Book 1 in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006) is Aesop’s Fables by Aesopus. The importance of the stories is explained as their historic popularity and their influence on subsequent writers, arguing “Without the example of Aesop, the world would never have had The Romance of Reynard the Fox, and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis would be inconceivable. There would be no Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, and Orwell would have never written Nineteen Eighty-Four” (23).
As the book rightly points out, these stories are not really the work of one person but “a body of work from a huge variety of sources” (23). The Penguin 1998 edition of the Fables goes as far as to say that Victorian morals such as “haste makes waste” and “pride come before the fall” are often attributed to Aesop erroneously (ix). (See GoogleBooks for a decent look at the introduction: http://books.google.com/books?id=Cma0YzxxdwYC&dq=aesop&source=gbs_navlinks_s .)
However, there was evidently a person Aesopus, though he was certainly mythologized. One description from an 1865 edition (http://books.google.com/books?id=uQH_0HMidbwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=aesop&cd=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false) writes that Aesop was deformed with “large belly, and bow legs” and his speech was “slow, inarticulate, and very obscure” (2). Research cited in the Penguin edition (noted above) indicates that the real Aesop was a slave, who “seems to have been a great wit, whose reputation for telling little animal tales in discussion and negotiation and scoring devastatingly clever points” with his contemporaries so that he “became a legendary name around which all such witty animal tales clustered in later centuries, most of the surviving ones probably not actually written by him” (x).
Another collection from Oxford World’s Classics (2002) at http://books.google.com/books?id=I_iCeceJWE4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=aesop+2002&lr=&cd=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false argues that invoking Aesop was a way of speaking in Ancient Greek, more so than a reference to a particular person. She uses texts by Aristophanes to demonstrate that Ancient Greeks would use Aesop’s tales / fables as “a body of popular knowledge that was meant to be regularly ‘gone over’ and brought to mind as needed” (xi). By citing a particular story, the speaker would convey a specific message to the audience. For example, invoking “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” in conversation who simply be warning the listener that liars are not believer even when telling the truth. This message has, in fact, been passed down as part of our own cultural heritage so much so that most of us would understand that message with simply the words “cry wolf” being spoken.
In our culture we have often used these fables to teach such morals to our children. However, as the Penguin edition notes, they were not originally intended for children:
“For the fables are not the pretty purveyors of Victorian morals that we have been led to believe. They are instead savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy or compassion, and lacking also in any political system other than an absolute monarchy. With one exception the kings are tyrants, and the women who appear include a young wife who scratches and claws at her (evidently brutal) husband’s face, and one who is really an animal disguised as a human who pounces on a mouse to eat it.
This is largely a world of brutal, heartless men–and of cunning, of wickedness, or treachery and deceit, of laughter at the misfortune of others, or mockery and contempt. It is also a world of savage humour, of deft wit, of clever wordplay, of one-upmanship, of ‘I told you so!’ So stark is the world of Aesop that it calls to mind two reflections: first, women were relegated to such obscurity and powerlessness that they were unable to influence the actions of mean or ameliorate them, and were essentially slaves. . . Second, there seems to have been no general consensus that compassion towards one’s fellow human beings had anything particularly to recommend it” (xvi-xvii).
This savage humor, this edition notes, really shows that “The fables were essentially a joke collection” (xviii) for a mature audience.
The Oxford World’s Class text offers an explanation of how a fable differs from a joke: “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” (xii). In his article “Fable Invites Perception” at http://aesop.creighton.edu/jcupub/ArticleFablesInvitePerception.htm , Gregory Carlson writes, “An Aesopic fable is a short past-tense fictional narrative that invites perception of a point about how to live life” (par. 8). From these two, we can learn that a Fable is not just a joke, but it is a humorous story that teaches a lesson.
My personal favorite is “The Crab and Its Mother.”
A CRAB said to her son, “Why do you walk so one-sided, my child?
It is far more becoming to go straight forward.” The young Crab
replied: “Quite true, dear Mother; and if you will show me the
straight way, I will promise to walk in it.” The Mother tried in
vain, and submitted without remonstrance to the reproof of her
The moral is often cited as “Example is more powerful than precept.” I think, though, that it teaches me to not expect others to do what I cannot, which is slightly different.
(This story is one included in the Oxford edition cited above Aesop’s Fables: A New Translation by Laura Gibbs, though certainly that doesn’t tell us to whom this story can be attributed –Aesop or not?)
Though, like me, you have probably been exposed to them as a child, I hope you will join me in re-reading Aesop’s Fables. To read a large selection of the stories, visit any of the books I have noted above or see the Aesop’s Fables Site (for stories and morals) at http://www.aesopfables.com/aesopsel.html.