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What are fables?

herr-stritt 15. Juni 2021
fox, mammal, animal

Skill

Develop your literacy and your understanding of literature.

Objective

Learn about the four central characteristics of a fable and get to know four famous examples.


Fables [1] are characterized by their moral lessons. These short tales were once passed down as folklore to teach listeners the difference between right and wrong, give advice on proper behaviour and manners, and offer maxims to live by. A number of colloquial phrases are derived from fables, such as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and “sour grapes.

A fable is a short story that illustrates a moral lesson. The plot of a fable includes a simple conflict and a resolution, followed by a maxim. Fables feature anthropomorphized animals and natural elements as main characters.

The moral of a fable—an overarching rule to live by that transcends the specifics of the story—is usually stated at the end. For example, in the fable of the wolf and the sheep, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is able to infiltrate the sheep’s pasture without raising any alarm, and easily make a meal out of the sheep. The moral of the story is that appearances can be deceiving.

4 Central Characteristics of a Fable

Fables are defined by four central essential elements.

  • Symbolism. Characters in fables are stand-ins for humans, and their misadventures are meant to symbolize human behaviour. 
  • Anthropomorphising. In fables, animals and even inanimate objects (like the wind, or the sun) are the main characters of the story and are given human qualities. Some animals have specific traits associated with them. For example, an owl is wise, a fox is cunning, and a lion is brave. 
  • Lessons. Every fable has a moral lesson at the end that arises from the story. For example: “Slow and steady wins the race.” 
  • Humour. Fables often have a humorous tone when showing the foolishness of human nature.

Where did fables originate?

The word “fable” comes from the Latin “fabula,” or “story.” Most Western fables come from the famous fabulist Aesop, who wrote in ancient Greece. In ancient Greek education, students were taught fables and encouraged to make up and recite their own. Some of Aesop’s fables originate from India during the first millennium BCE.

Fables have a long European history. In the seventeenth century, French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine was inspired by Aesop to write fables that satirized the church, the court, and the ruling class of the time. De la Fontaine considered the moral to be the core element of the fable. Many European writers were inspired by de la Fontaine, including the Russian fabulist, Ivan Krylov. 

Traditionally, fables are written to teach children their culture’s appropriate behaviour and values, but there are some exceptions. For example, George Orwell’s allegorical novel Animal Farm has some characteristics of a fable, even though it was a satire written for adults.

Assignment

Choose one of the following four fables. Analyse how the four central essential elements of a fable take place in this particular example.


[1] Source: Writing 101: What Is a Fable? Learn About the 4 Central Characteristics of a Fable and 4 Famous Fable Examples. Nov 8, 2020, URL: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/writing-101-what-is-a-fable-learn-about-the-4-central-characteristics-of-a-fable-and-4-famous-fable-examples#4-examples-of-famous-fables