Folklore Q & A: What is a Fable?

Aesop's Fables: The Fox and the Grapes
"The Fox and the Grapes" from an edition of Aesop's Fables published by William Caxton in the 15th century. Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Question: What is a fable?

Answer: A fable is a short, pithy animal tale meant to teach a moral lesson, often ending with a proverb stating the moral outright: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," "A man is known by the company he keeps," or "Slow and steady wins the race," for example. Fables are constructed to provide both a narrative illustration of and compelling argument for the lessons they convey (see examples below).

The word "fable" derives from the Latin fabula, meaning story or tale. The authors of fables, when they can be identified, are known as fabulists.

Fables Use Anthropomorphism to make their point

All fables make use of a storytelling device known as anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human traits and behaviors to non-human animals, deities or objects. Not only do the animals in fables think, speak and emote like human beings, they also personify human vices and virtues — greed, pride, honesty and benevolence, for example — which is essential to their function as instruments of moral instruction.

In "The Hare and the Tortoise," for example, the speedy hare is over-confident and stops for a nap when challenged to a footrace by the plodding tortoise. The tortoise wins the race because she is persistent and focused, unlike the impetuous hare. The story not only illustrates the point, "Slow but steady wins the race," but implies that it's better to be like the tortoise in this instance than the hare.

Fables can be found in the literature and folklore of virtually every human society. The oldest known examples in western civilization are ancient Greek in origin and attributed to a former slave named Aesop. Though little is known about him, it's generally believed that he lived and composed his tales, known ever after as "Aesop's Fables," in the mid-sixth century B.C.E.

The fabulist traditions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are at least as old, possibly far older.

Examples of fables:

"The Hare and the Tortoise"
A hare one day ridiculed the short feet and slow pace of the tortoise, who replied, laughing: "Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race." The hare, believing her assertion to be simply impossible, assented to the proposal; and they agreed that the fox should choose the course and fix the goal. On the day appointed for the race the two started together. The tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady pace straight to the end of the course. The hare, lying down by the wayside, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and moving as fast as he could, he saw the tortoise had reached the goal, and was comfortably dozing after her fatigue.

Slow but steady wins the race.

(Origin: Greek. Source: , 1887)

"The Monkey and the Looking-Glass"
A monkey in a wood somehow got a looking-glass, and went about showing it to the animals around him. The bear looked into it and said he was very sorry he had such an ugly face. The wolf said he would fain have the face of a stag, with its beautiful horns. So every beast felt sad that it had not the face of some other in the wood.

The monkey then took it to an owl that had witnessed the whole scene. "No," said the owl, "I would not look into it, for I am sure, in this case as in many others, knowledge is but a source of pain."

"You are quite right," said the beasts, and broke the glass to pieces, exclaiming, "Ignorance is bliss!"

(Origin: Indian. Source: Indian Fables, 1887)

"The Lynx and the Hare"
One day, in the dead of winter, when food was very scarce, a half starved lynx discovered a modest little hare standing on a high rock in the woods secure from any attack.

"Come down, my pretty one," said the lynx, in a persuasive tone, "I have something to say to you."

"Oh, no, I can't," answered the hare. "My mother has often told me to avoid strangers."

"Why, you sweet little obedient child," said the lynx, "I am delighted to meet you! Because you see I happen to be your uncle. Come down at once and talk to me; for I want to send a message to your mother."

The hare was so pleased by the friendliness of her pretended uncle, and so flattered by his praise that, forgetting her mother's warning, she leaped down from the rock and was promptly seized and devoured by the hungry lynx.

(Origin: Native American. Source: An Argosy of Fables, 1921)