Definition of Fable

A fable is a short piece of fiction that features animals in the role of the protagonist and usually includes or illustrates a moral. A fable can also have other inanimate objects, mythical creatures, or forces of nature as main characters. The distinguishing feature of a fable is the anthropomorphism or personification involved that leads to a moral lesson being taught. At times, this moral lesson is summed up at the end of the fable in a short maxim.

The word fable comes from the Latin word fābula, meaning “a story or tale.” A person who writes fables is called a fabulist.

Difference Between Fable and Parable

Fables and parables are very similar in nature in that they are both succinct stories meant to teach a lesson. However, parables involve humans as their main characters and exclude anthropomorphism and personification. The definition of fable, on the other hand, requires a fable to have non-human characters in the main roles.

Common Examples of Fable

There are many famous examples of fables from ancient times, especially the collection of Aesop’s Fables, many of which are a part of common culture. For example, most children hear the story of the Tortoise and the Hare in some form or another, especially accompanied with the maxim, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Other popular fables in common culture involve the Br’er Rabbit and Anansi the Spider.

Many films made for children are modern interpretations of the fable genre, especially films made by Pixar and DreamWorks. Here are some fable examples in children’s films:

  • Bambi
  • Ratatouille
  • Cars
  • WALL-E
  • Toy Story
  • Finding Nemo
  • Shrek
  • Madagascar
  • Kung Fu Panda

Significance of Fable in Literature

Fable is an important genre in literature, and has been a part of almost every culture for as long as oral storytelling stretches back. Fables are especially popular to tell to children to instruct them in the moral groundings of their culture. Therefore, fables provide an excellent clue to those outside a particular culture what is most important to the people from that culture. Many fables are retold in countless versions up to the present day, such as the enduringly popular Fables written by Aesop, a man who lived in Ancient Greece. Writers of fables often choose this form to include a certain amount of didacticism in their works. Generally the fable genre is not intended for adult readers, though there are some notable exceptions, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Examples of Fable in Literature

Example #1

Some days later, while stalking his prey in the forest, the Lion was caught in the toils of a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring. The Mouse knew the voice and quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. Running to one of the great ropes that bound him, she gnawed it until it parted, and soon the Lion was free.

“You laughed when I said I would repay you,” said the Mouse. “Now you see that even a Mouse can help a Lion.”

(“The Lion and the Mouse” by Aesop)

Aesop is perhaps the most famous fabulist in all of history, having created scores of fables on his own. His story “The Lion and the Mouse” is one of the most popular fable examples from his collection, and has been told and retold throughout many generations. In this example of fable, a lion spares a mouses life, who promises to repay the lion for his merciful act. The lion doubts this, but indeed the mouse is able to free the lion days later from a hunter’s net. This fable is intended to instruct listeners and readers about the value of kindness and mercy.

Example #2

Then he felt very bashful, and tucked his head under his wing. He did not know what this was all about. He felt so very happy, but he wasn’t at all proud, for a good heart never grows proud. He thought about how he had been persecuted and scorned, and now he heard them all call him the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. The lilacs dipped their clusters into the stream before him, and the sun shone so warm and so heartening. He rustled his feathers and held his slender neck high, as he cried out with full heart: “I never dreamed there could be so much happiness, when I was the ugly duckling.”

(“The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen)

Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote the famous fable example “The Ugly Duckling” in the mid-1800s. It is now a very popular story in which the ugliest duckling in a litter transforms into the most beautiful. The moral of the story can be understood as the importance of not judging others by superficial means, and the possibility of internal transformation and betterment.

Example #3

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

(“A Little Fable” by Franz Kafka)

Franz Kafka is a modern example of a fabulist, and was very interested in the way that fables can succinctly tell a story and impart a lesson. The above paragraph is the entirety of his story “A Little Fable,” showing the futility of the mouse’s life. It’s quite a bleak fable, as opposed to the morally uplifting fables written by Aesop and others.

Example #4

“But now,” says the Once-ler, “now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

(The Lorax by Dr. Seuss)

Dr. Seuss was a popular children’s author, and created many contemporary fables. One of his most beloved books is The Lorax, which tells the story of a mythical creature who wanted to protect the trees from industry. Unfortunately, the Once-ler, who wants to cut down the trees for his own profits, doesn’t listen to the Lorax until it’s almost too late. The Once-ler recounts this story to someone passing through town, and notes that that Lorax left the mysterious inscription “Unless” on a stone before leaving. The Once-ler gives the listener seeds to plant new trees and concludes with the maxim, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This modern fable is particularly relevant in the age of environmentalism and industrialism.

Example #5

The birds did not understand Snowball’s long words, but they accepted his explanation, and all the humbler animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart. FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD, was inscribed on the end wall of the barn, above the Seven Commandments and in bigger letters.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

George Orwell wrote his novel Animal Farm in response to the rise of Stalin. Animal Farm is a wonderful example of fable in contemporary setting. The main characters in the novel are all animals, but they represent different characters who were important in the Russian Revolution. Orwell used the fable form for this novel to subtly show the true evils of Russian Communism. In this short excerpt, we can see that the character of Snowball relied on maxims to get his points across to the other animals, such as “Four legs good, two legs bad.” Orwell was suspicious of such oversimplifications as he saw being perpetuated in his time.

Test Your Knowledge of Fable

1. Which of the following statements is the best fable definition?
A. A short work that uses ancient people to teach a lesson.
B. A succinct piece of prose that features animals or other inanimate objects to illustrate a moral.
C. A true story that teaches children how to behave.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Choose the true statement from the following:
A. Only ancient writers created fables.
B. Fables and parables are synonymous genres.
C. Fables have been found in a multitude of cultures from many different eras.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following maxims is an appropriate ending for Aesop’s Fable “The Lion and the Mouse”?
A. A kindness is never wasted.
B. Strength is all-important.
C. Mercy is for the weak.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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