IT IS difficult to say what are and what are not the Fables of Æsop. Almost all the fables that have appeared in the Western world have been sheltered at one time or another under the shadow of that name. I could at any rate enumerate at least seven hundred which have appeared in English in various books entitled Æsop's Fables. L'Estrange's collection alone contains over five hundred. In the struggle for existence among all these a certain number stand out as being the most effective and the most familiar. I have attempted to bring most of these into the following pages.
There is no fixed text even for the nucleus collection contained in this book. Æsop himself is so shadowy a figure that we might almost be forgiven if we held, with regard to him, the heresy of Mistress Elizabeth Prig. What we call his fables can in most cases be traced back to the fables of other people, notably of Phædrus and Babrius. It is usual to regard the Greek Prose Collections, passing under the name of Æsop, as having greater claims to the eponymous title; but modern research has shown that these are but medieval prosings of Babrius's verse. I have therefore felt at liberty to retell the fables in such a way as, would interest children, and have adopted from the various versions that which seemed most suitable in each case, telling the fable anew in my own way.
Much has been learnt during the present century about the history of the various apologues that walk abroad under the name of "Æsop." I have attempted to bring these various lines of research together in the somewhat elaborate introductory volume which I wrote to accompany my edition of Caxton's Æsop, published by Mr. Nutt in his Bibliothèque de Carabas. I have placed in front of the present version of the "Fables," by kind permission of Mr. Nutt, the short abstract of my researches in which I there summed up the results of that volume. I must accompany it, here as there, by a warning to the reader, that for a large proportion of the results thus reached I am myself responsible; but I am happy to say that many of them have been accepted by the experts in America, France, and Germany, who have done me the honour to consider my researches. Here, in England, there does not seem to be much interest in this class of work, and English scholars, for the most part, are content to remain in ignorance of the methods and results of literary history.
I have attached to the "Fables" in the obscurity of small print at the end a series of notes, summing up what is known as to the provenance of each fable. Here, again, I have tried to put in shorter and more readable form the results of my researches in the volume to which I have already referred. For more detailed information I must refer to the forty closely-printed pages (vol. i. pp. 225-268) which contain the bibliography of the Fables.