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The word fable is derived from the Latin word fabula, which means “a story,” but it is synonymous with the name Aesop. The fables attributed to Aesop are generally brief tales depicting the interactions between animals who act like humans. They often have teaching messages at the end. Collections of Aesop’s fables were among the earliest books printed and were distributed in a variety of languages. They were initially packaged for adults, covering religious, social, and political themes. They were also put to use as ethical guides in the education of children from the Renaissance onward.
Why are Aesop’s fables so memorable and effective as devices for teaching?
Watch: The Birth of the Fable
Read: Aesop’s Fables
The fable in Western civilization dates back to oral traditions as early as the 7th century BCE. From the time that Demetrius Phalereus produced the first-known collection of Aesop’s fables in the 4th century BCE, “a story of Aesop” has been synonymous with “fable.”
Aesop is the name associated with a collection of Greek fables that have become a significant part of the stories and morality associated with Western civilization.
While scattered details of the life of Aesop are cited by multiple ancient sources, including Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, his existence remains unclear and no writings by him survive. It’s possible that “Aesop” was no more than a name invented to provide a source for fables centering on beasts, so that “a story of Aesop” became synonymous with “fable.”
Phaedrus generated a collection of Aesop’s fables in Rome in the 1st century CE, which proved influential on the use of those fables by later writers, such as the 17th-century French poet Jean de La Fontaine. Collections of Aesop’s fables were among the earliest books printed and were distributed in a variety of languages. They were initially packaged for adults, covering religious, social, and political themes. They were also put to use as ethical guides in the education of children from the Renaissance onward. This ethical dimension was reinforced in the adult world through depiction in sculpture, painting and other illustrative means, as well as adaptation to drama and song.
Fables generally contain the “bare minimum” of a story: character(s), short plot, and a message. The message is generally explicit and presented either before or after the fable. By understanding the form, we know that the purpose of the work is to teach a lesson.
The Aesopic fable is generally an allegorical tale of a brief, fictitious action occurring in past time, usually between particular animals who act like humans, so that the actions suggest a moral, which may or may not be explicitly stated. Animal types in the Aesopic fable tend to represent types of human moral qualities: foxes represent cunning; asses represent stupidity; lambs represent helpless innocence; and wolves represent ruthlessness. The Aesopic fable often appears as a cautionary tale, revealing through humor or through cynicism and satire an amoral world that does not reward abstract virtue but rather a world that requires common sense and moderation for self-preservation.
Read: Selections from Aesop’s Fables
The Tortoise and the Hare
A hare was one day making fun of a tortoise for being so slow upon his feet. “Wait a bit,” said the tortoise; “I’ll run a race with you, and I’ll wager that I win.” “Oh, well,” replied the hare, who was much amused at the idea, “let’s try and see”; and it was soon agreed that the fox should set a course for them and be the judge. When the time came, both started off together, but the hare was soon so far ahead that he thought he might as well have a rest: so down he lay and fell fast asleep. Meanwhile, the tortoise kept plodding on, and in time, reached the goal. At last, the hare woke up with a start and dashed on at his fastest, but only to find that the tortoise had already won the race.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Belling the Cat
The mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.
Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last, a very young mouse got up and said:
“I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”
All the mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But, in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old mouse arose and said:
“I will say that the plan of the young mouse is very good. But, let me ask one question: Who will bell the cat?”
It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.
The Crow and the Pitcher
A crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last, he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
The Lion and the Mouse
A lion was awakened from sleep by a mouse running over his face. Rising up angrily, he caught him and was about to kill him, when the mouse piteously entreated, saying: “If you would only spare my life, I would be sure to repay your kindness.” The lion laughed and let him go. It happened shortly after this that the lion was caught by some hunters who bound him by strong ropes to the ground. The mouse, recognizing his roar, came and gnawed the rope with his teeth, and set him free, exclaiming: “You ridiculed the idea of my ever being able to help you, not expecting to receive from me any repayment of your favor; now you know that it is possible for even a mouse to confer benefits on a lion.”
Poll: Which of these Fables is Your Favorite?
Expand: Reading Aesop’s Fables
It is important to remember that Aesop’s fables did not originate as stories for children, but as sources of wisdom for everyday life. Most often, these fables offer advice for making sound decisions or avoiding mistakes in judgement.
Tortoise and the Hare
Aesop’s fables often describe a contest between two animals of different species and character. “The Tortoise and the Hare,” for example, is a popular fable about the tortoise who, offended by the hare, declares that he can beat the hare in a race. The hare is much faster, but is so confident of a win, he stops to take a nap. As a result, the tortoise, slow but ever-steady, wins the race. The story illustrates the benefit of being steady in one’s attitude toward life and success.
Belling the Cat
Some of Aesop’s fables call attention to activities that bring profit, while others highlight actions that would threaten one’s security. In “Belling the Cat,” we have the story of a group of mice looking for a way to deal with the local cat. After much conversation, one of the mice offers what appears to be a logical, common-sense solution; simply put a bell around the cat’s neck. However, one of the older, wiser mice quickly spots the flaw in the plan to bell the cat. It will require that one of the mice place themselves in mortal danger.
The Crow and the Pitcher
Other fables point to the ingenuity of a particular animal. Such is the case of “The Crow and the Pitcher.” In this story, the thirsty crow confronts a predicament of needing to get to the water at the bottom of a pitcher or jar. Motivated by great need, the crow decides to drop stones in the pitcher, which causes the water to rise and allows her to drink it. The fable reminds us that thoughtfulness and ingenuity are often preferable to brute strength.
The Lion and the Mouse
The “Mouse and the Lion” is a fable that points out the profit that is inherent in certain behaviors. In this case, the motive for acting kindly is the possible repayment for that act. The lion spares the life of the mouse and later finds the act repaid in full when the mouse gnaws through a net that holds the lion captive. In this way, the fables of Aesop do not merely illustrate or poke fun at certain human behavior; they also suggest a practical generosity that may eventually be profitable.
Additional Resources and Readings
Aesop’s Fables translated by Laura Gibbs for Oxford University Press
An interactive book presented by the Library of Congress, adapted from the book, “The Aesop for Children: with Pictures by Milo Winter,” published by Rand, McNally & Co in 1919
A collection of Aesop’s Fables
- fableA fable is a short, fictional story that contains the bare minimum of a story; characters (animals, plants, or objects with human qualities), a short plot, and a message. The message is generally explicit and presented either before or after the fable
License and Citations
Authored and curated by Rob Reynolds, Ph.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0
|Aesop R||K. August Baumeister||Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Babrius||Greek manuscript||Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Aesop’s fables||Aesop Vernon Jones, V. S. (Vernon Stanley) Rackham||Flickr||Public Domain|
|Book Read Old||Gellinger||Pixabay||CC 0|
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- Question 1 of 5
Fables often include a brief story with interactions between animals that act like humans, as well as a ____________.CorrectIncorrect
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Fables originated as stories for ______.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 3 of 5
The fable in Western civilization dates back to oral traditions as early as the _________ century BCE.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 4 of 5
_____ is the name that has become synonymous with the fable.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 5 of 5
In the fable “Belling the Cat,” one mouse suggests that the mice can deal with the local cat by tying a bell around its neck. The problem with this solution is that…CorrectIncorrect