Monday, March 09, 2009


Aesop's Fables in Latin

I just finished reading Laura Gibbs, Aesop's Fables in Latin: Ancient Wit and Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom (Mundelein: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2009).

I am acquainted with Dr. Gibbs. Although we have never met in person, I owe much to her help and encouragement over the past few years. She translated Aesop's fables for the Oxford World Classics series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; rpt. 2008), and her web site Aesopica: Aesop's Fables in English, Latin & Greek is an indispensable resource. She also somehow finds time to blog on classical topics.

This book consists of eighty fables in a Latin version by Robert Codrington (1602-1665). These fables were originally illustrated by Francis Barlow and published in various 17th century editions. Most of the fables can be traced to ancient collections attributed to Aesop, but some of them (numbers 23, 37, 41, and 76) appeared for the first time in the fable collection of the Renaissance Latin author Laurentius Abstemius (Lorenzo Bevilaqua).

Laura Gibbs has surrounded the Latin text of each fable with useful aids to understanding — an introduction, a grammar overview concentrating on some syntactical point, a vocabulary, a list of dramatis personae, and grammar notes. Barlow's delightful illustrations accompany many of the fables. Also scattered throughout are Latin proverbs which summarize the point or moral of certain fables. Besides the vocabulary lists accompanying individual fables, the book contains a "List of Most Frequently Used Words" (pp. xxvii-xxxi) and a complete glossary (pp. 325-356). Long syllables are marked in the glossary but not elsewhere in the book.

The book is intended primarily for intermediate Latin students, but it is also suitable for those out of school who want to refresh and improve their knowledge of Latin. Many students, unfortunately, never make the transition from memorizing amo, amas, amat to being able to read a page of Latin. It is one thing to read a simple sentence in isolation, and quite another to understand the connections between more complex sentences in a paragraph or other extended passage of Latin. The fables of Aesop in Latin are uniquely well suited for crossing this bridge. They are short, self-contained, and intrinsically interesting.

In ages past, the fables of Aesop were standard fare for young Latin students. They are mentioned, for example, in the children's books of C.A. Stephens — A Busy Year at the Old Squire's, chapter I, and A Great Year of Our Lives at the Old Squire's, chapter XIII. In a sense, Laura Gibbs is returning to an old and honorable pedagogic tradition by teaching intermediate Latin through the medium of Aesop's fables. But she also makes use of the most up-to-date technologies in a web site supplementing the book.

William Hazlitt called Aesop "the greatest wit and moralist that ever lived."
He saw in man a talking, absurd, obstinate, proud, angry animal; and clothed these abstractions with wings, or a beak, or tail, or claws, or long ears, as they appeared embodied in these hieroglyphics in the brute creation. His moral philosophy is natural history. He makes an ass bray wisdom, and a frog croak humanity. The store of moral truth, and the fund of invention in exhibiting it in eternal forms, palpable and intelligible, and delightful to children and grown persons, and to all ages and nations, are almost miraculous.
(Hazlitt, On Wit and Humour.)

It was a pleasure to read this book and meet old friends — the city mouse and the country mouse, the boy who cried wolf, the wolf in sheep's clothing, the fox and the grapes, the tortoise and the hare, the lion saved by the mouse, the sun and the wind — in Codrington's vigorous Latin versions. I also learned much from the explanatory materials. The grammar notes are especially copious and helpful.

The book is well printed and handsomely produced. I searched diligently, but managed to find only two minor misprints — preesrve for preserve on p. 288, and obuicio (obuicere) for obiicio (obiicere) on p. 318. Cross references abound, and where I checked, they were accurate. I did note one small oddity in the cross references. The Grammar Overview for Fable 4 deals with "Relative Pronouns and the Previous Sentence," and the Grammar Overview for Fable 19 covers "Initial Quod." In explaining "Initial Quod," Laura Gibbs writes:
You have already seen how a relative pronoun at the beginning of a sentence can have its referent noun in the preceding sentence (see the notes to Fable 4). Likewise, you will also encounter Latin sentences beginning with the relative pronoun quod, a generic neuter pronoun that does not have a specific referent in the preceding statement but that instead refers to the entire situation that has been described.
This "generic" use, of course, also extends to oblique cases of quod. I noticed several cross references to the Grammar Overview of Fable 4 where it seemed to me that cross references to the Grammar Overview of Fable 19 would be more appropriate, for example on pp. 81, 93, 97, 145, 149, 181, 257, 269, and 305.

But these are insignificant quibbles. Aesop's Fables in Latin is a excellent book. The author's enthusiasm and learning are evident on every page. I highly recommend it.

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