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, a writer about whom very little is known with any real certainty, 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’ to enter the language.
Aesop’s fables usually involve animals and take the form of very short stories which convey a clear moral. But how clear is the moral in an Aesop fable? Below, we introduce five of the best-known of Aesop’s fables and discuss the moral of each …
Note: we have restricted our choices here to those fables which are authentically connected to Aesop rather than dubiously attributed. For this reason, several well-known fables, which Aesop almost certainly didn’t originate, have been omitted, such as the fable of the dog in the manger and the fable of the wolf in sheep’s clothing (both of which only appeared after Aesop).
1. ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’.
A hare was making fun of a tortoise for moving so slowly. The tortoise, tiring of the hare’s gibes about how slow he was on his feet, eventually challenged the hare to a race. ‘I’ll race you, hare,’ he said; ‘and I bet I’ll win the race.’ The hare agreed to this challenge, and a fox was found who set the course of the race and to judge who had won at the end. When the race started, the hare bounded off in front, making good progress. He was so far ahead of the tortoise that he decided he could afford to stop and have a rest. The tortoise was so far behind that a little rest wouldn’t hurt!
However, the hare fell fast asleep, and as he lay sleeping, the tortoise continued to plod along at his slow pace. In time, he reached the finish-line and won the race. When the hare woke up, he was annoyed at himself for falling asleep. So he ran off towards the finish-line as fast as his legs would carry him, but it was too late, as the tortoise had already won.
The moral of this tale has become proverbial: slow and steady wins the race. But this is by no means the only moral message to be divined from it, as we’ve discussed in our analysis of the fable.
2. ‘The Fox and the Hedgehog’.
A fox, after crossing a river, got its tail entangled in a bush, and couldn’t move. A number of mosquitoes, upon seeing the fox trapped, settled upon him and enjoyed a good meal, feasting upon the fox’s blood, the fox unable to swish them away with his trapped tail. A hedgehog that was strolling by took pity on the fox and went up to him.
‘You are in a bad way, neighbour,’ said the hedgehog; ‘shall I help you out by driving off those mosquitoes who are sucking your blood?’ ‘Thank you, Master Hedgehog,’ said the fox, ‘but I would rather you didn’t.’ ‘Why not?’ asked the hedgehog. ‘Well, you see,’ the fox replied, ‘these mosquitoes have had their fill; if you drive these away, others will come with fresh appetite and bleed me to death.’
3. ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’.
Once upon a time, the Frogs were discontented because they had no one to rule over them: so they sent a deputation to Jupiter to ask him to give them a King. Jupiter, despising the folly of their request, cast a log into the pool where they lived, and said that the log should be their King. The Frogs were terrified at first by the splash, and scuttled away into the deepest parts of the pool; but gradually, when they saw that the log remained motionless, one by one they began to venture to the surface again, and before long, growing bolder, they began to feel such contempt for the log that they even took to sitting on it.
Thinking that a King of that sort was an insult to their dignity, they sent to Jupiter a second time, and begged him to take away the sluggish King he had given them, and to give them another and a better one. Jupiter, annoyed at being pestered in this way, sent a Stork to rule over them. No sooner had the Stork arrived among them than he began to catch and eat the Frogs as fast as he could.
What’s the moral of ‘The Frogs Asking for a King’? One moral that’s often supplied is: ‘When you seek to change your condition, be sure that you can better it.’ Another might run: be careful who you’re voting for when making political decisions.
4. The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’.
A man and his wife owned a goose which laid a golden egg every day. They considered themselves very lucky to possess such a rare bird, and they began to wonder just how much gold the goose must have inside it.
So they cut open the goose, killing it. However, to their disappointment, they discovered that the inside of the bird was like any other goose and was not made of gold. In killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, they had deprived themselves of a regular source of gold.
The moral of ‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’ is fairly obviously that greed is bad: if the man and his wife had not been motivated by avarice, or greed for more gold, they would not have cut open the goose and thus they would not have deprived themselves of a smaller, though regular and steady and reliable, source of income from their special bird.
5. ‘The Fox and the Grapes’.
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.