In the beginning was Aesop. Bookman's holiday

HAWKS, doves, and us chickens - animal fables teach unforgettable lessons. Part of the human heritage (fables on papyri date from the second millennium BC), and until our own time regarded with deference, books of animal fables have often made this bookman's holiday when he has chanced upon them in bookstore or library. In the beginning was Aesop. All fabulists owe practically everything to Aesop. The man is wrapped in obscurity. The best introduction to Aesop is still Howard Baker's ``A Portrait of Aesop'' - chapter 3 of ``Persephone's Cave'' (Louisiana State University Press, 1967).

Baker begins by asking, ``Was Aesop ugly?'' Tradition says so. This would put Aesop in the tradition of Socrates - ugly without, beautiful within.

Baker cites the scene from a red-figure cup in the Vatican collection, dating from 460 BC, shown here. That's Aesop talking with his fox, tradition says. Baker agrees it looks like Aesop as described in the anonymous Elizabethan ``helter-skelter Life of Aesop'': ``great head, large visage, long jaws, sharp eyen, short neck, crookbacked, great belly, great legs, large feet.''

Born a slave on the island of Samos, Aesop became a public defender. He used his fables to argue the safest course for his city in the violent world of the early Greek states. He won his freedom and the gratitude of his people.

According to tradition, Aesop came to grief in Delphi, the seat of Apollo in the beautiful mountains north of Athens. As Baker reconstructs the situation, Aesop was sent with a large sacrifice to Delphi, a highly political place in those days. Something came to his attention, and he withheld the tribute. But now he knew something he shouldn't, and the greedy, venal Delphians ``stoned him into silence.'' Aesop was a certain kind of hero, a thinker with no will-to- power, little talent for avoiding trouble, gifted with wisdom and an irrepressible tongue.

His fables were early recognized as politically shrewd. In the disastrous war with Sparta, when the people had left their farms to huddle behind city walls and only a threat of reprisal on the lives of 300 Spartan prisoners had kept Sparta from taking the city, Aristophanes, the comic playwright, used Aesop in a play called ``Peace,'' which was, according to Baker, ``a long clamorous musical appeal for peace, literally for putting a stop to the Peloponnesian War, then and there, in the year 421 BC, unconditionally, with nothing demanded of the Spartans except cessation of hostilities.''

The hero of the play comes from Aesop's fable of the eagle and the beetle. With something of Aesop's relish for the particulars, Baker explains why the dung beetle: ``The bug calls attention to itself by its fantastic habit of kicking a ball of dung up a sunny, dusty slope and letting it roll down again until the ball has become a good big round mass. This will house eggs and become a commissary for the younger generation.'' The dung beetle combines patience and an instinct for life. It reminded the Egyptians of spontaneous creativity.

In the play, the dung beetle serves as a vehicle for a visit to the gods. The fable's moral - or one of them - could be: Sometimes the means of diplomacy must be mean, not splendid.

Another interpretation: Baker notes that when the Christian humanist ``Erasmus wrote a prose comedy of his own by expanding this tale of Aesop to put among his Adages, he ended by saying that between the eagle and the beetle you face a dilemma. Eagles are like contending generals ... beetles are their humble but persistent opponents. Eagles may rend you limb from limb, but beetles, once agitated, fly around and around and won't be shaken off; you're ashamed to use force on them, if you crush them you're defiled.''

Baker thinks he knows why Aesop has dropped from modern consciousness. ``Fables bring up more dilemmas than they give back answers; that's part of their excitement. It's perhaps one reason too why they were favored in ancient times but have become relatively uninteresting in times which want answers, black and white, doctrinaire answers, right now.''

George Orwell's ``Animal Farm'' (1945), a satire on the Russian revolution, shows the adaptability of this lowliest of literary forms in our own times. Returning to the sources, we find the fable of the eagle and the dung beetle in the fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695).

By far the best translator of Aesop into modern times, La Fontaine transformed the traditional prose into verse of honey and salt in which genial smiles barely conceal an awareness of the arbitrariness of human power.

At odds with court and police, La Fontaine led a long, productive life. His fables have been newly translated into English verse by Norman B. Spector in The Complete Fables of Jean de la Fontaine (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 712 pp., $45.95). With the French text en face, Spector's lively English version of the fables will provide delight and instruction for years to come. It belongs next to Marianne Moore's idiomatic, and idiosyncratic, translations.

Another find for the fable lover is Anne Stevenson Hobbs's Fables (distributed for the Victoria and Albert Museum by Faber & Faber, Boston, 144 pp., $14.95). Fifty fables in various translations are presented with their illustrations from the printed book collection of the National Art Library of Great Britain. Dates range from the 1483 Naples Aesop down to a German edition of 1967. The illustrations, some in color, reveal the depth and breadth of wisdom contained in the fables.

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