Wyllyam Caxton meets Brian Wildsmith somewhere amongst Aesop’s Fables
subject of our previous backpage endeavour, may well be among the most ancient forms of discourse. But we know nothing of what they originally had to say or how they said it and the great canonic tales of the West came very late in their transmission to print.
are a different matter. Their form is also of great age, but some sort of written evidence about them can be traced back for almost twenty-five centuries. Much speculation is involved as to sources – Aesop, under whose name most fable collections are assembled, could himself be merely a fable – but the Greek and Latin narratives (sometimes in verse) attributed to him are steeped in a genuine antiquity.
The universal popularity
of the form sustained the texts throughout the manuscript period and when printing arrived ‘Aesop’ became a ready source of profit for the entrepreneurs in the new-fangled craft. Just as the Brothers Grimm were later to codify traditional tales, so a German editor, Heinrich Steinhöwel, established a substantial corpus of fables, published at Ulm in 1476, which was to become a much-used source for the book-trade all over the place. Thus, a French abridgment done at Lyons in 1480 becomes the source of the first English edition which Caxton both translated and printed in 1483/4 as The Subtyl Historyes or Fables of Esope . (The only known complete copy of this magical book is in the Royal Library at Windsor.)
deserves all the praise that has been lavished on it, not just because of its historic status but primarily because of its truth to the spirit of fable. Over time the form of many fable texts became overburdened: title, story, and tacked-on moral (occasionally with an editorial ‘Reflexion’ tacked on to that). But Caxton adopts a more flexible and conversational stance, often incorporating the point of the fable into its opening sentence: ‘The xiii fable is of the foxe and the storke: Thow oughtest not to do to other that which thow wouldeste not that men shold do to the / whereof Esope reherceth to be suche a fable / of a foxe whiche conveyed a storke to souper…’
The directness of the performance
must surely have appealed to children, either as readers or listeners, and Caxton probably saw them as part of his public. Indeed, the fable of ‘the wulf and of the kydde’ is (like some others) one of the sources for the Grimm tale of ‘The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids’ and begins with what looks like an almost eighteenth-century address to the young: ‘Good Children ought to observe and kepe ever the commaundments of theyre good parentes…’
And this always informal appeal
is augmented by what would in later fable publishing be a fourth element: the provision of illustrations. Caxton’s woodcuts – 186 of them – were done by a craftsman of limited powers, but to modern eyes, and probably to contemporary ones too, they have a cheerful energy, bringing out the dramatic points of the fable. They also exemplify what was to become a regular practice: the wholesale copying, usually without acknowledgment, of earlier models. Caxton’s cuts were based on his French source, which had copied the cuts in an edition of Steinhöwel, which were themselves based on the first dated printed book to have illustrations: the Bamberg Edelstein of 1461 which reprints fables from an even earlier manuscript. (Later on in England Thomas Bewick’s famous and regularly pirated wood engravings for his Select Fables of 1818 were copied from Elisha Kirkall’s soft-metal engravings of 1722, which copied Francis Barlow’s etchings of 1666, which derived from some magnificent precursors by the Dutch artist, Marcus Gheeraerts, in 1567!)
These trains of influence
characterize all aspects of fable collections published for children – a history whose entertainments and longeurs are too ramifying to outline here but which are offered as a selection on the BfK website. What does need to be stressed though is first the continued recognition by children’s book publishers that fables are a natural part of their classic resources, and second that the corpus of fables can be adapted in multifarious ways.
As the website catalogue indicates
there are, leaving aside educational contexts, many collections which depend upon earlier editions either for the text (one currently using an excellent version from 1699) or for the pictures. Or there are smaller selections made up into picture-book formats, either general like The Best of Aesop’s Fables edited by Margaret Clark (whose lamented death is recorded in this issue of BfK ) or related to a single group of fables like Aidan Chambers’s Fox Tricks , or compilations that play games with the genre as in the sideways look at reader-response theory in Anno’s Aesop .
And of course there are the picture books
that spread a single fable through their whole length. The classic example is Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse , with its personalized moral, a lengthy fable which has often been used for picture books. But much shorter ones are also seized upon by illustrators whose intrusion on the rudimentary narratives can have enlivening qualities, in contrast to their often damaging treatment of the essentially oral fabric of folktales. Notable among such picture books were the early contributions of Brian Wildsmith which confirmed his genius as colourist that had been revealed in his ABC of 1962: The Lion and the Rat (1963), The North Wind and the Sun (1964) and The Hare and the Tortoise (1966).
of these titles have just been published by Oxford University Press, somewhat reduced from their grand folio format and with some tinkering to the prelims and some over-emphatic typography for the final morals. The fables are still erroneously attributed to La Fontaine, who relied heavily on Aesop, but Wildsmith’s pacing of his finely conceived texts alongside his glorious colour-work is as good as ever. Welcome back.
The illustrations by Arthur Rackham are taken from the Collector’s Library edition of Aesop’s Fables , 978 1 904919 81 0, £6.99 hbk
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times .