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Fabulous fables: A historic and modern perspective on an enduring form of folk literature

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Fables are found in every culture around the world and goes as far back as the collective human memory serves. Most if not all of us have at least heard of one growing up. Remember the Hare and the Tortoise - 'slow and steady wins the race' ? What I never imagined was that one day, with the publication of my first picture book, Willow the Wonderer, I would become a modern-day 'fabulist'!

So what are fables?

The short definition that comes up from a google search - "a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral."

The long and very academic definition from Wikipedia - "fable is a literary genre: a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson (a "moral"), which may at the end be added explicitly as a concise maxim or saying."

And a very practical 'in-between' definition from a masterclass article on the subject - "a fable is a short story that illustrates a moral lesson. The plot of a fable includes a simple conflict and a resolution, followed by a maxim. Fables feature anthropomorphized animals and natural elements as main characters."

The masterclass articles goes on to very helpfully identify four characteristics of fables:

  1. Symbolism. Characters in fables are stand-ins for humans, and their misadventures are meant to symbolize human behaviour.

  2. Anthropomorphisation. In fables, animals and even inanimate objects (like the wind, or the sun) are the main characters of the story and are given human qualities. Some animals have specific traits associated with them. For example, an owl is wise, a fox is cunning, and a lion is brave.

  3. Lessons. Every fable has a moral lesson at the end that arises from the story. For example: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

  4. Humour. Fables often have a humorous tone when showing the foolishness of human nature.

Where did fables originate from?

The word itself has a Latin root (it's the English language after all) but the tradition of telling fables goes back as far as one can remember and can be found across all cultures.

In the western world, Aesop's fables are what most would classically remember.

Admittedly I grew up into an adult without having once heard of Aesop. I nonetheless had heard plenty of the same fables from my grandmother as they were also traditional to the Indian culture.

Fables did in fact begin and survived for centuries as an oral tradition before 'fabulists' across many different traditions put pen to and documented these age old stories. By this time any knowledge of the original authors was long gone.

Why use animal characters to tell the story?

The thing that fascinates me about fables is why choose to tell the story using animal characters? Why not just tell the story with human characters - after all, the story is fundamentally about them.

This is a hard one to answer from a historic perspective as there aren't exactly documented 'meet the author' series we can refer to...

What I can share with you, as an accidental modern day fabulist, is why we ended up making this creative choice when writing our first picture book, Willow the Wonderer.

The characteristic of animals that make them brilliant protagonists

Animals make for brilliant protagonists in any story. Here's three reasons why:

  1. Animals are neutral. Animals aren't aligned to a certain gender, race, religion, nationality, skin colour, social class, etc. A lion is a lion. An ass (or donkey) is just that, an ass. An owl is an owl. A fox is a fox. And so on. You can tell a story using animals without fearing that you will be inadvertently marginalising a group of people.

  2. Animals are relatable. Anthropomorphising involves attributing the base human traits that we all have to animals in our story - wise, dumb, sly, shy, brave, cowardly, fast, slow, loyal, treacherous, etc. All humans are a sum product of these qualities. When we look at animals we see or rather projects these qualities onto them quite naturally. Think about how you relate and talk about your own pet dog or cat? It therefore become quite easy to tell a human story using an animal character.

  3. Animals are down-right adorable. Who does not like animals? Especially the little baby ones. And even if they are not adorable, they are likeable or tolerable in a tale because people don't carry a huge emotional baggage around animals like they unfortunately do around other humans... The human history is marred with violence and memories go back generations. Most people today, let alone back in ancient times, carry with them conscious or unconscious biases based on nationalities, race, religion, gender, etc. When you write a story using animal characters you are able to tell your story without worrying about getting your audience up in arms about some issue that you never intended to stir. There are those that may have phobias associated with certain animals but by and large, people like animals and it becomes easy to write a story with them as central characters.

Because of these qualities - neutrality, relatability and general adorability - stories written with animal characters tend to have broader and more universal appeal. It is more likely to be embraced by more people, and therefore spread broadly around the world.

This may in fact be a key reason why fables are one of the most enduring forms of folk literature across the world.

Critically it gives the storyteller a clear slate to do what they set out to - is to outline a moral lesson or maxim or as I like to think of it, wisdom.

Morals, Maxims and Wisdom

Fables have always been a commentary of sort into the human condition.

The animal characters become the conduit through which fabulists point out the fallacies inherent in their audience and also the capacity to change for the better.