Aesop’s Fables with Introduction by G.K. Chesterton

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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:

Moral: _______

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:

  1. Do children need a “moral” at the end to clear it up? Do they need the moral at all?
  2. Which Aesop’s fables have you noticed in novels, stories, and movies?
  3. Fables = animals; fairy tales = humans: yes or no?
Reviewed on June 12, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I haven’t read Aesop yet, but I plan to. Lovely post, Rebecca.

    I don’t think children’s stories necessarily need to have a moral or to have it spelled out. I suspect that stories might be more powerful if they make children think and question things instead of just handing them a meaning or conclusion.

    Fables are animal stories, yes, but there are, for example, a few Grimms fairy tales that are solely about animals too, like Cat and Mouse in Partnership or The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids.

  • I remember reading some od Aesop’s fables in primary school. Our teacher made us work out the morals for ourselves and then we discussed them in class–I think this would be a good exercise.

    Of course, morals aren’t strictly necessary, but I think they do help the kids to understand the stories better.

  • I hold some stereotypes about Aesop’s Fables. I feel they are heavy handed. When kids feel that you’re preaching to them, they turn off. I’ve never used Aesop in the classroom for this reason, but your post made me reconsider my stereotyping!

    (jumped here from Bookworms Carnival)

  • @Alessandra: I was surprised that many of the morals weren’t spelled out. It made it refreshing.
    @Tasses: It always did seem heavy-handed in those illustrated children’s books. I really felt that reading the unabridged “original” (ok 1912 translation) showed that he didn’t intend them to be totally didactic but rather more illustrative of human nature. I liked them!

  • I remember reading a lot of Aesop’s Fables when I was a kid. Either that or a lot of fables were used in class discussions too. But I agree with you on the point that there’s no single moral to a story. The thing is, I think as kids we were trained (one way or another, at least I believe I was) to choose the “correct” way; for example it is not good to lie as in the case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. But it would be good to have a free discussion about it as well. Not that I’m condoning lying 🙂

    As a kid I like the one on the fox and the grapes. Gee, I think that’s one of Aesop’s, the sour grapes story.

    I somehow think that a moral is needed not to clear up the story but to have a takeoff point for discussion. Children in their formative years need an example; and while morals shouldn’t be spoon fed to them, I think it should also be out there and discussed. Even stories without any clear cut morals at all should be out there for discussion even. Then again I’m not a teacher and I don’t have kids 🙂

    Gee, and thanks for pointing out the link to the entire tales. Oh, and I’m here from the Bookworms Carnival too!

  • I wonder if I had the same illustrated version as you did. Mine had Moral:______ at the end as well. I think that it did help me when I was little because after I knew what I was looking for I didn’t need for the ending Moral to be spelled out. But it helped 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  • @Lightheaded: morals help discussion, but so does thinking about it. I’m not a teacher either, though, so I don’t know how it would work in a classroom. I’m just looking forward to sharing it with my son.
    @Mrs S | Blue Archipelago: I’ll bet you have but it wasn’t labeled as such! So many of the stories have been retold by different names. They really are simply commentaries on human nature.
    @Amanda: There are so many versions of Aesop out there! I was trying to find one and finally decided to go with the unabridged, most original I could find.
    I love project gutenberg for public domain works! I’d highly recommend it!

  • Crikey I’ve never read Aesop either – what have I been reading all these years?? Morals are always good in stories – gives you something to think about and learn from – like the boy who cried wolf

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