The Fables of Aesop, by Joseph Jacobs

A Short History of the Aesopic Fable

MOST nations develop the Beast-Tale as part of their folk-lore, some go further and apply it to satiric purposes, and a few nations afford isolated examples of the shaping of the Beast-Tale to teach some moral truth by means of the Fable properly so called.1 But only two peoples independently made this a general practice. Both in Greece2 and in India we find in the earliest literature such casual and frequent mention of Fables as seems to imply a body of Folk-Fables current among the people. And in both countries special circumstances raised the Fable from folklore into literature. In Greece, during the epoch of the Tyrants, when free speech was dangerous, the Fable was largely used for political purposes. The inventor of this application or the most prominent user of it was one AEsop, a slave at Samos whose name has ever since been connected with the Fable. All that we know about him is contained in a few lines of Herodotus that he flourished 550 B.C.; was killed in accordance with a Delphian oracle; and that wergild was claimed for him by the grandson of his master, Iadmon. When free speech was established in the Greek democracies, the custom of using Fables in harangues was continued and encouraged by the rhetoricians, while the mirth-producing qualities of the Fable caused it to be regarded as fit subject of after-dinner conversation along with other jests of a broader kind ("Milesian," "Sybaritic"). This habit of regarding the Fable as a form of the Jest intensified the tendency to connect it with a well-known name as in the case of our Joe Miller. About 300 B.C. Demetrius Phalereus, whilom tyrant of Athens and founder of the Alexandria Library, collected together all the Fables he could find under the title of Assemblies of AEsopic Tales (Logwn Aiswpeiwn sunagwgai). This collection, running probably to some 200 Fables, after being interpolated and edited by the Alexandrine grammarians, was turned into neat Latin iambics by Phaedrus, a Greek freedman of Augustus in the early years of the Christian era. As the modern AEsop is mainly derived from Phaedrus, the answer to the question "Who wrote AEsop? " is simple: "Demetrius of Phaleron."3

In India the great ethical reformer, Sakyamuni, the Buddha, initiated (or adopted from the Brahmins) the habit of using the Beast-Tale for moral purposes, or, in other words, transformed it into the Fable proper. A collection of these seems to have existed previously and independently, in which the Fables were associated with the name of a mythical sage, Kasyapa. These were appropriated by the early Buddhists by the simple expedient of making Kasyapa the immediately preceding incarnation of the Buddha. A number of his itihasas or Tales were included in the sacred Buddhistic work containing the Jatakas or previous-births of the Buddha, in some of which the Bodisat (or future Buddha) appears as one of the Dramatis Personae of the Fables; the Crane, e.g., in our Wolf and Crane being one of the incarnations of the Buddha. So, too, the Lamb of our Wolf and Lamb was once Buddha; it was therefore easy for him — so the Buddhists thought — to remember and tell these Fables as incidents of his former careers. It is obvious that the whole idea of a Fable as an anecdote about a man masquerading in the form of a beast could most easily arise and gain currency where the theory of transmigration was vividly credited.

The Fables of Kasyapa, or rather the moral verses (gathas) which served as a memoria technica to them, were probably carried over to Ceylon in 241 B.C. along with the Jatakas. About 300 years later (say 50 A.D.) some 300 of these were brought by a Cingalese embassy to Alexandria, where they were translated under the title of" Libyan Fables" (Logoi Lubikoi), which had been earlier applied to similar stories that had percolated to Hellas from India; they were attributed to "Kybises." This collection seems to have introduced the habit of summing up the teaching of a Fable in the Moral, corresponding to the gatha of the Jatakas. About the end of the first century A.D. the Libyan Fables of "Kybises" became known to the Rabbinic school at Jabne, founded by R. Jochanan ben Saccai, and a number of the Fables translated into Aramaic which are still extant in the Talmud and Midrash.

In the Roman world the two collections of Demetrius and "Kybises" were brought together by Nicostratus, a rhetor attached to the court of Marcus Aurelius. In the earlier part of the next century (C. 230 A.D.) this corpus of the ancient fable, AEsopic and Libyan, amounting in all to some 300 members, was done into Greek verse with Latin accentuation (choliambics) by Valerius Babrius, tutor to the young son of Alexander Severus. Still later, towards the end of the fourth century, forty-two of these, mainly of the Libyan section, were translated into Latin verse by one Avian, with whom the ancient history of the Fable ends.

In the Middle Ages it was naturally the Latin Phaedrus that represented the AEsopic Fable to the learned world, but Phaedrus in a fuller form than has descended to us in verse. A selection of some eighty fables was turned into indifferent prose in the ninth century, probably at the Schools of Charles the Great. This was attributed to a fictitious Romulus. Another prose collection by Ademar of Chabannes was made before 1030, and still preserves some of the lines of the lost Fables of Phaedrus. The Fables became especially popular among the Normans. A number of them occur on the Bayeux Tapestry, and in the twelfth century England, the head of the Angevin empire became the home of the Fable, all the important adaptations and versions of AEsop being made in this country. One of these done into Latin verse by Walter the Englishman became the standard AEsop of medieval Christendom. The same history applies in large measure to the Fables of Avian, which were done into prose, transferred back into Latin verse, and sent forth through Europe from England.

Meanwhile Babrius had been suffering the same fate as Phaedrus. His scazons were turned into poor Greek prose, and selections of them pass to this day as the original Fables of AEsop. Some fifty of these were selected, and with the addition of a dozen Oriental fables, were attributed to an imaginary Persian sage, Syntipas; this collection was translated into Syriac, and thence into Arabic, where they passed under the name of the legendary Loqman (probably a doublet of Balaam). A still larger collection of the Greek prose versions got into Arabic, where it was enriched by some 6o fables from the Arabic Bidpai and other sources, but still passed under the name of AEsop. This collection, containing 164 fables, was brought to England after the Third Crusade of Richard I., and translated into Latin by an Englishman named Alfred, with the aid of an Oxford Jew named Berachyah ha-Nakdan ("Benedictus le Puncteur" in the English Records), who, on his own account,translated a number of the fables into Hebrew rhymed prose, under the Talmudic title Mishle Shu'alim (Fox Fables).4 Part of Alfred's AEsop was translated into English alliterative verse, and this again was translated about 1200 into French by Marie de France, who attributed the new fables to King Alfred. After her no important addition was made to the medieval AEsop.

With the invention of printing the European book of AEsop was compiled about 1480 by Heinrich Stainhowel, who put together the Romulus with selections from Avian, some of the Greek prose versions of Babrius from Ranuzio's translation, and a few from Alfred's AEsop. To these he added the legendary life of AEsop and a selection of somewhat loose tales from Petrus Alphonsi and Poggio Bracciolini, corresponding to the Milesian and Sybaritic tales which were associated with the Fable in antiquity. Stainhowel translated all this into German, and within twenty years his collection had been turned into French, English (by Caxton, in 1484), Italian, Dutch, and Spanish. Additions were made to it by Brandt and Waldis in Germany, by L'Estrange in England, and by La Fontaine in France; these were chiefly from the larger Greek collections published after Stainhowel's day, and, in the case of La Fontaine, from Bidpai and other Oriental sources. But these additions have rarely taken bold, and the AEsop of modern Europe is in large measure Stainhowel's, even to the present day. The first three quarters of the present collection are Stainhowel mainly in Stainhowel's order. Selections from it passed into spelling and reading books, and made the Fables part of modern European folk-lore.5

We may conclude this history of AEsop with a similar account of the progress of AEsopic investigation. First came collection; the Greek AEsop was brought together by Neveletus in 1610, the Latin by Nilant in 1709. The main truth about the former was laid down by the master-hand of Bentley during a skirmish in the Battle of the Books; the equally great critic Lessing began to unravel the many knotty points connected with the medieval Latin AEsop. His investigations have been carried on and completed by three Frenchmen in the present century, Robert, Du Meril, and Hervieux; while three Germans, Crusius, Benfey, and Mall, have thrown much needed light on Babrius, on the Oriental AEsop, and on Marie de France. Lastly, I have myself brought together these various lines of inquiry, and by adding a few threads of my own, have been able to weave them all for the first time into a consistent pattern.6

So much for the past of the Fable. Has it a future as a mode of literary expression? Scarcely; its method is at once too simple and too roundabout. Too roundabout; for the truths we have to tell we prefer to speak out directly and not by way of allegory. And the truths the Fable has to teach are too simple to correspond to the facts of our complex civilisation; its rude graffiti of human nature cannot reproduce the subtle gradations of modern life. But as we all pass through in our lives the various stages of ancestral culture, there comes a time when these rough sketches of life have their appeal to us as they had for our forefathers: The allegory gives us a pleasing and not too strenuous stimulation of the intellectual powers; the lesson is not too complicated for childlike minds. Indeed, in their grotesque grace, in their quaint humour, in their trust in the simpler virtues, in their insight into the cruder vices, in their innocence of the fact of sex, AEsop's Fables are as little children. They are as little children, and for that reason they will for ever find a home in the heaven of little children's souls.

1 E.g. Jotham's Fable, Judges ix., and that of Menenius Agrippa in Livy, seem to be quite independent of either Greek or Indian influence. But one fable does not make Fable.

2 Only about twenty fables, however, are known in Greece before Phaedrus, 33 A.D. See my Caxton's AEsop, vol. i. pp. 26-29, for a complete enumeration.

3 For this statement and what follows a reference to the Pedigree of the Fables on p. 196 will be found useful.

4 I have given specimens of his Fables in my Jews of Angevin England, pp.165-173, 278-281.

5 An episode in the history of the modern AEsop deserves record, if only to illustrate the law that AEsop always begins his career as a political weapon in a new home. When a selection of the Fables were translated into Chinese in 1840 they became favourite reading with the officials, till a high dignitary said, "This is clearly directed against us," and ordered AEsop to be included in the Chinese Index Expergatorius (R. Morris, Cont. Rev. xxxix. p. 731).

6 The Fables of AEsop, as first printed by William Caxton in 1484, now again edited and induced by Joseph Jacobs (London, 1889), 2 vols., the first containing a History of the AEsopic Fable.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 12:59