Notional author of the most important body of fables in Western literature. It is not certain that Aesop actually existed as a historical figure; the first extant written collection of fables attributed to him is by the Latin poet Phaedrus in the first century AD. However there are a number of references to him in earlier classical literature - particularly Herodotus, Plutarch and Plato - which appear to establish key features of his identity: that he was a slave originally living in Asia Minor who achieved fame as a result of his extraordinary talent for telling apt and memorable stories. Herodotus suggests that he moved to Greece and eventually met his death at the hands of the people of Delphi. To this bare outline was later added a whole series of almost certainly apocryphal incidents detailing his life and career, including the ascription of physical deformity. The qualities ascribed to him in these stories include a unique capacity for survival and gaining an edge in politically dangerous situations. Having been sold as a slave to the philosopher Xanthus, for instance, Aesop is depicted as outdoing his master in correctly interpreting a particularly obscure omen for the Samians. But Aesop strikes a bargain before doing so; he will interpret the omen only on the condition that a successful result will secure his release from slavery. Several incidents also play on the notion of Aesop as an ironic commentator on human pretensions to escape the earthbound - indeed scatological - regime of the body. When the famous philospher Xanthus urinates on a journey without pausing at the wayside, for instance, Aesop comments wryly on his lack of concern for the inessential. Aesop’s association with animals - he is pictured surrounded by them in the famous Steinhowel woodcut which Caxton, William imitated in the first English printed edition of the fables - is another essential ingredient in his character which goes some way towards accounting for the enduring popularity of this author with children.
The absorption of Aesop’s fables into the canon of literature deemed suitable for children occurred at a relatively early stage. The fable was a form recommended as exemplar in the study of grammar and rhetoric by Quintillian in the first century AD, and Aesop appears regularly as a curriculum author for ‘minores’ at least from the 11th century. Whether or not any of the details of his ‘life’ have a real historical basis, they give a particular focus to qualities in the stories he is said to have written, and they gave him a distinct identity within the pantheon of classical writers at the heart of the educational curriculum in the medieval and Renaissance world. Aesop’s unique position among this galaxy of esteemed writers as a - probably illiterate - member of an underclass of slaves seems apt, at least, if one considers how sharpeyed the fables are about relationships between the powerful and apparently powerless in the natural world, and the lessons for human conduct that can be drawn.
-David Whitley: Homerton College, Cambridge, UK.