Book review – Aesop’s Fables

7-minute read

This is the first of a two-part review delving deeper into the world-famous collection of animal tales known as Aesop’s Fables. In preparation for reviewing Aesop’s Animals from Bloomsbury Sigma, which looks at the facts behind the fiction, I decided to first read the fables themselves. I could not have picked a better time. The Bodleian Library has just published a collection of Aesop’s Fables with some scrumptious woodcut illustrations to boot.

Aesop's Fables

Aesop’s Fables, introduced by Samual Fanous, illustrated by Agnes Miller Parker, published by The Bodleian Library in October 2020 (hardback, 208 pages)

In this review, I will discuss the fables themselves a bit, but I will cut right to the chase. Given their antiquity, these fables have appeared in book form numerous times. What makes this collection so appealing?

The Bodleian Library version

There are four good reasons to pick up this version: an insightful introduction, lush woodcut illustrations, the inclusion of the morals of the stories, and an excellent presentation.

This version is arguably geared more towards an adult audience than towards children. The book opens with a scholarly ten-page introduction by Samuel Fanous who is the head of publishing at the Bodleian Library and a specialist in medieval English literature. Effectively, this is an essay telling you more about the Mediterranean origin of the fables, which stretch back over two millennia to Greek oral tradition, and about Aesop, the slave who supposedly collected these stories and may or may not have existed. The stories remained popular throughout the ages and were widely used to teach both morals and reading and writing. Unsurprisingly, they were translated into major languages such as English, French, German, and Italian, but also Japanese and Chinese. One little detail I did not know is that the French fables from Jean de la Fontaine (a Dutch version of which accompanied my childhood) were in part drawn from Aesop’s Fables.

Cognoscenti will probably want to know the exact provenance of the translation used here. A short note at the end of the introduction clarifies that the primary source is the 1912 Aesop’s Fables: A New Translation by V.S. Vernon Jones (though the copyright page gives the date as 1916), with a minority drawn from various versions of William Caxton’s 1931 French-to-English translation. All text has been “discreetly modernized by the publisher” (p. 14) with a short one-liner containing the moral of the story taken from various (uncredited) sources. In total, this version contains 298 fables with most including the moral; by my count 242 fables or 81%. These are surprisingly useful; the fables without supplied moral often leave you guessing as to what is the best lesson to be drawn from them.

“Miller Parker renders the animals in graceful curves while retaining their life-like proportions and muscular bulk.”

Fanous furthermore provides a short biography of the artist, Scottish woodcut illustrator Agnes Miller Parker (1895–1980). The images reproduced here were her first commission of 37 engravings for Caxton’s 1931 version by Welsh publisher Gregynog Press, with the archaic title The Fables of Esope translated out of Frensshe in to Englysshe by William Caxton. They were much-lauded back then and have stood the test of time. Miller Parker renders the animals in graceful curves while retaining their life-like proportions and muscular bulk.
Aesop's Fables internal 1

The last point that makes this version of Aesop’s Fables worthwhile is the handsome presentation. The book is bound in cloth with the word “Aesop’s” debossed and gilded. The cover illustration is from the fable The Fox and the Stork and seems purposefully chosen; Fanous explains it is the earliest known illustration, identified on a first-century Roman tombstone and a fourth-century Greek vase. Usefully, the book comes with a reading ribbon and an alphabetical index at the back, listing the fables by name, instead of a detailed table of contents.

The Fables

Enough about the book, what of the fables? Even if you have never read them, you know at least some of them. As Fanous points out, various phrases and idioms in our everyday speech originate in these fables: the lion’s share, sour grapes, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing (which, I did not realise, does not end well for the wolf!) And you likely can recite some fables by heart, for who does not know the story of the race between the hare and the tortoise, the boy who cried wolf, or the sly fox who got the crow to give up his delectable piece of cheese?

Most fables, however, will be unfamiliar, though the stereotypes that have influenced how we perceive certain animals are not. The fox is frequently sly, and the wolf deceptive (though in The Wolf and the Boy he lets the boy live). The lion declares himself king of the animals and is frequently a bully, though some fables cast him in a better light. Not all fables revolve around animals or humans, however, with a subset featuring everyday objects, the elements, or gods. The Goods and the Ills concerns fortune and misfortune, while The Belly and the Members portrays a conversation between the organs in the human body.

“Even if you have never read them, you know at least some of them. […] various phrases and idioms in our everyday speech originate in these fables: the lion’s share, sour grapes, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing”

A number of fables read more like jokes and made me laugh with their punchline. The Thieves and the Cock sees a stolen cock bargain for his life by pointing out his usefulness in waking men up, to which the thief replies: “Yes, I know you do, making it still harder for us to get a livelihood. Into the pot you go!” (p. 51). In The Horse and His Rider, an inexperienced horseman gets taken for a ride by his horse. When asked by a friend where he is going with such haste, he points to his steed and replies: “I’ve no idea: ask him” (p. 91). And in The Bald Huntsman, a hunter loses his wig during a chase but shrugs it off by saying: “Ah, well! The hair that wig is made of didn’t stick to the head on which it grew; so no wonder it won’t stick to mine” (p. 135).

What struck me, however, is the sheer brutality in some of these fables, much like in the first edition of fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. In The Goat and the Vine, a grapevine being nibbled on warns the goat that “I shall produce wine enough to pour over you when you are led to the altar to be sacrificed” (p. 92). The Tuna and the Dolphin sees both stranded on land when a chase gets out of hand, to which the tuna says “I don’t mind having to die now; for I see that he who is the cause of my death is about to share the same fate” (p. 104). In The Wasp and the Snake, a snake who gets stung chooses a radical solution: “he laid his head with the wasp on it under the wheel of a passing wagon, and they both perished together” (p. 155). And on several occasions, frogs explode or get stamped to death.

One fable stood out for me. The Crow and the Pitcher describes how a thirsty crow adds pebbles to a pitcher to raise the water level. You might remember a certain story being widely reported, as this describes exactly the observations done on rooks, published in a 2009 Current Biology paper. Was this fable based on early natural history observations? Or did the fable inspire biologists to try this out in an experimental setup? I will next turn to Jo Wimpenny’s book Aesop’s Animals to look at the science behind the fables.

Aesop’s Fables

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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