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Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.
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.
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.
In one of these sections, a group of birds is discussing where they should turn for advice in their mission to defeat the ocean. A plover turns to his feathered friends and suggests that they seek the counsel of an old gander who, the plover explains, has proven his cleverness in the past. The winged narrator then tells the story of how the gander helped his whole flock of wild geese escape a hunter's snare by playing dead. With his digression complete, the plover makes it clear that he told the story in order to prove not only that they should go see the gander, but that people should listen to the wisdom of the elderly.
The Jungle Book
The fables of India inspired not only the Greeks but Rudyard Kipling, as well. Many of us have fond childhood memories of The Jungle Book, Kipling's 1894 collection of fascinating tales set in the wilds of India. Probably most familiar to us are the fables involving Mowgli, the 'man-cub' who was raised by a pack of wolves.
We don't often find humans as characters in this genre; however, when fables do include them it's generally to stress a particularly important issue. With Mowgli, for instance, Kipling can discuss the issues of cultural strain in British-occupied India. The indigenous Indian wildlife is able to nurture a human child and eventually return him to human society. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, if wild beasts are able to instill important 'human' qualities, such as cooperation, loyalty, and personal duty in a young boy, then who's to say what the idea of 'civilization' really is?
Like Kipling, George Orwell was a native of British India, and he undoubtedly heard the same stories as a boy that his predecessor must have. And the Indian tendency to produce fables was reborn once again when Orwell published his renowned Animal Farm in 1943. Subtitled 'A Fairy Story,' Orwell's masterpiece is indeed one extended fable, which depicts a rural farm run entirely by the animals who live there. Through extensive metaphor and allusion, Orwell uses the animals' overtly communist system and the problems with it as a means of renouncing the cruel injustices of the Soviet Union.
Let's review. A fable is a short story that teaches a moral lesson. As far as we can tell, fables have existed for as long as people have been telling stories and have been cultivated by every culture across the globe.
Generally speaking, fables primarily depend on anthropomorphized animals or other non-human entities as their characters. Doing so allows the fabulist (the person telling or writing the story) to be more direct in his or her moral criticisms and advice.
Much of our interaction with fables in the Western world is through the collection known as Aesop's Fables, named for a former Greek slave of dubious origin. Many of the other examples of the genre from around the world and over time demonstrate their authors' abilities to incorporate fables into larger works of rhetoric (i.e. debates) or fiction.
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Back To CoursePSAT Prep: Tutoring Solution
17 chapters | 173 lessons