Verse Fable

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    We've all heard this phrase at some point in our lives, but not all of us remember that it came from a fable. It may be hard to comprehend that many everyday sayings derive from fictional stories about animals and objects, but the fable is more closely related to our own lives than we may initially give it credit for. Fables are stories about animals that teach us lessons about ourselves, so much so that it's common to refer to the fable as fiction that points to the truth.

    Want to learn more about this weird and wonderful genre? Let's read on to learn the history of the fable. We'll look at some different fable types, explore some fable poems and even analyse some fable examples in depth. First, though, let's go over the basic meaning of the term to get us started.

    Fable meaning

    What is a fable? Let's look at a basic definition to get us started.

    A fable is a concise story featuring animals, plants or objects that ends with a moral lesson.

    The animals, plants or objects in a fable are typically anthropomorphised, meaning that the writer gives them human qualities. Creatures in fables speak as a human would and mimic expected human behaviour. Some animal types even have specific human traits assigned to them; a fox is often seen as cunning, a mouse as timid and an owl as wise.

    Can you think of other common similes that may have originated in fables? Try these: as strong as a...? As brave as a...?

    In this article, we'll bring attention to a particular sub-genre of the fable known as the verse fable. What does this mean? Let's define 'verse' to find out.

    A verse is writing that is arranged in a rhythmic pattern. The word 'verse' is often used interchangeably with 'poetry'.

    That's right! A verse fable is just a fable that's in poetic form. Before we move on to some famous examples, let's look in a bit more detail at the diverse history of this exciting genre.

    Did you know? A writer of fables is known as a 'fabulist'!

    Fable history

    Our story begins in ancient Greece with Aesop (c.620BCE - 564 BCE), an enslaved person and storyteller who we commonly accredit with creating the legendary collection of stories known as Aesop's Fables (5th century BCE).

    We can only suspect that Aesop lived in ancient Greece, and it's also hard for us to know which stories were actually his. There are two main reasons for this.

    First of all, being certain about anything from 2500 years ago is a challenge. That's a long time, and the evidence supporting much of our knowledge of the ancient past is inconclusive.

    Secondly, Aesop's Fables were spoken orally for hundreds of years before anyone decided to write them down. As the fable is recited and adapted over centuries, the actual author eventually fades into obscurity, and future generations lose track of who originally created the fable. This means that some fables, despite being created by others, may have been accredited to Aesop many years after his death.

    Verse Fable, Aesop, StudySmarterFig 1. This bust, currently housed in the Villa Albani in Rome, is thought to depict Aesop.

    While Aesop wasn't the first person to personify animals and use them in a morality story, he was the first to popularise the fable genre. Some of Aesop's most famous works, like 'The Tortoise and the Hare' and 'The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs', are still recited to children worldwide today. While Aesop's Fables were prose works, these stories laid the foundation for all future verse fables to come.

    A common misconception of the fable is that it is reserved only for children's literature. While it's true that there are many brilliant children's fables, throughout the middle ages and into the present day, fabulists have often used the fable to explore dark themes and satirise aspects of society. Innovative French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) pioneered the use of the fable as a tool to mock class, religion and law. His work inspired many writers across the world to become satirical fabulists, including Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801), John Gay (1685-1732) and Ivan Krylov (1769-1844).

    Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the fable has maintained popularity with children and adults alike. In 1922, an Austro-Hungarian fabulist named Felix Salten created Bambi: A Life in the Woods (yes, that's the book that the Disney movie is based on). This coming-of-age novel follows the journey of a male deer and delivers moral messages about humans' responsibility to nature. George Orwell's infamous fable Animal Farm (1945) satirises the Stalinist regime through a story about farm animals.

    Fable types

    Let's look at three important variations of the fable.

    Animal fables

    This animal fable is the most common type within the fable genre. These animals typically have human traits and are placed into situations that humans usually find themselves in. Animal fables often feature elements of humour and deliver a moral message to the reader in the closing lines. A famous example of the animal fable is Aesop's 'The Hare and the Tortoise'.

    In 'The Hare and the Tortoise', a hare makes fun of a tortoise for being so slow. The tortoise, frustrated at the hare's overconfidence, challenges him to a race. The hare agrees, and the two begin racing, with the hare, predictably, speeding off ahead of the slow tortoise.

    The hare is so confident of his victory that he decides to take a nap. After all, the tortoise is so far behind that nothing could go wrong. However, as the hare sleeps, the tortoise slowly plods past the hare, reaching the finish line and winning the race.

    The moral of the story is: slow and steady wins the race.

    Verse fable, Hare and Tortoise, StudySmarterFig 2. This 1912 drawing was printed in an English version of Aesop's Fables. It depicts the hare mocking the tortoise as several other animals laugh in the background. Don't let them get you down, tortoise.

    Mythical fables

    Sometimes fables include creatures that don't closely resemble any common animals found on Earth. These creatures could be magical, mythological or caricatures of other animals. The setting that the fable takes place in could also be otherworldly. What sets this type of fable apart from traditional fairy tales and fantasy is that the issues and challenges the characters encounter within their world closely mirror the obstacles we encounter in our own. An example of a mythical fable is Dr Seuss's (1904-1991)The Lorax (1971).

    The story of The Lorax tells us the history of a polluted forest that was once a beautiful and mythical land filled with plants and animals. One day, a man cuts down a magical Truffula tree to make a sweater. Before long, he starts a business chopping down the trees to make more sweaters, despite the protests of the animals in the area. After felling the last tree, one of the animals, known as The Lorax, leaves his home, disappearing into the smog, leaving only the word 'UNLESS' engraved on a stone platform behind him.

    As the protagonists recite the story, the moral message finally becomes clear: unless someone cares, nothing will improve.

    Object fables

    Fables can also be based on inanimate objects. This can be a challenging yet rewarding task for a fabulist because humans rarely attribute personalities to inanimate things. Picturing how a fork, lake or mug might talk is more challenging than assigning a voice to a cat or a dog. However, when carried out imaginatively, the result is a humorous fable that breathes life into something previously inert. An example of the object fable is Aesop's 'The Oak & The Reeds'.

    In this fable, a giant Oak stands beside a stream alongside some thin Reeds. The wind blows fiercely, and the Reeds bow low while the tall Oak stands proudly upright. The Oak laughs at the reeds, telling them that they quiver at the slightest breeze, while the mighty Oak stands tall at even the fiercest winds. The Reeds respond, saying that they do not resist the wind, and therefore it does not harm them. They remind the Oak that strength and might can only take one so far and that its time will come. Suddenly, a colossal hurricane descends on the stream. The reeds bend, but the Oak resists, fighting the storm fiercely. All at once, the tree is ripped from the ground and left lying amongst the reeds.

    The moral of the story is: When it is pointless to resist, it's better to yield. It's better than being stubborn and risking being ruined.

    Verse Fable, Reeds and Oak painting, StudySmarterFig 3. This 1816 painting by Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822) depicts the Reeds bowing while the mighty Oak breaks and collapses in the background.

    Fable poems

    Let's look at two popular verse fables, one from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and another by Eleanor Ross Taylor (1920-2011).

    Ralph Waldo Emerson - 'The Mountain and the Squirrel'

    'The Mountain and the Squirrel' (date unknown) by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a famous example of a verse fable based on a quarrel between an inanimate object (the mountain) and an animal (the squirrel). Here's the poem in full, followed by a brief explanation.

    The mountain and the squirrel

    Had a quarrel;

    And the former called the latter 'Little Prig.'

    Bun replied,

    You are doubtless very big;

    But all sorts of things and weather

    Must be taken in together,

    To make up a year

    And a sphere.

    And I think it no disgrace

    To occupy my place.

    If I'm not so large as you,

    You are not so small as I,

    And not half so spry.

    I'll not deny you make

    A very pretty squirrel track;

    Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;

    If I cannot carry forests on my back,

    Neither can you crack a nut.'

    In this poem, a mountain calls a squirrel a 'little prig'. To this, the squirrel responds that there's a place in the world for everyone. While the mountain may be big, the squirrel is very small; while the mountain can carry entire forests on its back, the squirrel can run freely and crack nuts. Emerson tells us that all of God's creations are equal and that each one of them has a place on Earth. As we know that fables often mirror humanity, Emerson also extends the moral message to us, stating that each person on Earth is worthy in their own way, with their own set of talents that make them unique.

    Eleanor Ross Taylor - 'Kitchen Fable'

    'Kitchen fable' (1991) is a modern example of an object fable. Let's read through the poem and then think about what the fable could be telling us.

    The fork lived with the knife and found it hard — for yearstook nicks and scratches, not to mention cuts. She who took tedium by the ears: nonforthcoming pickles,defiant stretched-out lettuce, sauce-gooed particles. He who came down whack.His conversation, even, edged. Lying beside him in the drawer she formed a crazy patina.The seasons stacked —  melons, succeeded by cured pork. He dulled; he was a dull knife,while she was, after all, a fork.

    This fable describes the life of a fork living with a knife. She is constantly scratched and cut by the knife, presumably as someone eats their food and clashes the two utensils together. Eventually, so much time passes that the knife becomes dull, and the fork develops a coat of patina (green film).

    What could Taylor's moral message be here? As fables often reflect human nature, perhaps the 'female' fork and 'male' knife are symbolic of an unhappy relationship in which abuse is commonplace. Could the poem's moral message be to never settle for less than happiness? Perhaps Taylor is telling the reader not to become complacent. What do you think?

    Fable examples

    Want to learn more? Here's a list of fables for further reading!

    FableWriterPublication date
    Aesop's FablesAesop (c.620BCE - 564 BCE)1484 (English version)
    The PanchatantraVishnu Sharma (unknown)c. 200BCE
    La Fontaine's FablesJean de La Fontaine (1621-1695)1668
    The Fables of FlorianJean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794)1888
    The Jungle BookRudyard Kipling (1865-1936)1894
    Fifty-one FablesJohn Gay (1685-1732)1727
    'The Ant and the Grasshopper'Ivan Krylov (1769-1844)1808
    Ade's FablesGeorge Ade (1866-1944)1914
    Horton Hears a WhoDr Seuss (1904-1991)1954

    Verse Fable - Key takeaways

    • A fable is a concise story featuring animals, plants or objects that leads to a moral lesson. A verse fable is a fable that is in poetic form.
    • Aesop (c.620BCE - 564 BCE) is generally credited with popularising the genre with his huge collection of fables, Aesop's Fables.
    • Some of Aesop's fables, like 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf', 'The Tortoise and the Hare', and 'The Fox and the Hedgehog', are still universally popular today.
    • Three of the key types of fable are the animal fable, the mythical fable and the object fable.
    • Other famous collections of Fables are The Fables of Florian (1888), La Fontaine's Fables (1668), Ade's Fables (1914) and Fifty-One Fables (1727).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Verse Fable

    What is a good example of a fable? 

    A classic example of a fable is Aesop's 'The Tortoise and the Hare'

    What is the difference between a fable and a poem? 

    A poem can be about anything, whereas a fable is about animals, objects or creatures and typically has a strong moral message.

    What is a verse fable? 

    A verse fable is a fable in the form of a poem.

    What is the difference between a fable and a fairytale? 

    The difference between a fable and a fairytale is that a fable tends to be more grounded in reality.

    What is the difference between a fable and a parable?

    The main characters in parables are usually humans, whereas the main characters in fables are often animals.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What word is 'verse' used interchangeably with?

    What is the most common type of fable?

    Aesop's Fables are classed as works of poetry. Is this true or false?


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