The other day while looking for something to read, I came across Pax—a book I haven’t read yet, but that revolves around a fox. Thinking about it, I realized several popular Middle Grade novels lately seem to have animals playing a predominant role. Then my mind wandered back to some of Aesop’s fables and I started pondering those Aesop’s fables with foxes in them, just what a fable is anyway, and where Aesop’s fables came from.
One of my favorite fables—The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox—not only has a fox, but also a great lesson. (Because that’s what fables do; they leave you with a moral.) Technically, the definition of a fable is “a short tale to teach a moral lesson” according to Dictionary.com. Wikipedia gives a bit more detailed definition, stating that a fable is a story marked by anthropomorphized animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature. Wikipedia also points out that the fable is a literary genre and that a fable is different from a parable in that parables never feature animals, creatures, plants, objects, or forces of nature that can talk.
Aesop’s fables are attributed to Aesop, who was perhaps the most famous fabulist (person who writes fables) in the western world. Aesop lived centuries upon centuries ago; he is believed to have been born around 620 BCE in Greece—or not. Some sources say he was born along the coast of the Black Sea while others claim he came from Phrygia, and Planudes (a 13th century Byzantine scholar) popularized the idea that Aesop was a black man from Ethiopia. Whatever his land of origin, Aristotle and Herodotus tell us that Aesop was a slave in Samos; first the slave of Xanthus, then the slave of Iadmon, with some accounts stating that Iadmon decided to free Aesop because of his great wit and intelligence.
After being set free, Aesop told his stories as he traveled. Aesop impressed King Croesus of Lydia, who gave Aesop a job in his court. It was on a diplomatic mission to Delphi for King Croesus that Aesop eventually met his ultimate end. Plutarch relays the tale of how Aesop insulted the Delphians, who set him up to be charged with theft. Professor Giloth’s website tells Lloyd Daly’s version of events, describing how the Delphians took a golden bowl from Apollo’s temple and hid it amongst Aesop’s belongings. Once Aesop left Delphi unknowingly taking along the golden bowl, the Delphians then caught up to him, searched his baggage, found the golden bowl, and took him back to Delphi. Once back in Delphi, Aesop was found guilty of sacrilege against Apollo and sentenced to death; Aesop was then thrown from a cliff, which killed him.
But this all depends on whether or not Aesop ever actually existed at all. Martin Litchfield West states that “it is far from certain whether a historical Aesop ever existed”. Yet, regardless of whether or not you believe there was a real Aesop, several fables have been attributed to him over time—some of which the disputed figure of Aesop could not possibly have written.
However, The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox is one of the fables attributed to Aesop. Ben Edwin Perry—a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—ordered Aesop’s fables according to their earliest known source in his Aesopica, which has since become the authority on which of the fables legitimately come from Aesop. The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox is number 147 in the Perry Index and goes something like this:
A lion and a bear both seized a young goat at the same time and began fiercely fighting over who would get the kid. After lacerating each other, fatigue from the long combat set in and they laid down from exhaustion. When a fox—who had been circling from a distance—saw them lay down with the kid laying untouched in the middle, he ran up, grabbed the young goat, and scampered off. The lion and the bear were too tired to get up and said, “Woe be to us, that we should have fought and belabored ourselves only to serve the turn of a fox.”
Moral: It sometimes happens that one has all the toil and another has all the profit.