Fable n. - From the Latin fabula; a short story, typically featuring animals, that conveys a moral.
So, it's a bit like a parable, only with furry people...
This collaborative entry is an unprecedented excursion for the Edited Guide into the realms of fiction. Well nearly. For although fables are fictional stories, they have a historical significance in the way they've been used to illustrate points on morality, etiquette or plain common sense over the centuries. Such is the strength of the storytelling in these fables that the meaning behind them is still as relevant and strong as it was over two thousand years ago.
The Greatest Storyteller... Ever
Undoubtedly, many different individuals were responsible for creating these stories, but there remains just one storyteller that anyone can name - a Greek slave by the name of Aesop who lived around 620 BC. His tales tended to revolve around anthropomorphised animals - and boy did he have issues with foxes...
The Fox and the Cat
The fox boasted to the cat about the many plans he'd worked out for escaping from his enemies. But the cat, who was not impressed by the fox's boasts, yawned 'I have only one plan for escape, but it works every time.'
Right on cue, they heard the barking of approaching dogs. Quick as a flash, the cat darted up a nearby tree. The fox, meanwhile, was left still trying to work out which of his escape routes would be the best when the dogs finally found him...
Not the happiest of stories (well, unless you're a dog or a cat - anything but a fox), it teaches us that it's often better to have one clear plan that's proven to work than many options that are less distinct.
The Fox and the Stork
In the past, when all animals were friends, the fox invited the stork to dinner. But being a sly little animal, the fox decided to play a joke on the stork and served her soup in a shallow dish. While the fox lapped up his serving, the stork found she could not drink the soup with her long bill. She tried valiantly to drink the soup, but all she could do was wet the very tip of her beak, leaving her as hungry as she was when she first arrived.
Trying to hold back his laughter, the fox apologised. The stork gallantly accepted his apology and suggested that maybe the fox might like to return the favour and come to dinner with her.
When the fox arrived at the stork's home the next night, he was dismayed to see that the stork had set out two very long-necked jars at opposite ends of the table. The stork began drinking comfortably from the jar, but the fox couldn't even get his nose into the jar and was forced to lick the jar-rim hungrily.
Here, we learn an obvious moral - one bad turn deserves another. Or maybe that revenge is a dish best served in a long-necked jar... or a dirty pit, as this variation of the tale, from the Kalahari, shows:
The Baboon and the Tortoise
One day, Baboon invited Tortoise to lunch. Baboon was a great prankster, as the Tortoise soon found out. When he arrived at Baboon's home, Baboon told him that lunch was ready. However, it was at the top of a tall tree. As Tortoise couldn't climb trees, Baboon ate both lunches. To Baboon's surprise, Tortoise invited him to have lunch with him the next day. Tortoise lived in the middle of a large ash-field, so, when Baboon arrived, his hands and feet were ashy (baboons walk on all fours, remember). Tortoise said 'Nna1, you can't eat with dirty hands. Go and wash them.' So Baboon walked to the nearest waterhole, washed his hands and walked back. However, his hands were dirty again. So, he walked back, washed his hands, and came back - again dirtying his hands and feet - so he never got to eat his lunch, and Tortoise ate both lunches.
The Fox and the Crow
Not all of Aesop's fables turn out bad for the poor fox though, as this example shows...
A hungry fox saw a crow sitting happily in a tree with a large piece of cheese in its beak. The fox knew the crow would not share his food with him. Fox, being a good psychologist, saw a way around the problem.
'You've got a beautiful singing voice, Mr Crow' purred the fox. 'Will you do me the honour of singing for me?' The crow, flattered by the kind compliments of the fox, opened his beak to let out a loud squawk - and out of his beak fell the cheese into the waiting paws of the hungry fox.
The moral here depends on whose side you're on; on the one hand, you should never trust a flatterer, but then there's also the view that there is such a thing as a free lunch, after all.
The Tortoise, the Hare and Other Animals
The best-known fable is that of the tortoise and the hare...
A proud and overambitious hare challenged a tortoise to a race and was amazed when the tortoise accepted the challenge. The hare, of course, sprinted off, leaving the tortoise way behind. But after a while, the hare began to slow down and tire. Eventually, the hare collapsed, exhausted and way short of the finish line and was forced to watch in horror as the slow, constant plodding of the tortoise saw him across the finish line first.
The inevitable morals of the story is either not to underestimate your rivals or overestimate your own abilities. Or possibly, when racing against an apparent loser, not to tell all your friends to wait at the finish line, just in case you don't actually win...'
The Traveller and His Dog
A traveller about to leave on a journey saw his dog stand at the door stretching himself. He asked the dog: 'Why are you so lazy? Everything is ready but you, so come on...' The dog replied: 'Hey pal! I am ready; I am waiting for you .'
We're told that the lesson to be learned from this is apparently that 'the loiterer often blames delay on his more active friend', which translates as 'of course the dog was ready first - he had less crap to deal with!'.
The Common Sense of Anansi
Anansi was a spider - one that holds the responsibility for everyone sharing a bit of common sense.
Anansi wanted to own all the common sense in the world, so the little fellow decided he would go around and gather it all up and store it in a calabash2. He did this, but then he thought 'Hmm! what is stopping anyone else from just coming along and pinching this great clever stuff for themselves?' So Anansi decided that the best place to put his bundle of common sense was high at the top of a tree.
So Anansi picked up the common sense, and began to climb the highest tree, but all of a sudden he heard he was being laughed at! Anansi hated to be ridiculed, so he turned to see who was bothering him and saw a little boy pointing and laughing at him:
'How silly,' laughed the boy. 'You can't climb a tree, carrying that!' This made Anansi so angry that he flung down the calabash in a rage - and all the common sense was scattered all over the world!
Ambition and greed seem to have been this little spider's downfall.
The Ant and the Grasshopper
One fine summer's day a Grasshopper was singing and hopping and chirping and dancing with beautiful butterflies. He spied an ant as she struggled past dragging a large ear of ripe yellow corn. 'Why are you working so hard on such a lovely day?' asked the Grasshopper. 'Stop and chat with me for a while and dance to my tune.'
'Thank you, Sir, but I must take this corn back to the nest,' said the Ant. 'We're collecting food for the winter and I suggest you do the same.'
'Why worry?' said the Grasshopper. He waved his antennae dismissively. 'We have plenty of food all around us and the day is too nice to waste in toil.' But the little Ant was determined and she carried on with her task. When the winter came, the Grasshopper was very cold and dying from hunger but he could see that the ants had plenty of food. He realised then that it is best to prepare for the future.
The Tiger and the Donkey
Once, there were no donkeys in a village, until one person decided to bring one from the city. Finding no use for it, the villagers set it loose in the mountains. Then one day, a tiger happened upon the donkey grazing. Having never seen such a beast before, the tiger ran away in fright. But the tiger was curious, and decided to take a closer, if not cautious look at this strange thing.
On getting closer to the donkey, he was impressed by its size and shape - the donkey, upon seeing the tiger, let forth a huge bray. The tiger, frightened by the hideous noise, disappeared into the bushes.
After a few more days of testing the water, the tiger grew more accustomed to this strange beast, and decided to walk up close to the donkey. Plucking up all his courage, he walked up to the donkey, sniffed it a bit, and on turning, knocked it slightly. The donkey, enraged, reacted the only way it could - by kicking with its hind legs.
The tiger turned in fury, enlightened by the donkey's actions. 'Is that all you can do?' mocked the tiger - before ripping out the donkey's neck.
This is how the donkey discovered to his cost that fooling people with cheap tricks whilst promising much will never last for long.
The Scorpion and the Otter
A familiar story, this one, which tells us not to be surprised when people act according to form. The victim in the tale may differ in each telling, but the outcome remains the same...
One day a scorpion was on the bank of the River Jordan, wanting to get across to the other side. But of course scorpions can't swim. Luckily it spotted an otter that was about to swim across the river.
'Please, otter,' said the scorpion, 'I need to get across the river, but I can't swim - let me ride on your back.'
'What sort of a fool do you take me for?' said the otter. 'If I let you near me you'll sting me to death.'
'Of course I won't,' said the scorpion. 'I'm trying to get across the river. What possible good would it do me to sting you? I'd drown!'
The otter thought it over, and could see the logic of the scorpion's argument. So he let the scorpion jump onto his back, and set off swimming across the Jordan. But half-way across the river, where the river was at its deepest, the otter felt the scorpion's sting stab deep into his flesh. As both animals began to drown, the scorpion apologised: 'I'm a scorpion - I couldn't help myself. That's what I do.'
The Lion and the Mouse
A common thread throughout these fables is irony - situations where we, the reader, can see the folly in a character's behaviour, but it takes a hard lesson for them to learn this. An excellent example of this is shown in this small tale:
A lion was prowling around when he saw a mouse engaged in its dinner. Instead of immediately felling the rodent with one blow, the lion strolled up to it and said: 'I am the king of the beasts. You are a useless creature! What can you do that shows your strength? Nothing!'
Happy that he had asserted his authority, the lion then wandered off into the undergrowth. The mouse continued eating.
Later on, the lion had the misfortune to be caught in a snare set by a hunter. He tugged and pulled at the netting, but the 'king of the beasts' was trapped! All he could do was wait to see his fate.
But who should come by but the mouse. The lion looked pitifully at the rodent, who immediately sprang away and returned with his enormous family. The mice gnawed away at the netting and soon the lion was free... and also rather embarrassed to be saved by the aforementioned 'useless creature'.
The Chicken and the Pig
This rather ruthless legend illustrates what many of us have long suspected - chickens cannot be trusted.
One day the chicken said to the pig, 'Hey, I've got a brilliant idea. The two of us should go into a business partnership.'
'Great,' said the pig, 'but what sort of business?'
'Oh, I don't know ... how about the bacon and egg business?'
'Well, that seems like a good idea, let me think about that,' said the pig. 'Wait a minute, though - it's okay for you to produce eggs, but for me to produce bacon I'd have to give up my life.'
'That's right,' said the chicken, coldly.
As well as showing what dodgy characters chickens are, we might also see from this a practical illustration of the difference between involvement and commitment. The hen might be involved in the partnership, but the pig would be somewhat committed to it.
All Kinds of Everything
The Sun and the Wind
Another fable from the inspirational mind of Aesop tells the tale of a battle of strength between two forces.
The Sun and the Wind discussed which of them was the mightier. The Wind bragged that it had caused devastation across the world and was surely the more powerful. The Sun pointed out that her strength gave life to all beings. Just then, they saw a lonely man walking along a road; his hands gripping his cloak as if it were the last possession he owned. 'I know,' said the Wind, 'Let's see which of us can get that man's cloak off his back - whoever can do that is surely the stronger.' Smiling to herself, the Sun agreed to the challenge.
The Wind took a deep breath, and then he blew as hard as he could. The man gripped his cloak tighter and tighter as the Wind blew harder and harder until eventually, exhausted, the Wind had to concede defeat.
Then the Sun took her go. She shined her brightest and soon the day grew so warm that, sweating, the man slipped his cloak from his shoulders and carried it on his arm. The Wind had to admit that no matter how hard it had tried to force the man's cloak off, the Sun's more persuasive methods had won.
The Oak and the Reeds
One Summer's day, by a river, a proud oak tree stood strong and tall. The reeds were all nestling by the bubbling river, bending gracefully in the breeze. Then there was a laugh, followed by a snort of derision. The reeds turned their heads to find the majestic oak laughing at them.
'Look at you weaklings!' the tree heckled, 'Such a light breeze, and you're bending already - whereas I, firmly rooted, do not move a jot!'
The reeds ignored the tree, who carried on amusing itself greatly with this declaration - and carried on regardless.
Summer turned to Autumn, and the breezes turned more gusty, to a storm of Biblical proportions. At first it was just the wind which battered the old oak. Then twigs, and then quite sizable pebbles. The oak held to its roots as much as it could. The reeds relaxed, and thought of a finer day. The pebbles turned to stones, until finally, the oak could hold on no longer.In the calm after the storm, the river had woken with the day to find something blocking its path, and so stepped neatly around the fallen oak in its path. The reed, untouched, looked on.
And the moral of the story: sometimes it's best to be more flexible in difficult situations.
The Three Raindrops
There were three raindrops, which all came from the same cloud, who were in deep discussion as they hurtled towards the Earth. Said the first 'I am the best of us all as I am the biggest raindrop'. Said the second 'No, I am the best as I have the most perfect teardrop shape'. The third said 'I am better than both of you, because I am made out of the purest water'. Just as they were about to launch into a heated discussion about size, purity and shape, they all dropped, with big splash, into a very muddy puddle!
This is not a traditional fable, but a short story by Terry Jones but it works as a modern day fable. The moral, if you want to call it that, would be that we are all different and should acknowledge and embrace that and stop trying to compare ourselves and compete with others. After all we are all heading towards a common end - ie, death - and nothing at all will matter after that!
The Seal Wife
Some legends present situations that might not at first suggest anything like a moral but on closer inspection reveal themselves to offer much to learn.
A lonely man is fishing at night and spots a group of naked women dancing and laughing. Nearby is a pile of sealskins. The man creeps close and hides one of the skins. One by one the women put on the sealskins and returned to the sea, except for one, who looked confused. The man steps forward and asks the woman to be his wife and promises to return the skin to her in seven years.
They had a boy child and the seal woman told him stories of the sea.
In time, the woman began to look ill and thin. Her skin dried and began to flake and her hair began to fall out. Her eyesight began to fail. After seven summers, the woman asked for the return of her skin, but the man refused, saying that she would leave him if he did.
The boy dreamed that he heard someone calling his name. He went to the shore and saw a bull seal. He found a bundle with his mother's smell. He took it to his mother and she unwrapped the sealskin and put it on. She breathed into the boy's mouth.
She swam away, taking the boy with her. She took the boy to her kinfolk and in a few days, her skin became soft, her eyesight was restored and her hair began to grow back. Recovered from her ordeal, the mother took the child back to the land as it was not yet time for him to return to the sea...
This story offers symbolism that appeals to a feminist reading of the text: the man has exploited the woman's naivety and innocence; she finds herself imprisoned by the man who refuses to let her be herself, and so she lives a restricted life; her lack of freedom is the cause of her illness while her child represents her spirit.
The Midas Touch
A famous legend that plays on human greed and offers a delicious twist:
King Midas found and cared for Silenus, a friend of the Roman god Bacchus who had been found wandering and unwell. As a reward Bacchus offered Midas any gift within his power. Midas hesitated hardly a moment before wishing that anything he touched would turn to gold. After some thought, Bacchus gave him his wish but smiled a smile of wicked glee as soon as Midas' back was turned.
Midas picked up a twig. It turned to gold. Then a stone. It too turned to gold. The king went on with increasing delight touching all manner of things and feeling them turn to gold. Presently he felt hungry. He spied a juicy red apple on a tree - but as he picked it, it turned to gold.
He went home slowly with increasing hunger and was met at the door by his one beloved daughter. 'Father' she cried. 'Why do you look so sad' and flung her arms around him. Alas she too turned to gold and never moved or spoke again.
Be careful what you wish for - it might come true and turn out to be not what you need.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
Four blind men approached a large object from different sides - an elephant. The first man touched only his side and walked away from a wall he could not climb. The second felt his trunk and wondered where the fireman was to use the hose, and ran from the flames. The third felt a leg and pushed the tree to see if any fruit would fall but no food made him leave to try another tree. The fourth felt the tail and ran off from a poisonous snake.
We can learn much from this particular vignette: don't be taken in by first impressions but use all your senses to take in the whole picture; things seem different according to your standpoint and often you have to hold off judgement until you can 'see' the whole picture (though we should also accept that sometimes that's not possible); or that even when presented with the same information, individual circumstance and bias alters the perception. more simply put, there's always more than one side to the story...
And Finally, All Animals Are Equal... ish
Of course, the idea of a story with a message hasn't died out. Not strictly speaking a fable, though it involves animals and has a moral at the end, George Orwell's Animal Farm is a satire in fable form on (in the first instance) revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia, which can be summarised as follows:
Discontented with their lot, the animals of Mr Jones' 'Manor Farm' stage a coup d'etat against their human owners, and drive them out.
Initially, at the renamed 'Animal Farm', there is parity between the animals, who chant their maxim 'Four legs good, two legs bad' (although the chickens campaign for an amendment to this). Gradually, the literate pigs assume leadership, with the ruthless Napoleon at the helm. The pigs, corrupted by their position, replace the human tyranny they initially toppled with another tyranny of their own.
Eventually, after the pigs learn to walk on two legs, they adopt the evolved maxim 'Four legs good, two legs better', and again rename the farm, reverting back to the original 'Manor Farm'.
Superficially, the moral of the tale (explicitly stated in the slogan 'All animals are created equal but some are more equal than others') is that pure Marxist society is unattainable, which is why the Russian Revolution had failed in its objectives. Implicitly, Orwell reminds the reader of Charles Dickens' words, 'If men would behave decently, the world would be decent'.
Which is, surely, a moral we can all live by...
- Complete translations of Aesop's fables can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg by clicking here.