A fable is a story which illustrates a moral truth or satirises human weakness or wickedness. Fables differ from other types of story illustrative of moral truths, e.g. parables, in having as their principal characters not human beings but animals, forces of nature, or inanimate objects given human characteristics. Fables are typically short stories, though there are some book-length fables (see below) and, again unlike parables, they presuppose a secular rather than a religious context.
The noun fable, like myth, is sometimes used to dismiss a statement as false, e.g., ‘The claim that Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent is pure fable’. A person who composes or recounts a fable is a fabulist, while the adjective fabulous, besides meaning ‘relating to or based on a fable’, is also used to mean ‘almost unbelievable, amazing’ and, in informal contexts, ‘extremely good’. In this last use fabulous is sometimes abbreviated to fab (as in The Fab Four, a nickname acquired by The Beatles as the group’s popularity grew in the early sixties).
- Many of the best-known fables in the western tradition are attributed to Aesop, a legendary figure said by the Greek historian Herodotus to have been a slave living on the Aegean island of Samos in the sixth century BCE. Aesop’s fables played a significant part in ancient Greek education - they provided themes for exercises in prose composition and in public speaking - and a number of translations ensured that they enjoyed wide popularity in the Middle Ages.
- Aesop’s Fables were one of the influences on the Roman de Renart, a collection of satirical fables composed in France in the final years of the twelfth and the first half of the thirteenth century and over the next two centuries translated into Latin, German, Flemish, and English. Its eponymous ‘hero’, Reynard the Fox, has been a central figure in many later fables.
- In the seventeenth century the French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) published, between, 1668 and 1694, twelve books of fables. The first six books contained fables attributed to Aesop and other sources in the classical world, while the final six books contained fables from more recent sources and from the east. Fontaine’s example was followed in English by the poet and dramatist John Gay (1685-1732) in his Fables (Part I, 1727; Part II 1739).
- Early in the eighteenth century The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714) by Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733) contained as its first part a fable in verse (The Grumbling Hive) telling the story of a bee colony in which the bees’ loss of the desire for personal gain brings about the collapse of the colony. The rest of the book consisted of a commentary on the poem and a philosophical essay defending the thesis that the vices of private individuals are a necessary condition for the achievement of public goods.
- In the United States in the nineteenth century Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) published Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881), a collection of African-american fables featuring as their protagonists Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear. The fables were based on material Harris had collected from slaves and former slaves on plantations in the American South.
- More recent fables include Fables for Our Time (1940), by James Thurber (1894-1961) and Animal Farm (1945), the book-length fable (or allegory) by George Orwell (1903-1950), in which he satirises Stalin’s Russia.