By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes is among the most famous of all of Aesop’s fables. What does this little tale mean? And what common everyday phrase did it inspire?
In summary, the fable of the fox and the grapes runs as follows: one hot summer’s day a fox was strolling through an orchard when he came to a bunch of grapes that were ripening on a vine, hanging over a lofty branch. ‘Those grapes are just the things to quench my thirst,’ said the fox. Drawing back a few paces, the fox took a run and a jump, but just missed the bunch of grapes.
Turning round again he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again the fox tried to jump up and reach the juicy grapes, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘Oh well, I am sure they are sour anyway.’
What is the moral of the fable of the fox and the grapes? It is easier to despise what you cannot get. This fable gave rise to the common expression ‘sour grapes’, which, although often used to denote any sour or bitter mood, can also more specifically denote the idea of having liked something, which one has gone off (turned sour, if you will) because one is unable to obtain it.
Like the chancer in a bar approaching a girl he likes, only to be rebuffed and so to retort that she’s ugly anyway (charmers, always), the fox in the fable really wanted the grapes, but his own failure to reach them leads to him walking off in a huff, consoling himself with a narrative he knows to be false – that the grapes are sour after all.
This little story strikes deep at the heart of something we know to be true: that we all tell ourselves stories about the world, either to make ourselves feel better about something (as is the case here with the fox and the grapes) or to beat ourselves up about something.
This little story, in other words, contains a keen truth about the way we as humans tell stories ourselves, spinning narratives, even fictional ones, to cope with failure and our inability to fulfil our goals. In the last analysis, though, this little fable of the fox and the grapes hides a nasty and uncomfortable truth: that we can very quickly turn from desire to hatred purely because we don’t get what we want. Small wonder, perhaps, that ‘sour grapes’ became such a famous phrase.
Aesop wasn’t the first person to write animal fables. Several centuries earlier, Hesiod had written one about a hawk and a nightingale, while a poet named Archilochus penned several, including one about an eagle and a vixen, and one about a fox and a monkey. But Aesop would turn the fable into a popular form. William Caxton printed the first English translation of the Fables in 1484, enabling such phrases as ‘sour grapes’ and ‘to cry wolf’ to enter the language.
As with Homer, we can’t be sure an ‘Aesop’ ever actually existed. If he did, it was probably in around the sixth century BCE, several centuries after Homer, if Homer himself ever existed. Aesop’s Fables may have been the work of many hands, part of an oral tradition that gradually accumulated.
Nevertheless, legends grew up around the storyteller. One commentator claimed that Aesop fought at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, but since by then he had been dead for nearly a century one can’t imagine he was much help.
Indeed, if a man named Aesop did exist in the first place, he is thought to have been a disabled black slave. The idea that he was of African descent – possibly from Ethiopia – dates back some time. The presence of such animals as camels and elephants in Aesop’s fables, not to mention the fable of ‘Washing the Ethiopian White’, support this theory that he was of African origin.