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Animal Fantasy – Where Did It Start?

It’s in the nature of these posts that I often start off in one direction only to become overtaken by my first digression. In this case, instead of writing about the various genres of animal fantasy (my original intention) I’ve become consumed by my discoveries about the first recognized author of such tales, the Greek slave and storyteller, Aesop.

By animal fantasy, of course I mean tales involving anthropomorphic animals (those behaving with human attributes and emotions), whether to teach a lesson or simply to entertain (as in The Ravenstones series).

The classic fable by Aesop is short, rarely more than a few paragraphs, about a half a page long, and usually ending with an appropriate aphorism, such as:

  • It’s one thing to say something must be done, but quite another to do it. (Belling the Cat)
  • Expect no reward for serving the wicked. (The Wolf & the Crane)
  • A kindness is never wasted. (The Lion & the Mouse)
  • Flattery is not proof of true admiration. (The Owl & the Grasshopper)

The U.S. Library of Congress has a wonderful interactive online offering, a copy of The Aesop for Children: with Pictures by Milo Winter, published by Rand, McNally & Co in 1919. Of the 146 tales included in this set, all but twelve involve animals.

But did Aesop really exist? Or was he created to provide a face to a broad collection of morality tales popular in Ancient Greece? According to my second favorite information source, Wikipedia, it was the historian, Herodotus (484-423 BC), who first mentioned “Aesop the fable writer” (Αἰσώπου τοῦ λογοποιοῦ; Aisṓpou toû logopoioû). And who am I to second guess Herodotus? Although Aesop lived apparently between 620 and 564 BCE, it was only three centuries later that the oral fables were compiled, and, then only much later, set to print.

I have written before (July 31, 2021) of the Buddhist Jataka stories. Many of them can also be found in Aesop, as well as in the Hindu Panchatantra tales (and vice versa). Oral stories being what they are, it would not be surprising that a really clever, educational and entertaining story travelled far and wide, adapted by each new storyteller to fit the local scene, especially at the intersection of Asia and Europe.

The first documented manuscript of these fables was ascribed to an individual named Babrius, apparently a Hellenized Roman living in Syria. Like Aesop, beyond the fact that he lived in the 2nd century BC, little is known about him. In the early 1840’s, a (now somewhat suspect) Macedonian Greek archeologist named Minoides Mynas (also known as Konstantinos Minas) came upon a manuscript of Babrius in a convent on Mount Athos (northeastern Greece). [Makes me think of a Steven Spielberg Indiana Jones movie opening!] The document, now held in the British Library, contained 123 fables out of the supposed original number, 160, all arranged alphabetically, but breaking off at the letter O. Despite the questioning of Minas’s character, the U.K.’s national library seems to have no doubt on the subject, providing this straightforward description of the material:

“The discovery of this manuscript in 1842 gave rise to the first edition of Babrius’s fables in 1844. [It] remains the principal source for this text, and was corrected by the great Byzantine scholar, Demetrius Triclinius.”

Babrius and a freed slave, going by the name of Phaedrus, were reputed to be the source of many of the Aesopian fables. The stories were eventually translated into Latin and spread throughout the Roman Empire. In the 15th century, they were translated into Middle English in stanza form as Isopes Fabules by the monk John Lydgate. Seven tales were included in this collection and heavy emphasis laid on the moral lessons to be learned.

Other translations followed during the Middle Ages, but it was the German physician, Heinrich Steinhowel, who made the first attempt at an exhaustive edition in his Esopus, published c. 1476. This edition contained both Latin versions and German translations and also included a supposed biography of the life of Aesop (1448). Some 156 fables appear, collected from various sources, accompanied by a preface and moralising conclusion, along with 205 woodcuts. Translations or versions based on Steinhöwel’s book followed in Italian (1479), French (1480), Czech (1480) and Spanish (1489), all equally successful and often reprinted in both the Old and New World through three centuries.

The first printed version of Aesop’s Fables in English was published on 26 March 1484, by William Caxton (who brought the printing press to England). In 1952 Ben Edwin Perry, a classics professor at the University of illinois, edited the collection and versions of fables for the Loeb Classical Library (now a part of Harvard University), compiling a numbered index by type. The Perry list is considered the definitive one today.

The Wikipedia site noted above, which provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in doing more research on this subject, lists 177 stories that can be definitively attributed to Aesop, each one linked to its own site. By my count 82 of these deal with animals, in whole or in part. The excellent Fables of Aesop website, (complied by Tom Simondi), on the other hand, using the same Perry index, lists a far greater number – 725!

Every reader is likely to be familiar with not just the titles but also the moral lessons of the following tales: The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Fox and the Grapes, The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse and The Tortoise and the Hare. Unfortunately I have no illustrations for these stories, just the following:

Arthur Rackham’s illustration for the fable, The Lion, Jupiter and the Elephant, 1912 (William Heinemann, Ltd.)

The Lion, Jupiter and the Elephant (also known as The Lion and the Elephant) is # 259 on the Perry index. The moral of the story is that there’s always someone worse off than you are. The Fables of Aesop website outlines the story as follows:

“The lion wearied Jupiter with his frequent complaints. ‘It is true, O Jupiter!’ he said, ‘that I am gigantic in strength, handsome in shape, and powerful in attack. I have jaws well provided with teeth, and feet furnished with claws, and I lord it over all the beasts of the forest, and what a disgrace it is, that being such as I am, I should be frightened by the crowing of a cock.’ Jupiter replied, ‘Why do you blame me without a cause? I have given you all the attributes which I possess myself, and your courage never fails you except in this one instance.’ On hearing this the Lion groaned and lamented very much and, reproaching himself with his cowardice, wished that he might die. As these thoughts passed through his mind, he met an Elephant and came close to hold a conversation with him. After a time he observed that the Elephant shook his ears very often, and he inquired what was the matter and why his ears moved with such a tremor every now and then. Just at that moment a Gnat settled on the head of the Elephant, and he replied, ‘Do you see that little buzzing insect? If it enters my ear, my fate is sealed. I should die presently.’ The Lion said, ‘Well, since so huge a beast is afraid of a tiny gnat, I will no more complain, nor wish myself dead. I find myself, even as I am, better off than the Elephant.'”

Not having my own copy of Aesop’s Fables I went to the local library in search of an appealing illustrated version. I came up with one, which actually focused on the animal stories, adapted and illustrated by the wonderful Barbara McClintock.

David R. Godine, Boston, 1991, 3rd printing, 2012

According to the Booklist review, McClintock’s “beautifully restrained use of color may evoke a long-ago time, but her compositions are so dynamic that there’s always something for contemporary children to discover.” (I might add adults as well.) And one more from the New York Times Book Review: “The whole feel of this book is in the tradition of La Fontaine: gay, witty, full of charm and foible.”

Here are three terrific examples:

The Fox and the Crow

The Wolf and the Lamb

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Of course, long before Aesop, the creation stories of aboriginal peoples often dealt with the animal world, the species appropriate to the location: a great serpent in Australia, the raven (and others, including the beaver, otter, duck and muskrat) in Canada, the coyote (and many more, including the blue heron, spiders, turtles and toads) in America. Many of these have become well known and widely disseminated in their turn. In researching the University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology website, I came across the following information when looking for creation myths (my paraphrasing):

  • The Nlha7kápmx people are among the original inhabitants of the Fraser, Thompson, and Nicola river valleys in southwestern British Columbia. In this collection of traditional oral narratives and legends, which have been passed from generation to generation, the elders tell their origin story. Put together entirely by Nlha7kápmx people, it is hoped that through such sharing, the stories will inspire others and contribute to the cultural revitalization the Native peoples of Canada.
  • Our Tellings, a collection gathered by a young Nlha7kapmx, Darwin Hanna, reveals how the Nlha7kapmx perceive their own history. It gathers together two types of narrative – sptakwelh and spilaxem. Sptakwelh, or creation stories, tell of a period in which the world was inhabited by animals in vaguely human form and with special powers. Coyote, Bear, Grizzly, and Owl were central figures. Some tellings in this group chronicle the acts of transformers, who travelled the countryside shaping and changing the existing order to resemble the world we know today. Spilaxem, or non-creation stories, tell of the history, way of life, and cultural teachings of the Nlha7kapmx people. These particular narratives were chosen because the elders thought that they were important to tell. They range from descriptions of the arrival of explorers and missionaries to reflections on the contemporary state of Nlha7kapmx culture. These stories (with their source) include the following:
    • Coyote and His Son / Walter Isaac; Coyote and the Three Sisters / Louie Phillips; Coyote and Wolf / Herb Manuel; Coyote and Buffalo / Herb Manuel; Coyote and Wood Tick / Herb Manuel; Coyote Visits His Daughter in the North / Herb Manuel; Coyote and the Two Sisters / Mandy Brown; Why Newborn Animals Can Walk / Mandy Brown; Grizzly and the Bear Cubs / Hilda Austin; Grizzly and the Black Bear Cubs / Mary Williams; Four Bear Brothers / Anthony Joe; How Chipmunk Got His Stripes / Mandy Brown; Screech Owl / Mandy Brown; Raven / Mandy Brown; and Dog Travels to the Sun / Mabel Joe.

Much more can be said on the subject of creation stories, and I admit to being no scholar in the subject. For any reader wanting more, since a search of Google turns up more than 1,000 million links, I’d suggest looking to the Canadian Museum of History, or the Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of the American Indian) as a starting point, at least as far as Canada and the United States are concerned.


It’s summertime now. I’m going to take the next month off. Enjoy your vacation time. And, by the way, for all you bird-watchers, I’ve now recorded 31 different birds with my Merlin app. (I never imagined so many species frequented the neighborhood.) See you in mid-August.

Cover Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash