Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.12.24
Laura Gibbs, Aesop's Fables in Latin: Ancient Wit and Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom. Mundelein, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2009. Pp. xxxi, 366. ISBN 9780865166950. $34.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Jeremy B. Lefkowitz, Swarthmore College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 2038 words
Aesop's Fables in Latin is a wonderful new resource for second-year Latin courses and for independent learners who have completed an elementary program. Laura Gibbs, an innovative online instructor (see below) and author of a noteworthy recent translation of Aesop's fables,1 has taken a collection of Latin fables from the seventeenth century and repackaged it as a serious and smart intermediate reader. Aesop's Fables in Latin is made up of 80 of the original 110 Latin fables composed by the writer and translator Robert Codrington (1602-1665) for a trilingual fable book (Latin, French, and English) that became famous primarily because of its illustrations (of which Gibbs has included 40) by the English artist Francis Barlow (d. 1704). All of the fables are presented with extensive notes and instructive commentary (see below), and more than half of them are also adorned with one or more apposite proverbs in large shadowed textboxes. There is something refreshingly unfashionable about an intermediate reader that features the work of an author who is emphatically neither canonical nor ancient, and, moreover, one who is linked rather tenuously to an essentially anonymous ancient fable tradition. After all, most contemporary Latin programs aim to move students toward highly-valued and (usually) classical Latin authors as early as possible. But Aesop's Fables in Latin is anything but a radical break with tradition. Although Codrington's compositions may be of limited use as literary- or cultural-historical documents, fables (whether or not ascribed to "Aesop") have held a prominent place in Latin (and Greek) curricula for more than two millennia. As one reads through Gibbs's meticulous and thoughtful presentation of these fables it is easy to see why they have endured for so long in the classroom.
It is traditional for Aesop's fables or similar narratiunculae et fabulae to serve as the inaugural steps of the intermediate level. This is true for Greek as well as Latin, and for antiquity as well as modernity, as reflected in ancient educational texts such as the Progymnasmata, in which students with a basic knowledge of Greek grammar were asked to compose original fables and to manipulate known Aesopic fables by expanding or contracting the animals' speeches and inventing new morals.2 Collections of Aesop's fables remained as one of the most common first narratives encountered by students until well into the eighteenth century, but in many popular nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin readers (e.g., Jacobs or Andrews) they were reduced to only a few specimens on the opening pages before giving way to historical and mythological narratives from authors like Caesar and Livy.3 In the twenty-first century they have essentially disappeared from Latin and Greek classrooms. In general, it seems that fables enjoy curricular success in periods when there is an emphasis on the acquisition of reading and composition skills as ends in themselves, while they fall out of favor in times when the primary criterion behind curricular design is the literary value of the selected texts, either because of the potential of highly-valued texts to promote students' interest in studying Classics or so that those students who do not continue beyond the intermediate level can be exposed to as many of the best authors as possible before moving on to other pursuits. Because fables are self-contained, complete units of meaning, they allow teachers and students to work through entire stories in one sitting in a way that even the most carefully excerpted passages cannot rival; they allow students to appreciate the ways in which Latin tells stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with no need for contextualization. But because they are anonymous tales that can be downright vapid (despite their many charms), they may make students better readers of Latin texts but they do not necessarily make students more interested in learning about the classical world : thus their current position on the margins of the curriculum.
Gibbs has stripped all of the fables in Aesop's Fables in Latin of their original morals, reformatted them (punctuation and capitalization have been updated), and reorganized them according to the difficulty of the Latin. While the simplest fables are not easy to incorporate into a first-year course, anyone who has completed such a course ought to be able to handle even the most difficult ones. For example, the very first fable in the book uses indirect statement as well as subjunctives introduced by both cum and quod (topics some textbooks do not treat until their final chapters), while the last two fables have the gerund, deponent verbs, indirect questions introduced by uter and quomodo, and a causal subjunctive. The most distinctive feature of Aesop's Fables in Latin is the way in which Gibbs has constructed a total of 80 discussions of Latin grammar and style adapted to the 80 fables, so that each fable (e.g., "Fable 48: DE LEONE ET URSO") is also devoted to a particular mini-lesson (e.g., "Gerunds in the Ablative Case").
Each Latin fable is preceded by a brief Introduction and a Grammar Overview. The Introductions provide some background information, including references to one or two extant Greek, Roman, or English versions of the same fable (these citations are not detailed, however, e.g., just "Townsend," "L'Estrange," "Plutarch," or "Phaedrus"; and sometimes they are even more vague: "a medieval version" (143) and an "ancient Roman" (275) version). Gibbs then discusses one item of Latin grammar or style before each fable in the Grammar Overviews, including topics such as unusual verb forms, points of syntax, "little" words (postpositive particles, correlatives, and relative pronouns), word formation, and stylistic matters. The issues covered range from the very specific ("huc and illuc"; "cum + subjunctive"; "Frequentative Verbs") to the more general ("Adjectives and Adverbs," on the ways in which Latin often uses an adjective where English would use an adverb; and "Ambiguous Parts of Speech," with reference to the diverse functions of the perfect passive participle). Each fable nicely demonstrates the lesson of its Grammar Overview, but, because the fables were not originally composed for this purpose, many of the grammatical features best exemplified in one fable in fact surface in comparable ways throughout the other fables, and a few of the fables do not have particularly distinctive grammatical features. Thus, one may have encountered a certain phenomenon a few times by the time it receives its own Grammar Overview; this is not, however, a major problem because the goal of Aesop's Fables in Latin is to improve reading skills, not to introduce grammatical concepts. Moreover, Gibbs has provided cross-references so that one can track where the various topics under discussion will be illustrated again later or where they may already have been encountered.
For example, in a particularly lucid discussion of the postpositive particle vero before "The Lion, the Donkey, and the Rooster" (Fable 60), Gibbs is able to refer to earlier overviews of quidem and autem, both of which function like vero to build meaningful relationships between one sentence and the next. Drawing on these earlier discussions, she writes: "Like quidem (see Fable 23), vero strongly affirms the statement, but at the same time, like the postpositive particle autem (see Fable 16), vero also emphasizes a contrast with the previous statement. If you had to try to express those two functions in a single phrase in English you could say 'but indeed' or 'but as a matter of fact.' So, pay attention to the use of vero in the fable you are about to read, and see how it carries out both these affirmative and adversative functions as it connects the two sentences. (For more postpositive particles in Latin, see the notes to Fable 66)" (p. 239). In the fable, the word performs its dual function clearly--but, more importantly, it does so at a crucial moment in the story (the whole of which is only six lines long) to very dramatic effect. The asinus assumes that the leo is intimidated by him and so he goes on the attack: ut vero procul a gallicino persecutus est, conversus Leo Asinum devorat. A life-and-death usage of vero: where else other than in Aesop can you get so much out of vero in so little time?
In addition to a "List of Most Frequently Used Words" in the preliminary pages and a full glossary in the back of the book, there is also a Vocabulary on the page facing each fable, with an average of about fifteen to twenty items, including animal names and any words not counted among the most frequent (at the extremes, Fable 42 has thirty-one glossed words and Fable 67 has nineteen glossed verbs alone). Underneath the text of each fable are Grammar Notes, which draw attention to whatever phenomenon is discussed in the Grammar Overview and additionally address any difficult or unusual forms. The things Gibbs most consistently remarks upon in the Grammar Notes are ablative absolutes; the antecedents (implied or expressed) of relative clauses; idiomatic phrases and usages; and uses of either the indicative or subjunctive mood whenever the other of the two was also grammatically possible. On the rare occasions that Codrington's Latin reveals its lateness, this is also addressed in the notes (e.g., on p. 209, the use of ut non is contrasted with ne in Classical Latin). Here, too, Gibbs provides a thorough network of internal references, carefully tracking and acknowledging everything both already learned and still to-be-learned, so that the student is continually reminded that what was just observed in a recently-read fable still obtains.
Aesop's Fables in Latin also contains an "Introduction" (xv-xxxi), which includes a particularly useful section entitled "Study Tips and Strategies for Reading Latin" (xviii-xxiii), as well as a full glossary and three indices (a grammar index, a list of characters, and a general index). All entries in the indices that refer to pages in the "Introduction" (xv-xxxi) appear to be incorrect.
In short, this experiment has succeeded brilliantly in making the old school new again. I especially recommend it to students exhausted by a year of elementary Latin, when the accumulation of forms and rules makes it difficult to believe that one can ever truly enjoy reading Latin for its own sake. Aesop's menagerie of forceful and memorable fabulae is here to help.
1. Aesop's Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs (Oxford University Press, 2002). Some readers of BMCR will also be familiar with http://www.mythfolklore.net, the homepage for all of Gibbs's online projects.
2. Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric, translated with introductions and notes by George A. Kennedy (Leiden: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).
3. See Bonnie F. Fisher, A History of the Use of Aesop's Fables as a School Text from the Classical Era through the Nineteenth Century (Ph.D. Diss. Indiana University 1987).
4. This URL actually triggers a redirect to Gibbs's page on Ning, where one notices immediately that Gibbs's web activities amount to far more than a few bonus features to this book.