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What Is a Fable?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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A fable is a form of literary fiction that often involves magical creatures and places and has a moral to the story it tells. Its origins are unknown, but they are probably as old as spoken language itself. Though fables are usually written in prose form, they often have an alliteration or metrical rhyming sense to them known as verse, which is a early form of poetry. The characters in these stories usually represent archetypes of powerful human emotions such as greed, foolishness, love, and self-sacrifice.

One of the core features of most fables is that they include elements of the natural environment, along with native animals, forests, lakes, and other features of the region. In many cultures, they provide a rich oral history of the past. Some cultures such as that of the Irish, Celtic, or Gaelic people tend to have popular and memorable fables, which spread around the world and are adopted by other cultures.

Though fables involve the natural environment, talking animals, and archetype humans, they also often feature tales of gods and humanity's attempts to understand life's meaning. As human culture began to become mechanized, fables left their pastoral origins behind and became more critical of human behavior and avarice. This was the birth in western culture of the Aesopic fable, named after Aesop, a slave who lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BC. Most of the well-told stories in western culture today originated in the time of Aesop, though no direct writings can be attributed to him.

The telling of a fable today is considered something for an audience of children. Since they are relatively short stories that are full of wondrous events and teach values, they are considered a good way of educating children in proper behavior in society. In the Middle Ages, however, these stories were considered to be an element of high literature and were adult stories meant to convey adult themes. A famous French fabulist, or fable teller, of the time, Jean de La Fontaine, who lived from 1621 to 1695, used such narrative storytelling as a means of criticizing the court, the church, and the ruling class of his day. His example was later followed by English, Spanish, and Russian fabulists in their own native lands.

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Discussion Comments
By KoiwiGal — On Jul 30, 2012

@umbra21 - What I love about stories like Fables is how versatile they are when you break them down to those kinds of simple themes. They are used in media as diverse as sophisticated literary fiction, or comic books, or music.

One of the more prominent modern examples is the game series called Fable, which I believe is up to Fable 3. It has all kinds of references to classic stories and fables in the gameplay, blending them even with a more modern setting.

By umbra21 — On Jul 30, 2012

@indigomoth - Well, actually I prefer the Aarne-Thompson classification system although it mostly applies to folktales rather than fables. There's probably a fairly fine line between the two though and I definitely know some fables which would fit into the criteria.

It classifies stories by their themes and reoccurring plot patterns so that it is easier to draw patterns among them. One of the things I find most fascinating is how much in common so many different cultures have when it comes to the structure and themes of their stories.

One of the categories in this classification system is "looking for a wife" another is "The clever fox or other animal" so you can see how they could easily put fables into this system.

By indigomoth — On Jul 29, 2012

If you're interested in the study of fables, you might want to check out the Perry Index, which is a way of categorizing them. It's used specifically to categorize Aesop's fables but I've seen it used for other ones as well.

Most of Aesop's fables are known to have come from other cultures or were used well before Aesop told them, in some cases up to 1000 years before. The Perry index puts the fables into groups by origin and arranges them in alphabetical order as well.

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