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A fable is a short and concise story that provides the reader with a moral lesson at the end.

These stories are usually quite brief and therefore easy to remember and reiterate. Fables are didactic in nature, meaning they are told and relayed with the intention to teach the listener something. They usually include an animal story created with the use of anthropomorphism. The animals stand-in for human beings and learn lessons that are valuable for those listening. 

Fable pronunciation: Fay-bull

What is a Fable? Definition of Fable


Definition and Explanation of Fable 

The word “fable” comes from the Latin “fibula,” meaning “story.” This word is derived from “fari,” meaning “to speak.” Together they imply a spoken story, one that is passed down through verbal storytelling. Fables can be written in prose and verse. It uses elements like plants, animals, inanimate objects, and more to tell a story about life and what’s the best thing to do in a particular situation. These elements of the fable are usually anthropomorphic, meaning that the animals/objects/plants have the ability to speak, reason, and display human emotions. 


Elements of a Fable 

  • Tells a moral story. 
  • Uses animals as the main characters. 
  • These characters are anthropomorphic. 
  • Personification is also used. 
  • The stories are applicable to any listener or reader. 
  • The characters learn something about common sense, the treatment of others, or how to behave more broadly throughout their lives. 


Examples of Fables 

Aesops’s Fables 

Aesop’s Fables, also known as Aesopica, is one of the oldest collections of fables in the Western world. It is credited to a slave and storyteller who is believed to have lived between 620 and 564 BCE. The stories are incredibly popular and have descended through the centuries into a contemporary form that’s still read. The stories were originally told orally and were not written down until 300 years after Aesop’s death. To this day new stories are added to Aesop’s corpus, some of which have other cultural origins. When speaking about Aesop, Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher of the 1st century, said the following: 

[…] like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. 

Some of Aesop’s fables are listed below: 

  • The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse 
  • The Wolf and the Crane 
  • The Frogs and the Ox 
  • Belling the Cat
  • The Hare and the Tortoise 
  • The Ant and the Grasshopper 

His stories relayed lessons such as “every man for himself,” “slow but steady wins the race,” and “look before you leap.” 


The Chinese Zodiac 

The Chinese Zodiac is a source of numerous fables in regard to the animals that make up its order. The stories of the zodiac have been written down for thousands of years and one of the most important is how the animals came together. It is said that the emperor called a meeting, stating that the order of the years would be decided b the first twelve animals that headed his call, in the order they arrived. Every one of these animals has its own story about how it arrived. It is those details that supposedly shed light on someone born in the corresponding years. For example, the rat arrived when he convinced an ox and a cat to take him across the river. He killed the cat and ran ahead of the ox, ensuring that he’d be the first to arrive. Those born in that year are described as cunning and ambitious. 


Fable or Parable 

A fable and parable, although similar, do have different elements. The latter does not use plants, animals, inanimate objects, or forces of nature, in addition to anthropomorphism, to tell the story. The main actors are human beings. Fables, on the other hand, are defined by their use of non-human characters. Parables and fables both intend to teach a moral lesson though, with parables coming more from a religious or spiritual background, such as the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Fables originate from a variety of sources and are not necessarily tied to a religious source. 


Fable or Fairy Tale 

Fairy tales are short stories, as fables are, that involve fantastical elements. Fairy tales are far more centered on the “magical” elements of stories than fables are though. Their characters are otherworldly and include ogres, fairies, witches, and more, in addition to talking and thinking animals. These characters use magic to accomplish amazing feats, some good and some bad. It should also be noted that fairy tales are not usually written with the express point of teaching a moral lesson. 


Why Do Writers Use Fables? 

Writers create or use fables in their writing because of their timeless and universal natures. Fables are passed down through generations meaning they are often tied to the reader’s childhoods and their personal understanding of morality. The inclusion of a well-known or even a lesser-known fable in a work of fiction is a way of appealing to that reader’s life experiences and solidifying the connection between real life and the world of the novel, short story, etc. On the other hand, there are some writers who still seek to create fable-like stories. It’s entirely possible to write new ones but it’s a difficult task considering the wide array of fables that already exist in the world. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Folklore: stories that people tell. These include folk stores, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.
  • Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
  • Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
  • Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.


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