Aesop's Fables

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A detail of the 13th century Fontana Maggiore in Perugia with the fables of The Wolf and the Crane and The Wolf and the Lamb

Aesop's Fables or the Aesopica is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and story-teller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE.

Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st-century CE philosopher, is recorded as having said about Aesop:

... like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.



The Greek historian Herodotus mentions in passing that "Aesop the fable writer" was a slave who lived in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE.[1] Among references in other writers, Aristophanes, in his comedy The Wasps, represented the protagonist Philocleon as having learnt the "absurdities" of Aesop from conversation at banquets; Plato wrote in Phaedo that Socrates whiled away his jail time turning some of Aesop's fables "which he knew" into verses. Nonetheless, for two main reasons[2] – because numerous morals within Aesop's attributed fables contradict each other, and because ancient accounts of Aesop's life contradict each other – the modern view is that Aesop probably did not solely compose all those fables attributed to him, if he even existed at all.[2] Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of "Aesopic" form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE.[3]

Aesop and Indian traditions[edit]

Aesop's fables and the Indian tradition as represented by the Buddhist Jataka Tales and the Hindu Panchatantra share about a dozen tales in common although often widely differing in detail. There is therefore some debate over whether the Greeks learned these fables from Indian storytellers or the other way, or if the influences were mutual. Loeb editor Ben E. Perry took the extreme position in his book Babrius and Phaedrus that

In the entire Greek tradition there is not, so far as I can see, a single fable that can be said to come either directly or indirectly from an Indian source; but many fables or fable-motifs that first appear in Greek or Near Eastern literature are found later in the Panchatantra and other Indian story-books, including the Buddhist Jatakas.[4]

Although Aesop and the Buddha were near contemporaries, the stories of neither were recorded in writing until some centuries after their death and few disinterested scholars would now be prepared to make so absolute a stand about their origin in view of the conflicting and still emerging evidence.[5][6]

Translation and transmission[edit]

Greek versions[edit]

When and how the fables arrived in and travelled from ancient Greece remains a mystery. Some cannot be dated any earlier than Babrius and Phaedrus, several centuries after Aesop, and yet others even later. The earliest mentioned collection was by Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian orator and statesman of the 4th century BCE, who compiled the fables into a set of ten books for the use of orators. A follower of Aristotle, he simply catalogued all the fables that earlier Greek writers had used in isolation as exempla, putting them into prose. At least it was evidence of what was attributed to Aesop by others; but this may have included any ascription to him from the oral tradition in the way of animal fables, fictitious anecdotes, etiological or satirical myths, possibly even any proverb or joke, that these writers transmitted. It is more a proof of the power of Aesop's name to attract such stories to it than evidence of his actual authorship. In any case, although the work of Demetrius was mentioned frequently for the next twelve centuries, and was considered the official Aesop, no copy now survives.

Present day collections evolved from the later Greek version of Babrius, of which we have an incomplete manuscript of some 160 fables in choliambic verse. Current opinion is that he lived in the 1st century CE. In the 11th century appear the fables of 'Syntipas', now thought to be the work of the Greek scholar Michael Andreopulos. These are translations of a Syriac version, itself translated from a much earlier Greek collection and contain some fables unrecorded before. The version of 55 fables in choliambic tetrameters by the 9th century CE Ignatius the Deacon is also worth mentioning for its early inclusion of stories from Oriental sources.[7]

Some light is thrown on the entry of stories from Oriental sources into the Aesopic canon by their appearance in Jewish commentaries on the Talmud and in Midrashic literature from the 1st century CE. Some 30 fables appear there,[8] of which twelve resemble those that are common to both Greek and Indian sources, six are parallel to those only in Indian sources, and six others in Greek only. Where similar fables exist in Greece, India, and in the Talmud, the Talmudic form approaches more nearly the Indian. Thus, the fable "The Wolf and the Crane" is told in India of a lion and another bird. When Joshua ben Hananiah told that fable to the Jews, to prevent their rebelling against Rome and once more putting their heads into the lion's jaws (Gen. R. lxiv.), he shows familiarity with some form derived from India.

Latin versions[edit]

The first extensive translation of Aesop into Latin iambic trimeters was done by Phaedrus, a freedman of Caesar Augustus in the 1st century AD, although at least one fable had already been translated by the poet Ennius two centuries before and others are referred to in the work of Horace. The rhetorician Aphthonius of Antioch, wrote a treatise on, and converted into Latin prose, some forty of these fables in 315. This translation is notable as illustrating contemporary usage, both in these and in later times. The rhetoricians and philosophers were accustomed to give the Fables of Aesop as an exercise to their scholars, not only inviting them to discuss the moral of the tale, but also to practice and to perfect themselves thereby in style and rules of grammar by making new versions of their own. A little later the poet Ausonius handed down some of these fables in verse, which Julianus Titianus, a contemporary writer of no great name, translated into prose, and in the early 5th century Avianus put 42 of these fables into Latin elegiacs.

12th century pillar, cloister of the Collegiata di Sant'Orso, Aosta: the Fox and the Stork

The largest, oldest known and most influential of the prose versions of Phaedrus is that which bears the name of an otherwise unknown fabulist named Romulus. It contains eighty-three fables, is as old as the 10th century and seems to have been based on a still earlier prose version which, under the name of "Aesop," and addressed to one Rufus, may have been made in the Carolingian period or even earlier. The collection became the source from which, during the second half of the Middle Ages, almost all the collections of Latin fables in prose and verse were wholly or partially drawn. A version of the first three books of Romulus in elegiac verse, possibly made in around the 12th century, was one of the most highly influential texts in medieval Europe. Referred to variously (among other titles) as the verse Romulus or elegiac Romulus, it was a common teaching text for Latin and enjoyed a wide popularity well into the Renaissance. Another version of Romulus in Latin elegiacs was made by Alexander Neckam, born at St Albans in 1157.

Interpretive "translations" of the elegiac Romulus were very common in Europe in the Middle Ages. Among the earliest was one in the 11th century by Ademar of Chabannes, which includes some new material. This was followed by a prose collection of parables by the Cistercian preacher Odo of Cheriton round about 1200 where the fables (many of which are not Aesopic) are given a strong medieval and clerical tinge. This interpretive tendency, and the inclusion of yet more non-Aesopic material, was to grow as versions in the various European vernaculars began to appear in the following centuries.

With the revival of literary Latin during the Renaissance, authors began compiling collections of fables in which those traditionally by Aesop and those from alternative sources appeared side by side. One of the earliest was by Lorenzo Bevilaqua, also known as Laurentius Abstemius, who wrote 197 fables,[9] the first hundred of which were published as Hecatomythium in 1495. Little by Aesop was included. At the most, some traditional fables are adapted and reinterpreted: The Lion and the Mouse is continued and given a new ending (fable 52); The Oak and the Reed becomes "The Elm and the Willow" (53); The Ant and the Grasshopper is adapted as "The Gnat and the Bee" (94) with the difference that the gnat offers to teach music to the bee's children. There are also Mediaeval tales such as The Mice in Council (195) and stories created to support popular proverbs such as 'Still Waters Run Deep' (5) and 'A woman, an ass and a walnut tree' (65), where the latter refers back to Aesop's fable of The Walnut Tree. Most of the fables in Hecatomythium were later translated in the second half of Roger L'Estrange's Fables of Aesop and other eminent mythologists (1692);[10] some also appeared among the 102 in H.Clarke's Latin reader, Select fables of Aesop: with an English translation (1787), of which there were both English and American editions.[11]

There were later three notable collections of fables in verse, among which the most influential was Gabriele Faerno's Centum Fabulae (1564). The majority of the hundred fables there are Aesop's but there are also humorous tales such as The drowned woman and her husband (41) and The miller, his son and the donkey (100). In the same year that Faerno was published in Italy, Hieronymus Osius brought out a collection of 294 fables titled Fabulae Aesopi carmine elegiaco redditae in Germany.[12] This too contained some from elsewhere, such as The Dog in the Manger (67). Then in 1604 the Austrian Pantaleon Weiss, known as Pantaleon Candidus, published Centum et Quinquaginta Fabulae.[13] The 152 poems there were grouped by subject, with sometimes more than one devoted to the same fable, although presenting alternative versions of it, as in the case of The Hawk and the Nightingale (133-5). It also includes the earliest instance of The Lion, the Bear and the Fox (60) in a language other than Greek.

Aesop's Fables in other languages[edit]

The fable of the farmer and his sons from Caxton's edition

Versions in regional languages[edit]

The 18th to 19th centuries saw a vast amount of fables in verse being written in all European languages. Regional languages and dialects in the Romance area made use of versions adapted from La Fontaine or the equally popular Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian. One of the earliest publications was the anonymous Fables Causides en Bers Gascouns (Selected fables in the Gascon language, Bayonne, 1776), which contains 106.[39] J. Foucaud's Quelques fables choisies de La Fontaine en patois limousin in the Occitan Limousin dialect followed in 1809.[40]

Versions in Breton were written by Pierre Désiré de Goësbriand (1784–1853) in 1836 and Yves Louis Marie Combeau (1799–1870) between 1836 and 1838. Two translations into Basque followed mid-century: 50 in J-B. Archu's Choix de Fables de La Fontaine, traduites en vers basques (1848) and 150 in Fableac edo aleguiac Lafontenetaric berechiz hartuac (Bayonne, 1852) by Abbé Martin Goyhetche (1791–1859).[41] The turn of Provençal came in 1859 with Li Boutoun de guèto, poésies patoises by Antoine Bigot (1825–97), followed by several other collections of fables in the Nîmes dialect between 1881 and 1891.[42] Alsatian (German) versions of La Fontaine appeared in 1879 after the region was ceded following the Franco-Prussian War. At the end of the following century, Brother Denis-Joseph Sibler (1920–2002), published a collection of adaptations into this dialect that has gone through several impressions since 1995.

There were many adaptations of La Fontaine into the dialects of the west of France (Poitevin-Saintongeais). Foremost among these was Recueil de fables et contes en patois saintongeais (1849)[43] by lawyer and linguist Jean-Henri Burgaud des Marets (1806–73). Other adaptors writing about the same time include Pierre-Jacques Luzeau (b. 1808), Edouard Lacuve (1828–99) and Marc Marchadier (1830–1898). In the 20th century there have been Marcel Rault (whose pen name is Diocrate), Eugène Charrier, Fr Arsène Garnier, Marcel Douillard[44] and Pierre Brisard.[45] Further to the north, the journalist and historian Géry Herbert (1926–1985) adapted some fables to the Cambrai dialect of Picard, known locally as Ch'ti.[46] More recent translators of fables into this dialect have included Jo Tanghe (2005) and Guillaume de Louvencourt (2009).

During the 19th century renaissance of literature in Walloon dialect, several authors adapted versions of the fables to the racy speech (and subject matter) of Liège.[47] They included Charles Duvivier (in 1842); Joseph Lamaye (1845); and the team of Jean-Joseph Dehin (1847, 1851-2) and François Bailleux (1851–67), who between them covered books I-VI.[48] Adaptations into other dialects were made by Charles Letellier (Mons, 1842) and Charles Wérotte (Namur, 1844); much later, Léon Bernus published some hundred imitations of La Fontaine in the dialect of Charleroi (1872);[49] he was followed during the 1880s by Joseph Dufrane, writing in the Borinage dialect under the pen-name Bosquètia. In the 20th century there has been a selection of fifty fables in the Condroz dialect by Joseph Houziaux (1946),[50] to mention only the most prolific in an ongoing surge of adaptation. The motive behind all this activity in both France and Belgium was to assert regional specificity against growing centralism and the encroachment of the language of the capital on what had until then been predominantly monoglot areas.

In the 20th century there have also been translations into regional dialects of English. These include the examples in Addison Hibbard's Aesop in Negro Dialect (USA, 1926) and the twenty six in Robert Stephen's Fables of Aesop in Scots Verse (Peterhead, Scotland, 1987). The latter were in Aberdeenshire dialect (also known as Doric). Glasgow University has also been responsible for R.W.Smith's modernised dialect translation of Robert Henryson's The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian (1999, see above).[51] The University of Illinois likewise included dialect translations by Norman Shapiro in its Creole echoes: the francophone poetry of nineteenth-century Louisiana (2004, see below).


Cover of the French edition of Les Bambous

Caribbean creole also saw a flowering of such adaptations from the middle of the 19th century onwards – initially as part of the colonialist project but later as an assertion of love for and pride in the dialect. A version of La Fontaine's fables in the dialect of Martinique was made by François-Achille Marbot (1817–66) in Les Bambous, Fables de la Fontaine travesties en patois (1846).[52] In neighbouring Guadeloupe original fables were being written by Paul Baudot (1801–70) between 1850 and 1860 but these were not collected until posthumously. Some examples of rhymed fables appeared in a grammar of Trinidadian French creole written by John Jacob Thomas (1840–89) that was published in 1869. The start of the new century saw the publication of Georges Sylvain’s Cric? Crac! Fables de la Fontaine racontées par un montagnard haïtien et transcrites en vers créoles (La Fontaine’s fables told by a Haiti highlander and written in creole verse, 1901).[53]

On the South American mainland, Alfred de Saint-Quentin published a selection of fables freely adapted from La Fontaine into Guyanese creole in 1872. This was among a collection of poems and stories (with facing translations) in a book that also included a short history of the territory and an essay on creole grammar.[54] On the other side of the Caribbean, Jules Choppin (1830–1914) was adapting La Fontaine to the Louisiana slave creole at the end of the 19th century. Three of these versions appear in the anthology Creole echoes: the francophone poetry of nineteenth-century Louisiana (University of Illinois, 2004) with dialect translations by Norman Shapiro.[55] All of Choppin's poetry has been published by the Centenary College of Louisiana (Fables et Rêveries, 2004).[56] The New Orleans author Edgar Grima (1847–1939) also adapted La Fontaine into both standard French and into dialect.[57]

Versions in the French creole of the islands in the Indian Ocean began somewhat earlier than in the Caribbean. Louis Héry (1801–56) emigrated from Brittany to Réunion in 1820. Having become a schoolmaster, he adapted some of La Fontaine's fables into the local dialect in Fables créoles dédiées aux dames de l’île Bourbon (Creole fables for island women). This was published in 1829 and went through three editions.[58] In addition 49 fables of La Fontaine were adapted to the Seychelles dialect around 1900 by Rodolphine Young (1860–1932) but these remained unpublished until 1983.[59] Jean-Louis Robert's recent translation of Babrius into Réunion creole (2007)[60] adds a further motive for such adaptation. Fables began as an expression of the slave culture and their background is in the simplicity of agrarian life. Creole transmits this experience with greater purity than the urbane language of the slave-owner.


Fables belong essentially to the oral tradition; they survive by being remembered and then retold in one's own words. When they are written down, particularly in the dominant language of instruction, they lose something of their essence. A strategy for reclaiming them is therefore to exploit the gap between the written and the spoken language. One of those who did this in English was Sir Roger L'Estrange, who translated the fables into the racy urban slang of his day and further underlined their purpose by including in his collection many of the subversive Latin fables of Laurentius Abstemius.[61] In France the fable tradition had already been renewed in the 17th century by La Fontaine's influential reinterpretations of Aesop and others. In the centuries that followed there were further reinterpretations through the medium of regional languages, which to those at the centre were regarded as little better than slang. Eventually, however, the demotic tongue of the cities themselves began to be appreciated as a literary medium.

One of the earliest examples of these urban slang translations was the series of individual fables contained in a single folded sheet, appearing under the title of Les Fables de Gibbs in 1929. Others written during the period were eventually anthologised as Fables de La Fontaine en argot (Etoile sur Rhône 1989). This followed the genre's growth in popularity after World War II. Two short selections of fables by Bernard Gelval about 1945 were succeeded by two selections of 15 fables each by 'Marcus' (Paris 1947, reprinted in 1958 and 2006), Api Condret's Recueil des fables en argot (Paris, 1951) and Géo Sandry (1897–1975) and Jean Kolb's Fables en argot (Paris 1950/60). The majority of such printings were privately produced leaflets and pamphlets, often sold by entertainers at their performances, and are difficult to date.[62] Some of these poems then entered the repertoire of noted performers such as Boby Forest and Yves Deniaud, of which recordings were made.[63] In the south of France, Georges Goudon published numerous folded sheets of fables in the post-war period. Described as monologues, they use Lyon slang and the Mediterranean Lingua Franca known as Sabir.[64] Slang versions by others continue to be produced in various parts of France, both in printed and recorded form.


Walter Crane title page, 1887

The first printed version of Aesop's Fables in English was published on March 26, 1484 by William Caxton. Many others, in prose and verse, followed over the centuries. In the 20th century Ben E. Perry edited the Aesopic fables of Babrius and Phaedrus for the Loeb Classical Library and compiled a numbered index by type in 1952.[65] Olivia and Robert Temple's Penguin edition is titled The Complete Fables by Aesop (1998) but in fact many from Babrius, Phaedrus and other major ancient sources have been omitted. More recently, in 2002 a translation by Laura Gibbs titled Aesop's Fables was published by Oxford World's Classics. This book includes 359 and has selections from all the major Greek and Latin sources.

Until the 18th century the fables were largely put to adult use by teachers, preachers, speech-makers and moralists. It was the philosopher John Locke who first seems to have advocated targeting children as a special audience in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Aesop's fables, in his opinion are

apt to delight and entertain a child. . . yet afford useful reflection to a grown man. And if his memory retain them all his life after, he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly thoughts and serious business. If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much better, and encourage him to read when it carries the increase of knowledge with it For such visible objects children hear talked of in vain, and without any satisfaction, whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves, or their pictures.

That young people are a special target for the fables was not a particularly new idea and a number of ingenious schemes for catering to that audience had already been put into practice in Europe. The Centum Fabulae of Gabriele Faerno was commissioned by Pope Pius IV in the 17th century 'so that children might learn, at the same time and from the same book, both moral and linguistic purity'. When King Louis XIV of France wanted to instruct his six-year-old son, he incorporated the series of hydraulic statues representing 38 chosen fables in the labyrinth of Versailles in the 1670s. In this he had been advised by Charles Perrault, who was later to translate Faerno's widely published Latin poems into French verse and so bring them to a wider audience.[67] Then in the 1730s appeared the eight volumes of Nouvelles Poésies Spirituelles et Morales sur les plus beaux airs, the first six of which incorporated a section of fables specifically aimed at children. In this the fables of La Fontaine were rewritten to fit popular airs of the day and arranged for simple performance. The preface to this work comments that 'we consider ourselves happy if, in giving them an attraction to useful lessons which are suited to their age, we have given them an aversion to the profane songs which are often put into their mouths and which only serve to corrupt their innocence.'[68] The work was popular and reprinted into the following century.

In the UK various authors began to develop this new market in the 18th century, giving a brief outline of the story and what was usually a longer commentary on its moral and practical meaning. The first of such works is Reverend Samuel Croxall's Fables of Aesop and Others, newly done into English with an Application to each Fable. First published in 1722, with engravings by Elisha Kirkall for each fable, it was continuously reprinted into the second half of the 19th century.[69] Another popular collection was John Newbery's Fables in Verse for the Improvement of the Young and the Old, facetiously attributed to Abraham Aesop Esquire, which was to see ten editions after its first publication in 1757.[70] Robert Dodsley's three-volume Select Fables of Esop and other Fabulists is distinguished for several reasons. First that it was printed in Birmingham by John Baskerville in 1761; second that it appealed to children by having the animals speak in character, the Lion in regal style, the Owl with 'pomp of phrase';[71] thirdly because it gathers into three sections fables from ancient sources, those that are more recent (including some borrowed from Jean de la Fontaine), and new stories of his own invention.

Thomas Bewick's editions from Newcastle upon Tyne are equally distinguished for the quality of his woodcuts. The first of those under his name was the Select Fables in Three Parts published in 1784.[72] This was followed in 1818 by The Fables of Aesop and Others. The work is divided into three sections: the first has some of Dodsley's fables prefaced by a short prose moral; the second has 'Fables with Reflections', in which each story is followed by a prose and a verse moral and then a lengthy prose reflection; the third, 'Fables in Verse', includes fables from other sources in poems by several unnamed authors; in these the moral is incorporated into the body of the poem.[73]

In the early 19th century authors turned to writing verse specifically for children and included fables in their output. One of the most popular was the writer of nonsense verse, Richard Scrafton Sharpe (d.1852), whose Old Friends in a New Dress: familiar fables in verse first appeared in 1807 and went through five steadily augmented editions until 1837.[74] Jefferys Taylor's Aesop in Rhyme, with some originals, first published in 1820, was as popular and also went through several editions. The versions are lively but Taylor takes considerable liberties with the story line. Both authors were alive to the over serious nature of the 18th century collections and tried to remedy this. Sharpe in particular discussed the dilemma they presented and recommended a way round it, tilting at the same time at the format in Croxall's fable collection:

It has been the accustomed method in printing fables to divide the moral from the subject; and children, whose minds are alive to the entertainment of an amusing story, too often turn from one fable to another, rather than peruse the less interesting lines that come under the term “Application”. It is with this conviction that the author of the present selection has endeavoured to interweave the moral with the subject, that the story shall not be obtained without the benefit arising from it; and that amusement and instruction may go hand in hand.
Brownhills alphabet plate, Aesop's Fables series, The Fox and the Grapes c.1880

Sharpe was also the originator of the limerick, but his versions of Aesop are in popular song measures and it was not until 1887 that the limerick form was ingeniously applied to the fables. This was in a magnificently hand-produced Arts and Crafts Movement edition, The Baby's Own Aesop: being the fables condensed in rhyme with portable morals pictorially pointed by Walter Crane.[76]

Some later prose editions were particularly notable for their illustrations. Among these was Aesop's fables: a new version, chiefly from original sources (1848) by Thomas James, 'with more than one hunded illustrations designed by John Tenniel'.[77] Tenniel himself did not think highly of his work there and took the opportunity to redraw some in the revised edition of 1884, which also used pictures by Ernest Henry Griset and Harrison Weir.[78] Once the technology was in place for coloured reproductions, illustrations became ever more attractive. Notable early 20th century editions include V.S.Vernon Jones' new translation of the fables accompanied by the pictures of Arthur Rackham (London, 1912)[79] and in the USA Aesop for Children (Chicago, 1919), illustrated by Milo Winter.[80]

The illustrations from Croxall's editions were an early inspiration for other artefacts aimed at children. In the 18th century they appear on tableware from the Chelsea, Wedgwood and Fenton potteries, for example.[81] 19th century examples with a definitely educational aim include the fable series used on the alphabet plates issued in great numbers from the Brownhills Pottery in Staffordshire. Fables were used equally early in the design of tiles to surround the nursery fireplace. The latter were even more popular in the 19th century when there were specially designed series from Mintons,[82] Minton-Hollins and Maw & Co. In France too, well-known illustrations of La Fontaine's fables were often used on china.[83]

Dramatised fables[edit]

The success of La Fontaine's fables in France started a European fashion for creating plays around them. The originator was Edmé Boursault, with his five-act verse drama Les Fables d'Esope (1690), later retitled Esope à la ville (Aesop in town). Such was its popularity that a rival theatre produced Eustache Le Noble's Arlaquin-Esope in the following year. Boursault then wrote a sequel, Esope à la cour (Aesop at court), a heroic comedy that was held up by the censors and not produced until after his death in 1701.[84] Some forty years later Charles Stephen Pesselier wrote two one-act pieces, Esope au Parnasse and Esope du temps.

Esope à la ville was written in alexandrine couplets and depicted a physically ugly Aesop acting as adviser to Learchus, governor of Cyzicus under King Croesus, and using his fables to solve romantic problems and quiet political unrest. One of the problems is personal to Aesop, since he is betrothed to the governor's daughter, who detests him and has a young admirer with whom she is in love. There is very little action, the play serving as a platform for the recitation of free verse fables at frequent intervals. These include The Fox and the Weasel, The Fox and the Mask, The Nightingale, The Belly and the Other Members, the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, the Lark and the Butterfly, the Fox and the Crow, the Crab and her Daughter, the Frog and the Ox, the Cook and the Swan, the Doves and the Vulture, the Wolf and the Lamb, the Mountain in Labour, and The Man with two Mistresses.[85]

Dramatisation of a different sort: the former statues of "The Fox and the Crane" in the labyrinth of Versailles

Esope à la cour is more of a moral satire, most scenes being set pieces for the application of fables to moral problems, but to supply romantic interest Aesop's mistress Rhodope is introduced.[86] Among the sixteen fables included, some four derive from La Fontaine – the Heron, the Lion and the Mouse, the Dove and the Ant, the Sick Lion – a fifth borrows a moral from another of his but alters the details, and a sixth has as apologue a maxim of Antoine de La Rochefoucauld. After a modest few performances, the piece later grew in popularity and remained in the repertory until 1817.[87] Boursault's play was also influential in Italy and twice translated. It appeared from Bologna in 1719 under the title L’Esopo in Corte, translated by Antonio Zaniboni, and as Le Favole di Esopa alla Corte from Venice in 1747, translated by Gasparo Gozzi. The same translator was responsible for a version of Esope à la ville (Esopo in città, Venice, 1748); then in 1798 there was an anonymous Venetian three-act adaptation, Le Favole di Esopa, ossia Esopo in città.[88] In England the play was adapted under the title Aesop by John Vanbrugh and first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London in 1697, remaining popular for the next twenty years.[89]

In the 20th century individual fables by Aesop began to be adapted to animated cartoons, most notably in France and the United States. Cartoonist Paul Terry began his own series, called Aesop's Film Fables, in 1921 but by the time this was taken over by Van Beuren Studios in 1928 the story lines had little connection with any fable of Aesop's. In the early 1960s, animator Jay Ward created a television series of short cartoons called Aesop and Son which were first aired as part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Actual fables were spoofed to result in a pun based on the original moral. Two fables are also featured in the 1971 TV movie Aesop’s Fables in the U.S.A. Here Aesop is a black story teller who relates two turtle fables, The Tortoise and the Eagle and the Tortoise and the Hare to a couple of children who wander into an enchanted grove. The fables themselves are shown as cartoons.[90]

Between 1989 and 1991, fifty Aesop-based fables were reinterpreted on French television as Les Fables géométriques and later issued on DVD. These featured a cartoon in which the characters appeared as an assembly of animated geometric shapes, accompanied by Pierre Perret's slang versions of La Fontaine's original poem.[91] In 1983 there was an extended manga version of the fables made in Japan, Isoppu monogatari,[92] and there has also been a Chinese television series for children based on the stories.[93]

There have also been several dramatic productions for children based on elements of Aesop's life and including the telling of some fables, although most were written as purely local entertainments. Among these was Canadian writer Robertson Davies' A Masque of Aesop (1952), which was set at his trial in Delphi and allows the defendant to tell the fables The Belly and the Members, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and The Cock and the Jewel while challenging prevailing social attitudes.[94] Another example is the musical Aesop's Fables by British playwright Peter Terson, first produced in 1983.[95] What lifted this work into another class was Mark Dornford-May's adaptation for the Isango Portobello company at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010.[96] The play tells the story of the black slave Aesop, who learns that freedom is earned and kept through being responsible. His teachers are the animal characters he meets on his journeys. The fables they suggest include The Tortoise and the Hare, the Lion and the Goat, the Wolf and the Crane, the Frogs Who Desired a King and three others, brought to life through a musical score featuring mostly marimbas, vocals and percussion.[97] Another colourful treatment was Brian Seward's Aesop’s Fabulous Fables (2009) in Singapore, which mixes a typical musical with Chinese dramatic techniques.[98]

Musical treatments[edit]

While musical settings of La Fontaine's Fables began appearing in France within a few decades of their publication, it was not until the 19th century that composers began to take their inspiration directly from Aesop. One of the earliest works was the anonymous A Selection of Aesop's Fables Versified and Set to Music with Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Piano Forte, published in London in 1847. It was a large selection containing 28 versified fables.[99] Mabel Wood Hill's Aesop's Fables Interpreted Through Music (New York 1920) was less ambitious, setting only seven prosaic texts.[100] Among later British treatments there have been Edward Hughes' Songs from Aesop's fables for children’s voices and piano (1965), for which he asked the poet Peter Westmore to provide ten texts, and Arwel Hughes' Songs from Aesop's Fables for unison voices.

There have also been purely instrumental settings, one of the earliest of which was Charles Valentin Alkan’s Le festin d'Ésope ("Aesop’s Feast", 1857), a set of piano variations in which each variation is said to depict a different animal or scene from Aesop’s fables.[101] More recently, the American composer Robert J. Bradshw (b. 1970) dedicated his 3rd Symphony (2005) to the fables. A programme note explains that ‘the purpose of this work is to excite young musicians and audiences to take an interest in art music’.[102] This seems to have been the aim of other Americans as well. Following the example of Sergei Prokoviev in "Peter and the Wolf" (1936), Vincent Persichetti set six for narrator and orchestra in his "Fables" (Op. 23 1943). He was later followed by Scott Watson, whose "Aesop's Fables" is a setting of four for narrator and orchestral accompaniment.[103] David Edgar Walther has also set four as ‘short operatic dramas’ to his own libretto, some of which received performances in 2009 and 2010.[104]

Werner Egk's early settings in Germany were also aimed at children. His Der Löwe und die Maus (The Lion and the Mouse 1931) was a singspiel drama for small orchestra and children’s choir; aimed at 12-14 year-olds, it was built on an improvisation by the composer’s own children.[105] He followed this with Der Fuchs und der Rabe (The Fox and the Crow) in 1932. Hans Poser's Die Fabeln des Äsop (0p.28, 1956) was set for accompanied men's chorus and uses Martin Luther's translation of six.[106] Others who have set German texts for choir include Herbert Callhoff (1963) and Andre Asriel (1972).

There has also been a setting of four Latin texts in the Czech composer Ilja Hurník's Ezop for mixed choir and orchestra (1964). And in 2010 the Greek Lefteris Kordis gave a performance of his 'Aesop Project', a setting of seven fables which mixes traditional East Mediterranean and Western Classical musical textures, combined with elements of jazz. After an English recitation by male narrator, a female singer of the Greek wording is accompanied by an octet.[107]

List of some fables by Aesop[edit]

Fables wrongly attributed to Aesop[edit]


  1. ^ The Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus. trans. George Rawlinson, Book I, p.132
  2. ^ a b D. L. Ashliman, “Introduction,” in George Stade (Consulting Editorial Director), Aesop’s Fables. New York, New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, published by Barnes & Noble Books (2005). Produced and published in conjunction with New York, New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc. Michael J. Fine, President and Publisher. See pp. xiii-xv and xxv-xxvi.
  3. ^ John F. Priest, "The Dog in the Manger: In Quest of a Fable," in The Classical Journal, Volume 81, No. 1, (October–November, 1985), pp. 49-58.
  4. ^ Perry, Ben E. "Introduction", Babrius and Phaedrus, 1965, p. xix.
  5. ^ van Dijk, Gert-Jan. Ainoi, logoi, mythoi: fables in archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greek literature, Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1997.
  6. ^ Adrados, Francisco Rodríguez; van Dijk, Gert-Jan. History of the Graeco-Latin fable, 3 Volumes, Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1999.
  7. ^ Ashliman, D.L. "Introduction", Aesop's Fables, 2003, p. xxii.
  8. ^ There is a comparative list of these on the Jewish Encyclopedia website
  9. ^ "Accessible online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  10. ^ "Accessible online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  11. ^ "Archived online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  12. ^ "Accessible online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  13. ^ "Available online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  14. ^ Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable 1, Leiden NL 1999, pp.132-5
  15. ^ Susan Whitfield, Life Along the Silk Road, University of California 2001, p.218
  16. ^ The Fables of Marie de France translated by Mary Lou Martin, Birmingham AL, 1979; limited preview to p.51 at Google Books
  17. ^ An English translation by Moses Hadas, titled Fables of a Jewish Aesop, first appeared in 1967. A limited preview is available at Google Books. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  18. ^ There is a discussion of this work in French in Épopée animale, fable, fabliau, Paris, 1984, pp.423-432; limited preview at Google Books
  19. ^ There is a translation by John C.Jacobs: The Fables of Odo of Cheriton, New York, 1985; a limited preview on Google Books
  20. ^ Poésies morales et historiques d’Eustache Deschamps, Paris 1832, Fables en ballades pp. 187-202
  21. ^ "The text is available here". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  22. ^ "A modernised version is available here". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  23. ^ A reproduction of a much later edition is available at
  24. ^ Several versions of the woodcuts can be viewed at
  25. ^ A translation is available at Google Books. 1993-04-22. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  26. ^ Hugh LeCaine Agnew, Origins of the Czech National Renascence, University of Pittsburgh 1994, p.124
  27. ^ Gordon Brotherston, Book of the Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas Through Their Literature, Cambridge University Press 1992, pp.315-9
  28. ^ Yuichi Midzunoe, "Aesop’s arrival in Japan in the 1590s", Online version
  29. ^ Lawrence Marceau, From Aesop to Esopo to Isopo: Adapting the Fables in Late Medieval Japan (2009); an abstract of this paper appears on p.277
  30. ^ A print of he fable of the two pots appears on
  31. ^ Kaske, Elisabeth (2007). The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895-1919. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-16367-6.  p. 68
  32. ^ [Chinese Repository, Vol. 7 (October 1838), p. 335. Thom was based in Canton and his work was issued in three octavo tracts of seven, seventeen, and twenty-three pages respectively]
  33. ^ Tao Ching Sin, “A critical study of Yishi Yuyan”, M.Phil thesis, University of Hong Kong, 2007 Available online
  34. ^ “A comparative study of translated children’s literature by Lu Xun and Zhou Zuoren”, Journal of Macao Polytechnic Institute, 2009 available online
  35. ^ "Préface aux Fables de La Fontaine". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  36. ^ An English translation of all the fables can be accessed online
  37. ^ Kriloff's Fables, translated into the original metres by C.Fillingham Coxwell, London 1920; the book is archived online
  38. ^ Sisir Kumar Das, A History of Indian Literature 1800-1910: Western impact, Indian response, Sahitya Akademi 1991
  39. ^ Versions of The Ant and the Grasshopper and The Fox and the Grapes are available at
  40. ^ The entire text with the French originals is available as an e-book at
  41. ^ The sources for this are discussed at
  42. ^ His version of The Ant and the Grasshopper is available at
  43. ^ The 1859 Paris edition of this with facing French translations is available on
  44. ^ His chapbook of ten fables, Feu de Brandes (Bonfire, Challans, 1950) is available on the dialect site
  45. ^ A performance of Brisard's La grolle et le renard is available at
  46. ^ A reading of two of these can be found on YouTube: The ant and grasshopper and The crow and the fox
  47. ^ Anthologie de la littérature wallonne (ed. Maurice Piron), Liège, 1979; limited preview at Google Books Google Books
  48. ^ There is a partial preview at Google Books
  49. ^ The text of four can be found at
  50. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  51. ^ "Available online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  52. ^ The complete text is at
  53. ^ Examples of all these can be found in Marie-Christine Hazaël-Massieux: Textes anciens en créole français de la Caraïbe, Paris, 2008, pp259-72. Partial preview at Google Books
  54. ^ Available on pp.50-82 at
  55. ^ They are available on Google Books
  56. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  57. ^ Creole echoes, pp 88-9; Écrits Louisianais du 19e siècle, Louisiana State University 1979, pp.213-5
  58. ^ Georges GAUVIN. "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  59. ^ Fables de La Fontaine traduites en créole seychellois, Hamburg, 1983; limited preview at Google Books; there is also a selection at
  60. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  61. ^ "His ''Aesop. Fables'' (1692) is available online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  62. ^ A bibliography is available on the Langue Française site
  63. ^ "Three fables are available on YouTube". 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  64. ^ "A bibliography of his work". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  65. ^ See the list at
  66. ^ "Paragraph 156". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  67. ^ The 1753 London reprint of this and Faerno's original Latin is available online
  68. ^ John Metz, The Fables of La Fontaine, a critical edition of the 18th century settings, New York 1986, pp.3-10; available on Google Books
  69. ^ The 1835 edition is available on Google Books. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  70. ^ There is a description of the 5th edition, now in the Douce Collection at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, online
  71. ^ See the introductory "An Essay on Fable"p.lxx
  72. ^ The 1820 edition of this is available on Google Books. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  73. ^ "Google Books". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  74. ^ "The 1820 3rd edition". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  75. ^ See the preface on page 4
  76. ^ "Children's Library reproduction". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  77. ^ Google Books. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  78. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  79. ^[dead link]
  80. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  81. ^ "The Victoria & Albert Museum has many examples". 2009-08-25. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  82. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  83. ^ See several examples at
  84. ^ Honoré Champion, Répertoire Chronologique des Spectacles à Paris, 1680-1715, (2002);
  85. ^ The text is available on
  86. ^ The text is available on
  87. ^ H.C.Lancaster, A history of French Dramatic Literature in the 17th Century, ch.XI, pp.185-8; The chapter is available online
  88. ^ Giovanni Saverio Santangelo, Claudio Vinti, Le traduzioni italiane del teatro comico francese dei secoli XVII e XVIII, Rome 1981, p.97, available on
  89. ^ "The play is archived online". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  90. ^ The 24-minute feature is divided into three parts on YouTube
  91. ^ Le corbeau et le renard is available on YouTube
  92. ^
  93. ^ 00:00/00:00 (2010-01-22). "Aesop's Theater". Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  94. ^ Susan Stone-Blackburn, Robertson Davies, playwright, University of British Columbia 1985, pp. 92-6
  95. ^ "Playwrights and Their Stage Works: Peter Terson". 1932-02-24. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  96. ^[dead link]
  97. ^ There is a brief excerpt on YouTube
  98. ^ Playlist; short promotional excerpts are available on YouTube
  99. ^ Joachim Draheim, Vertonungen antiker Texte vom Barock bis zur Gegenwart, Amsterdam 1981, Bibliography, p. 111
  100. ^ The score can be downloaded here
  101. ^ There is a performance on YouTube
  102. ^ Jason Scott Ladd, An Annotated Bibliography of Contemporary Works, Florida State Uni 2009 p.113
  103. ^ There is a performance online
  104. ^ The composer's website
  105. ^ Joachim Draheim, p.10
  106. ^ The piano score is available online
  107. ^ There is a YouTube version of four fables; the whole work is now available on CD under the title "Oh Raven, If You Only Had Brains!...songs for Aesop's Fables"

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]