Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Aesopian Fantasy

According to some accounts, Aesop was a slave who wrote for masters; he was possibly deformed. Such accounts add up to the portrait of a man who might have had some reason to respond to the world with Satire, and also to utter Allegory in code. Whatever the truth of Aesop's life, the Beast Fables assembled as Aesop's Fables were so written as to avoid any direct indictments, to obscure any references that might have been made to the Phrygian politicians of 600BC; hence the coinage by Russian critic Mikhail Saltykov of the term "aesopic language" to designate tales written in code under repressive circumstances.

An AF can be defined as a tale which tends to utilize Talking Animals to convey points about human nature, though stories featuring humans (or beasts) in moralistically construed Otherworlds also clearly belong in this category, and a collection like The Day of the Women and the Night of the Men (coll 1977) by Wolf Mankowitz, a set of fables about Gods and humans, may well explicitly evoke Aesop. For tales to be understood as Aesopian it is necessary only that their moral intention seems to be concealed. Didactic Victorian Fairytales, which explicitly convey moral lessons, are not AFs, but George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945 chap) is a classic example of the coded beast fable, even though its relevance to the world of 1945 only seems to be concealed through its author's obedience to the rules; and explicitly Aesopian works, like the verse Beastly Tales from Here and There (coll 1991) by Vikram Seth (1952-    ), clearly fit the model. Of the innumerable Parodies which use Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, some – like Huang Chun-Sin's Alice in Manialand (1959 chap Hong Kong), which can readily be decipherable as an attack upon Communist China – are obviously Aesopian. Likewise, countless animated shorts (see Animated Movies) deploy talking animals as surrogate humans with the full intention that audiences will understand straightaway the moral, philosophical or political thrust.

The publication of an AF need not entail political risk to its author: many examples have been published in countries which do not normally punish coded satire, especially when it is mildly put. Cadwallader: A Diversion (1959) by Russell Lynes (1910-1991), starring rats, and Ticker Khan (1974 chap) by Bamber Gascoigne (1935-    ), starring pheasants, both couch lessons about humanity in terms whose concealment is safely penetrable. On the other hand, the political and religious traumas of modern Eire and Ulster have tended to generate highly loaded fables, such as Flann O'Brien's long-unpublished dramatic fantasia on the Čapek brothers' The Insect Play (1921), Rhapsody in Stephen's Green (produced 1943; 1994). Also densely coded are tales like "All in a Day's Donkey-Work" and "Two Windows and a Watertank" in Lipstick on the Host (coll 1992) by Aidan Mathews (1956-    ). The situation in Ireland resembles conditions in earlier centuries: Benjamin Disraeli's sharp-tongued "The Modern Aesop" (1826 The Star Chamber) was published anonymously, for instance, never acknowledged during his lifetime, and not released in his name until the publication of The Dunciad of To-Day, and The Modern Aesop (coll 1928 chap). And in other parts of the world coding has been essential through much of the 20th century. Writers in most of the countries dominated until 1990 by the USSR wrote prolifically in Aesopian terms; as a single example of self-censorship in Russia, Mikhail Bulgakov's Sobacheye Serdste (written 1925; trans Michael Glenny from manuscript as Heart of a Dog 1968 UK) uses AF means to depict – with some ambivalence – human resistance to totalitarian personality control. During WWII French authors tended to create beast fables whose messages were clearly coded. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.