Aesop's Fables

From Academic Kids

Aesop's Fables or Aesopica is a blanket term for collections of brief animal fables, each of which conveys a moral.


For the main article on the legendary figure, see Aesop.

According to Herodotus, the fables were invented by a Greek slave named Aesop in the 6th century BCE, though other ancient writers offer many different nationalities and time periods for Aesop: it may well be that Aesop did not exist, and that the fables attributed to him are merely folktales of unknown origins. The original Greek fables have been lost. Latin versions, both in Antiquity and the Middle Ages were collected by Babrius, Phaedrus, Avianus, Ademar, Romulus Anglicus, Romulus Nilantis, Odo of Cheriton and Walter of England. And the Latin versions were translated back into Greek.

William Caxton, the first printer of books in English, printed a version of Aesopic fables in 1484 that became a classic. An example of the fables in Caxton's collection follows:

"Men ought not to leue that thynge whiche is sure & certayne / for hope to haue the vncertayn / as to vs reherceth this fable of a fyssher whiche with his lyne toke a lytyll fysshe whiche sayd to hym / My frend I pray the / doo to me none euylle / ne putte me not to dethe / For now I am nought / for to be eten / but whanne I shalle be grete / yf thow come ageyne hyther / of me shalt thow mowe haue grete auaylle / For thenne I shalle goo with the a good whyle / And the Fyssher sayd to the fysshe Syn I hold the now / thou shalt not scape fro me / For grete foly hit were to me for to seke the here another tyme."

In 1692 Sir Roger L'Estrange brought Caxton's versions up-to-date--one example is that of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse:

"There goes an old Story of a Country-Mouse that invited a City-Sister of hers to a Country Collation, where she spard for nothing that the Place afforded; as mouldy Crusts, Cheese-Parings, musty Oatmeal, rusty Bacon, and the like. Now the City-Dame was so well bred, as seemingly to take all in good part; but yet at last, Sister (says she, after the civilest Fashion) why will you be miserable when you may be happy? Why will you lie pining and pinching your self in such a lonesome starving Course of Life as this is, when tis but going to Town along with me; to enjoy all the Pleasures and Plenty that your Heart can wish? This was a Temptation the Country-Mouse was not able to resist; so that away they trudgd together, and about Midnight got to their Journeys End. The City-Mouse shewed her Friend the Larder, the Pantry, the Kitchen, and other Offices where she laid her Stores; and after this, carried her into the Parlour, where they found, yet upon the Table, the Relicks of a mighty Entertainment of that very Night. The City-Mouse carvd her Companion of what she liked best, so tot they fell upon a Velvet Couch together. The poor Bumpkin, that had never seen nor heard of such Doings before, blessd her self at the Change of Condition, when (as ill luck would have it) all of a sudden the Doors flew open, and in comes a Crew of roring Bullies, with their Wenches, their Dogs, and their Bottles, and put the poor Mice to their wits end how to save their Skins; the Stranger especially, that had never been at this sport before: but she made a shift however for the present to slink into a Corner, where she lay trembling and panting till the Company went their way. So soon as ever the House was quiet again; Well! My Court-Sister, says she, if this be the way of your Town-Gamboles, Ill een back to my Cottage, and my mouldy Cheese again; for I had much rather lie knabbing of Crusts, without either Fear or Danger, in my own Hole, than be Mistress of the whole World with perpetual Cares and Alarms.
"THE MORAL: The Difference of a Court and Country Life. The Delights, Innocence, and Security of the one, compard with the Anxiety, the Lewdness, and the Hazards of the other."

At about the same time, Jean de La Fontaine was recasting Aesopica into French verses. In English, the most reproduced modern translations were made by Rev. George Fyler Townsend (1814 - 1900). The adaption and translation of Aesop's fables by Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov (1769 - 1844) became an important part of Russian literature. More than 200 editions of various collected Aesopica are currently widely available. Ben E. Perry, the editor of Aesopic fables of Babrius and Phaedrus for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1965), compiled a numbered index by type, which helps keep track of them. The edition by Olivia Temple and Robert Temple, entitled The Complete Fables by Aesop is presented as the most complete, unexpurgated version, though more fables are available in the Loeb Classical Library volumes.

Though there are hundreds of fables ascribed to Aesop, a few have become truly famous. The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of the race which is lost by the much-faster hare due to his over-confidence. The story, like many of those attributed to Aesop, ends with a moral. In this case, the moral is usually "slow and steady wins the race".

Another of Aesop's more famous fables is The Fox and the Grapes, in which a fox wishes to eat a bunch of grapes but cannot because they are too high for him to reach. The fox concludes (rationalizing the situation to himself) that, because he cannot reach them, the grapes must be sour. From this fable, the expression "sour grapes" has entered the English language as on idiom. The "lion's share" which may be everything, comes from several similar fables in the Aesopic collections.

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