Fables

     Fables are short narratives in which abstract ideas of wise or foolish, or good or bad behavior are made striking enough to be understood and remembered by the reader.  The stories usually tell of one significant incident which teaches a moral lesson, which may be implied or stated directly.  Often, in fables, animals or even inanimate objects speak as though they are human.

     Fables are based in folklore and come from many sources, although to English speakers fables are usually associated with a collection of stories credited to Aesop, a Greek slave who is said to have lived around 600 B.C.  While not specifically written for children, fables, because of their simplicity and moral instruction, have been used in educating children for centuries.


[John] Dryden.  Fables Antient and Modern; Translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, and Chaucer: with Original Poems.  London:  Printed for J. and R. Tonson and S. Draper, 1745.  Fifth edition. Frontispiece and title-page.

Although this specific volume was not owned by Robert Browning, the poet did own a copy of this edition of Fables Antient and Modern.  The author, John Dryden (1631–1700) was an English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright.  He was a dominating literary force in Restoration England and was made Poet Laureate in 1668.  The book, which is a translation of classical and medieval poetry combined with some of Dryden’s original work, does not offer short stories in “classic fable style”—a style featuring animals that convey a simple moral.  Dryden did, however, as he states in the preface, endeavor to choose such Fables, both Ancient and Modern, as contain in each of them some instructive Moral . . . .  Included are translations of the First Book of Homer's Iliad, eight selections from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and three of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


R.[obert] Dodsley.  Select Fables of Esop and Other Fabulists. In Three Books.  London:  Printed for J. Dodsley, 1793.  A New Edition. Title-page.

Robert Dodsley (1703-1764), English bookseller, poet, and playwright, published the first edition of his Select Fables of Esop in 1761.  The book continued to be published in various editions for many decades.  This 1793 “new edition” is from the library of poet Robert Browning and bears his ownership inscription on the title-page.  It includes “A New Life of Esop” and offers three sections of fables—those from ancient sources, those he terms “modern fables,” (including some borrowed from Jean de La Fontaine), and those written by himself, termed “original fables.”  In the preface, Dodsley states that, The Fables of Esop have always been esteemed the best lessons for youth, as being well adapted to convey the most useful maxims, in a very agreeable manner.  He later adds that his principal aim was to select such Fables as would make the strongest and most useful impressions on the minds of youth; and then to offer them in such unaffected language, as might have some tendency to improve their style.

The morals of the fables are printed separately in an index at the back of the book.  Those for the two fables displayed are as follows:  The Dog and the Shadow—An over-greedy disposition often subjects us to lose what we already possess; The Sun and the Wind—Gentle means, on many occasions, are more effectual than violent ones.


Select Fables; with Cuts, Designed and Engraved by Thomas and John Bewick, and Others, Previous to the Year 1784: Together with a Memoir; and a descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Messrs. Bewick.  Newcastle:  Printed by S. Hodgson, for Emerson Charnley; London:  Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1820. Title-page.

Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), English engraver and natural history author, is best known for A History of British Birds, published in two volumes (1797 and 1804), admired mainly for Bewick’s exceptional wood engravings.  That British Birds was enjoyed by children is underlined by the fact that the character of young Jane in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre was reading it when accosted by her cousin early in the novel.  The ABL holds a two-volume 1826 edition of that title.

The volume of Select Fables displayed here, engraved by Thomas Bewick and his brother John (1760-1795), is one of several editions of fables illustrated by Bewick woodcuts.  In this edition, each fable is illustrated by an engraving and followed by a “Reflection” stating the moral of the story.  The book also includes many of the famous Bewick “tail-pieces,” small vignettes, usually telling a visual story, placed at the ends of the text to fill gaps.

Click the image above to view additional scans from Select Fables.


R.[ichard] S.[crafton] Sharpe.  Old Friends in a New Dress.  Enlarged, corrected, and now first embellished with eighty-two wood cuts.  London:  Joseph Thomas, 1840.  Sixth edition. Frontispiece and title-page.

This book offers a retelling of the fables of Æsop in verse, accompanied by woodcut illustrations, and combines the moral with the story, rather than having it appear separately.  The success of the author, Richard Sharpe (died 1852), is described in the following review from the Monthly Mirror, printed with a group of “testimonies” following the preface:  There is no more compendious, forcible, and interesting mode of conveying moral instruction, than through the medium of fable.  The ingenious Author of this versification of several of Æsop’s Fables was aware that by printing them as they usually appear with the moral detached, the fable is read and the moral neglected, the cake is eaten, and the task left undone.  He has, therefore, prudently endeavoured to interweave the moral with the subject; in which he has succeeded: and we gladly recommend his work to our young friends, both for their instruction and amusement.

Click the image above to view additional scans from Old Friends in a New Dress.


John Benson Rose.  Fables of John Gay (Somewhat Altered). Affectionately Presented to Margaret Rose, by Her Uncle.  London:  Printed for private circulation by William Clowes & Sons, 1871.  First edition. Frontispiece and title-page.

This volume is part of the ABL’s 19th Century Minor English Poets Collection.  It is an altered version of fables published in 1727 by English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685-1732), best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera (1728).  Gay’s fables were adapted by John Benson Rose (dates unknown) for his niece, and the book was privately printed.  Rose also authored Fables of Aesop and Babrius, also privately printed, circa 1875.  The original photograph of a young girl used as a frontispiece in this volume is presumably Margaret Rose.


[Jean de La Fontaine].  Fables de La Fontaine. [Fables of La Fontaine]. Précédées de la Vie d’Ésope, accompagnées de notes nouvelles par D. S.; illustrations par K. Girardet [Preceded by the Life of Aesop, with new notes by D. S.;]  Illustrations by K. Girardet].   Tours:  Alfred Mame et Fils, 1888.  New edition. Frontispiece and title-page.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1693) was a widely read French poet who was known, above all, for his collections of Fables.  His first collection of six books was published in 1668, followed by a second collection of five books (1678–1679), and a twelfth book in 1694.  La Fontaine took his material from the traditional fables of Aesop, as well as some originating in East Asia, but added immensely to the simple, didactic stories produced by earlier fabulists by adding more dialog and detail, creating miniature dramas and comedies.  His fables have been reprinted for centuries and continue to be readily available today.  This 1888 “new edition” was illustrated by Swiss painter and illustrator Karl Girardet (1813–1871).

Click the image above to view additional scans from Fables de La Fontaine.

Fables