D. L. Ashliman
The name "Aesop (Æsop, Esop)" has been inseparably connected to the fable genre for two and a half centuries now, although it cannot be proven conclusively that he even existed. There is some truth to the gag that Aesop's fables were not written by him at all, but rather by someone else with the same name. (This joke has also been applied to Homer and Apollodorus.) The most reliable authority concerning Aesop's life is the Greek historian Herodotus. Writing in the mid fifth century BC, Herodotus places Aesop in the previous century and suggests that he was a slave belonging to a certain Iadmon, a citizen of the island of Sámos. Most importantly, Herodotus implies that Aesop was widely known. In any event, from that time forth, Aesop has not only been known as an important maker of animal tales, but more frequently as the original author of all European fables. However, this latter position is demonstrably not true.
Although from the fifth century BC onwards numerous Greek and Latin writers (including Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, and Horace -- to mention some of the most prominent names) alluded to Aesop and his fables, but for several centuries the genre apparently belonged primarily to the oral tradition, with obvious roots in India. In fact, Aesop himself was likely an illiterate teller of stories and not an author in the traditional sense of the word. As far as we know, the first written collection of fables was not made until about 300 BC in Athens, but little is know about this collection. The earliest fable collection still extant was put together in Rome between about 30 AD and 50 AD by Phaedrus. This collection, in Latin verse, includes fables both of Greek origin and those written by Phaedrus. Greek and Latin fables spread in all directions, carried both by word of mouth and in writing. Especially influential in this regard were the versified fables (some traditional, others invented personally) of Babrius, a hellenized Roman writing in the second century AD Many fables recorded during the European Middle Ages and attributed to Aesop were in reality based on the writings of Babrius.
The deeds of the ancient Greek gods and heroes make some of the most engaging stories ever told. Whatever the ultimate origin of these myths and legends, the exploits of Zeus, Aphrodite, Pan, Midas, Oedipus, Heracles, the Argonauts, Achilles, Odysseus, and their contemporaries have been told and retold in countless languages and throughout many centuries. Word of mouth was the first vehicle of transmission, but the Greeks were not only great storytellers, they were also the builders of a complex and literate civilization. Their legends, without doubt, functioned well as simple fireside entertainment, and they -- like the characters they depicted -- were good travelers. Thus, motifs from Greek mythology are found in primitive folktales in many lands.
Stories of gods and heroes also served the lofty ritualistic purposes normally ascribed to religious myths and the sophisticated aims of high literature. These familiar stories were thus incorporated into the works of nearly all the great writers of classical antiquity, for example, the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Apollonius Rhodius; virtually all of the classical tragedies; Ovid's Metamorphoses; and Pausanias' Description of Greece. In the current context, one work in particular stands out, the Library of Apollodorus. First noted in the ninth century by Photius, a patriarch of Constantinople, Apollodorus' Library stems from a much earlier epoch, probably the first century AD, or even sooner. Not striving for its own literary independence or philosophical value, this work offered a comprehensive and objective guide to the deeds of Greek gods and heroes. Its author derived his material from different (sometimes conflicting) sources, weaving it into a series of narratives.
The raw psychological material of Greek legends and myths is so compelling that, even centuries later, writers continue to retell and rework it. The names (if not of the heroes and heroines then at least of the complexes) Antigone, Oedipus, and Electra survive in sophisticated literature the world around. The simple tales too live on, as a trip to any bookstore or library will show; each generation of readers spawns new anthologies of stories constructed from raw narrative material from ancient Greece. Last year's interpretations may seem quaint and dated, but the retold stories are always fresh.
Part of the canon of sacred Buddhist literature, this collection of some 550 anecdotes and fables depicts earlier incarnations -- sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a human -- of the being who would become Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. Traditional birth and death dates of Gautama are 563-483 BC. The Jataka tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD. In spite of the collection's sacred and didactic nature, it nonetheless includes elements -- obviously derived from ancient folktales -- whose primary function is entertainment.
India's most influential contribution to world literature, the Panchatantra consists of five books of animal fables and magic tales (some 87 stories in all) that were compiled, in their current form, between the third and fifth centuries AD. It is believed that even then the stories were already ancient. The tales' self-proclaimed purpose is to educate the sons of royalty. Although the original author's or compiler's name is unknown, an Arabic translation from about 750 AD attributes the Panchatantra to a wise man called Bidpai, which is probably a Sanskrit word meaning "court scholar." The fables of the Panchatantra found their way to Europe through oral folklore channels and by way of Persian and Arabic translations. They substantially influenced medieval writers of fables.
Since its first translation into a European language between 1704 and 1717, The Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights, has been recognized as a universal classic of fantasy narrative. It is, of course, a much older work and one with a complicated genealogy. Based on Indian, Persian, and Arab folklore, this work dates back at least 1000 years as a unified collection, with many of its individual stories undoubtedly being even older. One of the collection's forebears is a book of Persian tales, likely of Indian origin, titled A Thousand Legends. These stories were translated into Arabic about 850, and at least one reference from about the year 950 calls them The Thousand and One Nights. Arabic stories, primarily from Baghdad and Cairo were added to the ever evolving collection, which by the early 1500's had assumed its more-or-less final form.
The frame-work of The Thousand and One Nights is well known: A king, convinced that all women are inherently disloyal, takes a new bride each night, then has her executed the following morning in order to assure that he will never be deceived by an unfaithful wife. This gruesome pattern is broken when he marries Sheherazade, who entertains her husband each night by telling him a story. However, she cleverly postpones each story's conclusion, so her husband always has to let her live one more day in order to find out how last night's tale ends. The pattern continues for 1001 nights, by which time the king is sufficiently in love with Sheherazade that he abandons his plan to continue killing his wives.
This long and complicated work (the translation by Richard Burton fills sixteen large volumes) includes animal fables, love stories, adventures (everyone knows about Sindbad the Sailor), jests (including the universally known anecdote about the woman who hid five suitors in a closet), and some of the world's best-known magic tales, such as "Aladdin and His Magic Lamp" and "Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves."
Although they are today best known in heavily revised juvenile versions, most tales of The Thousand and One Nights are not for children. These stories lead their audience into a kingdom of exotic fantasy, but this new realm includes many aspects of this world. Earthy humor, sensuality, passion, intolerance, and violence mark most of these unforgettable accounts. The Thousand and One Nights is by far the best known Arabic literary work outside the Arabic world.
We know little about the person Marie de France. A woman of French origin living England, she wrote short rhymed narratives of romance and adventure and the earliest extant collection of fables recorded in the vernacular of western Europe. Her 103 fables, written in French, draw both on Latin texts and on oral folklore.
Only a few of the 283 entries of the Deeds of the Romans, written in Latin by an anonymous English scribe about 1330, deal with the Romans. Instead, the work presents a mixture of anecdotes, legends, and fables, all with appended morals. In some instances the connection between the stories and their claimed moral application is tenuous at best. For example, the scribe finds theological truths between the lines of even the bawdy tale about the man who tested his wife's ability to keep a secret by telling her that he had "voided a huge black crow." The wife cannot resist revealing her husband's plight, exaggerating the event as she reports it. The story spreads and grows, and before long the man learns that he evacuated no fewer than sixty crows in one sitting (type 1381D, Gesta Romanorum, tale 75). The spiritual "application" given to this very earthy jest seems, by the secular standards of our century, to be as strained as the poor man's alleged bowel movement. The awkward moralizing notwithstanding, this collection provided material for numerous writers of later generations, including Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, La Fontaine, and Lessing.
Bridging the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Boccaccio's The Decamerone (1348-1353) is one of the greatest collections of stories ever written. The framework is simple: To escape the ravages of the Black Death, seven women and three men abandon the city of Florence and take refuge in a country estate. To make their exile more pleasant each of the ten tells the others one story every day. The Decameron records the narratives of ten days -- 100 stories.
These tales run the entire range of human emotion: grief, love, humor, anger, revenge. Many are based on oral folklore. Boccaccio's ten narrators thus retell already familiar stories about errant priests, rascally husbands, and mischievous wives. Variants of these stories are known in many cultures, but no one formulates them more cleverly or relates them more eloquently than does Boccaccio.
A northern European verse counterpart to The Decameron is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400 in the language known today as Middle English. The frame-story describes a band of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To entertain one another they tell stories. As was the case with Boccaccio, Chaucer's narrators tell stories that, in large part, were already familiar (in fact, some tales are found in both collections). Further, like his Italian forebear, Chaucer exhibits unusual psychological perception and uncommon wit and style in his narration.
This Italian humanist's Liber facetiarum, or simply Facetiae, first published in 1471, is a prime example of the numerous anecdote collections that grew out of the Renaissance. These stories, constructed from widespread oral jokes and tales, often rely on anticlerical sentiment and on scatological or sexual humor for their impact. The twentieth century did not invent the dirty joke.
Written anonymously in about 1460, and first published in Paris in 1486, the collection 100 New Novellas, is a conscious imitation of The Decameron. Lecherous monks and nuns, philandering husbands, and sensuous women build the cast of characters. Their roles are the earthy anecdotes of folklore, embellished with irony, with courtly style and wit, and -- above all -- with humanistic vitality.
Her The Heptameron (1558), a collection of 72 stories, is reminiscent of Boccaccio.
The Bible was the first book printed on Gutenberg's moveable print press (about 1455), but the new technology soon yielded to baser instincts. Cheaply printed (usually anonymous) pamphlets and leaflets became an important part of European popular culture during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Typically carelessly written and poorly printed, these works mark the beginning of entertainment for the masses. In many instances their stories (often in the form of ballads) were taken from oral traditions. Many of the characters of these popular publications are household words even today: Tom Thumb, Jack the Giant Killer, Robin Hood, William Tell, Till Eulenspiegel, and Faust.
Tricksters who protect themselves with a shield of feigned simple-mindedness abound in folklore. Tales about these wily ne'er-do-wells obviously have filled a void in the lives of frustrated people from diverse cultures for many centuries. For northern Europe the consummate wise fool is Till Eulenspiegel, a character apparently based on a real person who died in about 1350. His exploits, recorded in some 46 stories, first appeared in an anonymous chapbook composed in Low German between 1450 and 1470. The earliest extant copy of this work is a High German translation published in Strasbourg in 1515. Translations into all European languages soon followed, and Eulenspiegel, the astute fool, has become a cultural icon. He exposes and punishes all sorts of hypocrisy and injustice. His attacks against the wealthy and powerful combine craftiness and crudity.
We know almost nothing about the personal life of Giovanni Francesco [also spelled Gianfrancesco] Straparola (ca. 1480 - ca. 1557). His two-volume work Le piacevoli notti (1550-1553), called in English The Facetious Nights of Straparola or simply The Nights of Straparola, contains some 75 novellas and fairy tales, some of oriental origin. Obviously patterning his collection after Boccaccio's Decamerone, Straparola depicts here thirteen nights of revelry in a luxurious villa on the island of Murano near Venice. The participants add to the entertainment by telling one another stories. Included are tales of magic and the supernatural as well as bawdy jokes and anecdotes. Straparola's work is one of Europe's earliest collections of stories based largely on folklore, and as such is an important cultural monument.
The Pentamerone (1634-1636) of Basile is also -- following the tradition of The 1001 Nights, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Straparola, and numerous other works -- a collection of stories within a frame-story. The original title was Lo Cunto de li Cunti. From the 1674 edition onwards it was called Il Pentamerone.
The external story in this case is rather unlikely: A pregnant woman threatens to crush her unborn baby unless her husband, the king, meet her every whim, one of which is to hear fairy tales. He -- at least for the present -- gives in to her wishes (there are other demands as well) and invites ten gifted storytellers to the palace. Each woman tells five stories, and thus are born the fifty tales of The Pentamerone. These fifty stories draw heavily on oral traditions, as the frame-story itself suggests. In fact, none of the stories in the collection is without analogues in the Indo-European folklore. Many of our best-known tales were recorded here, in some instances for the first time in a European language, for example:
Basile deserves more recognition, both as a preserver of oral folklore and as a masterful and witty wordsmith, than he normally receives. One reason for his neglect is that he wrote in an obscure Neapolitan dialect, making his book inaccessible to most of Europe for several generations.
La Fontaine's 245 fables, published in twelve books between 1668 and 1694, exemplify the grace and wit of his age. Unlike many of his models, his fables function less as didactic tools and more as entertaining art. His beasts, humans, and plants are not merely moral-serving abstractions but rather lively actors in elegantly described escapades.
Like his contemporary La Fontaine, Perrault was a member of the Académie Française and a leading intellectual of his time. Ironically, his dialogue Parallèles des anciens et des modernes (Parallels between the Ancients and the Moderns), 1688-1697, which compared the authors of antiquity unfavorably to modern writers, served as a forerunner for the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, an era that was not always receptive to tales of magic and fantasy. Perrault could have not predicted that his reputation for future generations would rest almost entirely on a slender book containing eight simple stories with the unassuming title: Tales of Mother Goose (1697). The original French title was Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités , with an added title in the frontispiece Contes de ma mère l'Oye.
In a symbolically significant gesture, he did not publish the book in question under his own name but rather under the name of his ten-year-old son Pierre. The eight stories -- "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Bluebeard," "Puss in Boots," "The Fairies," "Cinderella: or, The Little Glass Slipper," "Ricky with the Tuft," and "Little Thumb" -- include a half dozen tales fairy tales that, in one version or another, are almost universally known and loved.
Perrault's fairy-tale legacy includes three additional titles -- verse narratives published separately: "Griselda" (1691), "The Foolish Wishes" (1693), and "Donkey-Skin" (1694).
Perrault chose his stories well, and he recorded them with wit and style. With few exceptions, these eleven tales belong to an inheritance that has been shared by countless generations. He did not invent these tales -- even in his day their plots were well known -- but he gave them legitimacy.
France, sooner than any other European country, took widespread advantage of the literary potential in the magic stories of folklore. The influential forty-one-volume anthology The Fairies' Cabinet is a good example of this interest. Edited by Charles-Joseph de Mayer, this collection included translations from The Thousand and One Nights, Perrault, and authors such as Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, and Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, who wrote one of the most memorable versions of "The Beauty and the Beast." The French Revolution brought this endeavor to an end. Interest in fairy tales moved across the Rhine to Germany, the homeland of the brothers Grimm.
Travel accounts that mix fantasy and exaggeration with fact found in the folklore of all cultures. Whether such tales present themselves as "make-believe" or as or as authentic experiences, the framework of the journey provides a credible link between the listener's everyday world and the narrator's account. Homer's Odyssey, the tales of Sindbad the sailor from the 1001 Nights, the Vikings' adventures in Vinland, (including encounters with the god Thor and with a uniped), Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, the fantastic travel novels by Jules Verne, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum are typical -- each in its own manner -- of fantastic travel accounts.
A particularly successful collection of stories that superimpose fanciful adventures onto believable journeys are the tall tales of "the Liar Baron," Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen. The baron's exploits, which have countless analogs in folklore and in the anecdote literature of previous ages, were first put into book form by Rudolf Erich Raspe, a German exile living in England. Raspe incorporated the stories into a continuous account, publishing them anonymously under the title Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (Oxford, 1785 [dated 1786]). Many of the stories had appeared earlier in the Berlin periodical Vade Mecum für lustige Leute, nos. 8, 10 (1781, 1783).
Note that the German name Münchhausen lost both its umlaut and an "h" in the migration to England. The excellent translations (1786, 1788) of Gottfried August Bürger brought the liar baron's exploits back to Germany, where they found a particularly friendly reception.
The man who tethered his horse to a stake protruding from deep snow, then discovered -- after the snow melted -- that he actually used the top of a church steeple for a hitching post; weather so cold that a music sung outdoors has to be brought inside and thawed out before one can hear it; the hunter who shot a deer with cherry stones, then saw the same deer -- a few years later -- with a cherry tree growing from its head -- these are but a few of the baron's adventures. These self-revealing lies combine unpretentious wit with elaborate irony. One exaggeration builds upon another until the structure collapses under its own weight. The hardiness and longevity of these tall tales and others of their kind prove that we don't always resent being lied to.
The liar baron's stories (whether they came directly from his pen or from another source) have prospered especially well in frontier and rural America. In fact, it would be difficult to find a collection of American folk narratives that does not contain a generous portion of fish stories, hunter's lies, farmer's exaggerations, and other tall tales.
Folklore as an intellectual and artistic pursuit received its greatest infusion of energy and respectability during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, culminating in the work of Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and his brother Wilhelm (1786-1859). Serious students of ancient language, literature, and culture, the Grimms knew the folklore tradition contained in the books mentioned thus far in this listing. Numerous events from about 1750 onward increased the general appreciation of folklore, paving the way for their collecting and editorial work.
A seminal work in this development was Jean Jacques Rousseau's essay of 1750 Discours sur les Arts et Sciences (Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences), which praised the values and life-styles of primitive cultures. Equally sensational, the purported poetry of the third-century Gaelic poet Ossian, published in 1762 and 1763 by the Scottish schoolmaster James Macpherson, was greatly admired by Goethe and other influential literary figures. Although these "translations," as soon became evident, were forgeries, they helped prepare for an acceptance of the naïve art of folklore.
Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), ballads based on the manuscript collection of a sixteenth-century performer, had a similar -- but longer lasting -- influence on Europe's literary establishment. The folk-like ballad became a respected literary form, especially in Germany. Such poets as Johann Gottfried von Herder, Gottfried August Bürger, Friedrich Schiller, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe enthusiastically contributed to the genre, openly praising its folk origins and natural qualities.
It was only a question of time before a "German Percy" would emerge, and he came as a team, when Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano published their two-volume collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn) in 1806 and 1808. It contained folk and folk-like poetry of every description: ballads, love songs, church hymns, fairy tales in verse, working songs, and children's rhymes. Their sources were equally varied: books, manuscripts, printed broadsides, translations, old hymnals, and even poetry composed by the editors. The enterprise was immensely successful, and a third volume, to be dedicated to folktales, was announced. The editors solicited contributions from friends and associates throughout Germany.
In December 1810, two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, answered von Arnim's and Brentano's call and submitted a manuscript containing fifty-three stories, some written out in detail, others sketched in brief outline form. Volume three of The Boy's Magic Horn, the fairy-tale volume, never materialized, but the Grimms' interest in collecting and editing folklore did not die. In 1812 they published their own collection of eighty-six tales, entitled Kinder- und Hausmärchen, (Children's and Household Tales), an unpretentious volume that was destined to become the most widely read, most frequently imitated, and most influential book ever created in the German language. A second volume appeared in 1814 (dated 1815), adding seventy stories. Revisions and new printings followed, until the seventh edition of 1857, the last to appear during the Grimms' lifetime. Their final version contained two hundred numbered tales and an appendix of ten "Children's Legends."
The Grimms are most often remembered for the magic stories in their Children's and Household Tales, but they also made a substantial contribution to another important folktale genre: the legend. Their Deutsche Sagen (German Legends) first appeared in two volumes in 1816 and 1818.
Some twentieth-century writers have criticized the process of evolution to which the Grimms subjected their tales during their half century of collecting, editing, and publishing. The Grimms did claim that the stories were authentic folk material, and that they had done little more than to filter out offensive expressions and to translate local dialects into standard German (although a number of tales were left in Low German and other dialects). In truth they took substantial editorial liberties, especially between the manuscript collection of 1810 and the first published edition of 1812, and again between the first edition and the second one, which appeared in 1819.
The Grimms and many of their champions in later years overstated the simple folk origins of their work. As emerging scholars of philology, medieval literature, and ancient Germanic civilization, the Grimms made substantial, but not slavish, use of printed sources in their selection and editing process, and they did receive their tales primarily by word of mouth. But even in this, some modern critics (for example, John M. Ellis and Jack Zipes) grumble about their choice of informants, who for the most part were women from the literate middle class, including members of their own circle of intellectual friends. Dorothea Wild, one of their most prolific informants, married Wilhelm in 1825.
It is unfair and misleading to belittle the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales on these grounds. Granted, illiterate informants, relatively untouched by formal learning, would have provided invaluable folkloristic, sociological and psychological insights, but this is not to suggest that the Grimms' versions -- admittedly influenced by the world of books -- are not authentic folklore. They were, in fact, both accepted and denigrated as such by contemporary critics, many of whom found the collection too unpolished, too common, and too vulgar for use in respectable homes.
We need only compare the Grimms' work with "folktales" of their immediate forebears and contemporaries (for example, Musäus, Tieck, Bechstein, and the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen) to appreciate the folkloristic qualities of their versions. They were pioneers in the science of folklore, and it is unrealistic to hold them to the standards expected of twentieth-century practitioners, just as it would be unfair to criticize Joseph Priestley for not following modern laboratory practices in his pioneering experiments with oxygen.
The best argument for the authenticity of the Children's and Household Tales emerges from the research that followed their efforts. Subsequent folklorists, working in every corner of Europe and beyond, have independently discovered, in readily recognizable variants, nearly all of the Grimms' two hundred tales. Moreover, the versions discovered by later collectors demonstrate that in most instances the Grimms' poetic license in no way compromised their tales' folkloristic qualities and functions.
I offer, as a preliminary example, the Grimms' "All-Kinds-of-Fur" (no. 65, type 510B), whose central theme, as in most variants, is a king's attempt to enter into a sexual relationship with his own daughter. The Grimms make minor adjustments to the text from one edition to the next. They omit a scene in which the heroine is forced to delouse her future husband (not her father, but a similarly abusive man), and they soften an episode in which this man throws his boots at her head. However, the text's main interest, and certainly its traditional raison d'être, a father's sexual exploitation of his daughter, is faithfully recorded, although the theme undoubtedly offended many contemporary readers. At least one English translation alters the Grimms' text, making the king's minister, not the king himself, pursue the princess. Similarly, the Grimms' popular contemporary Ludwig Bechstein completely suppressed the incest motif in his telling of the story ("Aschenpüster mit der Wünschelgerte" -- "Ash-Girl with the Wishing Rod"), although in so doing he destroyed the plot's logic.
The Grimms' versions, then, are not perfect in their folkloristic authenticity. However, given the substantial breadth of their collection and the editorial practices of their contemporaries, their Children's and Household Tales remains the most significant collection of European folktales ever published. Without their efforts, there still would be stories of Cinderellas, Hänsels and Gretels, Frog Kings, Sleeping Beauties, and Kings Who Wanted to Marry Their Daughters, but no one can say to what remote corners one would have to travel in order to find them.
Working under the immediate influence of the Grimm brothers, two Norwegian friends, Peter Christian Asbjørnsen (1812-1885) and Jørgen Moe (1813-1882), collaborated on a four-volume collection of Norwegian Folk Stories (1841-1844), probably the most important of the numerous similar collections to emerge from Scandinavia, an area particularly rich in folklore.
Aleksandr Afanasyev (1826-1871) (the transliteration Afanas'ev is also used), the Russian counterpart to the brothers Grimm, published 640 folktales in numerous editions between the years 1855 and 1873. Like the Grimms, he molded authentic folklore material into a simple, but literate style, a style that has endured for more than a century. Unlike the Grimms (and unlike virtually every other nineteenth-century folklorist) Afanasyev did not shy away from course material. His published stories are innocent enough, but he also kept manuscript collections of obscene stories. These were smuggled out of Russia and first published (in Russian, under the title Russian Secret Tales) in Switzerland in 1872. Anticlerical, scatological, erotic, and often crude, these tales, reflect a vulgar side of everyday life in the nineteenth century that many would rather not think about. But without doubt it was there.
Revised January 5, 1999.