In his introduction to a 1912 translation by V.S. Vernon Jones of Aesop’s Fables (available online here via Project Gutenberg), G.K. Chesterton claimed that Aesop’s fame “was all the more deserved because he never deserved it.” Chesterton continued:
“The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not to [Aesop] but to humanity.”
I agree to some extent: the themes in Aesop’s fables are universal. However, I also believe that Aesop (whomever he was) had an amazing ability to capture familiar human traits in such simple “impersonal” fables of just 3-10 sentences. We read them today because they remain relevant. After reading the fables attributed to Aesop, I believe Aesop does deserve every bit of the fame granted to him.
Aesop’s Fables as Concepts, Not Strict Morals
To my surprise, reading Aesop’s fables as an adult was an educational experience.
As a child, I had an illustrated collection of Aesop’s fables with about 20 stories. Each story was illustrated with one line underneath the picture:
I always thought Aesop was very didactic.
To my surprise, upon reading the 1912 unabridged translation of Aesop’s fables, I found that less than half of the fables have a conclusion at the end (none say “moral” first). But those without a conclusion “spelled out” still have significant morals: thinking is required to ascertain the morals, although you can read to be entertained if you prefer. The need to search for the moral surprised me at first, but it was ultimately refreshing to read something that wasn’t “spelled out.” Aesop’s fables are not just for children: they are for all of us.
Some of the “moral” fables were very clever; my favorite was, hands down, The Milkmaid and Her Pail. I read the unfamiliar story and was surprised by the familiar conclusion: “Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.” Chesterton claims, “There is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything” but I disagree. One could have chosen a different moral for this story, but this one was a perfectly clever. Adding the moral helps the reader draw the connection the writer “intended.”
I was going to list my favorite fables, but there are too many. If you read one, read The Milkmaid and Her Pail.
Aesop’s Fables as Universal
To me, Aesop deserves his fame because he so expertly captured human nature in short snippets, whereas today authors labor to capture characters. Obviously, today’s authors strive to develop character complexities; as I read Aesop, I was delighted by how carefully he did capture each character’s essence in a limited space. It’s a different but admirable talent.
Most of Aesop’s stories are delightful snapshots that I recognized from elsewhere in literature (although I recognize that Aesop created them first). For example, in The Swollen Fox, the fox goes into a small space, eats too much, and is unable to escape. He is told to wait until he loses the newly gained weight. This reminded me of Winnie-the-Pooh’s situation in which he got stuck in a tight place. (I read it to my son a few months ago, so it was on the mind.) There were also some great fables that explained how things came to be, just like Kipling’s Just So Stories (for instance, the turtle carries his house on his back because he was too lazy to answer the summons of a god). Familiar literary themes and stories were rampant.
If you are a writer looking for ideas, read some of these fables and find out how to adapt them or use the concepts for your own story. Most of them are universal and could (carefully) be adapted.
Aesop’s Fables as Caricatures of Humans
In his introduction, Chesterton claims that, while fairy tales “revolve on the pivot of human personality”, in fables “all the persons must be impersonal.” Thus, to him, it is essential that the fables are formed around animals; the stereotype of clever fox does not distract us from the underlying concepts. Chesterton claims that if the clever fox were replaced with a clever human, the human foibles would distract us and we’d assume the human would make different choices.
In many cases, this is true. As I read his fables, I wasn’t distracted by all the foibles of humans; there wasn’t space for Aesop to expand on a human’s personality. I enjoyed the retreat to a world where animals said what they were thinking. Chesterton has a point.
On the other hand, a few of Aesop’s fables relied on human presence to carry the message. Some of the fables with humans didn’t work and others felt dated because they referred to cultural traditions or places or Roman deities that are no longer familiar to the reader. But sometimes a human was necessary, such as in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which could not be told without a human as a liar. The boy in such a story was certainly impersonal because there was no space to develop him.
Ultimately, I was not convinced that animals were required for fables, although I certainly appreciate the need for “impersonal” characters.
My Conclusion and Your Turn
I began reading Aesop’s fables thinking I wouldn’t have much to say, and yet, here I am writing a very lengthy post simply trying to capture my reactions to these 100 pages. That, to me, is a testament to the enduring power of Aesop’s words.
In his introduction, Chesterton said that the fables attributed to Aesop are as familiar to us as learning the ABC’s because they are the basis of human nature. Despite the failings of some of the fables, overall, I believe Chesterton’s statement is true: we regularly face Aesop’s fables in books and movies every day.
Here are my questions for you:
- Do children need a “moral” at the end to clear it up? Do they need the moral at all?
- Which Aesop’s fables have you noticed in novels, stories, and movies?
- Fables = animals; fairy tales = humans: yes or no?