The Complete Fables of Aesop

Philosophical nuggets delivered in the tiniest of forms—through Aesop’s fables. I can’t remember how this crept up in conversation lately, but I got a hankering to read the slightly more scholarly and un-white-washed version that Olivia and Robert Temple published with Penguin in 1998, supposedly the first English translation of “all” 358 fables. “All” being a bold claim when some (most?) of these fables are refuted by the Temples as being created by Aesop at all, due to their exotic animals, plants, and locations that more accurately describe Libya or Egypt than Greece. The text is translated from Chambry’s 1927 French edition.

The morals were added to the collection of fables along the way, and the Temples faithfully translate them but admit that they’re “often silly and inferior in wit and interest to the fables themselves. Some of them are truly appalling, even idiotic.” Sometimes themes are repeated, but animals are varied. Themes beat into your head the need to recognize your place in the world, don’t foolishly challenge people who are stronger/smarter than you, don’t be greedy, accept your lot, evil people should be avoided and can’t be reformed. I found some of the morals to be downright perfect, like 127’s (The Sun and the Frogs): “Plenty of empty-headed people are jubilant about things which they have no cause to celebrate.”

Fable 252 (The Logs and the Olive) warranted a long discussion in the footnotes about whether it came downstream from the Bible or if the Bible appropriated it. Since it originally had humor and the Book of Judges copy did not, the Temples decide that the fable came first. “What has happened is that a funny fable was misinterpreted by a Hebrew author whose Greek was a bit rusty, and borrowed for a wholly non-funny purpose of a man complaining that his family have been murdered – just about the most incongruous context imaginable.”

Several fables are recognizable, such as The Fox and the Bunch of Grapes where the fox decides the grapes are unripe when he can’t jump to reach them. Also the idea of not killing your golden goose (287’s The Hen That Laid The Golden Eggs), the boy who cried wolf (318’s The Joking Shepherd), and the Tortoise and the Hare (352).