Saturday, September 11, 2010


Aesop’s Fables is a collection of well over a hundred fables (at least), most featuring animals, attributed to the ancient Greek slave and storyteller Aesop (it is doubtful that he wrote them all, and some people question whether he existed at all, but we really aren’t here to debate authorship). There are dozens of English collections and versions of these stories, and, as the ancient, “profusely illustrated” version I have doesn’t include full publication information, I will be reviewing generally.

Adults who were once well-read children will be familiar with the best-known fables: “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs,” “Belling the Cat,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Lion and the Mouse,” “The Milkmaid and Her Pail,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” and so on. These fables teach common-sense lessons like “one good turn deserves another” and “a friend in need is a friend in deed” (rather than “indeed,” which is a separate moral). It’s worth mentioning that if you analyze large numbers of these fables, you’ll find they often offer contradictory advice (a solid argument for Aesop being a content aggregator rather than the sole independent author, by the way).

But before you go running out to recapture that childhood wonder, know that the version you get makes all the difference. Some renditions of these fables are so brief and spare (yes, fables are succinct by nature, but my copy reads like it’s full of fable summaries) that you might as well just be reading a list of morals (and depending on where you read a given fable, it may have different morals; this makes more sense if you know the morals were tacked on later).

In my experience, the best versions of Aesopica have been created when other authors have taken these fables and fleshed them out a bit, and in doing so, breathed some life and personality into them (in other words, I prefer stories to fables). This has largely occurred in illustrated versions for  smaller children. No matter what you’ve got, though, every fable is short: nearly all of them are less than a page no matter how you format, and some are only one paragraph, so they’re quite easy to get through regardless.

So much from these fables is clichéd, tired, and worn out, and it’s even more so if you watch a lot of TV and film, where writers crib liberally from Aesop to try to get cheap significance and a feel-good moment at the ending. Well, shame on them, but even so, it’s hard to call yourself well-read if you don’t have at least a basic knowledge of Aesop’s better-known fables, particularly since many of their hackneyed principles have filtered into our language as idioms (e.g. “wolf in sheep’s clothing”).

The moral of the story is this: a good version of Aesop’s Fables is a worthy addition to any library; a poor one might not be worth bothering with.