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Aesop's Fables

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(1867)


Translated by Reverend George Fyler Townsend (18141900)


Although there are more modern collections and translations, Townsend's volume of 350 fables introduced the practice of stating a succinct moral at the conclusion of each story, and continues to be influential. Several editions were published in his lifetime, and others since.

Aesop's Fables continue to be revised and translated through the years, with the addition of material from other cultures, so that the body of fables known today bears little relation to those Aesop originally told.

The fables of Aesop have become one of the most enduring traditions of European culture, ever since they were first written down nearly two millennia ago. Aesop was reputedly a tongue-tied slave who miraculously received the power of speech; from his legendary storytelling came the collections of prose and verse fables scattered throughout Greek and Roman literature. First published in English by Caxton in 1484, the fables and their morals continue to charm modern readers: who does not know the story of the tortoise and the hare, or the boy who cried wolf? Aesop's Fables has survived through the ages. From parent to child, or from teacher to student, these fables go down from generation to generation teaching children morals through fictional stories. These fables are also child-friendly. The main characters are always animals that have the ability to speak.--Submitted by A Lover of Good Books



INTRODUCTION

Aesop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his
fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The
firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon
sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not him but to
humanity. In the earliest 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 them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had
the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have
been something great and human, something of the human future and
the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the
past or deceive the future. The story of Arthur may have been
really connected with the most fighting Christianity of falling
Rome or with the most heathen traditions hidden in the hills of
Wales. But the word "Mappe" or "Malory" will always mean King
Arthur; even though we find older and better origins than the
Mabinogian; or write later and worse versions than the "Idylls of
the King." The nursery fairy tales may have come out of Asia with
the Indo-European race, now fortunately extinct; they may have been
invented by some fine French lady or gentleman like Perrault: they
may possibly even be what they profess to be. But we shall always
call the best selection of such tales "Grimm's Tales": simply
because it is the best collection.

The historical Aesop, in so far as he was historical, would seem
to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially
and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He
lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in
the time of that Croesus whose story we love and suspect like
everything else in Herodotus. There are also stories of deformity
of feature and a ready ribaldry of tongue: stories which (as the
celebrated Cardinal said) explain, though they do not excuse, his
having been hurled over a high precipice at Delphi. It is for those
who read the Fables to judge whether he was really thrown over the
cliff for being ugly and offensive, or rather for being highly
moral and correct. But there is no kind of doubt that the general
legend of him may justly rank him with a race too easily forgotten
in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic
slaves. Aesop may have been a fiction like Uncle Remus: he was
also, like Uncle Remus, a fact. It is a fact that slaves in the old
world could be worshipped like Aesop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It
is odd to note that both the great slaves told their best stories
about beasts and birds.

But whatever be fairly due to Aesop, the human tradition called
Fables is not due to him. This had gone on long before any
sarcastic freedman from Phrygia had or had not been flung off a
precipice; this has remained long after. It is to our advantage,
indeed, to realise the distinction; because it makes Aesop more
obviously effective than any other fabulist. Grimm's Tales,
glorious as they are, were collected by two German students. And if
we find it hard to be certain of a German student, at least we know
more about him than We know about a Phrygian slave. The truth is,
of course, that Aesop's Fables are not Aesop's fables, any more
than Grimm's Fairy Tales were ever Grimm's fairy tales. But the
fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are
many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough.
There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no
good fairy tale without them.

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that,
for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like
abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must
always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of
two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess
must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn
in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked
captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called "the
revolt of a sheep" The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely
revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there
to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were
dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered
island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller's third
son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses
stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and
frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the
Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the
opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case
speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be
always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the
animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great
peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or
crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as
expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which
to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all
the fables that are or are not Aesop's all the animal forces drive
like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is
the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be
anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not
lose their souls.

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could
not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into
chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using
animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you
turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy
diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human,
you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You
will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should
go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all
delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good
diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck
it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either
heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern
novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they
are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the
ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those
tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be
red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis
stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this
language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the
first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass
or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the
simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger
truths. That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and
that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse
is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can
hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily
get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to
sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat
insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but
the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks
wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or
how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many
forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in
preference to man. These ancient and universal tales are all of
animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic
caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt
that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the
legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the
same; and whether fables began with Aesop or began with Adam,
whether they were German and mediAeval as Reynard the Fox, or as
French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere
essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because
it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that
there is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not
find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand
of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only
one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to
everything.

G. K. CHESTERTON


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Recent Forum Posts on Aesop's Fables

Fatalistic and platitudinous

I used to like Aesop's Fables when I was a boy. But when I read them as a grown up, they seemed rather fatalistic. The moral of the fables was often about not getting above your station and being content with your lot. Re-reading them reminded me that Aesop was supposedly a slave. Another moral was that you should be good to people, especially those who have been good to you. It seemed rather platitudinous.

Favourite Aesop Fable.

I'll see if we can get any players - list your favourite Aesop fable & why. For me, the cowardly bat, who changes sides to the one who's winning is my favourite. The attitude was exemplified by several countries in WWII, none of which came out of it well and it never does work, a turncoat will always be remembered as a turncoat. Stay true to yourself and your friends. Seems good advice to me! Anyone else?

Help Resurrect Aesop!

For several hundred generations, Aesop's fables reigned supreme as a means of teaching children simple morality. Nowadays, he is mostly ignored in a world of Harry Potters and Jane Blondes. Such a shame - the morality is easily taught, still appropriate and best of all, retains appeal to children with the anthropormorphised animals to carry the stories. Next time you're in a second-hand bookshop, buy a copy of Aesop's Fables and give it to a family with young kids.

looking for...

I'm looking for a fable with a moral that has to do with having fun, or doing what you want to do, or something like that. Thanks.

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