What is a fable?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the fable genre with help from scholars Patrick Olivelle, Christos A. Zafiropoulos, Harriet Spiegel, and others, helping you analyze a fable, and discussing ways to bring fables to your story craft.

Fables are a ubiquitous story form, found throughout the history of story transmission and in the folkloric traditions of people all over the world. Perhaps the oldest and most widespread of these are the Panchatantra and the collection of tales attributed to Aesop, who might or might not have been a real person. These two pillars of the fable genre will be the focus of my attention here, along with a brief foray into Harriet Spiegel's translation of Marie de France's Fables for contrast.

Folkloric Definition of the Fable

Zafiropoulos offers an excellent definition of the Greek fable in his work on the Collectio Augustana, which is the oldest complete collection of Greek fables we have (2001, 23). He writes that:

The Greek fable is a brief and simple fictitious story with a constant structure, generally with animal protagonists (but also humans, gods, and inanimate objects, e.g. trees), which gives an exemplary and popular message on practical ethics and which comments, usually in a cautionary way, on the course of action to be followed or avoided in a particular situation. (Zafiropoulos 2001, 1)

This gives us a great deal to work with, but it also needs unpacking.

Fable Structure

Let's start with structure. Aesop's Fables are prose narratives comprised of four parts: the information, a moment of choice, a final action, and a moral. In them, the protagonist is situated in place and time, she makes a choice between courses of action, the outcome of her choice is indicated, and a moral written beneath the tale (called an epimythium) makes the point of the narrative clear (Zafiropoulos 2001, 7).

The Panchatantra contains five books of "emboxed" prose and poetic narratives, in which a tale is situated within another tale, which is itself situated in a third tale, and so on. Outer tales frame inner tales and introduce them by way of a proverb, a brief allusion, or a poetic verse. The structure here is more complex and rooted in ancient Indian scripture, but these are still morality tales containing characters who find themselves in unusual situations, make choices for good or ill, and face the consequences of their actions (Olivelle 2009, xiv-xvi).

Marie de France's poetic fables follow Aesopic structure more closely, and indeed, many of them are Greek fables retold. However, there is no epimythium set off from the rest of her narratives; it's embedded at the end of each poem.

Fable Characters

For the most part, fable characters are animals. So while they might also be humans, gods, or trees, my focus here is on animals and their importance to the genre. Zafiropoulos writes that animals were often used in ancient Greek thought as a means of discussing human morality (2001, 39), and Olivelle tells us that in the Panchatantra, animal society mirrors human principles of government and political science (2009, xvii). Jill Mann offers a sensible reason for this when she writes that the presence of animal protagonists removes any expectation of psychological complexity on the part of the listener or reader, so that the behaviour of the animal is seen as inevitable or natural (2010, 39). I would add to this an observation about the appearance of aliens in science fiction literature and television, who often exhibit human characteristics, offering readers and viewers an opportunity to see both themselves and the Other through the lens of a non-human being's person and choices. When the point of the narrative is a moral one, animals and aliens can serve much the same function, making the writers of Aesop's Fables, the Panchatantra, and Star Trek fabulists together.

Fable Ethics

This brings us to the most important element of the fable, its message. Zafiropoulos writes that Greek fables were never told for the sake of entertainment but rather to illustrate a moral or ethical point the fabulist wanted to promote or censure (2001, 15). These messages, along with the frequent appearance of animal protagonists, have long made fables a favourite tool for teaching children. But while Aesop's Fables are simple stories, the Panchatantra is complex, and much of Marie de France's collection is taken up with the responsibilities of rulers and subjects to one another, the problems of unhappy marriages, and the concerns of medieval women (Marie de France 1987, 5). So these tales are very much for adults as well.

With that in mind, the fable collections under discussion here do not take a single position on right and wrong or good and evil. Greek fables do illuminate popular moral and ethical principles, but scholars have debated their class implications as well. Some see them as a means for the lower classes to speak out about social injustice. Others argue the ruling class used them as a "mechanism of ideological oppression" (Zafiropoulos 2001, 30-31). Further, Aesop's Fables are not internally consistent in their messaging. For example, "The Dog, the Cock, and the Fox" advises people to divert the attention of enemies to more capable opponents, while "The Sleeping Dog and the Wolf" advises self-sufficiency in the face of enemies. In a similar way, the Panchatantra "... presents strong arguments for both sides of an issue, citing proverbs containing age-old wisdom and narrating illustrative stories in support of both" (Olivelle 2009, xxxiv). To my eye, this inconsistency points to the fable's use in the oral traditions of Greece and India, where they might have served whatever need was contextually appropriate to the situation in which they were employed.

The Checklist

As we saw last month, the fairy tale often contains a moral message, but it's infused like a medicinal herb into the wine of an otherwise fantastical short story intended to entertain. The fable is medicine, and it may be delivered in any number of ways so long as it does the work of moral and ethical instruction. With this in mind, my checklist for essential fable components is short, with the caveat that fabulists planning to work in the genre should begin by looking at ways various cultures tell the tales.

Fables are:

  • Narratives of Many Kinds: Tales that may be written as poetry or prose and may be structured in a variety of ways.
  • Designed to Be Instructive: Told or written specifically for the purpose of imparting a moral or ethical message, which might be set off from the rest of the fable at the end.
  • Often Populated with Animals: Protagonists who mirror human characteristics and behaviours, make human decisions, and meet with human successes and failures as a result.

Example of a Fable

Ready to work? Great! Give the short piece that follows a good read, and using the information above, see what elements of the fable you find in it.

"The Sleeping Dog and the Wolf"

A dog lay asleep in front of a farm building. A wolf pounced on him and was going to make a meal of him, when the dog begged him not to eat him straight away:

"At the moment," he said, "I am thin and lean. But wait a little while; my masters will be celebrating a wedding feast. I will get some good mouthfuls and will fatten up and will be a much better meal for you."

The wolf believed him and went on his way. A little while later he came back and found the dog asleep on top of the house. He stopped below and shouted up to him, reminding him of their agreement. Then the dog said:

"Oh, wolf! If you ever see me asleep in front of the farm again, don't wait for the wedding banquet!"

This fable shows that wise people, when they get out of a fix, take care of themselves all the rest of their life. (Aesop 1998, 136)


How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this is a short prose narrative comprised of the four-part Aesopic structure mentioned above; the dog's predicament is introduced, he chooses to try and talk his way out of it, he goes to the roof where he is safe, and a moral is presented after the tale about wisdom and self-reliance in the face of danger. The tale is instructive, and more importantly, instruction is the point of the tale. Finally, both the protagonist and the antagonist are animals who think and behave as humans do.

How a Fable Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Fables

In ancient Greece, fables were included in persuasive verbal arguments to illustrate various moral and ethical points. The same technique might be used in fiction as part of a character's dialogue. In ancient India, fables were placed inside other fables, and a writer might do similar work in fiction by "emboxing" a fable inside a larger tale, either by setting it off as a chapter introduction or by including it in the body of a novel or short story. I would add that much of the Aesopica is quite short; some fables are only a few lines, so it would be simple from a structural point of view to include these pieces of folklore in your writing.

However, as a folklorist, I'm also concerned with the cultural context of fables. For example, I would feel more comfortable bringing Aesopica to fiction than I would Brer Rabbit fables, which are tales of African American resistance. My reason is that while Aesop's Fables are Greek, they're also quite old and part of our classical canon. Brer Rabbit's exploits are, in the words of Robert Cochran, "...deadly serious maneuvers allowing his survival and even triumph in a world ruled by enemies bent upon his destruction" (Cochran 2004, 21). So these tales are more recent, more intimate to African American culture, and better told by people who understand the resistance, survival, and triumph in them. With this caveat in mind, I might still write a fictional person of colour who loved and told these fables, under the right narrative circumstances and with a liberal dose of care.

Creation of New Fables

Marie de France claims that her Fables collection is comprised of translated material, but Spiegel writes that this is because medieval writers were modest about their work. The first forty are from the Aesopica, but the remaining sixty-three have not been found together in any text older than Fables, and it is entirely possible that some are Marie de France's own compositions (Marie de France 1987, 6-9). This is important because her writing is sympathetic to women and the poor and because she has a keen sense of justice. Contemporary fiction writers might take a page from her book, so to speak, and reimagine existing fables or use them as templates for new moral and ethical tales.

If I were approaching such a project, I would decide upon a moral or ethical axis for my fable, determine whether prose or poetry best fit the needs of my novel or short story, outline my fable using the structure mentioned above for Aesop's Fables, and select animals to serve as protagonists. I would also think about popular conceptions of animal characteristics. For example, would a bee or an ermine be a better choice for a fable about the virtues of cleverness, and why? From my perspective, bees might be featured in fables about prudence and preparedness, but ermine are quick, curious creatures who've invaded my home in the winter months and stolen food from live traps intended to catch them. Your mileage may vary, but I know which animal I would choose for a fable about cleverness!

A Closing Passage on the Fable

Those persons, all, who are well-read, 
Should study and pay careful heed 
To fine accounts in worthy tomes, 
To models and to axioms: 
That which philosophers did find 
And wrote about and kept in mind. 
The sayings which they heard, they wrote, 
So that the morals we would note; 
Thus those who wish to mend their ways 
Can think about what wisdom says. (Marie de France 1987, 29)

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of the tall tale.


  • Aesop. 1998. The Complete Fables. Translated by Olivia Temple and Robert Temple. London: Penguin Books.
  • Cochran, Robert. 2004. ‘Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris’. African American Review 38 (1): 21–34.
  • Mann, Jill. 2010. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. 1st ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Marie de France. 1987. Fables. Translated by Harriet Spiegel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2009. Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. 1st ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Zafiropoulos, Christos A. 2001. Ethics in Aesop’s Fables: The Augustana Collection. Leiden: Brill.
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