what is a fable

Fables 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 behavior 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.”

What Is a Fable?

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.

  1. Symbolism. Characters in fables are stand-ins for humans, and their misadventures are meant to symbolize human behavior.
  2. Anthropomorphization. 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.
  3. Lessons. Every fable has a moral lesson at the end that arises from the story. For example: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
  4. Humor. 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 behavior 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.

4 Examples of Famous Fables

Some of the most famous fables include:

  1. The fox and the grapes. This fable is the origin of the phrase “sour grapes.” A fox spies a bunch of grapes high up on a branch and wants them badly. He takes a running jump to reach them but misses. He tries several more times, but to no avail. Finally, he gives up and walks away scornfully. The moral of the tale is: “There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”
  2. The lion and the mouse. A lion catches a mouse, who begs to be let go. The mouse promises to repay the lion in exchange for his life. The lion agrees and lets the mouse go. A few days later, the mouse comes upon the lion trapped in a hunter’s net, and, remembering the lion’s mercy, gnaws on the rope until the lion is free. The moral of the story is: “A kindness is never wasted.”
  3. The tortoise and the hare. The tortoise and the hare enter a footrace. The hare jeers at the tortoise, remarking how naturally he is so much faster than the slow tortoise. During the race, the hare takes several long breaks and wastes time relaxing between quick sprints. Meanwhile, the tortoise chugs steadily along. In the end, the tortoise wins. The moral of the story is: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
  4. The fox and the crow. A hungry fox comes upon a crow up in a tree with a bit of cheese in its mouth. The fox begins to talk to the crow, telling her she is so beautiful and must have a beautiful voice to match. At first, the crow stays silent, holding on to her cheese. But at last, after much flattery, she opens her mouth to crow. The cheese falls into the fox’s mouth. The moral of the story is: “The flatterer lives at the expense of those who will listen to him.”

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