The Fable Tradition Analysis

The Roots of the Fable Tradition

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although it is impossible to trace the genre of the fable to a single source or a first writer, it is known that the fable tradition has its roots far back in ancient history; in fact, the fable is perhaps one of the earliest forms of the short story. Although readers have most often come to associate the fable with Aesop, even to the extent of attributing to Aesop fables written at a much later time, the fable tradition actually flourished in many cultures other than that of ancient Greece, as proven by the existence of fables in diverse ancient writings.

From the time of its very inception, the fable seems to have entailed the notion of allegory. According to the definition of the ancient Greeks, whose fables are most familiar to the Western world, the fable is a story, a tale, a narrative; the Greeks made a clear distinction between the fable’s fictional nature and other sorts of historical tales. Nevertheless, although the tale was fictive, its intent was to portray allegorically a reality of some kind, and this basic assumption concerning the fable’s nature has characterized the fable throughout centuries of varied treatment.

As it most commonly appears, the fable personifies animals, or occasionally plants, or sometimes even the elements of nature, so as to reveal some truth; ordinarily that truth concerns a particular aspect of human behavior, although some fables that are etiological (such as how the turtle got its shell) have come...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most famous writer of fables is Aesop. By the time of the Middle Ages, his fables existed in many variant forms—in verse and in prose, and in many languages such as French, German, Latin, and English. Although Aesop was not the only source of medieval fables, many of the most popular are traceable ultimately to Aesop, by means of such redactors as Demetrius Phalereus, Phaedrus, Bebrius, Avianus, and Gualterus Anglicus. Since Aesop probably did not write his fables down, the reader is obliged to rely on the testimony of these later writers who claim that their collections are based on Aesop’s work. The extent to which Aesop is responsible for all the fables attributed to him cannot be finally determined, but it is known that he is associated with the beginning of the genre as it developed in Greece.

There were earlier users of the fable than Aesop, but their work, for the most part, has been lost. Archilochus, a Greek poet believed to have lived on the island of Paros in the seventh century b.c.e., composed a number of fables concerning the fox and the monkey, the fox and the eagle, and the fox and the hedgehog, but unfortunately his work survives only in fragments. Another early fable is that of Hesiod, a Greek poet who wrote around 700 b.c.e. His fable of the hawk and the nightingale, contained in the poem Erga kai emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) is one of the oldest known of the Greek fables:A hawk catches a nightingale and carries her in his claws high up to the clouds. In response to her pitiful wailing the hawk asks why she screams, since her master has her and she will therefore go wherever he wishes to take her; if he wishes to eat her he will, or if he wishes to let her go, he may do so. The hawk points out that one who tries to match strength with someone stronger will not only lose the battle but also be hurt as well by shame.

Hesiod claims that his fable is for the barons, who will understand it.

Even older is the fable in Judges 9:8-15, concerning the trees which seek a king:The olive tree, when asked to reign over the other trees, responded by inquiring if it should leave its rich oil, which honors gods and men, so as to sway over the trees. The fig tree, also asked, similarly inquired if it should leave its good fruit in order to reign. In like manner the vine inquired if it should leave its good wine, which cheers gods and men. The bramble, when asked, responded that if the trees were in good faith anointing it as king they should take shelter in its shade, but if they were not, that fire should come out of the bramble and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.

Despite such earlier fables as these, however, it is Aesop, who is believed to have lived in the sixth century b.c.e., with whom the fable has come to be most closely associated. Much of Aesop’s life remains a mystery,...

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The Middle Ages

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Both the Phaedrus and the Babrius collections were used extensively by later writers. The Babrius collection was put into Latin verse, perhaps around 400 c.e., by Avianus, a Roman writer of whom little is known. The Avianus fables, because of their simplicity, were popular in medieval schools as exercises in grammar and composition; fables had been recommended for this purpose as early as the first century c.e. by Quintilianus, a rhetorician who prized the Aesopic fables as aids in memorizing, reciting, and composing. The Avianus fables were also used by Alexander Neckham for his Novus Avianus of the late twelfth century, on which a number of later French versions rely. The Phaedrus translation of the fables was the basis for the tenth century Romulus collection in Latin prose, which circulated widely in manuscripts of varying contents. This collection, which was said to be directly derived from Aesop, was extremely popular. In the twelfth century, Gualterus Anglicus (Walter the Englishman) translated this Romulus collection into Latin verse; it is also from Walter’s translation, known in the Middle Ages as Esopus, Ysopet, or Isopet (or the Anonymous Neveleti, since the collection was published anonymously by Nevelet in 1610), that many later French and Italian versions are derived.

Also writing fables in the twelfth century was Marie de France, who drew on both the Romulus collection and the Roman de Renart (c. 1175- 1205), the tales of Reynard the fox, for her fables, many of which referred to contemporary society. Another French writer, whose fables were influenced by the work of Marie, by the Romulus collection, and by Hebrew lore, was Rabbi Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, who, toward the end of the twelfth century, wrote his Mishle shu’alim (Fables of a Jewish Aesop, 1967), which was a translation of Fox Fables. In spite of the title, however, not all the fables concern the fox, as, for example, the fable of the mouse who overeats:A mouse who was black and thin went through a hole into a granary where he ate until he was immensely fat. When he was ready to leave he discovered he could not fit through the hole. A cat informed him that unless he vomited up what he had eaten and grew thin, he would never be able to leave and would never see his father again. This story is for one who covets the wealth of others...

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The Seventeenth Century to the Modern Era

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The seventeenth century revival of interest in the fable was due in large part to the work of the Frenchman Jean de La Fontaine, who published twelve books of fables between 1668 and 1694. He is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for moving the fable into the realm of poetry. Although he claimed to be unoriginal, to be merely translating and adapting from Aesop and Phaedrus, his originality was made manifest in the lyrical and dramatic verse with which he transformed his material. Followers of La Fontaine included such writers as John Gay and Robert Dodsley, the Spanish writer Tomás de Iriarte, the German writer C. F. Gellert, and Ivan Krylov, a Russian writer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

La Fontaine’s innovative treatment of the genre did, however, provoke a countermovement. In response to what he perceived as La Fontaine’s revolutionary and inappropriate poeticizing of the form, Gotthold Lessing, writing in Germany in the eighteenth century, initiated an opposing trend for fabulists. His intent, as indicated in his 1759 collection, Fabeln nebst Abhandlungen (Fables, 1773), was to return to the original conventions of the Aesopic fable, to make the fable not poetic but philosophical. His fables, accordingly, were short, simple, and pithy. An interesting example is that of the nightingale and the lark: “What can be said to poets who go on flights above their readers’ understanding? As the nightingale inquired of the lark, does one soar so high deliberately, so as not to be heard?”

The controversy in the eighteenth century over the nature of the fable was of great interest to writers and critics; in contrast to scholars of other times who dismissed the form as suitable primarily for the purposes of teaching and preaching, eighteenth century scholars considered the fable to possess genuine literary respectability. After this great flowering of interest, however, the fable fell into disuse as a literary form.

The fable tradition plays an important role in the early nineteenth century development of the short story. In America, where the form got its most influential beginning, writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville combined the old fable and folktale tradition they inherited from Germany with the realistic tradition developed throughout the eighteenth century in England. The result was that in such stories as Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator of the story seems to have an internal psychology much like a real person in the world, whereas Roderick Usher seems more like a two-dimensional character from an old romance fable. Similarly, characters such as Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s two most famous stories seem to be real characters...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Aizenberg, Edna, ed. Borges and His Successors. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. Collection of essays by various critics on Borges’s fables and philosophy and his relationship to such writers as Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Peter Carey.

Brown, Suzanne Hunter. “The Chronotope of the Short Story: Time, Character, and Brevity.” In Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. An important discussion of the critical assumption that short stories deal with characters as eternal essences and that novels deal with characters who change over time.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964. Fletcher develops a theoretical model for allegory, showing its development from magic and ritual forms, its relationship to other forms such as folktale and fable, and its analogy to psychological obsession and compulsion.

Kenney, Catherine McGehee. Thurber’s Anatomy of Confusion. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984. Discusses Thurber’s Fables for Our Time (1940), as well as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Argues that the latter examines the impotent world of modern urban America, embodying all of the elements of Thurber’s fictional world.

May, Charles E. “Obsession and the Short Story.” In Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Discusses the relationship between psychological obsession and aesthetic unity in the fables of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville as a generic characteristic of the short story.

Patteson, Richard, ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. A collection of critical essays that deal with Barthelme’s use of language, his fragmentation of reality, his fabular method, and his montage technique.