Book review

What I Read – A selection from Aesop’s Fables

Some life lessons from an ancient Greek fabulist.

The Fox and the Stork: One bad turn deserves another. Aesop’s Fables offer conflicting advice on whether avenging yourself — or even noticing an enemy — is worthwhile.
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At 90 mostly half-filled pages, Aesop’s Fables is a quick postlunch read.  I read it that way – it’s highly bingeable.  Short snappy tales.  Many proverbs, and many children’s tales from children’s books – generally much elongated – originate from Aesop.  Reading them all together is a glimpse into

Then I went back and sorted the tales into groups by theme.  Not all the 82 tales categorise, but here are some major themes Aesop kept visiting:

Beware of the powerful

In “The Lion’s Share,” a lion goes hunting with three non-lion friends.  Then the lion divides up the spoils.  In one capacity or another, he claims all four shares.  Moral: “You may share in the labours of the powerful, but you won’t share in their spoils.”

Lions feature in many of these tales.  Odd?  Aesop probably lived in Thrace, in modern Bulgaria, just north of Greece; but lions occurred in ancient Greece, too.

A wolf drinking at a stream sees a lamb drinking too.  He wants to eat her; In Aesop world he needs an excuse.  He accuses her of muddying his water; she refutes this possibility: she’s downstream from him.  Then he accuses her of having maligned him last year; she says she was born only six months ago.  “I don’t care – it was your father who maligned me then,” he shouts, pouncing on her.  Moral: “Any excuse will suffice a tyrant.”

Sitting in his boat, a fisherman plays the Pan flute, but the fish refuse to dance.  Then he spreads his nets, and the fish struggling for breath leap around.  “You’re dancing now,” he remarks.  The fish reply: “Now you’ve caught us.  You must dance to your master’s tune.”

A horse quarrels with his friend, a stag; he walks off, and finds a man to complain to.  The man offers the horse help humiliating his erstwhile friend.  The horse lets the man put on him saddle, blinders, bit, and rein.  The man rides the horse, kills the stag, and the horse is satisfied.  “Get off me, and take off these things,” says the horse.  “Let me go my own way.”  But the man has found a good hunting horse, and keeps him.  Moral: “If you let men use you for your purposes, soon they’ll use you for theirs.”

Beware of your enemies

Two stories warn us never to trust our enemy.  In one, a nurse soothing a baby tries scare tactics, promising: “If you don’t hush, I’ll throw you to the wolf!”  The wolf happens to be walking by, and the baby to cry again.  Expectantly, the wolf shows the nurse his face; she screams and runs out with the baby. 

In another, a tortoise engages an eagle to carry her to her new home.  The eagle wants to eat her, but can’t break her shell, and needs the money – so he agrees.  He picks her up in his talons.  As they’re flying, a crow suggests to the eagle that they should share her as a snack.  “The she’s too tough,” says the eagle.  “Drop her onto those rocks,” suggests the crow.  “That’ll crack open her shell.”  The eagle does so; he tortoise loses her shell, then her life.  Perhaps  the crow got the idea from the bearded vulture, who throws bones from heights to expose edible bone marrow.

Three stories warn us to disarm our enemies while we can, and to beware lest we give the enemy.  In one, a farmer plagued by birds plants a small field with hemp.  The hemp samplings don’t tempt the birds, but a swallow who’s seen the world warns the others: “Root out every one of those saplings if you know what’s good for you.”  The birds ignore his warning; the saplings mature; the farmer harvests them, makes rope, makes nets, and catches all the birds.  Moral: “Nip your enemies in the bud – else they’ll ruin you.”

In “The Man and the Forest,” a man walks into a forest with an axe-head and begs the trees to spare him one branch, which he needs to make his living.  Pitying him, a tree gives him a branch; the man fits that on to his axe-head, and chops down the forest.  In “The Eagle and the Arrow,” an eagle is shot down from the sky, and with his dying breath sees that the arrow that felled him was flighted with one of his own feathers.  Moral of both stories: “Don’t give your enemies the tools to destroy you.”


Picking a path and committing to it is the theme of another group of tales.  The most famous tale with this moral is of the man, his son, and his donkey trying to get to market in the configuration agreeable to every onlooker.  In a similar tale, a man has two wives: one young, one old.  As the man’s hair grays, his young wife plucks out the white strands, his old wife the black.  Soon the man is bald.  Moral: If you yield to everybody, you’ll have nothing left to yield.  In “The Fox and the Cat,” the two animals compare notes on their methods for escaping predators.  The fox boasts of his many ruses.  The cat says: ‘I have only one way: jump up into a tree.  But this generally works.’  Then they hear hunting-dogs; the cat proves as good as her work, disappearing into overhead foliage.  The fox stands paralysed, unable to decide which of his many means of escape he should employ.  The dogs come and kill him.  Committing also applies to identity and friendship.  In one tale, the bat belongs neither to the birds nor to the beasts.  Both parties invite him to join them; he joins neither.  Later, neither will have him.  Aesop’s moral is “He that is neither one thing nor another has no friends,” which is odd since in this case the bat was given a choice: it wasn’t his looks but his lack of committing that closed off all options.  In “The Hare with Many Friends,” the hare gets into trouble and goes from friend to friend seeking help.  Each friend pleads some prior engagement: ‘…But I trust you’ll be safe, for you can ask your other friends for help.’  Finally the hare uses her own legs to escape danger.  Moral: “He that has many friends has none.”

Better Humble than Great

Another group of stories suggests: better a humble life in safety than a glorious life at the edge.  Two famous stories belong here: in “The Tree and the Reed” the tree brags about his magnificence but is uprooted by a storm, while the reed bends and survives.  In “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” the country mouse prefers beans and bread in safety over stealing cakes and ale from the housedogs’ jaws.  An ass, tired of fagging all day, envies a horse gaily caparisoned; seeing the horse dead on the battlefield, the ass decides he prefers his own lot after all.

Another group of tales warns: Before you believe someone, examine their motives.  A fox loses a tail in a trap; he’s embarrassed, then gets a brainwave.  He summons a meeting, and suggests that all the foxes dispose of their tales: they’re only good for getting caught in traps and brambles.  The other foxes ask him: “Would you offer the same advice had you not lost your tail?”  Moral: Never trust interested advice.  In another tale, another fox falls into a well just deep enough that he can’t get out.  A goat, walking by, asks what’s up.  The fox says there’s a drought coming; he’s come down here to be near water, and invites the goat to be similarly foresighted.  The goat obliges; the fox uses the goat as a stepping-stool to exit the well, with this Parthian shot: “Never trust the advice of a man in trouble.”  A third fox sees a crow settle down in a tree mouthing a slab of cheese; the fox walks up to the crow, flattering her looks.  “I’m sure your voice is as lovely as your face.  Won’t you oblige me with a song?”  The crow opens her mouth; the cheese falls out of her mouth down neatly into the fox’s.  Moral: “Never trust flatterers.”

Foxes are another recurring character in these tales, already established in their wily persona.  That’s no surprise: adaptability and secretiveness are foxes’ cardinal characteristics, that’ve allowed them to proliferate in major western cities, outbreeding coyotes and other urban wildlife.  The most famous fox in Greek myth was the Teumessian fox.

The last group of tales I’ll mention here warns: Don’t confuse reality with appearances, and be aware that others do so.  A jay dresses up in a peacock’s feathers, but fools nobody.  Neither does an ass in a lion’s skin.  A wolf in a sheepskin does, and manages to catch several meals before anyone unmasks him. 

One of the most original tales in this selection is “The Clown and the Farmer.”  At a village fair, a clown entertains visitors by miming animals; his most popular imitation is of a pig.  But a farmer boos him, and offers to do better.  He strides onstage, and begins to oink most frightfully.  Now it’s the farmer who’s booed – by every last spectator.  “Fools!” he cries, producing from his jacket an actual pig – “I gave you the real thing, but you prefer the imitation.”

Quick to read; much to think about.  A good book for a lazy afternoon.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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