Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: What About Fables?
The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.
Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:
4. What About Science Fiction?
5. What About Fables?
6. What About Fairy Tales?
For most people the word fable evokes an image or two of their early youth when they had the pleasure of being read or reading themselves a tale about humanized animals. Few if any children wondered about the differences between fantasy and fables and why the latter is not generally considered to be a sub-genre of the former. After a brief overview of the history of fables, this article will point out some key characteristics of fables in an effort to uncover what makes them stand out as a genre of its own.
Some of the earliest fables in the West are credited to the Greek storyteller Aesop, while the fables of the East find their root in Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of animal fables written in Sanskrit and credited to a philosopher by the name of Pilpay (Stableford, 2009, 137-138). This, however, does not mean that every fable (or any fable for that matter) that they have written down was originally theirs—it is most likely that the tales stem from a long oral tradition and have been passed down over generations. As far back as 1946, V. M. Pérez Perozo remarked that fables constitute “one of the oldest forms of literature, possibly the very oldest of all, older than the war-song or the religious hymn” (363). Despite the fact that much research has been conducted since Perozo's writing, his point still stands. While it remains difficult to decisively determine which genre or mode of storytelling is oldest, fables are most definitely one of the first.
Generally, fables are “a short prose fiction formulated to express and exemplify a useful truth or moral precept, often employing animals as representations of human character traits” (Stableford, 2009, 137). If one were to dissect this definition, several phrasings would jump out as interesting and/or problematic. First of all, “short prose fiction” is not entirely precise; fables are often written in verse and the question of length is never concrete. To offer a contemporary example for the latter, it is said that prose texts longer than fifty thousand words (or sometimes sixty) ought to be considered a novel. Yet, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) by renowned novelist Thomas Pynchon sits at around forty-five thousand and is still considered to be a novel by most critics and reviewers.
A simpler definition is perhaps more apt: “narrated by talking animals, [fables] emphasize common sense, rather than magic” (Weinstein, 2005, 70). Here the “rather than” refers to the difference between fables and fairy tales, where the latter is more often perceived as magical and whimsical. For a more technical definition, one can turn to Gamble and Yates:
In common with other tales from the oral tradition, fables are told in a direct manner, superfluous details are not included as they would serve to slow the pace and the tales would lose their impact. The narrative structure includes a short exposition with one conflict often arising out of a choice between a good and bad course of action. The resolution usually occurs in a single event and a concluding moral proverb might be added to clarify the message (2002, 98).
The directness of the tale can be said to serve a dual purpose. First of all, that which is part of and stems from oral tradition has to be somehow easy to memorize and retell. It is not inconceivable that a highly descriptive work would be difficult to accurately retell each time without a written reference point. The simplicity of the tale also makes it malleable to fit different cultures, resulting in many fables being wide-spread regardless of nations and languages. Secondly, the brevity of descriptions also results in brevity of word count, again making the story more memorable and the message clearer.
Most fables indeed are brief pieces of text; however, if one is to consider a story like George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) to be a fable (or to at least bear strong resemblance to one), it becomes clear that length is not a defining characteristic for the genre in question.
It is perhaps the second part of Stableford’s definition that encapsulates the uniqueness of fables: animals behaving like humans, where sometimes unique animal traits are used to express “a useful truth or moral precept”. By this definition, Animal Farm most definitely is a fable which uses animals to present a political satire of its contemporary society.
Presenting Orwell’s text as a fable also addresses one other point that is often thought to be truthful by the populace at large as far as both fables and fairy tales are concerned. Frequently, children are thought to be the intended audience of such narratives. Fables were used as a means of moral education of children in Hellenistic and Roman antiquity (Laes, 2006, 898-900) and remain a useful tool for such teachings to this day. However, as Animal Farm perfectly encapsulates, certain important aspects of the message a fable desires to deliver could, and often do, go over a child’s head. Therefore, to speak of fables as purely children’s literature is erroneous at best.
To impart human traits to animals seems awfully fantastical and for that reason one might consider fables to be a sub-genre of fantasy. Yet, fables tread on a similar ground as mythological texts in that neither are divisible from the tradition they stem from. As was mentioned in an earlier paragraph, fables of antiquity (and ones created before anitquity) have been developed through centuries of oral tradition, being shaped and molded to fit the needs of a particular people in a particular time.
Furthermore, the application of human traits to animals is an element unique to fables. This is not to say that a similar trope cannot find its way into fantasy texts that are not a fable (consider here C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia), but when the entirety of the story is built on that single trope it becomes difficult to not consider it a fable. Orwell’s Animal Farm is a satirical, allegorical novella, it is a harsh criticism of its contemporary society, and it is, without a doubt, a fable—a text which is indivisible from talking and thinking animals. The story could have been told a different way, with a different cast of characters, but it would no longer be the same story—pigs having power carries a message in and of itself. However, if the Lion in Lewis’ Narnia was not a lion, but another entity entirely, the message and the conception of that story would not be significantly affected. This is not to say, however, that Lewis' choice of animal carries no significance, but merely that him choosing to represent Aslan as a lion does not relegate his fantasy series to being a fable.
Fables are texts of tradition; carrying within them messages from antiquity, they showcase how certain human struggles and troubling questions have remained unchanged and unaltered by the ever-shifting and ever-progressing nature of human societies. For that reason, it is difficult to say that it is a sub-genre of fantasy. A more accurate statement would be that fantasy as a genre sprang from the tradition established by fables. The Hare and the Tortoise, to name one example, showcases the folly of arrogance and the virtuousness of persistence—as relevant as that message might have been in the days of ancient Greeks, it is inarguable that it seems like a message written precisely for the society of today.
Gamble, N. & Yates, S. (2002). Exploring Children’s Literature: Teaching the Language and Reading of Fiction. Paul Chapman Publishing.
Laes, C. (2006). Children and fables, children in fables in Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. Latomus, 65(4), 898–914. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41544327
Perozo, V. M. P. (1946). Fables and fable-writers. Books Abroad, 20(4), 363–367. https://doi.org/10.2307/40088489
Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press.
Weinstein, A. (2005). One Upon a Time: Illustrations from fairytales, fables, primers, pop-ups, and other children’s books. Princeton Architectural Press.
Cover figure: Thompson (2004). The tortoise and the hare. [Illustration]. Pinterest. Retrieved from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/420594052683415539/?nic_v3=1a40UcdDW
Figure 1: Anonymous. (n.d.). A fox is sitting under a tree looking up at a crow with a cheese in its bill. [Etching]. JSTOR. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.24854477
Figure 2: Ogilby, J. (n.d.). A crow is standing on the handle of a large pitcher in front of a well. [Etching]. JSTOR. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.24854470
Figure 3: Anonymous. (n.d.). On a stone tomb with six feet, a daw is eating a shell dropped by the eagle above. [Etching]. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.24854476
Figure 4: Disney. (2005). Chronicles of Narnia; Susan and Aslan. [Movie Still]. Pinterest. Retrieved from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/100486635422387618/?nic_v3=1a40UcdDW