Continuously in print since William Caxton, the first English publisher, produced an English translation in 1484, Aesop's Fables remains beloved by children and adults today. Whether read aloud as bedtime stories or delightfully illustrated for young readers, Aesop's Fables form a staple of English childhood reading in a tradition that stretches back past the Victorians to the Middle Ages. Although strongly moral in tone and fantastically endowed with talking beasts and mythical creatures, these fables were not originally intended for young readers. Indeed, Caxton chose to translate the French version of Aesop for English adults, making no age distinction but "for to shewe al maner of folk what maner of thing they ought to ensyewe and folowe." (quoted in Darton, 9).
In fact, Aesop's existence in the world of English publishing and his Fables' evolution from a nominally adult audience to the Victorian and modern nursery represents an apt overview of the rise of children's literature. Prior to the seventeenth century, the lack of a recognition of childhood meant that there was no young audience for Aesop to address. Thus Caxton penned his English Fables in order to edify adults probably primarily because, in fifteenth-century England, what today constitutes the childhood years were not recognized to be any different from the later years.
During the next two centuries, Aesop enjoyed a dubious career in English schoolrooms, where schoolmasters produced various versions of the Fables with the primary aim of teaching Latin and English to their students (Darton, 10). Thus privileged English boys aged between seven and fifteen were well versed in Aesop in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century classroom.
John Locke, the great English philsopher, wrote Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693. Here, Locke argues that children should not be taught facts but rather, allowed to cultivate their own intellect. In Aesop, Locke found stories that would entertain and instruct:
stories [that are] apt to delight and entertain a child, . . . yet afford useful reflection to a grown man. And if his memory retain them all his life after, he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly thoughts and serious business. If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much better, and encourage him to read when it carries the increase of knowledge with it For such visible objects children hear talked of in vain, and without any satisfaction, whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves, or their pictures. And therefore I think, as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge (Paragraph 156 in 1705 edition).
Locke, in fact, specifically encouraged an illustrated more attractive edition of Aesop's Fables. His primary purpose was to entice younger readers to read on their own and thereby develop their young blank minds, and this, coupled with a burgeoning market for children's literature encouraged printers to publish more attractive and accessible works for children.
Newly illustrated editions of Aesop's Fables appear with gathering momentum as the eighteenth century progresses driven in part by Locke's theories and by English publishers' commercial instincts. The first of such works is Reverend Samuel Croxall's 1722 Fables of Aesop and Others. Newly done into English with an Application to each Fable. Illustrated with Cutts. Croxall introduces this edition as a work for "the Children of Britain" and dedicates the work to George, Baron Halifax whom Croxall lavishly introduces as "the most lovely and the most engaging Child that ever was born." John Newbery's edition, Fables in Verse for the Improvement of the Young and the Old appears in 1757, selling at 6d. bound. This version ran to over ten editions (Darton, 20). John Baskerville also produced a more affordable 5s. edition, Select Fables of Esop and other Fabulists written by R. and J. Dodsley. Notably, here, Dodsley apprehended that Lions always spoke in a kingly manner and the Owl with "a pomp of phrase." (Darton, 21) Finally, the ever popular, easily acquired chapbooks also carried various Fables that migrated across England in traveling pedlar's packs.
Thus by the nineteenth century, various editions of Aesop were available to the Victorian child in one form or another, and more continue to be produced and published including, amongst others, an 1848 edition illustrated by Tenniel, another illustrated by Randolph Caldecott in 1883 and four years later yet another illustrated by Walter Crane.
Darton, F.J. Harvey. Children's Books in England. 3rd ed. revised by Brian Alderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. 1693.
Last modified 2 July 2007