What Is a Fable?

Old Books
Many fables have survived centuries of reprinting and adaptation.

Fables represent a popular method of learning and as well as entertainment for children. Though modern society does not rely so much on spoken or written fables as it did centuries ago, fable-based concepts have still worked their way into contemporary children's stories and films. Moreover, modes of communication may have evolved in society, but several key fables are still widely popular and they have become imbedded deeply into the fabric of certain cultures.

What Distinguishes a Fable?

A fable is different from a myth, a legend, or a fairytale. Fairytales are amusing, imaginative stories written for children. They are told to entertain, or to inspire a sense of wonder. A fairytale need not necessarily end well, but it is still a pleasing folk story that is often passed down through generations. Common examples of fairytales are the stories of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White". Many cultures possess their own creative takes on these basic stories, and many such ancient tales have been adapted into modern Disney films.

A myth is also different from a fable. Myths typically serve to answer more probing questions about life, such as the origins of a people, a place or a culture, and can possess a universal value. For example, myths such as the ancient flood have been told within a variety of cultures.

Legends are built on historical facts, though these facts often fall prey to a great deal of creativity. The classic character of Robin Hood is said to be based on an actual historical figure, but the legends that have developed around the alleged Robin of Loxley are quite distant from any documented evidence. The legend of Robin Hood is more likely to have been thrown together over centuries, fueled by the actions of several outlaws living in Sherwood Forest.

A fable is quite distinct from these popular stories and legends in that it is mainly didactic. The focus of a fable is not to answer a specific question or highlight a key figure. Its purpose is to teach, to outline a moral. Fables are key methods of imparting morality into children. They often take place in a fictional world and feature talking animals or even inanimate objects, but creativity is not the main point of a fable. Fables create amusing realms in which moral concepts can be explored and solidified.

Moral concepts such as honor, integrity, kindness and their counterparts: pride and greed, etc., are similar throughout cultures, but the fables that grasp such elements can be culturally specific. Fables are unlikely to include species of animals or places that are not indigenous to a certain society.

Popular Fables

There are actually very few compilations of fables in print. It is likely that many cultural fables never transcended their oral origins into written form.

Aesop's Fables are amongst the most universally known fables. Though written during the time of ancient Greece by an enslaved storyteller, these fables are still in print today and sold internationally. What makes Aesop's Fables so universally valuable is the clear simplicity of the story which imparts an equally clear moral element. These fables, over centuries, have expressed sentiments and ideas similar to those of Buddhist and Hindu origins. Amazon.com sells a few editions of Aesop's Fables which are specific to children.

The French fabulist, Jean de La Fontaine, was said to have gathered inspiration from Aesop's famous works. Fontaine penned many fables in his lifetime. Many of these fables based on Aesop's stories were adapted to the culture of the French court. His Select Fables were created supposedly for children and it were soon adapted into the education system. As popular as Aesop's fables are to Western society, Fontaine's fables are very familiar to French children. However, parents looking to purchase contemporary editions of Fontaine's fables should note that many of this author's works vary in complexity and some are intended for adults. Only a select portion of his fables are written for children. All versions currently in print of Fontaine's fables are available at Amazon.com.

Children and Fables

Just as children enjoy attractive eye-catching food on their plate, they also delight in colorful imaginative storytelling. Fables are frequently an improvement on direct attempts to moralize. Most fables are also brief, and so make for excelling night-time reading followed by a brief discussion. Promoting discussion is often the key to a child's understanding of these moral lessons, and doing so may help him learn to apply a concept to the level of everyday reality.

What Is a Fable?