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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Æsop (c. 620–560 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harry Thurston Peck (1856–1914)
 
LIKE Homer, the greatest of the world’s epic poets, Æsop (Æsopus), the most famous of the world’s fabulists, has been regarded by certain scholars as a wholly mythical personage. The many improbable stories that are told about him gain some credence for this theory, which is set forth in detail by the Italian scholar Vico, who says:—“Æsop, regarded philosophically, will be found not to have been an actually existing man, but rather an abstraction representing a class,”—in other words, merely a convenient invention of the later Greeks, who ascribed to him all the fables of which they could find no certain author.  1
  The only narrative upon which the ancient writers are in the main agreed represents Æsop as living in the seventh century before Christ. As with Homer, so with Æsop, several cities of Asia Minor claimed the honor of having been his birthplace. Born a slave and hideously ugly, his keen wit led his admiring master to set him free; after which he traveled, visiting Athens, where he is said to have told his fable of King Log and King Stork to the citizens who were complaining of the rule of Pisistratus. Still later, having won the favor of King Crœsus of Lydia, he was sent by him to Delphi with a gift of money for the citizens of that place; but in the course of a dispute as to its distribution, he was slain by the Delphians, who threw him over a precipice.  2
  The fables that bore his name seem not to have been committed by him to writing, but for a long time were handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition; so that the same fables are sometimes found quoted in slightly different forms, and we hear of men learning them in conversation rather than from books. They were, however, universally popular. Socrates while in prison amused himself by turning some of them into verse. Aristophanes cites them in his plays; and he tells how certain suitors once tried to win favor of a judge by repeating to him some of the amusing stories of Æsop. The Athenians even erected a statue in his honor. At a later period, the fables were gathered together and published by the Athenian statesman and orator, Demetrius Phalereus, in B.C. 320, and were versified by Babrius (of uncertain date), whose collection is the only one in Greek of which any substantial portion still survives. They were often translated by the Romans, and the Latin version by Phædrus, the freedman of Augustus Cæsar, is still preserved and still used as a school-book. Forty-two of them are likewise found in a Latin work by one Avianus, dating from the fifth century after Christ. During the Middle Ages, when much of the classical literature had been lost or forgotten, Æsop, who was called by the mediævals “Isopet,” was still read in various forms; and in modern times he has served as a model for a great number of imitations, of which the most successful are those in French by La Fontaine and those in English by John Gay.  3
  Whether or not such a person as Æsop ever lived, and whether or not he actually narrated the fables that are ascribed to him, it is certain that he did not himself invent them, but merely gave them currency in Greece; for they can be shown to have existed long before his time, and in fact to antedate even the beginnings of Hellenic civilization. With some changes of form they are found in the oldest literature of the Chinese; similar stories are preserved on the inscribed Babylonian bricks; and an Egyptian papyrus of about the year 1200 B.C. gives the fable of ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ in its finished form. Other Æsopic apologues are essentially identical with the Jatakas or Buddhist stories of India, and occur also in the great Sanskrit story-book, the ‘Panchatantra,’ which is the very oldest monument of Hindu literature.  4
  The so-called Æsopic Fables are in fact only a part of the primitive folk-lore, that springs up in prehistoric times, and passes from country to country and from race to race by the process of popular story-telling. They reached Greece, undoubtedly through Egypt and Persia, and even in their present form they still retain certain Oriental, or at any rate non-Hellenic elements, such as the introduction of Eastern animals,—the panther, the peacock, and the ape. They represent the beginnings of conscious literary effort, when man first tried to enforce some maxim of practical wisdom and to teach some useful truth through the fascinating medium of a story. The Fable embodies a half-unconscious desire to give concrete form to an abstract principle, and a childish love for the picturesque and striking, which endows rocks and stones and trees with life, and gives the power of speech to animals.  5
  That beasts with the attributes of human beings should figure in these tales involves, from the standpoint of primeval man, only a very slight divergence from probability. In nothing, perhaps, has civilization so changed us as in our mental attitude toward animals. It has fixed a great gulf between us and them—a gulf far greater than that which divided them from our first ancestors. In the early ages of the world, when men lived by the chase, and gnawed the raw flesh of their prey, and slept in lairs amid the jungle, the purely animal virtues were the only ones they knew and exercised. They adored courage and strength, and swiftness and endurance. They respected keenness of scent and vision, and admired cunning. The possession of these qualities was the very condition of existence, and they valued them accordingly; but in each one of them they found their equals, and in fact their superiors, among the brutes. A lion was stronger than the strongest man. The hare was swifter. The eagle was more keen-sighted. The fox was more cunning. Hence, so far from looking down upon the animals from the remotely superior height that a hundred centuries of civilization have erected for us, the primitive savage looked up to the beast, studied his ways, copied him, and went to school to him. The man, then, was not in those days the lord of creation, and the beast was not his servant; but they were almost brothers in the subtle sympathy between them, like that which united Mowgli, the wolf-nursed shikarri, and his hairy brethren, in that most weirdly wonderful of all Mr. Kipling’s inventions—the one that carries us back, not as his other stories do, to the India of the cities and the bazaars, of the supercilious tourist and the sleek Babu, but to the older India of unbroken jungle, darkling at noonday through its green mist of tangled leaves, and haunted by memories of the world’s long infancy when man and brute crouched close together on the earthy breast of the great mother.  6
  The Æsopic Fables, then, are the oldest representative that we have of the literary art of primitive man. The charm that they have always possessed springs in part from their utter simplicity, their naïveté, and their directness; and in part from the fact that their teachings are the teachings of universal experience, and therefore appeal irresistibly to the consciousness of every one who hears them, whether he be savage or scholar, child or sage. They are the literary antipodes of the last great effort of genius and art working upon the same material, and found in Mr. Kipling’s Jungle Books. The Fables show only the first stirrings of the literary instinct, the Jungle Stories bring to bear the full development of the fictive art,—creative imagination, psychological insight, brilliantly picturesque description, and the touch of one who is a daring master of vivid language; so that no better theme can be given to a student of literary history than the critical comparison of these two allied forms of composition, representing as they do the two extremes of actual development.  7
  The best general account in English of the origin of the Greek Fable is that of Rutherford in the introduction to his ‘Babrius’ (London, 1883). An excellent special study of the history of the Æsopic Fables is that by Joseph Jacobs in the first volume of his ‘Æsop’ (London, 1889). The various ancient accounts of Æsop’s life are collected by Simrock in ‘Æsops Leben’ (1864). The best scientific edition of the two hundred and ten fables is that of Halm (Leipzig, 1887). Good disquisitions on their history during the Middle Ages are those of Du Méril in French (Paris, 1854) and Bruno in German (Bamberg, 1892). See also the articles in the present work under the titles ‘Babrius,’ ‘Gay,’ ‘Indian Literature,’ ‘La Fontaine,’ ‘Max Müller,’ ‘Pilpay.’  8
 
 
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