What is Fable: Definition, Characteristics and Examples

Fable is a short narrative in prose or verse which is devised to convey some useful moral or other didactic lessons about human manners and behavior. Non-human creatures or inanimate things are normally the characters. The presentation of human beings as animals is the characteristic of the literary fable and is unlike the fable that still flourishes among primitive peoples.

The genre probably arose in Greece, and the first collection of fables is ascribed to Aesop (6th c. BC). His principal successors were Phaedrus and Babrius, who flourished in the 1st c. AD. Phaedrus preserved Aesop’s fables and in the 10th c., a prose adaptation of Phaedrus’s translation appeared under the title Romulus, a work whose popularity lasted until the 17th c. Even the Reynard the Fox’ series were well known and imitated in Britain by  Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, Robert Henryson, and others. A famous collection of Indian fables was the Bidpai, which were probably composed originally in Sanskrit C. AD 300. Many versions of these were made in prose and verse in different languages between the 3rd c. and 16th c. The best of the medieval fabulists was Marie de France who, c. 1200, composed 102 fables in verse. After her, came La Fontaine who raised the whole level of the fable and is generally acknowledged as the world’s master. He took most of the stories from Aesop and Phaedrus but translated them in his verse. His Fables choisies were published in twelve books (1668, 1678-9, 1694).

La Fontaine had many imitators: principally, Eustache de Noble, Pignotti, John Gay, J. P. C. de Florian and Tomás Iriarte. Later, Lessing followed the style of Aesop. John Gay’s Fifty-One Fables in Verse were published in 1727. In Russia, the greatest of the fabulists was Ivan Krylov, who translated a number of La Fontaine’s fables and between 1810 and 1820 published nine books of fables. More recently Rudyard Kipling made a notable contribution to the genre with Just So Stories (1902). We should also mention James Thurber’s droll Fables of Our Time (1940), Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a satirical fable, George Orwell’s remarkable political satire Animal Farm (1945), which is in fable form.

Fables enjoyed something of a vogue in the 1920s and 1930s, in works by T. F. Powys, David Garnett, John Collier, and others, and they have always been popular in children’s literature.

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