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Beast Fable: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Singing mice, donkeys that stand on two legs, jealous pigs? Learn about the beast fable and the 6th-century slave who told entertaining stories with a moral lesson.

Definition

Stories are often told to entertain. However, sometimes stories serve a second purpose - to teach a lesson. A beast fable, sometimes called a beast epic if it's a longer story, is a poem or story in which animals talk and act like human beings. The animals will also typically have human feelings and emotions. And what truly makes a beast fable more than just a bunch of talking frogs or laughing horses is that it has an obvious moral lesson to share.

Aesop

The person most associated with beast fables is Ancient Greek storyteller Aesop. Aesop was a 6th-century slave who was known to be an intense observer of both human nature and the animal world. The animals in Aesop's fables act like humans - they may walk, talk and eat like people. However, they also retain their own naturalistic animal qualities. Like in the example below, the tortoise is slow and the hare is fast in the story, just like they would be in real life. Aesop was not just interested in telling simple stories, every one of his stories had a specific moral to draw from.

'The Tortoise and the Hare'

One of Aesop's most famous beast fables is 'The Tortoise and the Hare.' The fable starts with the speedy hare making fun of the much slower Tortoise. The Tortoise, who does not feel threatened at all by the hare, responds to the insult. 'Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.' Of course, the Hare thinks the race will be laughable, an easy victory. The two animals begin the race together. The Tortoise does not waiver, never stops moving and maintains a slow but steady pace.

Meanwhile, the cocky Hare thinks she has all the time in the world to beat the Tortoise. So she decides to take a nap in the middle of the race. Valuable time passes and by the time the Hare wakes from her nap, she realizes that she will need to move quickly to win the race. But it's too late, the Tortoise has not only already crossed the finish line but is taking a nap of her own after her sweet victory.

The moral of the story: slow and steady wins the race. It doesn't matter if you're stronger and faster, if you underestimate your opponent and act cocky, you will lose.

Slow and steady wins the race
The Tortoise and the Hare

Beast Fables in Animated Films

We often see beast fables in children's stories. In fact, just about every Disney cartoon ever made has a clear moral lesson. Animated films are a way to tell a moralistic tale to a youngster in an agreeable fashion. It's sort of like hiding broccoli in a slice of pizza. The kid may sort of know it's there but the taste is covered up with extra cheese, sauce and garlic.

If a beast fable writer wants to make an obvious comment on the negative aspects of human nature, he or she will simply replace people with an animal typecast. For example, in the commercial blockbuster An American Tail (1986), a family of Russian mice is forced to immigrate to America in order to escape persecution after their village is destroyed by a group of cats. The mice had heard that there are no cats in America and that the streets are paved with cheese (metaphor for the American dream). Of course, when the mice get to America, the streets are not paved with cheese and there are cats everywhere. An American Tail is commenting on social classes in society. In the film, the mice are the oppressed and the cats are the oppressor.

The Disney animated film, The Fox and the Hound (1981), tells the story of a red fox and a hound dog. The two species are supposed to be enemies but since they meet as innocent youngsters, they become pals who vow to be best friends forever. As the two grow up, their families pit them against each other, because the two species are not permitted to be friends. The hound is just supposed to hunt the fox, and the fox is supposed to be fearful of the hound.

The fox and the hound are best friends despite being different species.
The Fox and the Hound

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