The Hidden Life of Aesop’s Fables by Ian Lendler
The Lion and the Mouse
The Town Mouse and the Country
I’m sure that just by reading these titles, you could tell me the basic story, and even their moral. We all can.
These are some of the better known of Aesop’s Fables. All around the planet, Aesop’s fables are a part of our shared human experience. Fables themselves are some of the oldest stories in human existence. The earliest have been found on stone tablets dating back to 1,500 BC in ancient Sumeria.
The stories specifically known as Aesop’s Fables have been translated into hundreds of languages. Art historians tell us that there have been more illustrated versions of Aesop’s Fables than even the Bible.
But what if I told you that you only knew half of these stories? What if I told you that there is a second, hidden message buried inside many of these stories, which has been lost over time?
Because many of Aesop’s fables are, in fact, slave narratives. Created and told by slaves, and intended to communicate to other enslaved people.
Allow me to give you a condensed version of how I discovered in the process of writing my new picture book, The Fabled Life of Aesop.
I have always loved classic children’s stories. Grimm’s fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson, Mother Goose. I read them over and over as a kid, and I still re-read them today.
I began to notice that in every edition of Aesop’s Fables, the introduction would casually mention that Aesop was a slave in Ancient Greece, but that his stories were so popular that his master gave him his freedom.
This seemed like an amazing story but when I searched for other books to learn more, I discovered that no picture book or children’s book of any kid had explored it further. I had to do it myself. So I had to wade into the depths of classical history and literature, and what I found was even more incredible than I could have imagined.
Fables have been around for thousands of years, but they became popularized (and perfected) in Ancient Greece, where philosophers, politicians, and poets used them as rhetorical devices to prove a point.
Despite this widespread popularity, the name that became most associated with this story-form was “Aesop.” Historians argue about whether he was real or a fictional character himself, but what they do agree on is this– the story of Aesop’s life was one of the most popular stories in ancient times.
More importantly, it is the very first story in history told from an enslaved person’s point of view.
Very briefly, the story goes like this: Aesop was born into slavery. However, his master soon discovered his story-telling ability, and put Aesop in charge of his business. The master heeded Aesop’s advice and soon became rich. To thank him, he freed Aesop, who by now was so famous for his wisdom that he became the royal advisor to Croesus, the richest king in history.
The popularity of this slave-to-freedom/rags-to-riches narrative is not hard to understand. Ancient Greece, usually regarded as one of the great civilizations, was entirely built of a system of slavery. A little over a quarter of the entire population of Ancient Greece were slaves.
With this in mind, we can see that even though “Aesop’s Fables” are now interpreted as simple lessons on virtue, many of them are actually practical advice on how to survive in a world in which some have power and some do not. They caution the listener to have patience, practice kindness, and carry on against all adversity.
The story of Aesop’s life remained popular for a thousand years. It was handed down along with the fables themselves over hundreds of generations. How popular was this story?
When the printing press was invented in the 15th-century, the first book printed was the Bible. The first illustrated book to be printed was The Life of Aesop!
The Life of Aesop is as much a part of our ancient, common knowledge as the fables themselves. But in modern times, his story has slowly been forgotten. The morals that we spoon-feed to kids now were only added by the Victorians in the 19th-century. (Although, perhaps kids, the most vulnerable creatures in our society, have been picking up on this subtext the entire time.)
I wrote The Fabled Life of Aesop because I wanted to make sure that we, as a society, do not lose this invaluable story. Slavery and racial and economic injustice of all kinds still exist in the world. We need every story and piece of wisdom we can get to push back, raise ourselves up, and make the world a better place than the one that Aesop lived in.
Ian Lendler is the author of the acclaimed Stratford Zoo graphic novel series and the picture books Undone Fairy Tale, Saturday, and One Day A Dot. He is at one with the universe, but only when eating pizza. He lives near San Francisco, CA.