Fables 101: History and Literary Significance


Fables 101 articles are centred on the history and literary interpretations of famous fables. Although widely popular, these stories have various implicit explanations on the literary, cultural, historical, and political levels, which remain unknown to the shallow reader. Due to their appearance in numerous literary works, this series will delve deeper into the fables’ literary connotations and interpret their features in several contexts. These analyses will broaden the reader’s perspective of the fable's origins, contributing fabulists, and provide an additional layer of meaning to these stories that have long been taken for granted.

Fables 101 is divided into five articles as follows:

  1. Fables 101: Uncovering the History of the Fable

  2. Fables 101: Aesop

  3. Fables 101: La Fontaine The Model Fabulist

  4. Fables 101: Sharma’s Moral Guide The Panchatantra

  5. Fables 101: Modern Relevance and Use of the Fable

Uncovering the History of the Fable

It is common for readers to confuse various comparable literary genres such as the fairy tale, the myth, and the fable. However, each has a specific set of characteristics that distinguishes it from the other genres. A fable, by definition, is a fictional story written in prose or verse that depicts animals and conveys a general truth or moral. Much like its similar genres, the fable started as an oral tradition that later found its way into written manuscripts. Blackham (2014) believes fables began spreading around 200 B.C. (p. xi).This genre has been popular in children´s literature due to its didactic nature. However, this reputation was not always present. Thus, it is crucial to trace the fable’s origins and history to accurately study its progression throughout the years and how it came to enter the pedagogical field.

Figure 1: Anna Gantimurova. Fable of La Fontaine (2018).

Much like most ancient literary genres, the fable first highly evolved and progressed as a literary genre before finding its way to the written document. The first documented fable is traced back to ancient Greece with Aesop, who is considered the father of the fable. Aesop was a formerly enslaved Greek storyteller who wrote a collection of fables known as the 'Aesopic fables.' Blackham (2014) compares Aesop’s fables to “an alphabet of humanity of which a language is made to write down and hand down the first philosophic certainties” (p.16). Aesop wrote about general and universal themes that paved the way for later fabulists. Additionally, he did not only rely exclusively on animals as the centre of his stories but also used personified objects, plants, and even gods. Scholars argue that Aesop also represented himself within his fables in the form of a sage old man who would intervene in certain situations to present wise lessons to the morally lost characters.

Figure 2: Pixxus. The Lion and the Mouse (2019).

Furthermore, Aesop’s works became extremely popular during the 16th and 17th centuries due to their political aspect. According to Patterson (1991):

Partly thanks to their traditions of origin—how fables came to be written, by whom and why—traditions which were deeply interesting to sixteenth and seventeenth century readers, the stories of the beasts, the birds, the trees, and the insects quickly acquired or recovered their function as a medium of political analysis and communication (pp. 1-2).

Therefore, many modern authors have utilised Aesop’s formats and techniques to produce politically charged fables that include governmental and social criticism without seeming too obvious. One significant example of such a politically charged Aesopian fable is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a modern fable which vaguely replicates or even simplifies Aesop’s The Wolves and the Dogs. Blackham (2014) discusses how “Orwell’s image is also a drastic simplification, but concentrates on the essentials for contemplation and consideration, intending, not like Lukacs to shame, but like Aesop to awaken” (p.136).

Figure 3: Charles H. Bennett. The Fables of Aesop and others, translated into human nature (1875).

On the other hand, La Fontaine is an icon within the fabulist domain as he contributed 239 fables and thus, left a significant mark on the entire genre. Our knowledge of this genre has mostly been influenced by the works of La Fontaine, which were published in the 17th century and used as a model for his successors. His fables were, for the most part, 'animalistic fables' — those that use personified animals as characters. They also had a dominant didactic nature as they often included some moral or life lessons at the end. However, many academics rejected La Fontaine's exclusive use of humanised animals in his stories, claiming that he condemned and even belittled humankind. Although it was not a novel practice, La Fontaine’s choice of characters offended some who thought of his fables as presenting a mocking and condescending view of humankind. Conversely, McGowan (1966) advocates for the fabulist, saying:

He has not chosen animals and other elements of the universe to speak for man in order to condemn him but rather, following a long established tradition of works which aimed to please and to profit man, La Fontaine sets out to show man to himself, to mark his place in society, by means of those animals who are made to share the subtle complexities of human beings (p.267).

Thus, La Fontaine’s innovative narrative technique was a way to attract an audience and present them with a concluding moral, whether they agreed with him or not. Wadsworth (1955) claims that “scholars have barely begun, in the past 20 or 30 years, to remove the veil of anecdotes and legends which has always enveloped La Fontaine, and to perceive the real character of the poet and his work” (p. 241). Consequently, La Fontaine’s primary audience focused on the unconventional format while they should have given their full attention to the intended messages and lessons.

Both of these renowned legends within the literary field have revolutionalized the concept of the fable for it to encompass a wider and broader set of meanings that will be later dissected in this series. The fables in question include a multitude of symbols and connotations that will be analyzed, explained, and related to their time period later on in the series.

Figure 4: Arthur Rackham. Aesop’s Fables (1912).

To summarise, the fable is an antique literary genre that is still relevant to the modern reader and is used by authors for instructive purposes. It has changed and varied with time as it catered to the narrative preferences of each and every writer who customised the genre to their favor. From Aesop to Orwell, one fact about the fable is, as Blackham (2014) rightfully says in his preface, that “the fable is a story that tells a truth, not a true story" (p.i). Through meaningful storytelling, the fable will remain an essential tool to educate, moralise, and criticise society.

Bibliographical References:

Blackham, H. J. (2014). The fable as literature. A&C Black.

McGowan, M. M. (1966). Moral intention in the fables of La Fontaine. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 29(1), 264-281. Patterson, A. (1991). Fables of power: Aesopian writing and political history. Duke University Press. Wadsworth, P. A. (1955). La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld. Romanic Review, 46(4), 241.

Visual Sources:

Author Photo

Elsa Abdallah

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