Pronunciation key
( fāb’l )
Æsop or Aesop
Caption: A group of enraptured Greek women listen to Æsop relate his fables.
Artist unknown. Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia ©1950
Fable. A story, a tale, a brief narrative intended to convey some moral precept, drawn from folk wisdom and constitute a major aspect of folklore. In modern literature the fable is confined to short stories either by medium of prose, verse or poetry where inanimate objects, animals or gods play center stage and are represented with human interests and passions which are of course, frankly fictitious, but due to the use of detail and irony in their view of human affairs are still believable. The novelty and impossibility, tends to increase appeal to the audience, and the symbolic meaning, the moral nature of the fable becomes apparent, if well contrived. They typically close with an epigramtic statement of a moral. When characters are represented by animals they are called "beast fables".

In general "fable" means "fiction" or "myth". It is defined as short, simple forms of naïve allegory. In literature, fable is a term which in a general sense denotes the incidents or plot of any fictitious narrative but more specifically and more frequently signifies a literary composition of verse in which a story is made the means for conveying a universal moral or spiritual truth. Fables, parables and allegories are forms of imaginative literature, written or oral tradition, constructed in such a way that their readers or listeners are encouraged to look for subtle meanings hidden beneath the literal surface of the fictional tale. More specifically, fable is commonly associated with being an Aesopic fable or apologue. A story is told or perhaps enacted whose details when interpreted are found to correspond to the details of some other system of relations (hidden, allegorical) with spiritual, social or political implication. The poet may describe the ascent of a hill in such a way that each physical step corresponds to a new stage in the individual's progress toward a higher level of self-awareness or conscience. Many forms of literature elicit this kind of soul-searching interpretation.

Tortoise and the Hare
Chicago Public Library
The story of "The Hare and the Tortoise," tells of a race between a fast, but erratic hare and the slow yet steady tortoise. It is a well known fable by Aesop.

The generic term is allegory; under it may be grouped fables, parables, and other symbolic prose. The moral is almost always presented symbolically and usually is derived from a conflict among inanimate objects, or, more frequently, animals which are given the attributes of rational beings, who act and behave as though they were human. The device of personification is also extended to trees, winds, streams, stones, and other natural objects. The fate of allegory, in all its many variations, is tied to the development of myth and mythology. Every culture embodies its basic assumptions about universal truths, in stories whose mythic tales reflect the society's prevailing attitudes toward life. The moral, which La Fontaine called "the soul of the fable," may be implicit in the narrative or it may be expressed separately. The actors are most frequently animals, but sometimes, especially in more ancient forms of fable, human beings, gods, or inanimate things. The earliest of these tales also included humans and gods as characters, but fable tends to concentrate on animating the inanimate.

A feature that isolates fable from the ordinary folk lore, is that it resembles, a moral; rule of behavior, which is woven into the story. The fable differs from parable which is also a short narrative designed to convey a moral truth, in that the fable is concerned with events that are impossible in life and nature whereas the parable always deals with possible events. A fable in which men act normally is equivalent to a parable. An exemplum (anecdote) in a medieval sermon) may be incongruous, like a beast-fable, or plausible, like a parable, and bestiaries have features in common with fables. The fable must be distinguished from the French fabliau, a realistic tale, and the Italian fiaba, fairy story, although these terms, like fable in French and English, and favola in Italian, come from the Latin fabula.

Fox and the Grapes
"The Fox and the Grapes"

A fable is a short story made up to teach a lesson. Most fables include talking animal characters. Some of the popular fables have been around for centuries, three such ancient fables are "The Hare and the Tortoise," "The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf," and "The Fox and the Grapes."
Many common phrases used today come from fables, such as "Sour Grapes". In the story of the Fox and the Grapes a fox sees a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine. They look ripe and good to eat, but they were high on the vine. The fox made numerous attempts to jump, but could not reach them. Alas, he gave up. As he went away he said, "Those grapes were sour anyway." Now we say, "Sour grapes!" when someone pretends he does not want something he tried to get but couldn't.
Modern writers tend not to write many fables. Comic strips and animated cartoons have taken their place.

Word Origin The original meanings of the term suggest the direction of their development. Fable originates from the Latin fabula, which means "a telling" which puts emphasis on narrative and in the medieval and Renaissance often used when speaking of the plot of the narrative. Parable comes from the Greek parabolē or "setting beside". This suggests a juxtaposition that compares and contrasts the story with the idea. Allegory comes from the Greek allos and agoreuein which means, "other-speaking" suggesting expanded use of deceptive or oblique language. In ancient Greek the term allegory was not used. Instead the idea of hidden underlying meanings was indicated with the use of the word hyponoia, which literally translates to "under thought" and is used by the Greek poet Homer, in allegorical interpretation.

Parable. Like fable, the parable also relays a simple story, however fables tend to personify animal characters. The typical parable uses human characters. Parables show generally less interest in the storytelling and more in the analogy they draw between a particular instance of human behavior (the true neighborly kindness shown by the good Samaritan) and behavior at large. Parable and fable have their roots in preliterate oral cultures. Both are means for handing down traditional wisdom. The styles differ, as fables tend to be detailed, and acute observations on social realism which can lead to satire. Simpler narrative of parables make them useful for teaching spiritual values.

Origin and History
Since ancient times fables have been used as examples of worldly wisdom in education, and for satire. Fables appear independently in ancient India and Mediterranean cultures. Their traditional character has made them a part of the consciousness of successive generations, while newly invented fables have had but limited interest. Primitive folk tales about animals were at first taken literally; when the animals became symbolic with an underlying moral, the literary fable resulted. The systematic discipline for interpreting the meaning of a text, is called the Hermeneutic Process and plays a large role in the teaching and defense of sacred wisdom. Since religions have traditionally preserved and handed down their beliefs, these sometimes appear to conflict with a system of morality that has in the meantime developed and so the correct meaning can only be something other than a literal narration of events. Critics may sometimes find allegorical meaning in texts with less than total justification, instances might include for instance, the Hebrew-Christian mystical interpretation of the Old Testament Song of Solomon, an erotic marriage poem, or the frequent allegorizing of literature, both modern and classic.

One of the earliest and also most notable collections of animal fables is that of Æsop reputedly a Greek slave whom legend claims lived in the 6th century B.C. Æsop circulated his fables orally and they were transmitted in the same manner for a long period. Subsequently Greek and Roman writes set down versions of Æsop's fables in either prose or verse; the poetic versions of Babrius and Phædrus are particularly notable. In Greece fables were regularly ascribed to Aesop, who was believed to have come from Phrygia in the century B.C. The earliest written collections, by Demtrius Phalereus (c. 300 B.C.) and others, have disappeared; a collection in Greek verse by Babrius (third century of the Christian Era) was discovered in 1840. The Greek fables were transmitted to the Middle Ages through collections in Latin verse by Phaedrus, a freed slave in the house of the Roman Emperor Augustus during 1st century Christian Era, and Avianus (c. A.D. 400). However, little is known for certain about Aesop (6th Century B.C.). Before him the Greek poet Hesiod (8th Century B.C.) recounts the fable of the hawk and nightingale, while fragments of similar stories survive in Archilochs, the 7th Century B.C. warrior-poet. Within a century of the first Aesopian tales the name Aesop became firmly synonymous with the genre of literature, as though he, and not people collectively were the originator. Legend connects Aesop with the island of Samos. The Historian Herodotus believed Aesop to be a slave. Modern historians list approximately 200 "Aesop" fables but there is no way to know with certainty where they originated, or who invented them.

Historical Developments

Ancient fabulists were simplistic, earnest and clear. They seem to have origins in the East, in ancient Babylonia or Assyria. The Greek poet Hesiod (fl. 8th century B.C.) wrote beast fables. Among the most celebrated of ancient fabulists are Bidpai or Pilpai, the Arabian Lokman, who lived during the time of King David. Among the Greeks the greatest fabulist is Aesop (c. 600 B.C.) whose beast tales were in oral tradition. The first written collection of fables was among the Romans, with Phaedrus who cleverly imitated Aesop, around 300 B.C. Both Phaedrus and Babrius probably lived in the 1st century A.D. and produced verse fables, giving the form its first literary expression. In later times John Gay among the English, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Gelert among the Germans, and Ivan A. Krylov among the Russians and La Fontaine, a 17th century Frenchman, Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Books:" (1894-95), Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories (1880-1918), George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) and James Thurber's Fables for Our Time (1952) all of which represent recent examples of this literature genre which makes its subtle commentary on human folly.

Fables were of great appeal to the masses during the Middle Ages, assembled into long poems called "beast epics", one of the most popular was the Roman de Renard, a 12th century French work featuring Reynard the Fox. The most famed among mediaeval beast epics was Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, in The Canterbury Tales.

Two fabulists of importance flourished in the 4th century A.D.; Aphthonius, who wrote fables in Greek prose; and Flavius Avianus, who composed forty-two fables in Latin elegiac verse. During the medieval period various types of fable were written in monasteries, but few of any consequence have survived. The writing of fables was revived in France during the 12th century, and thenceforth the fable literature of France was more voluminous than that of any other European country. The most important French fabulist of the 12th century was the poet Marie de France. Marie de France made a collection of over 100 fables, mingling stories of beasts with stories of Greek and Roman notables.

Between the 12th and 14th centuries a collection of animal stories entitled Roman de Renart, the principal character made its appearance in France. It was most the most famous of satirical tales, whose hero is a fox symbolizing a cunning man. These fable had a wide vogue in Europe both before and after this particular and very popular collection of them was made. Many collections of fables were published in France in the 16th century, among which were those of Barthélemy Aneau, Gilles Corrozet (1542), Guillaume Guéroult, and Guillaume Haudent (1547). Fables came to be composed and published in all languages. In Germany; Hans Sachs, Erasmus Alberus, and Burkhart Waldis. In Italy; Gabriele Faerno wrote original fables in Latin (1563), and G.M.Verdizotti in Italian (1570). In 1585 William Bullokar published a collection in English to introduce his system of phonetic spelling.

In the 17th century was dominated by the master of all French fabulists, Jean de La Fontaine's fables flourished; his fables extensively imitated by later writers in all countries, were published in three parts (6 books, 1668); 5 books (1678-79); and a 12th book, 1694.) Many came from Le Livre des lumières (1644), a translation from a Persian version of Kalila and Dimna which was reprinted in 1698 as Fables de Pilpay). Later fabulists often imitated La Fontaine, but some tried to be original with Fables nouvelles or Favole nuove. In 1719 Houdar de La Motte published an original group in verse, with an essay on the fable that had considerable influence.

Among English fabulists, two are noteworthy. Sir Roger L'Estrange wrote five hundred prose fables, first published in 1692 and often reprinted; his subjects were borrowed, but the "reflexion" that followed each fable expressed his personal opinions, especially on political questions. In the 18th century, notable fable literature was written in France by Claude Joseph Dorat.

The name and the text of Phaedrus were long forgotten, his printed edition appearing in 1596, but in the tenth century a certain Romulus paraphrased Phaedrus' fables in prose. In the twelfth century Romulus was versified in a collection called Esopus, or Anonymus Neveleti, because it was included in the Mythologia Aesopica of Isaac Nevelt (1610), which is now ascribed to Walter of England (Gualterus Anglicus); more than 100 manuscripts of this work are known, and a printed edition appeared first in 1473. Translations of Latin fables were made in many languages. The oldest collection in French, that of Marie de France, prepared before 1200, was based on an English version of Romulus. The first book printed in German, Ulrich Boner's Der Edelstein (Bamberg, 1461), was translated from the version of Walter.

A Latin edition by Planudes Maximus, a Byzantine monk of the early 14th century is the source from which the best-known fables of modern Europe have come. Other famous collections of beast fables are the Sanskrit collection Panchatantra (early 5th century A.D.) and a shorter version of it, the Hitopadesa. The fables in these collections were narrated by the Brahman philosopher Bidpai. The Panchatantra was subsequently translated into more than fifty languages; more than two hundred versions of it are known.

With the revival of Classical learning, manuscripts of Greek fables were brought to Italy from Byzantium. A Greek text with Latin translation, printed at Milan by Bonus Accursius about 1479, was frequently reprinted in pocket-sized volumes with the Greek and Latin in parallel columns. About 1480 Heinrich Stainhöwel published in Latin, with German translation, Romulus and Avianus, some of the recently discovered Greek fables, and other material. This important collection was translated into French by Julien Machault, and from the French into English by William Caxton in 1484; it was also translated into Italian and Spanish. The fables in these anthologies are the source of most of those which, in various languages, are now called Aesop's Fables. It is more difficult to trace the history of occasional fables in oral tradition, which sometimes resemble the Greek versions. The Latin texts are gathered in five volumes by Léopold Hervieux, Les Fabulistes latins (1893-1899).

The Lion and Other Beasts in Council
Caption: The Lion And Other Beasts in Council
From a Wood Engraving by Thomas Bewick For Æsop's Fables
Collier's Encyclopedia ©1960

The earliest German fabulist was the 13th century Middle High German poet called Der Stricker. All through the medieval period a German version of the Reynard the Fox stories, Reinecke Fuchs, was popular. The medieval beast-epic which appeared at first in Latin, was a parody of the epic of chivalry, and it was developed in French (Roman de Renart), German (Reinhard Fuchs), and other languages. In these amusing poems the fox as protagonist outwits the wolf and other powerful animals, and the lion reigns as King. Episodes were taken from fables, and these in turn gave rise to new fables. Goethe used this material in his Reineke Fuchs. There are striking parallels in the tales of Uncle Remus, in which Brer Rabbit replaces the fox and Brer Fox the wolf; evidently animal stories were brought from Africa by Negroes and combined with stories learned or invented in America.

In India some of the Buddhist stories called Jatakas resemble Greek fables; India and Greece undoubtedly borrowed from each other. After the decline of Buddhism, the Panchatantra, an elaborate frame-story enclosing short tales, often about animals, was composed as a guide for princes. The Sanskrit was translated into Old Persian, and, from that, in the eighth century, into Arabic with the title Kalila and Dimna, the names of two jackals; this version, ascribed to Bidpai, spread widely. About 1270 a Hebrew version of the Panchatantra was made into the Latin Directorium Vitae Humanae by John of Capua, and through this many Oriental fables became current in Europe. The Italian version of A.F. Doni (1552) was translated into English as The Morall Philosophie of Doni by Sir Thomas North in 1570. Other Oriental fables had been introduced orally.

Important German fabulists of the 18th century were Christian Gellert, Friedrich von Hagedorn, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, all influenced by La Fontaine. The best known early fable in England in the Nonne Preste's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The story The Churl and the Bird by John Lydgate is an example of an English fable of the early 15th century. The best of all English writers of fables was John Gay whose Fables (First Series, 1727; Second, 1738), written in sprightly verse, are characterized by great originality and wit, publishing fifty fables in verse mostly original.
Other widely used collections were those of John Ogilby (1651), Samuel Croxall (1722), Robert Dodsley (1761), Brooke Boothby (1809), and T. James (1848). Occasional fables in pamphlet form, usually anonymous, appeared as political satires, such as Aesop at Tunbridge (1698). The eighteenth century was prolific in fables. In Germany the best-known fabulist was G.E. Lessing, whose fables with Abhandlungen über die Fabel appeared in 1759. In Spain Tomás de Iriarte published Fabulas literarias in 1782. Among eighteenth century fabulists in Italy were G.C. Passeroni, Aurelio Bertóla, Lorenzo Pignotti, and Luigi Fiacchi, known by his pen name, "Clasio."

Æsop and the Animals
Caption: Æsop and the Animals
From a Gravure by L. Gaultier
Collier's Encyclopedia ©1960

Among other important modern European fabulists are the 18th-century Spanish poet Thomás de Iriarte y Oropesa, author of Fábulas Literarias (1782); the 19th century Russian fabulist Ivan Andreevich Krylov (1768-1844) wrote some of the finest original fables in any language, and were published in 1809, 1811, and 1816; and the famous 19th-century Danish writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, many of whose fairy tales are fables. In the United States, beginning with Fables in Slang (1890) by George Ade, a contemporary form of fable developed, the chief exponents of which included Ambrose Bierce (Fantastic Fables 1899), John Erskine (Cinderella's Daughter, 1930), James Thurber (Fables for Our Times, 1940), and William Saroyan (Fables, 1941). In Italy in recent years a modern note has been struck in the fables in Roman dialect by the popular poet, Trilussa.
Interest in the fable continues. Since the time of Richard Bentley's dissertation on Phalaris and Aesop in 1697, scholars have unearthed, studied, and reprinted ancient and medieval fables; and the composition of new fables or of new versions of old ones has continued unabated. In modern times, children's literature has made use of animal fable but often trivialized it. But the form has been taken seriously, as, for example, by the political satirist, George Orwell, who, in his novel Animal Farm (1945) used it to attack Stalinist Communism. The 19th Century saw the rise for demand in children's literature, in whom as an audience won great appeal. Among the most celebrated of authors were Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Grahame, Hilaire Belloc, and Beatrix Potter. There is no clear division between such authors and "adult" fabulists like Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, Saint-Exupéry or J.R.R. Tolkien. In the 20th Century there is the outstanding Fables for Our Time, by James Thurber, which appears to be written for a more mature audience. Monographs have been written on many phases of fable literature, but there exists no comprehensive history or bibliography of the subject. This and allied subjects continue to offer abundant opportunity for investigation; for instance, medieval manuscripts and profusely illustrated fable-books, provide material for studying the history of book illustration.

References and Further Reading

  • Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia, ©1950
  • The New World Family Encyclopedia, ©1955
  • Collier's Encyclopedia, ©1960
  • The American Peoples Encyclopedia, ©1960
  • Golden Book Encyclopedia, ©1960
  • Encyclopedia International, ©1966 (Grolier Inc.)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, ©1984
  • http://www.aesopfables.com/
  • http://www.aesopfables.com/aesopsel.html
  • Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
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