Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.5.18

Gert-Jan van Dijk, AINOI, LOGOI, MYTHOI. Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature, with a study of the theory and terminology of the genre. Mnemosyne: Supplementum 166. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp. xxx, 683. ISBN 90-04-10747-7 (ISSN 0169-8958).

Reviewed by Laura Gibbs, UC Berkeley,

Van Dijk's new book on the Aesopic fables in Greek literary sources is a notable achievement, surely the most important book to be published in Aesopic scholarship since Perry's Aesopica in 1952. Unlike this century's other major effort in Aesopic research (Rodriguez-Adrados's rambling and chaotic Historia de la fabula greco-latina), van Dijk has set himself a very specific and clear task: to inventory and analyze the evidence for Aesopic fables in extant Greek literature of the archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods, together with a survey of the terminology associated with the fable over a much longer period of time, extending through late antiquity. As a resource book, van Dijk's book is invaluable, providing copious primary texts and translations, a thorough bibliography and useful review of the literature, along with indexes and cross-reference tables linking his materials to the numeration system in Perry's Aesopica. Approximately half of the book's considerable bulk is devoted to this collection of primary sources and reference materials. The book is an essential starting point for the study of any Aesopic fable that is cited or alluded to in a work of Greek literature (although it must be noted, there are somewhat less than 100 such fables, only a fraction of the corpus of ancient Aesopica). In terms of his coverage of individual fables, van Dijk is meticulous in reporting primary sources for the fable, along with all relevant ancient testimony. But while van Dijk devotes careful attention to each and every one of these literary sources and ancient testimonies, his coverage of the Aesopic fable as a genre is less comprehensive. By focusing exclusively on the literary aspects of the Aesopic fable, van Dijk neglects to make any observations on the Aesopic fable as a folkloristic or extra-literary phenomenon. This is a considerable limitation on the theoretical portion of his argument, and it hampers any conclusions he would offer about the genre as a whole.  

PART ONE: Theoretical Basis

1. Modern Theory. In this 40 page introduction, van Dijk provides a brief and useful survey of major work done on Aesopic fables in this century, divided into sections: studies by classicists (especially Perry) and studies by scholars of comparative literature. Folklore scholarship is not included, with the single exception of a brief paragraph devoted to Pack Carnes. It is not clear why folkloristic scholarship is not better represented here, given the ground-breaking work done by folklorists in this century on the fable genre, along with related genres such as proverbs, riddles, cliches, and jokes. Although a few such works in this field are cited in the bibliography at the back of the book, van Dijk's introductory survey of the theoretical literature would have been much improved by an integrated discussion of research by Stith Thompson, Archer Taylor, Alan Dundes, Wolfgang Mieder, Pack Carnes, Vladimir Propp, Grigorii Permiakov, Haim Schwarzbaum, etc.

2. Ancient Theory. Van Dijk's discussion of ancient theoretical evidence, about 40 pages long, is far more useful than his survey of modern theory. Van Dijk is clearly at home with these ancient texts, and he has provided a very valuable service in collecting this widely scattered evidence from both classical antiquity along with some texts from late antiquity (e.g., Isidore) and Byzantine sources. It is much more thorough and accessible than the evidence assembled in Perry's Aesopica (and van Dijk has thoughtfully listed not only the fables but also these testimonia in his cross-index to Perry's work).

3. Ancient Terminology. Under ancient terminology (a surprisingly brief discussion, barely 30 pages), van Dijk includes the three nouns which form the title of the book -- ainos, logos, muthos -- along with the Latin terms apologus and fabula. Unfortunately, van Dijk basically does nothing here except to list ancient attestations for these terms. He has nothing in particular to say regarding the term "ainos," about which Gregory Nagy has advanced so many provocative and exciting arguments. Most importantly, van Dijk never considers seriously the implications of the fact that this word can mean not only fable (in the Aesopic sense), but can also refer to proverbs and riddles. Given this profound terminological conjunction, is there any reason why the study of Aesopic fables should be rigorously separated from the study of proverbs and riddles? Van Dijk obviously thinks that there is something distinctive about Aesopic fables that merits their separate study, but he never explains why this should be so, and the Greek terminology itself undermines this assumption. A discussion of this terminological problem has implications for van Dijk's overall project, which is to identify not only the citations to Aesop's fables in ancient literature, but also allusions to those fables. Given that allusions to fables often take the form of proverbs, the distinction (or lack of distinction) between fables and proverbs becomes extremely important. Take the famous "onos lyras", a widely attested Greek proverb. Later on, the Roman poet Phaedrus offers an Aesopic fable on exactly this theme: a donkey finds a lyre, attempts to play it, and fails. But there is another Greek proverb, "onos lyras akouon" which suggests a different sort of narrative, this time about a donkey who makes a foolish response listening to a lyre. Does the proverbial "onos lyras" thus refer to one of these narratives, to both of them, to neither? This fluid relationship between proverbs and fables is never clearly addressed by van Dijk, although it has serious consequences for the task he has set for himself in this book, inventorying fables and, more importantly, the allusions to fables found in Greek literary sources.

4. Synthesis? Van Dijk summarizes the preceding 100 pages of discussion with a brief series of observations (4 pages only), in which he sets forth his own definition of the Aesopic fable: the Aesopic fable is "a fictitious, metaphorical narrative" (113). Although van Dijk claims that this definition is powerful enough to distinguish clearly the Aesopic fable from mere similes and other types of anecdotes and metaphors, this is not entirely clear. For example, on what grounds does van Dijk exclude Homeric similes from this definition? Later on (125), van Dijk claims that Homeric similes can be excluded because "fables are past-tense stories and similes are not." But the condition of narrative tense is not included in the definition as originally stated. Moreover, van Dijk claims that this definition is a "synthesis" of ancient and modern theory about the fables. Yet van Dijk has not actually taken anything of use from modern theory on the fable (for example, the terminology derived from the most ambitious theoretical study of the fable, by Nojgaard, is rejected as non-essential). What van Dijk presents as a "synthesis" of the fable's definition is precisely equivalent to what he earlier describes as the "consensus" of ancient writers on the fable (72): a. fables are fictitious, b. fables are metaphorical, c. fables are stories. Van Dijk's definition of the Aesopic fable is strongly affiliated with the ancient sources, and thus does not appear to be influenced by modern scholarship, much less to provide a "synthesis" of the two.  

PART TWO: The function of fables in archaic, classical, and Hellenistic literature.

This portion of van Dijk's book, which occupies over 250 pages and constitutes the bulk of his argument, is arranged according to genre: epic, lyric, tragedy, satyr play, comedy, Hellenistic poetry, epigram, historiography, oratory/rhetoric, philosophy, science, grammar/scholia. What van Dijk has done is to divide up all of the fables and allusions to fables according to the genres in which they are found. Thus, the same fable may be discussed under more than one heading if it is used by authors of different genres. Within each genre, van Dijk proceeds on an author by author basis. This organization, based on genre and author, is clearly at odds with the fact that the Aesopic fable was an anonymous, popular, oral art form in ancient Greece. Van Dijk provides many useful readings of some famous fables in literary contexts, most notably a survey of the Aesopic fables in Archilochus and Hesiod, and a detailed discussion of Aesopic materials in Aristophanes. But it is a rather indirect way to approach the Aesopic fable as a genre: by dispersing his observations and conclusions about Aesopic fables as they are cited or alluded to in all these literary genres, van Dijk leaves the impression that there is nothing to be said about the Aesopic fable on its own account. Moreover, with the exception of comedy (where both proverbs and fables are ubiquitous), the Aesopic fable does not seem to have been an especially meaningful component in any of the genres which van Dijk surveys here. In most cases, van Dijk is hard pressed to come up with more than a handful of examples for any of these genres. After each genre, he offers conclusions about the function of Aesopic fables in that particular genre, but for many genres these conclusions are hampered by a serious lack of evidence.  

PART THREE: Textual Supplement  

Van Dijk very helpfully provides the original texts (mostly Greek) for the ancient materials discussed in Parts One and Two: approximately 50 pages of primary texts relating to the terminology of the fable, and approximately 150 pages of primary texts which cite or allude to Aesopic fables. The service that van Dijk has provided in compiling these materials is invaluable. Any user of Perry's Aesopica can now easily check for the literary versions (and related testimonies) corresponding to fables found in Perry. Until now, it has only been possible to check for such literary versions and allusions by referring to the fable inventory found in volume 3 of Rodriguez-Adrados's Historia de la fabula greco-latina. But Rodriguez-Adrados provides no primary sources, only citations, and his arcane numeration system makes that book extremely difficult to use. Although van Dijk's numeration system is not easy to use at first, he has provided a cross-index to Perry's numbers (and also to Adrados), along with full quotations of the primary text. This immensely valuable effort should make van Dijk's book a standard reference text for any library.  


There are over 50 pages of bibliography and indexes. The indexes cross-list van Dijk's inventory of literary Aesopica with the numeration systems used in Perry and Adrados. There are also columns for Aarne-Thompson tale type numbers and Thompson motif numbers, but van Dijk is apparently following Perry's copious citations of Thompson motif numbers; van Dijk does not contribute additional Thompson numbers in the cases for which there are no corresponding Perry numbers.  

APPENDIX: Non-fables and non-allusions.  

This strange appendix, occupying the final 50 pages of the book, suggests a fundamental difficulty in van Dijk's endeavor. This long list of allusions and citations of Aesopic fables proposed by other scholars, all of them rejected by van Dijk, has the appearance of a heap of little parts that are left over after a watch has been repaired: how is that watch going to run without all these little springs and wires? Given the broad openness of van Dijk's own definition of the fable, it is not clear on what grounds he has rejected these numerous other fables or, more importantly, these allusions to fables. What, after all, constitutes an allusion to a fable? Van Dijk warns that "fable scholars must resist the temptation to look for a fable behind every fox" (632). But at the same time the English cliches "sour grapes" or "lion's share" once constituted allusions to Aesopic fables, even if the allusion has become more and more attenuated over time, as the proverbs have persisted even in the face of what is basically the demise of the Aesopic fable in common parlance. The problem faced by modern scholars in detecting "allusions to fables" in ancient literature is even greater, given that we do not have a native speaker's competency in recognizing such allusions, and we have no complete set of Aesopic fables from antiquity to which we can turn (there is certainly no reason to think that the ancient prose and verse collections constitute a complete reference for "all" the Aesopic fables known in antiquity). Without a discussion of this methodological dilemma, van Dijk's attempt to identify all the allusions to Aesopic fables in ancient Greek literary sources is subject to a serious theoretical weakness. But again, it is to van Dijk's credit that he has provided a complete and detailed listing of the proposed fables and allusions which he has rejected, tucked away at the end of this extremely thorough and useful resource book.  


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