Children's Literature Archive

Children's Literature Archive  

The Evolution of Aesop's Fables

© 2010 Melad Abou Al-Ghanam, Peter Argyropoulos, Ramon Buczynskyj, Ryan Vanveen

Aesop. Aesop's Fables. Illustrated by: William Caxton. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984.

Published in 1984 by Hamish Hamilton, this edition of Aesop's Fables can be seen as a tribute to commemorate the 500th anniversary of William Caxton's interpretation and illustration of these fables. Edited by Bamber and Christina Gascoigne, this edition showcases a selection of 37 of Aesop's most recognized fables, such as "Of the Ant and the Grasshopper," as originally illustrated by William Caxton in his 1484 publication. However, these fables only represent a sample of the myriad of fables that have come to be associated with Aesop over the years. Furthermore, both the 1484 and the 1984 editions mark significant milestones in the evolution of Aesop's Fables, seeing as William Caxton's original 1484 edition was the first English version in print. Moreover, while Bamber and Christina Gascoigne stayed true to Caxton's original publication, their editing did take into account some retrofitting and aestheticizing in the form of modernizing the spelling of certain words and introducing colour to the woodcuts. This digital exhibit probes the origins of Aesop's fables and their evolution over time up until modern day 21st century.

The Fable Genre Pre-Aesop

Exotic animals, such as elephants and lions, which were unfamiliar to Greek terrain during Aesop's Era.

Fables are short stories that exhibit a moral lesson or value through the use of animals, inanimate objects and mythical creatures. Even though the genre is generally attributed to Aesop, fables' origins are deeply rooted within ancient Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations (modern day Iraq), as archaeological evidence suggests. Earlier forms of Aesopic tales came from neo-Babylonian and Assyrian wisdom literature dating back to third millennium BCE, long before Aesop's existence (600 BCE). Aesop's precise identity remains somewhat a mystery until this day but many hypotheses have surfaced over the years. Aesop's exact place of birth is not known but is claimed to be Greece. Aesop was a foreign, captured slave of African descent, Nubian (modern day Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia) according to speculations. The etymology of his name further supports this notion as Aesops comes from Aesopus, which is synonymous with Aethiops, meaning Ethiopia or burnt-faced people. This explains his integration of animals such as lions, elephants and camels into his fables, which were creatures unfamiliar to Greek terrain at the time. Furthermore, some of his tales give mention to the great river Nile, the majority of which passes through Egypt and Ethopia. Moreover, earlier forms of his fables were recorded on papyrus about a millennium before Aesop's time. Many of the tales that came to be associated with Aesop convey conflicting morals thus suggesting the idea that more fables were attributed to him than he actually recounted as a Nubian Kummaji, a folkteller from the oral tradition, thus questioning the authorship of many of these fables.

Aesop's Contribution to the Fable Genre

Interaction between humans and animals.

However, Aesop is credited for spreading these tales that were passed down to him to a different audience by virtue of living in Phrygia or Thrace in Greece within the time period of 6th century BCE. This allowed for the preservation of these enlightening fables that discuss ethics and morality. This captured slave, one of the earliest discoveries of Greek literary history, has become immortal by the term Aesopic. As there is no physical proof of Aesop's existence, there has been much debate by scholars whether the reality of Aesop is true or an invented character to provide a literary figure and patriarch to accompany this legendary style of writing. Throughout the majority of the literary community today the existence of Aesop is accepted as historical fact due to the later Greek philosophers and writers who have referenced Aesop such as Plato and Aristotle. The unique narrative style of Aesop can be accredited to his fame due to the Ancient Greek literary inclination to appoint one creator for each literary style; this style being a short fictitious tale usually consisting of a principal character as an animal, god or mortal. The most popular Aesopic or Greek fables possess animal protagonists that convey an experiential ethical message with commentary that cautions the reader to either follow or avoid particular actions under certain circumstances. Although numerous authors of fables dated before Aesop, such as Hesiod and Archilochus, can be accredited for the creation of the Greek style of fable, Aesop remains the recognized pioneer of the fable we know and love today.

Caxton's Illustrations of Aesop

Gore and dismembered limbs - quite fitting for a children's tale.

This specific edition of Aesop's Fables is a reprint of William Caxton's illustrated versions of the fables. The tale of the illustrated Aesop began in 1484 when William Caxton started translating, transforming, and aestheticizing them for a different audience. It is known that he drew from previous illustrated versions of the text, but they and their illustrators have been lost to history. Thus, what is seen in the 1984 reprint of Aesop's Fables is the first pictorial representation of them. During the fourteenth century, many illustrators were drawn to Aesop's fables due to the tales never being illustrated before. Their tools were those of the printing press and wood carvings. Caxton's version also used the insert full page spread technique, which the 1984 reprint somewhat mimics. The carving process demanded simplicity. This included depicting the principal of incidence of each story (e.g. the fox grabbing at the grapes) and having minimal depictions of the environment, which also allowed for universality. Also, it should be noted that the animals were portrayed as actual animals, as ferocious or as gory as depicted in text (this and the techniques above can be seen in "The Lion, The Cow, The Goat, and the Sheep"). The reasoning behind this can be explained by the fact that these fables were written and illustrated for an adult audience at the time, seeing as the notion of children's literature was not developed until the Romantic Era in the 18th century. It is interesting that the modern editors selected this edition for reproduction, considering the graphic content seemingly directed at a more adult audience. This puts forward the suggestion that this might have been a cheap reprint for profit.

The moment of incidence of the story - simple and to the point.

Aesop in the 21st Century

Centuries later, themes from Aesop's fables continue to dominate our popular culture and shape children's literature. Stories mostly recited to children through illustrations and simple translation of the morals expressed in each story, are as relevant to the world today as they were when they were first told to Roman courts in 6-7th centuries BCE. The fables themselves are some of the first stories learned by primary readers in levels from kindergarten to second grade. They are taught for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the images and drawings that accompany each fable provide a visual jumpstart for the child's imagination, often resulting in seeing the picture and the fable in different ways. Furthermore, a child beginning to read will often look for a reason to retain interest in reading, such as a good story with a good message for the reader. Moreover, the morals and lessons within the fables teach the reader the values that will guide him or her through life on the right path. Stories such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a tale that stresses that lying comes with great consequences, and The Grasshopper and the Ant, a story of a grasshopper who procrastinates all year only to suffer from hunger during the harsh winter, are fables that teach children that dishonesty and laziness are traits to avoid on the path to a good and happy life. Other stories like Of the Beasts and Of the Birds, a tale of division among groups, teach that no one can serve two masters. It is these traits that make Aesop's Fables a staple of children's literature and put Aesop at the forefront of the fable genre.

One of Aesop's more popular fables.


  • Priest, John F. "The Dog in Manger: In Quest of a Fable." The Classical Journal 81.1 (1985): 49-58. Web.
  • Lobban, R. "Was Aesop a Nubian Kummaji (Folkteller)?" Northeast African Studies 9.1 (2002): 11-31. Web.
  • McKendry, John J. . Aesop Five Centuries of Illustrated Fables. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1964. Print.
  • Acheson, Katherine O. "The Picture of Nature: Seventeenth-Century English Aesop's Fables." Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, Pp. 25-50, Fall 2009 9.2 (Fall 2009): 25-50. Print.
  • Zafiropoulos, Christos A.. Ethics in Aesop's Fables: The Augustana Collection (Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum). Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001. Print.

Additional Readings

  • Eisen, Armand. A Treasury of Children's Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Print. Lerer, Seth. Children's Literature: a Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008. Print.
  • Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. The English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1740 (Cambridge Studies in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Thought). 1 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.
  • Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Folklore and Fable: The Five Foot Shelf of Classics, Vol. XVII (in 51 volumes). knoxville: Cosimo Classics, 2010. Print.
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