Fables 101: History and Literary Significance


Fables 101 articles are centered on the history and literary interpretations of famous fables. Although widely popular, these stories have various 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 will interpret their feature in several contexts. These analyses will broaden the reader’s perspective of Fable and will provide an additional layer of meaning to these stories that have long been taken for granted.

Fables 101 series is mainly divided into five articles, as follows:

Fables 101: Uncovering the History of the Fable

Fables 101: Aesop

• Fables 101: La Fontaine The Model Fabulist

• Fables 101: Sharma’s Moral Guide The Panchatantra

• Fables 101: Modern Relevance and Use

The Oldest Fable: Aesop

Throughout the years, scholars have struggled to clearly define the fable, as its characteristic features have evolved and changed over time. The biggest misconception about fables is, arguably, their direct association with animals: although a significant amount of them do include animals at the center of their narration, one cannot generalize these fables as a lot of fabulists included other types of characters in their works such as humans, plants, and objects as well. The Aesopic Fable, named after the Greek fabulist Aesop, is considered to be one of the oldest literary genres, dating back to the fourth century BC. Aesop, otherwise known as “the father of the fable,” laid the foundation upon which later writers built their works. However, there is a considerable amount of ambiguity surrounding Aesop’s fables and their origins, characteristics, and literary meanings, all of which this article will attempt to decipher.

Figure 1: Illustration of Aesop. (2020).

The fable’s oral origins make it difficult for researchers to accurately pinpoint its beginning as a genre or to identify its founders. Surprisingly, Aesop never wrote any of the fables which were later linked to him, but as he was a famous fable-teller, academics found huge amounts of literature with various similarities in terms of style and tone to ascribe his name to. Zafiropoulos (2017) states that “it has been argued that Aesop was invented as a literary figure, sometime in the early fifth century B.C., to provide an inventor of fables” (p. 10). Therefore, Aesop’s popularity gave scholars enough evidence to associate his name with some of the oldest documented fables. According to Campbell (2014), the lost “collection of Aesopic fables” is considered to be the earliest written prose assembled by Demetrius of Phaleron in 400 BC (p. 2). She further states that Aesop was a Greek slave who, at the time, was known to use the genre to voice his opinions (p. 3). Rothwell (1995) reinstates this point by saying that fables “frequently served as a mode of expression for peasants and slaves” (p. 3) to be able to avoid repercussions and sanctions. Thus, the fables often showcase the situation of the lower class being oppressed or dominated by stronger forces, all in the form of animal interactions. The laws of nature, such as those of the predator and prey, greatly aided as a clear metaphor for the undermined social groups trying to rebel through literature.

Figure 2: The Eagle and the Fox. (2012)

Much like his fellow fabulists, Aesop used simple diction and straightforward plotlines accessible to the common audience. Campbell (2014) mentions that “the simple style of the fable is often a studied ruse, designed to strip away evidence of artistry to give the prosaic narratives an air of archaism and authenticity” (p. 2). Hence, Aesop was renowned for his stylistic way of writing that could easily conceal political, social, and economic criticism. Some of the most notable characteristics of the fable include the presence of personified animals, traces of Greek or other cultures, as well as a moral or lesson that can be either implicit or explicitly stated at the end of the work. Consequently, historians showed a tremendous interest in the genre as a way to get a deeper understanding of ancient societies and their norms. Scholars such as Perry (1953) discuss the “monstrous and chaotic” nature of the genre that is ever-evolving, flexible, and adaptable to every cultural, historical, and social context (p. 310).

Figure 3: Mercury and the Woodman. (2016)

Due to the prominent presence of animals in fables, researchers tried to link the genre to human-animal interactions and how these cultures view this relationship. However, it has been proven repeatedly that fables do not teach the reader anything about animal behavior as they do not appear in their primal form but rather take on stereotypical human personalities to convey certain morals. For the most part, fables are used as exempla, which are stories that serve as an illustration or an example, especially one with a moral, used for didactic purposes. In exemplum, as stated by Campbell (2014), “the fable-teller always, to some degree, implicates his addressee(s) in the traditional narrative” (p. 11), using sentences and phrases to include the audience, such as “Thus, you too…”.

Figure 4: The Hare and the Tortoise. (1887)

Some of Aesop’s most famous and timeless fables are The boy who cried Wolf, The Hare and the Tortoise, and The Lion and the Mouse. The fable’s structure should follow a certain format for readers to be able to understand the situation, context, and, consequently, the intended moral. Specific information should be given regarding the central action, the fable’s outcome, and the fairness and consistency between them. For example, in Aesop’s The boy who cried Wolf, the reader must be aware of the boy’s dishonesty to understand the outcome and the overall lesson of the fable. Dorfman & Brewer (1994) claim that “the relationship between actions and outcomes represented in the text is expected to conform to a system of equitable punishments and rewards” (pp. 109-110); this balance is necessary and crucial for the understanding of the reader or else the entire didactic purpose of the fable is gone.

Additionally, in The Hare and the Tortoise, the reader needs to know the context of the Hare’s overconfidence to comprehend the lesson fully. Jose et al. (2005) argue, when it comes to this fable, that “this narrative would seem to impart the moral message that, in the domain of human actions, perseverance will be rewarded but not sloth and overconfidence” (p. 6). The moralization and educational features of Aesop’s fables are the key characteristics that made his work endure the trial of time. Henderson (1982) believes that "beast fables are particularly useful as test cases, for they have oft-recycled plots, with each new author giving a meaning that may or may not be the same as that of his or her source" (p. 40). Thus, the renewing nature of the fable, as well as its adaptability to different times, cultures, and societies, are the founding principles that allowed it to last. Fables are often used in modern settings nowadays, as stated by Mahanand (2021): "Even in modern times we use the structure of a story to develop rhetoric and writing" (p. 76). Furthermore, he mentions the book Aesop and the CEO: Powerful Business Insights from Ancient Aesop’s Fables by David Noonan (2005), in which the author uses fables to teach the reader, especially CEOs, about business skills.

It is also significant to mention that Aesop, unlike later fabulists, did not exclusively use animals in his fables. Instead, he used a variety of characters such as humans, gods and goddesses, objects, and even natural phenomena. In one of his most famous fables, The Sun and the Wind, Aesop personifies natural processes such as the wind and the sun and uses them to create a scenario with a moralizing end. According to Gibbs (2002), "modern readers are often surprised, in fact, to discover that Aesop's fables are not strictly limited to animal stories" (p.19). This remarkable feature helps Aesop stand out in relation to other fabulists, as his use of a wide variety of characters is considered to be innovative and avant-garde.

Figure 5: The Wind and the Sun. (1908)

Overall, Aesop is a major figure within the fable genre and has greatly contributed to the field with 725 documented works. His works highly influenced later fabulists such as Jean de la Fontaine, who will be discussed later in the series. Aesop´s innovative use of humans and gods in his works is remarkable as other fabulists focused on the use of animalistic characters. Thus, Aesop set the foundation for the entire genre and created a perpetual format that quickly became the standard organization of future fables. Moreover, the inclusion of a moral at the end made its way to the definition of the literary genre and was the key to its endurance over time.

Visual Sources

HamPress (2016). Mercury and the Woodman. [Digital Illustration], California Digital Library. https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/mercury-woodman/

Solaie (2012). The Eagle and the Fox. [Digital Illustration], Deviant Art. https://www.deviantart.com/solaie/art/Fox-and-Eagle-320528352

Walter Crane (1908). The Wind and the Sun. [Illustration], Crane's Visual Poetry. https://fablesofaesop.com/the-north-wind-and-the-sun.html

Walter Crane (1887). The Hare and the Tortoise. [Illustration], International Children's digital library. http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/crane/53.htm

ZU_09 (2020), Aesop-writer. [Stock Illustration], iStock. https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/aesop-greek-fabulist-wood-engraving-published-1893-gm1222082834-358483264?phrase=aesop

Visual Sources

HamPress (2016). Mercury and the Woodman. [Digital Illustration], California Digital Library. Retrieved from: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/mercury-woodman/

Solaie (2012). The Eagle and the Fox. [Digital Illustration], Deviant Art. Retrieved from: https://www.deviantart.com/solaie/art/Fox-and-Eagle-320528352

Walter Crane (1908). The Wind and the Sun. [Illustration], Crane's Visual Poetry. Retrieved from: https://fablesofaesop.com/the-north-wind-and-the-sun.html

Walter Crane (1887). The Hare and the Tortoise. [Illustration], International Children's digital library. Retrieved from: http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/crane/53.htm

ZU_09 (2020), Aesop-writer. [Stock Illustration], iStock. Retrieved from: https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/aesop-greek-fabulist-wood-engraving-published-1893-gm1222082834-358483264?phrase=aesop

Author Photo

Elsa Abdallah

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