Fable in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is A Fable?
  • 1:15 Examples Of Fables
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

What do lions, tigers, and bears have to do with learning how to be a better human? Find out when you read this lesson on fables and look at a few examples of this ancient literary genre.

What is a Fable?

Whenever you hear the word 'fable,' no doubt images of witty talking animals run through your mind. That's because these clever critters play a big part in making the genre what it is. Derived from the Latin fabula, which means tale in English, a fable is a short story that teaches a moral lesson. Fables typically use non-human creatures as their primary characters, almost all of whom have been anthropomorphized, or given some human characteristic.

For many of us Westerners, the mention of fables also conjures the name 'Aesop.' Collections of moral narratives under the name of Aesop's Fables have circulated since antiquity. Very little is known about this supposed former slave, but it's theorized that if he existed at all he was born some time in the late 7th century B.C.

Whoever he was, Aesop left a major impression on the history of the genre in Western literature. His creatures, which have human mannerisms, vices, and language, can safely give moral advice and teach valuable life lessons by amusing people and without making them defensive. But it's not only Aesop who wrote fables - they've been used for centuries, by all cultures throughout the world.

Examples of Fables

The Tortoise and the Hare

'Slow and steady wins the race.' We've all heard it a million times, and it's all thanks to Aesop's 'The Tortoise and the Hare.' In this story, an arrogant hare mockingly challenges a tortoise to a footrace. Knowing that she has every chance of beating her opponent, the hare loiters about a field, napping and nibbling on clover. When she awakes, however, the tortoise is nowhere to be found, for he has already crossed the finish line. In the end, the slow and steady pace of the tortoise did win the day.

The Frog in the Shallow Well

Although Aesop is the first name we think of when we hear the term, much of Chinese literature could be considered fables. Take, for instance, the story of 'The Frog in the Shallow Well', in which a proud frog boasts to his turtle friend that his home in the well is the best home there could be. He has worms, crabs, and tadpoles to eat, can play in the mud and has all the amenities and free rein a frog could hope for.

He invites the turtle, who lives in the sea, to come visit more often. The turtle, however, shakes his head and tells him, 'Even a distance of a thousand miles cannot give you an idea of the sea's width; even a height of a thousand meters cannot give you an idea of its depth.' He tells the frog that the sea level is unaffected by drought or flood, whereas the shallow well is subject to so many inconstant dangers. Hearing this, the frog becomes aware of his own ignorance about what lies outside of his world.

This story about individual insignificance was most likely encased as part of a larger rhetorical dialogue or other framing work. That means that the larger story involved people having a philosophical discussion or debate of some kind, while the fables and their morals are used at certain points to provide emphasis or clarification of a point. Conversely, the way that we have inherited Aesop's Fables is as a collection of tales that have no intrinsic connection to one another (aside from the attribution to Aesop) or to a larger narrative framework.

Many of the fables originally attributed to Aesop most likely had their start in India. However, much like their Chinese counterparts, the fables of The Panchatantra are inserted in a broader rhetorical framework, where the stories help the speaker prove or illustrate a point. There are five sections in The Panchatantra, in fact the word 'Panchatantra' translates to 'Five Principles' in Sanskrit.

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