a reenactment of Plato's Symposium sponsored by Lorenzo (Hook 76-78).

Since the advent of queer studies, the sexual component of Florentine Platonism and Neoplatonism and the predilections of its major practitioners have become a subject of debate. James M. Saslow, in "Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior, Identity, and Artistic Expression," finds in the Renaissance and Baroque periods (1400–1650) "early attempts to express homosexual interests in visual arts and literature" (90); perhaps the earliest portrayal is Dante's sympathetic treatment of his beloved but damned gay teacher, Brunetto Latini, in Canto XI of The Divine Comedy (c. 1313–1321; see Ariès 72-75). Saslow mentions in his discussion of Renaissance homosexuals Botticelli, Cellini, Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo (a student of Poliziano), and Pico della Mirandola. Most of these men were at one time members or associates of Lorenzo de Medici's Platonic Academy, and some were charged with sodomy; the annual Symposia in honor of Plato, for example, was considered homoerotic at the very least (Stewart 3-8). But the gay member of that academy closest to Lorenzo, in terms of friendship if not in other respects, and with him at his deathbed, was a talented young philosopher, scholar, and poet named Angelo Poliziano, or Politan.3 A classical scholar such as Poliziano would be well aware that the ancient Greeks not only publicly admired gay people and their love but believed that "many Greeks represented gay love as the only form of eroticism which could be lasting, pure, and truly spiritual" (Boswell 27), and that while such writers as Catullus (who was openly bisexual), Martial, and Juvenal poked fun at homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, urban Romans accepted Greek attitudes and "regarded homosexual interest and practice as an ordinary part of the range of human eroticism" (Boswell 333).

The impact of the rediscovery of Plato, the reevaluation of the classics, and the growth of humanism on the theory and practice of educating children was profound, although the changes primarily affected the children of the wealthy and powerful. Humanists such as Poliziano stressed aemulatio rather than imitatio and struggled against the tendency to mere repetition of the ancient texts and the kind of pedantry often found in the medieval curriculum (Baron 88-89). The emphasis was on educating the whole child and on cultivating moderation and moral discipline in order to promote civic virtue. By the second half of the fifteenth century, in addition to verbal and mathematical literacy, the ability to perform music or to write poetry, or at least to appreciate and sponsor art, were necessary ornaments, and an eminent scholar as tutor in an aristocratic household became an important status symbol. But just as now, there was a strong conservative, even fundamentalist, reaction to the new ideas that stressed a return to the basics, that is to medieval educational methods and curricula, to a traditional religious teaching that was strongly homophobic, and to regular corporal punishment.

The struggle between the old ways and the new, philosophically and educationally speaking, was going on not only in Florence as a whole, but also between the parents of Piero de Medici, the eight-year-old boy for whom the Medici Aesop was probably created. Piero's father Lorenzo actively sponsored artists and intellectuals in his Platonic Academy, and as a poet and musician considered himself among equals, but Piero's mother, Clarice, was poorly educated (unlike the Medici women), narrowly religious, and came from a conservative Roman family connected to the papacy. It had been an arranged marriage, and Lorenzo was largely absent from his wife and family and seemed to show little interest in her.4 The question of Lorenzo's sexual proclivities has not been resolved although there were contemporary rumors about his licentiousness. Saslow comments that "for many individuals, homosexual relations were only one element of what we would call bisexuality" (99), and "adult bisexual men who consistently played the active role could engage in homosexual acts without being considered to deviate from the norms of their gender role" (105); Lorenzo may well have been such a man.5

I have already mentioned that Lorenzo had appointed Poliziano as tutor to his eldest son Piero (born 1471) and his other children. All went well with the tutoring until the fall of 1478 when Poliziano was sent with Clarice and the children to a damp, inhospitable villa at Cafaggiolo north of Florence for safety reasons. In his letters to Lorenzo, Poliziano complained of loneliness and boredom; the rain was constant. He wrote in December that Clarice had hired a priest "who mutters prayers with these children all day long" (Ross 214). Nevertheless Poliziano, who had previously reported that "Piero never leaves me nor I him" (Ross 210), had gotten Piero to the point where he could write his father in Latin boasting that he has memorized stanzas from Virgil and knows much of Theodoro's Greek grammar (Ross 213). In January 1479, Clarice went back to Florence and gave birth to another boy, Giuliano. She returned to Cafaggiolo early in the spring, and in April Poliziano complained to Lorenzo that, in spite of the progress he had made in teaching Piero's five-year-old brother Giovanni, Clarice had turned him over to the priest who was using the medieval method of teaching him to read, based on the Psalter (Adams 8-9).

At the beginning of May, Poliziano was suddenly expelled from Cafaggiolo, so suddenly that he had to leave without his books and manuscripts (Hook 106-7). We do not know the reason why. It was well known in humanistic circles in Florence that Poliziano was gay. On the other hand, Clarice, intellectually isolated as she was, may not have been acquainted with this fact. It is possible that some event, perhaps involving Piero, a beautiful boy in Ghirlandaio's fresco in the church of S. Trinita, triggered Poliziano's sudden exit. But because Piero was only twelve, under what was considered the age of consent for boys at the time, and because it seems unlikely that Poliziano would take such a risk with the son of a powerful man to whom he was genuinely devoted, it seems more likely, as Alan Stewart argues in his chapter on the affair in Close Readers, that it was a struggle over who should have control of the children's education and whether that education should be humanistic or closer to medieval practices.

Whatever the cause of his expulsion, Poliziano was in desperate straits. For a young philosopher/poet like himself, particularly one who had not yet established his reputation, the Medici circle was the only game in town. After letters and several meetings, over Clarice's objections and with the help of Lorenzo's mother, Poliziano was reconciled with Lorenzo to the point where he was made the librarian of the Medici library and a professor at the Florentine Studium.6 He was replaced as tutor, however, by a man chosen by Clarice, who continued to teach the older children some Greek and Latin but with small success (Ross, letters 218, 220). After another falling out with Lorenzo, by the end of 1480 Poliziano was again back in favor, perhaps because of the great success of his precedent-breaking drama Orfeo, with its advocacy of homosexual love, and he was fully reinstated as Piero's tutor.7 From that time on, he remained Piero's constant companion, and Clarice became the laughing-stock of Florence for her failure to get rid of him. Although Piero then resumed his humanistic education, which was designed to fit him for a public career, Clarice succeeded in having their second son, Giuliano, who was destined for the church and became a cardinal at sixteen, educated in the old way.8

I believe that after the second reconciliation with Lorenzo in 1480, Poliziano had the Medici Aesop made as a gift for Piero, either to win back Lorenzo's favor or as a spur to a new beginning when Piero became his pupil again. The frontispiece of the Medici Aesop is missing, and there is no direct evidence that Poliziano is connected with it. However, particularly after the second reconciliation with Lorenzo in 1480, Poliziano was doing very well financially (Moorhead 141-42), and he certainly had the means, motive, and opportunity to produce the manuscript.9 That Piero, although not particularly intellectual, valued the manuscript and kept it among his personal effects into his adult life is indicated by the entry in his inventory.10


It is not sufficient, however, to say that the Medici Aesop should be considered gay children's literature simply because it was commissioned by a gay tutor operating in a homoerotic cultural context. I now want to turn to the internal evidence provided by its content and by its illustrations. Fables had been an educational staple for centuries, but there are many different versions of individual fables, with or without morals, and the choice of fables differs from collection to collection. A look at Bernard McTigue's English translation of the Greek text in the facsimile edition of the Medici Aesop reveals that practically none of the fables in this text are the ones that come to mind when we think of typical Aesop's fables, such as the fox and the grapes, the grasshopper and the ants, the frogs who wanted a king, and so on. The Medici Aesop fables belong to a Greek collec-tion first put together by a Byzantine scholar, Maximus Planudes, near the beginning of the fourteenth century from various sources; it originally consisted of 127 fables and a "Life of Aesop" (Perry Babrius xvi).11 Ben Perry comments that this Aesop "was made to suit the taste of that [fourteenth-century] age" (Life 207), and many of the fables strike one as quite worldly and cynical, if not naughty; for example, the fables "The Eagle and the Beetle" and "Zeus and Shame" discussed below.

We do not know what Poliziano (or his scribe) used as his copy text. The collection is best and most completely represented by a fifteenth-century manuscript from the Medici Library, Laurentianus 89.79, and by the first printed Greek Aesop, copied from the Laurentianus Aesop or a common progenitor (Kaimowitz 142), and published in Milan by Bonus Accursius some time between 1474 and 1479, depending on which scholar you read.12 The differences between the Laurentianus manuscript, the Milan printed edition, and the Medici Aesop are so minor as to be insignificant, aside from some corrected spellings and a few carelessly omitted words (Fahy 8). In all three, the fables appear in the same order.13

Thus whether the Medici Aesop was copied from the manuscript in the Medici library, to which Poliziano had ready access even before he became official librarian, or from the printed version, or even both, is unimportant. But the choice of this fable collection to give to Piero is significant because it is a sophisticated late Greek collection and not one of the standard Latin collections that had been used in the schools for centuries and were derived from the Latin verses of Phaedrus (50 A.D.) and Avianus (400 A.D.). To give such a collection to a child for educational purposes is essentially a political statement, and only a humanist tutor like Poliziano would have made it.


But if the choice of such a collection of fables for teaching purposes seems unusual, the stunning miniatures that illustrate every fable and how they work together with the text are even more so. According to Fahy, on the basis of the portrait of Aesop on the first page of the manuscript and other "overwhelming physical evidence" (10, 13), they were painted by Gherardo di Giovanni (1444–1497), a schoolmate of Poliziano's who may also have been gay; he never married and was a member of Leonardo's Platonic circle.14 The beginning of the Medici Aesop, what would roughly correspond to the length of the life of Aesop standard in such fable collections, is missing, along with several leaves from the middle. What illustrations Gherardo would have provided to that life, then, is unknown. But the miniatures that precede each of the fables are sufficient unto themselves. They fall into two general categories: outdoor scenes and indoor scenes, and within these categories, illustrations of animals only, people and animals, and people only. It is these miniatures that most surely indicate that this book was created for a child, not only because they are designed to facilitate learning to read Greek, but also because their content recalls Piero's domestic situation and introduces him to the culture of the Medici circle and the circumstances of the society that, as Lorenzo's heir, it was assumed he would dominate when he grew up.

I want to look first at the role of the miniatures in assisting the learning of Greek. While roughly fourteen of them are single scenes, isolated in time, these illustrations are for fables without a narrative sequence, largely conversations. The other miniatures are meant to illustrate the fable as it happens, displaying its characters acting in successive scenes corresponding to successive sentences. These illustrations often read across with the text from left to right or right to left, but sometimes across two diagonals.15

The first surviving fable illustration from the collection confirms the way in which the illustrations are meant to assist the reading of the text, as well as to establish standard iconographic patterns (fol. 2r, p. 21, Chambry/Temple no. 4). It precedes the long and ancient fable of the eagle and the beetle, mentioned by Aristophanes in The Wasps.16 Although the border of the manuscript is beautifully decorated, with an ornamented capital for the first letter of the title ('Aetos kai Kántharos), the frame around the miniature, as is true throughout the manuscript, is a simple gold line, serving only to set the vignette off from the text. This miniature is one of the outdoor scenes, and contains features consistent with the others: the stylized tree, the flat plain with its strong horizontal lines broken up by bushes, and the vertical lines of groups of rushes, and in the distance, in a blue haze, fantastic pointed mountains and a rounded shape reminiscent of Florence's Duomo. So constant are these features in the miniatures, although occurring in many different arrangements, that Kaimowitz uses the term "prefabricated landscapes" for them (45). This type of stylized landscape occurs also in Gherardo's Florentine contemporaries, perhaps because for Neoplatonists reality lies not in externals or accidentals but in an internal reality or essence. Here we have a series of symbolic representations of the es-sence of the Florentine landscape, with its city on a flat plain surrounded by hills, its blue sky, its Duomo, and in some illustrations, its river, the Arno.

But if the background of the miniature is a prefabricated series of symbols, the foreground also uses a series of signs to illustrate a specific story in a remarkable manner. In the bottom center of the picture we see an eagle capturing a hare who appeals for asylum to a beetle at the bottom right-hand corner. The eagle ignores the beetle's request for mercy, and in the middle register we see her carrying off the hare to devour it, the beetle in pursuit. The eye then continues up the diagonal from the lower right to the upper left and sees the beetle's revenge: he throws the eagle's eggs out of her nest in the tree. The eagle then goes to Zeus and gets permission to lay her eggs in the safety of his lap. The beetle makes a ball of her dung, and, as portrayed in the upper right corner, flies up to Olympus and throws the dung at Zeus's face, causing him to shake the dung off and let the eggs fall. The moral of the fable is "despise no one: no matter how feeble they appear, one day they may take revenge." Thus this miniature, although at first glance surrealistic, has a logic of its own, and like all the others, uses a system of signs to point to the meaning of each line of the Greek text. It is easy to imagine how a teacher could indicate the section of the miniature that corresponded to each line of the text and then run his finger over to the next sign, helping the student figure out the meaning. The portrayal of the dung actually hitting Zeus's face should have been amusing to the eight-year-old Piero and would have assisted him in remembering the fable.

One of the remarkable features of this miniature is its portrayal of Zeus. Here the Greek god looks as if he were cut out from an illustration of a classic text or is part of a local statue or cast, one perhaps known to the giver and to the recipient—some kind of in joke, perhaps referring to a figure in Lorenzo's extensive collection of old cameos, Greek and Roman coins, and medallions (see Hook 131).17 Such a joke would be consistent with the numerous other references in the miniatures to Piero's immediate world and the interests of the Medicis, vignettes that were probably meant to remind Piero of his heritage and of his obligation to continue the Medici patronage of the arts and learning. For example, in the fable, "The Zither Player" (Kitharódos) (fol. 51r, p. 119, Chambry/Temple no. 156), a player of the Greek cithara, for which Gherardo has substituted a lute, sings all day long in a resonant room, convinced that he is talented. When he gives a public performance in the middle of the picture, he is so incompetent that on the left he is driven away by his audience, including a boy, with stones. Moral: "Thus certain orators seem to do well at school, but when they undertake a political career, they fall flat." Lorenzo considered a first-rate musical education so important for his children that in 1480, the year the Medici Aesop was probably created, he hired the eminent Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac, now best known for his vocal music, to tutor them (see Brown 179-80, Hook 130-31). In addition both Lorenzo and Poliziano were accomplished musicians and orators, and the ability to speak well in public would be essential for Piero as his father's successor. Perhaps one of the reasons for Piero's political failures as an adult was that he did not inherit his father's gifts.

Acquaintance with the plastic arts was also important for Piero, and he was no doubt well acquainted with the art school that his father Lorenzo had established in their garden and provided with antique casts. We see those casts in the illustration to the fable, "Hermes and the Sculptor" (fol. 47v, p. 112, Chambry/Temple no. 108). Hermes wishes to know what men think of him. We see him landing as a god with his hat, his herald's staff, and his winged shoes outside the door of a sculptor's studio. He changes into a mortal, enters, and finds the sculptor, an older man for a change, working on a representation of Zeus that looks much like the seated figure in the first fable I have discussed, the story of the beetle and the eagle. Hermes asks the price of the representation of Zeus and the sculptor holds up one finger: one drachma. He asks the price of the next sculpture in line, Hera, and the sculptor answers more than that. Finally Hermes asks about the statue of himself, which can be recognized by its hat, wand, and winged shoes. The sculptor answers, "If you take the other two, you can have that for nothing." Moral: "This fable refers to a vain man who does not give any consideration to others." What is interesting about the illustration is that it offers a reason for the different prices of the sculptures, unexplained in the fable: Zeus is in a smaller medallion and should cost less than the full size marble statue of his consort. The statue of Hermes is so dark that it must be made of wood or possibly clay, and thus is worth a lot less.

A scene that even more directly refers to the Medici and was probably well known to Piero is the interior that illustrates the fable of the "The Dog Who Came to Dinner." That story as it appears in the miniature again reads across from left to right (fol. 65r, p. 153, Chambry/Temple no. 178). On the left we see a ser-vant preparing the table for a dinner party to which his master is inviting some friends. The servant's gray and black dog decides to invite his friend brown dog as well. The two dogs pass by some shelves under which is the Medici coat of arms, a shield displaying seven balls. The seven balls indicate that this is one of the houses Piero's great-grandfather Cosimo built, either the Medici palace still in downtown Florence or the villa at Careggi, where Piero spent much time as a child; Lorenzo and his father used six balls in their coats of arms.18 As the two dogs go up the steps into the kitchen part of the house, we see the outer frame move with them, right around the text of the moral to the preceding story. The cook notices the brown dog's intense interest in the food and throws him out the window at the top right hand corner. We see the dog falling, and then we see him meeting with a third, solid gray dog of a different breed. The gray dog asks how dinner was, and the brown dog lies and says, "It couldn't have been better. I got so drunk I don't know how or where I left." The moral: "You mustn't trust those who are generous with another's goods" (McTigue's creative mistranslation is: "Even dogs have to save face sometimes"). The most logical explanation for the Medici arms in this fable is that Gherardo has chosen to put them toward the end of his manuscript, and in the last interior in which they would be appropriate, as a sign that the illuminations in this collection are for a Medici, and a particular one at that.

The fables and their illustrations discussed so far have reflected Piero's physical and aesthetic environment. Perhaps even more important are those fables that concern Piero's social status as a child and as a future young man in the context of homoerotic Neoplatonism. The miniatures are full of active children, even when they are not essential to the story, and the men portrayed are almost always youthful. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the genre scenes of various occupations, especially the lovely male nudes in the fishing scenes. In at least one case, the fable text provides no rationale for the presence of the youths; rather, the miniature reflects the interest of Florentine artists in portraying them. The world of the miniatures is overwhelmingly young and male; men are beautiful, while women are not.

In fact women, when they occur at all, tend to be old, sick, witches, or otherwise negatively portrayed in both the fables and the miniatures. While some of the Medici women, for example Piero's grandmother Lucrezia, were well educated, talented, and powerful, and Lorenzo's daughters were also well educated, women in general were considered, like Clarice, as little more than broodmares, and all Medici marriages were arranged for political reasons.19 This fable collection, then, illustrates the attitude toward women that Piero could expect to encounter outside of his immediate family; a good example of that negative attitude is provided by the fable "The Thief and His Mother" (fol. 27r, p. 71; Perry no. 200, pp. 459-60; Chambry/Temple no. 296). At the left of the miniature we see a little boy handing a writing tablet to his mother, which the fable tells us he has stolen from a schoolmate. Instead of reprimanding him, she praises him. His thefts become more extensive as he grows older, and she takes the stolen goods and sells them. He is caught and taken away; we see his mother weeping at her doorway. Her son calls that he has something to whisper to her, and as she puts her head by his mouth, he bites off her ear. He tells her that if she had beaten him for the first theft, he would not be on the way to the gallows that we see waiting for him at the right of the picture. The moral: "Those who are are not curbed from the beginning grow up and get worse."

The last fable I want to discuss reflects the idea, characteristic of some Platonists and Neoplatonists as we have mentioned above, that love (eros) is same sex rather than between the sexes. It is the rather naughty fable of Zeus and Shame, a sort of joke perhaps chosen to introduce Piero (if he had not already noticed, as the children were often present at Medici entertainments) to the homosexual component of Florentine neoplatonism (fol. 55r, p. 127, Chambry/Temple no. 118).20 In front of the typical Gherardo background, we see on the left Zeus before the doors of his house, seated on his throne. He has just created the nude, recumbent man before him and bestowed on him certain inclinations. However, he has forgotten Shame ('aiskúne), portrayed as an older woman in a dark, shapeless dress and white headcovering who is clearly distressed at being left out. Zeus decides that the only way he can rectify the error is to have Shame enter not through the mouth but the rectum. We see Shame indignant at the idea and pleading with Zeus. Finally she agrees but says, "I'll enter that way on the condition that Eros doesn't enter the same way; if he does, I'm leaving." On the right is Eros, blindfolded, with his bow and arrow. The moral: "Those who are prey to love lose all shame." One indication that this manuscript was for a child is that no effort was made to illustrate the second sentence. Nevertheless, it is fortunate that Clarice, Piero's mother, did not know Greek.

To conclude, I have argued that this manuscript was meant to help a child learn Greek by demonstrating how the illustrations work as a series of easily comprehensible images that follow the Greek text. And I have briefly attempted to locate the text within its philosophical, aesthetic, and homoerotic social context, which includes a family scandal that was well known all over Florence in its time and is still, in 1998, the subject of scholarly interest. There are questions that remain unresolved, particularly the one put to me by Bill Moebius when I discussed with him an earlier version of this paper: Is such a work deliberately designed to introduce a child to and celebrate homoerotic, if not gay, culture? Or at the very least, as the last fable demonstrates, convince him that same sex activity was as natural (Zeus-bestowed) as that between the sexes and that when he came to power he should follow in his father's footsteps and protect gay artists and intellectuals from the attacks of conservative churchmen? Given the circumstances of the creation of the Medici Aesop, the choice of fables, and the nature of the miniatures, the answer would seem to be yes.

Whatever the case, the homoerotic, humanistic culture of the Florentine quattrocento was shortlived. When Lorenzo died in 1492, the religious conservatism represented by Piero's mother Clarice resurfaced with a vengeance. The Dominican monk Savonarola seized power, persecuting homosexuals such as Botticelli and Poliziano, once Lorenzo was no longer there to protect them, and frightening them into destroying much that was beautiful.21 By the end of two years, in 1494, the penitent Poliziano had joined the monastery of San Marco, where Savonarola was Prior, and he soon died of grief, according to contemporary accounts, at the age of forty either over the death of Lorenzo or love for a "singing boy" (see Stewart); an angry mob had plundered the Medici Palace; and Piero had been expelled from Florence. Although Savonarola was himself burned at the stake in 1498, and a different, more despotic branch of the Medici family gained control of Florence in the sixteenth century, the golden years of Florentine Neoplatonic humanism were over. Only some of its glorious works, such as this illuminated manuscript for a privileged little boy, survived.


An earlier version of this essay, with slides, was presented at the twenty-fifth anniversary conference of the Children's Literature Association, Paris, France, July 2-5, 1998. I wish to thank Kenneth Kidd, Claudia Nelson, Marilynn Olson, and Teya Rosenberg for their helpful suggestions, and Don Olson for technical help with the illustrations.

1. Following Boswell's example, I am using the term gay to refer to "persons who are conscious of erotic inclination toward their own gender as a distinguishing characteristic or, loosely, to things associated with such people, as 'gay poetry'" (44). For many examples of bracketing and mistranslation, see Boswell (17-22); the most telling are his examples from the Loeb Classical Library (19); see also footnote 20 below. The most recent book I consulted, Peter Godman's scholarly study of Poliziano's humanism, does not consider his homosexuality and its possible impact on his views.

2. Cosimo de Medici (1389–1464) was a merchant banker who made an immense fortune as the financial agent for the papacy and set up the first modern banking system. He was also a patron of the arts who welcomed Greek refugee scholars from Constantinople, established a Platonic academy, and, like J. P. Morgan, bought many valuable Latin and Greek manuscripts for his library. His son Piero (1416–1469) did not inherit his father's abilities and died only five years after him, at which time Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo officially took over the business and the family's political affairs. Piero's wife, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Lorenzo's mother, was a woman of intelligence, artistic ability, and learning, and the major power in the family until her death in 1482.

3. When Poliziano was nine, he witnessed the murder of his father, a distinguished jurist who had supported the Medici family, and thus Poliziano had a claim on the Medici. A child prodigy who arrived in Florence at the age of ten to study Greek with Lorenzo's teacher, Argyropulos, at the age of sixteen he grew tired of living as a penniless student and dedicated his translation of book II of Homer's Iliad into Latin to Lorenzo. He soon became part of Lorenzo's Platonic circle that included such artists and intellectuals as Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Pulci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli. Three years later, in 1473, at the age of nineteen, Poliziano moved into the Palazzo at Via Larga and became part of the Medici household. In a fresco by Ghirlandaio devoted to Pope Honorius III, everyone is looking at the pope, except Piero, his cousin Giuliano, and Poliziano; for the latter, "nobody exists in the room but Lorenzo; and Lorenzo himself, with one hand outstretched, seems to be acknowledging this devotion with a quietly amused air" (Moor-head 109). For a complete text, translation, and analysis of Lorenzo's death as described by the grieving Poliziano, see Godman, chapter 1.

4. Lorenzo was initially so uninterested in Clarice Orsini, who had been chosen for him by his mother Lucrezia, that it took him over five months to send his brother to Rome to fetch her home. In fact, his uncle writes from Rome that Clarice's mother desires "that you should come here for Lent, for she says she wants you to see your merchandise before you take it home" (Ross 134). Lorenzo and Clarice spent most of their marriage living apart, although he always treated her with kindness. When she died of consumption in Florence at the age of thirty-four, Lorenzo was taking the baths for his gout at Filetta, "and he heard of her death before he knew she was ill" (Young 266). In a more recent study, Judith Hook argues that Lorenzo was close to his wife and valued "her increasingly large part in dealing with Medici clients" and in planning the marriages, arranged for political reasons, of their children. She quotes a letter in which Lorenzo expresses genuine grief at her death (177). For Lorenzo's devotion to his children, for whom he even wrote a little play, San Giovanni e San Paolo, with a part in it for each of them and one for himself, see Hibbert 144, Hook 157.

5. Lorenzo was unfaithful to Clarice with several women and wrote a considerable body of love poetry that expresses a longing for physical fulfillment (Hibbert 147, Hook 146). Renée Neu Watkins notes that Lorenzo's close relationships in his youth were with his brigata (gang), with whom he went hunting and enjoyed feasting and music (152). She also notes that "while nothing proves that Lorenzo had male lovers," Poliziano's letters to Lorenzo have been seen as the letters of a lover. "They do express devotion and dependency, and one can be sure that Lorenzo loved this preeminent poet and scholar" (153).

6. When Clarice was told to send Poliziano's possessions to Lorenzo's bachelor villa at Fiesole (Ady 32), she writes, "I should be glad [if] … Messer Angelo [Poliziano] would not be able to say that he will live in your house whether I like it or no, and that you have put him into your own room at Fiesole" (Ross 218-19).

7. The Orfeo, which Poliziano wrote in November 1479 while he was staying in Mantua, was a total departure from previous Italian drama. Even beyond its modern and straightforward narrative form, nonreligious theme, and single stage (unlike medieval dramas with their platforms of heaven and hell), it was remarkable for its ending. When Orpheus loses Eurydice, he swears he will never love another woman but will indulge himself with "other flowers" (that is, boys). At the end of the play he is torn to bits by Bacchantes. This work is considered by some to be further evidence that Poliziano was a leading exponent of homosexuality (Moorhead 139). When Monteverdi created his version of the opera, he dropped the ending.

8. There is some evidence that Giuliano, the most intelligent of the Medici children and a cardinal by the age of sixteen, was gay as an adult, although he also had a mistress and a son; see Hibbert on Giuliano's love for Cardinal Galeotto Franciotto (206).

9. Other possible donors include Poliziano's temporary replacement as tutor, Michelozzo, who did not have the motive or the means to assemble such a splendid gift, nor would he have approved of its homoerotic content. Possibly to console Piero for the loss of his beloved tutor, Lorenzo might have commissioned the Aesop himself, but he was away so often and so fully occupied in 1479–1480 with war and with consolidating his power over Florence that it seems unlikely, although he did manage to give Piero a new pony at his request; see the letters in Ross 218-20. Piero had taken Poliziano's side in the conflict with his mother. Godman calls Poliziano Piero's "former tutor" after the reconciliation in 1480 (37); for a discussion of Poliziano's educational theories, see Godman's chapter 2, 81 ff.

10. In the inventory that was made of Piero de Medici's personal library in October 1495, shortly after he was expelled from Florence at the age of twenty-four, appears the entry: Fabule Esopi, in membranis, historiate, grece. No other illuminated, late fifteenth-century Florentine manuscript of Aesop in Greek is known to have existed (Fahy 14), and it is generally agreed that this entry refers to the Medici Aesop.

11. This collection is a subset of a large group termed by scholars the Augustana Recension that can be traced back to an archetype of the fourth or fifth century. Within this group, Planudes's collection belongs most particularly to recension 3, also called the Accursiana or the Planudean recension. In 1472–1473, Poliziano had excerpted another collection by Planudes containing epigrams dealing with the lives and works of Greek poets, the Anthologia Planudea, and in 1479–1480, he was studying and copying Greek sources on the history and theory of poetry (Godman 56).

12. In 1936 Perry says that the first collection of Aesop's fables published after the invention of printing was by Bonus Accursius about 1479 (Life 204); but in 1965 he says it was printed in Milan in 1474 (Babrius xvii). Scholars usually date it 1479; Fahy, who believes it is the copy-text for the Medici Aesop, dates it "about 1480" (8). The Accursius edition included a Latin translation by Rinuccio Aretino.

13. Jeffrey Kaimowitz has collated the Medici Aesop with the Laurentianus manuscript; he concludes that there is no significant difference between them except that one fable, Laurentianus no. 67, is missing in the Medici Aesop (140).

14. Unfortunately, much of Gherardo's work, particularly his frescos, has been destroyed by the weather and rebuilding (see Fahy 10-12), and many of his manuscript illuminations have only recently been identified. In 1550 Giorgio Vasari considered Gherardo important enough to give him a chapter, primarily as a miniaturest, in his book on Italian painters; Vasari comments that he illuminated many manuscripts for Lorenzo and for his library (414). Gherardo's atelier was next door to a bookshop where he may have seen the first printed Greek Aesop (Fahy 10). For Lorenzo's extensive book collecting and commissioning of miniatures, soon to become a dying art-form, see Hook 128.

15. According to Kaimowitz, such scenic conflations are "highly characteristic of Florentine illuminations in secular manuscripts in the 150 years prior to the creation of the Medici Aesop" (148), but the manuscript illustrations that I have seen with sequential scenes do not have as many scenes and look quite different. In addition to Avril, a very extensive collection of fifteenth-century miniatures with numerous color plates, I have consulted a book of illustrations in manuscripts of the Medici library from the tenth through the seventeenth centuries (Biblioteca), as well as other sources listed in the Works Cited below. The miniaturist is as likely to have been influenced by the frescoes of his Florentine contemporaries, for example, the famous "Journey of the Magi" by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici Palace chapel (1468–1469).

There is also a difference between the Medici Aesop illustrations and those in the early printed Aesops. Anne Hobbs claims that the earliest dated printed Aesop is by Domenico di Vivaldi, Mondavi, 1476, with "rudimentary metal cuts and no successors" (26). Much more influential was the Vita et fabulae of Aesop in Latin with a German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel, printed in Ulm by Johann Zainer about 1476–1477, often reprinted, and also claimed to be "the very earliest printed Aesop to carry pictures" with woodcuts by several hands "frequently copied for other editions" (Pierpont 6). The first "Italian edition," Aesopus Moralizatus, with a Latin text and Italian translation by Accio Zucco, was printed by Giovanni Alvise in Verona in 1479, "highly original in its illustrations, which became the source for a number of subsequent Italian editions" (Levarie 116). This version used small separate floral motifs within the frames of its woodcuts, "the first known use of the type ornaments known as 'printers flowers'" (116). The woodcuts in the Tuppo 1485 Naples Aesop are partially based on the Verona Aesop but are more celebrated; see Mardersteig 30.

I have not been able to locate examples from either the Laurentianus manuscript or Accursius's printed text, if indeed either were illustrated. In the two other roughly contemporary printed Aesops, the illustrations are static, only one scene from the fable is depicted, and there is either no frame or it becomes increasingly elaborate. There is, however, a certain similarity between the dog of the 1479 Verona Aesop and the dog stealing meat from the butcher in the Medici Aesop, and it is possible that the Medici miniaturist saw that earlier edition.

16. Some of these fables are to be found in Perry Babrius, and all of them are collected in Chambry with the Greek text facing a French translation. I have relied on Chambry for the Greek text, which is hard to read in the facsimile, and on his French translation as a corrective to the McTigue translation in the facsimile; unfortunately, McTigue often moves far from the original Greek. There is a new 1998 translation of the Chambry collection into English by Olivia and Robert Temple that is very close to the French and generally accurate. Robert Temple comments that these fables "are far from the sugary children's stories that many might imagine" and that they are "savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy or compas-sion, and lacking also in any political system other than absolute monarchy" (xvi). This fable is Perry no. 3, p. 422; Chambry no. 4, p. 5; the Temples keep Chambry's numbering and in a note comment on the fable's connection with Egyptian mythology. Most of the text of the first fable in the Medici Aesop, "The Eagle and Fox," remains, but the miniature, which would have been on the preceding page, is missing.

17. There is a similar portrayal of Zeus sitting up in the sky in the fable of the stepped on serpent (Aesop fol. 62v, p. 142).

18. See Perry Babrius p. 56-57. This is the same general story as Babrius's fable no. 42 but not the same text. While it is true that the Medici arms appear often in works of art commissioned by Florentine families loyal to them, there is always some reason for their presence, and those arms consist of the shield with six balls that Lorenzo and his father Piero used, not the one with seven that we see here (see Young 185).

19. Just as his father Lorenzo's was, Piero's marriage by proxy in 1487 was arranged for political reasons to another Orsini with whom he had nothing in common (Hook 169, Moorhead 141). Likewise his sister Maddelena was sent off to Rome in 1487 to marry the forty-year-old brutal, obese, alcoholic, and stupid son of Pope Innocent VIII—perhaps the rationale was that he would die soon and leave her well provided for.

20. Not in Perry Babrius. McTigue mistranslates, perhaps in order to tone down the content, "shame" as "modesty" and "inclinations" as "virtues"; he leaves out entirely the last line: "whence it happens that since then all fornicators are without shame," and his version of the moral is: "There's a good reason why certain people are shameless." The Temples translate pórnous as "homosexuals" but the term is so broad (see Boswell 336-37 and passim) that Liddell and Scott's "fornicators" seems a better fit here.

21. Savonarola arrived in Florence in 1482. Godman argues that intellectually, "in the fifteenth-century Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, Savonarola took the side of the avantgarde" (32). But he was a religious fanatic and morally and socially represented puritanism at its most repressive (Hook 181-82).

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Liddell, H. G., and Robert Scott. Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1963.

Mardersteig, Giovanni. "Il tipografo veneziano Manfredo Bonello e le sue illustrazione per l'Esopo del 1491." Esopo Favole: testo greco a fronte. Milan: Rizzoli, 1951. 30-33.

McKendry, John J., comp. Aesop: Five Centuries of Illustrated Fables. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1964.

Moorhead, Alan. "The Ghost in the Villa." The Villa Diana. New York: Scribners, 1951. 107-150.

Nelson, Claudia. "David and Jonathan—and Saul—Revisited: Homodomestic Patterns in British Boys' Magazine Fiction, 1880–1915." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 23.3 (Fall 1998): 120-27.

Perry, Ben Edwin. Babrius and Phaedrus. 1965. Loeb Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

―――――. Life and Fables of Aesop. Haverford, PA: American Philological Association, 1936.

Pierpont Morgan Library. Early Children's Books and Their Illustration. Boston: Godine, 1975.

Ross, Janet Ann, ed. and trans. The Lives of the Early Medici as Told in Their Correspondence. Boston: Badger, 1911.

Saslow, James M. "Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior, Identity, and Artistic Expression." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncy, Jr. New York: Signet, 1989. 91-105; 503-506.

Stewart, Alan. "From Singing Boy to Scholar: The Deaths, Lives, and Letters of Angelo Poliziano." Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 3-37.

Temple, Robert. "Introduction." Aesop: The Complete Fables. Trans. Olivia and Robert Temple. London/New York: Penguin, 1998. ix-xxiii.

Vasari, Giorgio. "Gherardo: Miniatore Fiorentino." Le Vite die piu celebri pittori, scultori e architetti. 1550. 4th ed. Firenze: Salani, 1908. 413-15.

Watkins, Renée Neu, ed. and trans. Humanism and Liberty: Writings on Freedom from Fifteenth-Century Florence. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1978.

Young, George F. The Medici. New York: Dutton, 1911.


Margaret Bush (review date October 2000)

SOURCE: Bush, Margaret. Review of Fables from Aesop, adapted and illustrated by Tom Lynch. School Library Journal 46, no. 10 (October 2000): 150.

Gr. 3-5—The lessons are boldly fresh, yet old as time, in this baker's dozen of stories set in rough-hewn appliqué scenes [Fables from Aesop]. The ubiquitous tortoise and hare open the assembly of well-known and less familiar tales. Other old favorites include the competition between the Sun and the North Wind, the mouse that rescues the lion, and the fox that flatters the crow into dropping its bit of cheese. The narrative is generally competent, faithful to the spare language usually associated with Aesop. Occasionally Lynch incorporates contemporary vernacular that seems a bit out of sync with other more formal and reserved passages. "'Hold on there,' said the Tortoise. 'I'll bet if we had a race I would win!' 'You've got to be kidding!' laughed the Hare. 'Okay slowpoke, let's go!'" Occasionally the required morals are a bit ponderous: "So remember! Regrets and precautions are useless after misfortune has come." The prose waivers, but the homely creatures stitched in deephued fabrics are consistently humorous and appealing. The crude shapes and simple stitches are a nice blend of childlike and more sophisticated artistry. Readers already familiar with the fables and those meeting them for the first time will enjoy this striking presentation.

Roger Sutton (review date March-April 2001)

SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of The Lion and the Mouse: And Other Aesop's Fables, retold by Doris Orgel, illustrated by Bert Kitchen. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 2 (March-April 2001): 220.

Bert Kitchen's acclaimed animal studies are showcased in this large-format collection of mostly familiar fables [The Lion and the Mouse: And Other Aesop's Fables]. Although the collection of twelve fables hasn't the breadth of Jerry Pinkney's recent edition, Orgel's versions are pithier and more distinctively voiced. They also lack the concluding proverbs, which may worry those who do prefer a moral tacked on to the end but which allows young listeners to come to their own conclusions: after all, "The Lion and the Man" offers far richer epistemologies than simply "there are two sides to every story." Kitchen's pictures are large, graceful, impeccably drawn, and fastidiously colored; to the detriment of the book design, each double-page spread is accompanied by a (frequently irrelevant) boxed fact about Aesop.

Deborah Stevenson (review date November 2004)

SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Unwitting Wisdom: An Anthology of Aesop's Fables, retold and illustrated by Helen Ward. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 58, no. 3 (November 2004): 149-50.

Ward, who has adapted individual Aesop tales in picture-book form (The Hare and the Tortoise, etc.) here offers a polished gallery of a dozen fables [in Unwitting Wisdom: An Anthology of Aesop's Fables], all of them featuring animal protagonists. The lushly descriptive, sometimes lofty language brings resonance to popular tales such as those featuring the fox and the grapes ("Sour Grapes"), the wolf in sheep's clothing ("Pot Luck"), and the mouse and the lion ("Size Isn't Everything"); wry and witty turns of phrase ("The mouse in turn tried to look heroic and brave and as unlike a tasty snack as he could") lift these above grave didacticism and add some punch for readalouds. Visually, this is a coolly elegant volume, with its snowy white pages, artistic and varied typefaces (with story titles appearing in a soft gray that's also the color of the page decorations), and austere line-and-watercolor art; there's an astonishingly delicate precision to Ward's threadlike outlines and feathery hatching, resulting in animal figures who seem like reality magnified beyond the everyday. The book's sophistication sometimes works against it, however: few young audiences will have the slightest idea what "passing the port" is in "The Trappings of Power," and some of the graceful tale-opening spreads lose impact to the gutter. Unlike Pinkney's illustrated version or Ward's own single-volume adaptations, this isn't likely to work as baby's first Aesop, but older kids who've been away from the fables for awhile may find this artistic and allusive presentation a lure to reexamination. An introductory note provides some background on Aesop and his tales.

Margaret Bush (review date June 2005)

SOURCE: Bush, Margaret. Review of The McElderry Book of Aesop's Fables, by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. School Library Journal 51, no. 6 (June 2005): 140.

K-Gr. 2—"One day in March, after a morning of carefree cavorting and capering with her friends on the hillside, Hare was haring her way home along a path when she came across Tortoise." Morpurgo is jocular and colloquial as he adds descriptive details and conversation in retelling 21 tales of the venerable Aesop [in The McElderry Book of Aesop's Fables]. Accompanied by humorous watercolor scenes in varied sizes, some tales extend for several pages, while others are complete on two. The concluding lessons, set in larger type, tend to lack the pithiness of those in many older collections, though some are more economical than others. "Obstinacy may look like strength. It rarely is." The reteller seems undecided as to how deadly the fate of some characters should be—or at least how specifically it should be stated. In "The Rat and the Elephant," not usually found in Aesop, he says of the cat's pursuit of the rat, "Well, I won't tell you what happened. You'll just have to imagine it." However, he adds a bit of ill fate for the boy who cried "wolf." Unlike most versions, the boy, along with his sheep, is eaten. Morpurgo includes no notes on his sources or choices of tales and alterations. These cheerful, well-crafted offerings will work well for independent reading and reading aloud.

Debbie Lymer (review date October 2005)

SOURCE: Lymer, Debbie. Review of Disabled Fables: Aesop's Fables Retold and Illustrated by Artists with Developmental Disabilities, by L.A. Goal. Library Media Connection 24, no. 2 (October 2005): 74-5.

Fourteen well-known fables from Aesop have been retold and illustrated by 14 different artists with developmental disabilities [in Disabled Fables: Aesop's Fables Retold and Illustrated by Artists with Development Disabilities]. The artists were sponsored by L.A. Goal, a non-profit organization that aids persons with developmental disabilities who are developing their strengths. Each retold a fable that had a special meaning. The fable was rewritten in the artist's own words and illustrated in the artist's version to accom-pany the text. Then each artist explained why the fable was relevant to his or her life. A recreated moral for each fable was added and each artist included a personal paragraph. Fables include "The Fox and the Cat," "The City Mouse and the Country Mouse," "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Crane," "The Dog and His Shadow," "The Fox and the Grapes," and "The Lion and The Mouse." The brightly colored illustrations were done in a variety of media, watercolors, crayon, marker, etc. The illustrations complement and fully explain the text. These artists have captured the essence of each fable in text and in illustration. In fact, their explanations are so practical and down-to-earth that readers will want to use this book as a companion to the original Aesop fables. Students will enjoy comparing and contrasting the two. Highly Recommended.



Blount, Margaret. "Folklore and Fable." In Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction, pp. 34-41. New York, N.Y.: Avon Books, 1974.

Offers a critical overview of several of the more famous editions of Aesop's fables.

Carnes, Pack. "The Fable and the Anti-Fable: The Modern Faces of Aesop." Bestia 4 (1992): 5-33.

Contrasts traditional Aesopic fables with their contemporary evocation, the anti-fable, which often represents a subversive evolution of the ancient stories.

Gillespie, Margaret C. "Fantasy—There Were Tales to Tell: Fables." In History and Trends, pp. 48-9. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm C. Brown Company Publishers, 1970.

Provides a critical reading of Aesop's works and his literary legacy.

Hodnett, Edward. "Aesop in England." In Aesop in England: The Transmissions of Motifs in Seventeenth-Century Illustrations of "Aesop's Fables," pp. 3-14. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1979.

Charts the early Aesopic tradition in England, focusing on seventeenth-century illustrated editions of Aesop's fables.

Jackson, Mary V. "Secular Adult Forerunners of Juvenile Books, and Early Audiences." In Engines of Instruction, Mischief, and Magic, pp. 43-51. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska, 1989.

Compares and contrasts six early English editions of Aesop's fables.

Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. "Common and Uncommon Characters: The Lives of Aesop." In The English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651–1740, pp. 71-98. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Examines how the image and legend of Aesop was characterized in Augustinian English literature and culture.

Marsh, David. "Aesop and the Humanist Apology." Renaissance Studies 17, no. 1 (March 2003): 9-26.

Surveys how Aesop's fables were reintroduced to Renaissance Italy in the late fifteenth century.

Miner, Jr., Robert G. "Aesop as Litmus: The Acid Test of Children's Literature." In Reflections on Literature for Children, edited by Francelia Butler and Richard Rotert, pp. 148-54. Hamden, Conn.: Library Professionals Publications, 1984.

Traces the development of the various editions of Aesop's fables that have been published over the last five hundred years.

Wheatley, Edward. "Figuring the Fable and Its Father." In Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers, pp. 7-31. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Utilizes the critical theories of Jean-Marie Schaeffer to define the genre of Aesopic literature.

Wilson, Anita C. "To Instruct and to Amuse: Some Victorian Views of Aesop's Fables." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 2 (summer 1984): 66-8.

Details the appropriation of Aesop's fables for entertainment and educational purposes in Victorian England.

Additional coverage of Aesop's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 14; Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 24; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; and Something about the Author, Vol. 64.