BMCR 1998.05.16

98.5.16, The Complete Fables

, , , The complete fables. Penguin classics. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. xxv, 262 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780140446494 $8.95.

The opening paragraph of this new translation of Aesop’s fables claims (ix) that “no complete translation of the fables has ever existed in English”—a claim that is repeated, in italics, on the cover of the book’s paperback edition. Indeed, Robert Temple goes even further (xviii): “[there is] no English translation of the entire corpus,” he says, “nor is any Greek text of them in print to my knowledge.” On both counts, Temple is incorrect. For the Greek text, Temple might consult Ben Perry’s Aesopica (which can be ordered from, shipped in 4-6 weeks), and for an English translation, he might consult Ben Perry’s Loeb edition of Babrius and Phaedrus (shipped within 2-3 days from This Loeb volume actually contains English translations of 143 Greek verse fables by Babrius, 126 Latin verse fables by Phaedrus, 328 Greek fables not extant in Babrius, and 128 Latin fables not extant in Phaedrus (including some medieval materials) for a total of 725 fables, over twice as many fables as contained in the Temples’ translation. So, once Temple’s claims are set aside—this is not the “first ever” English translation, and it does not contain “the complete fables”—the question then arises: what point (if any) does this new translation serve, and how does it fit within the larger framework of Aesopic materials currently available both to scholars in the field, and to the general reading public?

What Robert and Olivia Temple have produced is an English translation of Chambry’s edition of the Greek prose Aesopic fables, originally published in 1925. By taking their text from Chambry, the Temples have limited their scope to the Aesopic fables recorded in Greek prose, as represented by several anonymous collections which were first assembled perhaps around the 2nd century C.E. (although editorial changes were made to these collections at considerably later dates). These Greek prose collections are thus roughly contemporary with the fables put into verse by Phaedrus (1st century C.E.) and Babrius (probably 2nd century C.E.). But the Temples seem to have a special loathing for Phaedrus and Babrius, and in particular for Perry’s Loeb edition of these poets, as Robert Temple explains (xviii): “Babrius and Phaedrus are literati who took the Aesop fables and expanded and adapted them in verse in the first century AD. Why should they be given such attention [by Perry in his Loeb edition], with carefully edited text and translation when the originals are largely ignored?” Temple is here proceeding on the erroneous assumption that the Greek prose collections have a special claim to authenticity in the Aesopic corpus, as if the poetic tradition were a secondary and dispensable source of information. Temple can denounce Phaedrus and Babrius as “literati” if he chooses, but the composers of the prose collections were hardly “illiterati.” In other words, the Aesopic fables that are passed down in written texts are always removed from their folkloristic, oral form: either put into verse by the “literati” poets (who often expanded and adapted the stories for aesthetic reasons), or else put into prose by equally “literati” editors and compilers (who often abbreviated and adapted the stories for economy of space—if everybody already knows the story, there is no reason to record more than its bare outline). As a result, ALL the ancient prose and verse records of the fables are distanced from their folkloristic “originals.” Moreover, there are approximately 100 Aesopic fables found in the poems of Babrius and Phaedrus that are not found anywhere in the Greek prose collections. If the goal is to assemble the “complete” fables associated with Aesop in antiquity, it would make sense to collect those stories wherever they can be found, in verse or in prose. (For an ambitious attempt to find Greek fables transmitted in literary sources outside of these collections, see Gert-Jan van Dijk’s recent effort, AINOI, LOGOI, MYTHOI [Brill 1997]).

Yet with the same fervor that the Temples claim to have produced English translations of the “complete” fables, they also claim to have produced something of unprecedented scholarly utility. As Robert Temple declares in the introduction (xxiv): “Until now, it has not been possible to identify the Aesop fables in English unambiguously, but this numbering system [taken from Chambry] now makes that possible.” But as Temple has failed to realize, the standard numeration system now generally follows Perry’s system, as used in both the Aesopica and in his Loeb of Babrius and Phaedrus. One of the most compelling reasons to use Perry’s system is simply that in the Aesopica Perry provides copious charts cross-tabulating his numeration system with the numbering systems used in Chambry, Halm, and Hausrath—the standard editions of Aesopic fables prior to Perry. In addition to this largely outdated numeration system from Chambry’s edition, the Temples’ book suffers from a very serious organizational problem: there is no subject index for the fables, nor is there even a table of contents listing the titles of the fables for quick browsing. So, for example, if you are interested in fables about foxes, or perhaps a specific fable, such as the story of the frogs who asked for a king, there is nothing to do except flip through the 262 pages of the book looking for the items that interest you (oddly enough, there was also no index for the previous Penguin edition of Aesopic fables, S.A. Handford’s Fables of Aesop first published in 1954). Perry’s Loeb edition of Babrius and Phaedrus, despite its many eccentricities, does contain an index of sorts, making it possible for the reader to look up most fables based on the characters involved in the story.

In addition, the Temples also pride themselves on the accuracy of the botanical and zoological items in their translations (xxv): “Above all, care has been taken regarding the identities of the species of animals and plants, which no modern scholar known to us has translated accurately.” Once again, this claim is not borne out by the contents of the book. For example, one item of which they are most proud—translating the Greek word “gale” as house-ferret—is dubious at best. The Greek word “gale” surely refers to weasels in general; there is no reason to suspect that it referred only to domestic weasels, much less a “house-ferret” as the Temples translate it. They do not explain why they have translated “gale” in this way; they simply assert, without documentation, that “the house-ferret, otherwise known as the domesticated polecat, was the chief household pet” of ancient Greece (62; for some basic bibliography on ancient weasels, see below). Usually the Temples follow Liddell and Scott religiously, but even Liddell and Scott define “gale” as “a weasel, marten, or polecat.” Moreover, despite their claims to botanical and zoological accuracy, the Temples are apparently unaware of the numerous specialized lexicons available in this field. For example, in identifying species of Greek birds, D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Birds (1936) is indispensable, but the Temples do not seem to be aware of its existence. In a lengthy and unhelpful note on the otherwise unattested “botalis” in the fable about a bat and a nocturnal songbird (60-61), the Temples do not refer to Thompson (who provides a concise discussion of the problem) and instead they run through some unhelpful material culled from Liddell and Scott, and from Aristotle’s reference to a bird called “batis” in his History of Animals. Their conclusion that Aesop’s “botalis” and Aristotle’s “batis” must both refer to the “linnet” is essentially capricious (61): “a linnet seems to answer the requirements of both the Aristotle passage and the Aesop fable, and there is, in any case, no other certain name for the linnet in Greek so it might as well be this one.”

Many of the Temples’ notes to the fables display this same sort of scholarly bravado: on the one hand, they pretend to reach definitive conclusions, but they reject the need actually to investigate any problem thoroughly. For example, regarding the fable of the “trees choosing a king” which is found both in the Bible and as a Greek prose fable, the Temples advance the astonishing conclusion (187-188) that “the Greek fable appears to have been taken into the Bible, rather than the other way around. What this means for dating we cannot say, not being Biblical scholars and having no idea when the Book of Judges may have been written.” Indeed, the Temples could not even be troubled to look up the fable in the Septuagint to compare the Greek texts: “We have not consulted the Septuagint,” they say, “as that is taking a footnote too far, nor can we read Hebrew.” Thus, on the one hand they advance the astonishing hypothesis that the Aesopic fable entered the Biblical tradition from the Greek Septuagint—but they cannot even be bothered to check the reading of the text there, much less to address the many (fascinating) textual questions associated with this fable and its place in the Aesopic tradition. As in their arbitrary translation of the Greek “botalis” as “linnet”, the Temples make claims to full scholarly authority, but it is never clear why the reader should actually trust their conclusions.

In every way this new Penguin edition of Aesop’s fables is a great opportunity missed. Admittedly, Perry’s Loeb edition of Babrius and Phaedrus leaves much to be desired—but at least it succeeds in what it claims to do, offering a broad and thorough survey of the Aesopic fable tradition in ancient Greece and Rome, with basic English translations of the texts (and with Greek and Latin originals of those same texts easily accessible in Perry’s Aesopica). At this point, there is a desperate need for a book that would go beyond Perry’s work, documenting both the folkloristic and literary aspects of Aesopic fables in ancient Greece and Rome, the historical fortunes of the fables in later European literatures, along with the extraordinary parallels between the Aesopic fables and closely related Near Eastern genres, such as the Buddhist jataka tales. But instead of being open to these important questions, the Temples are busily shutting everything down, closing up shop as if they have finished all the work that possibly needs to be done: their collection of fables claims to be complete, their translations claim to be definitive. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Temples’ translation not only fails to advance the field of Aesopic scholarship, but it is actually a step backwards—going back to Chambry instead of Perry, reducing the inventory of fables instead of increasing it, delimiting the historical and geographical coverage rather than expanding it. This edition might perhaps suit the needs of the general reader, but it is not even much of an improvement on Handford’s reliable Fables of Aesop. It is truly a shame that this obfuscating and self-important book is now destined to replace Handford’s modest and straight-forward collection of stories, which was intended specifically for the general reader—and which was much more of a pleasure to read than the Temples’ new and (supposedly) definitive effort.

  • Chambry, Emile. Fables / Esope. Paris: Belles lettres, 1967 (originally published 1925).
  • Daly, Lloyd. Aesop Without Morals. New York: Yoseloff, 1961. [It is unfortunate that this book is out of print. The translations of the prose Aesopic fables in Perry’s Loeb are taken from this edition, without the morals. Daly’s book does in fact contain the morals (by which he means the epimythia), but they are consigned to an appendix at the back of the book. Daly also provides an English translation of the “Life of Aesop,” following the Greek text in Perry’s Aesopica. This “Life of Aesop” is happily reprinted in William Hansen’s new Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.]
  • Dijk, Gert-Jan van. Ainoi, logoi, mythoi: Fables in archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greek literature. Leiden: Brill, 1997 (Mnemosyne Supplementum 166).
  • Halm, Karl. Fabulae aesopicae collectae. Leipzig: Teubner, 1863.
  • Handford, S. A. Fables of Aesop. New York: Penguin, 1954.
  • Hausrath, August. Corpus fabularum aesopicarum. Leipzig: Teubner, 1940.
  • Perry, Ben E. (ed.). Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (Loeb), 1965.
  • Perry, Ben E. (ed.) Aesopica. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1952.
  • Rodriguez-Adrados, Francisco. Historia de la fabula greco-latina. III: Inventario y documentacion de la fabula greco-latina. Madrid: Editorial de la Universidad Complutense, 1987. (In this book, Rodriguez-Adrados proposes yet another numeration system for the fables, which presumably he expected would replace Perry’s 1952 system. But this numeration system has failed to enter into widespread usage, largely because Rodriguez-Adrados provides no subject indexes or cross-reference tables that would allow scholars to connect this system to the inventories and editions of the fables already in existence).
  • Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. A Glossary of Greek Birds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936.