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Fable

Fable, a story with a didactic purpose, in which animals, plants, or inanimate objects behave as human beings. On the whole, it differs from a parable in that its significance is moral not spiritual; and from the allegory, in that the moral lesson it teaches is given as a corollary rather than intermingled with the story. The fable, moreover, is essentially short and pithy, and the "moral" can he expressed in a single sentence. Beast fables (q.v.) illustrating some simple moral proposition occur among most primitive peoples, and are the product of a time when animals were commonly credited with such human attributes as intelligence and the power of speech. But (though it is difficult to draw a precise line), it may be said that the fable is generally a pure invention with a didactic purpose; the myth (q.v.) a growth, believed in as truth. The fables best known in Europe probably originated in Hindustan, and were introduced into Europe through Greece. AEsop, to whose invention most of those current in Greece were ascribed, lived, according to Herodotus, in the 6th century B.C., but, though accounts of his life exist, they are probably mere inventions. Metrical versions of fables - the invention of the plots of which was attributed to him - existed in Greece under the name of Babrius (q.v.), and in Latin under that of Phaedrus (q.v.). They have come down to us under his name in prose. Lessing has eulogised the short and pithy style of AEsop, but it is probable that this is due to their having been turned from verse into concise and rather bald prose, to serve as a first, reading-book for children. There are a few original Roman fables, but as a rule the fables of AEsop, Phaedrus, the Sanskrit Hitopadesa, and the early medieeval writers indicate a community of origin. Some of the latter are probably due to the Crusaders. When the fable was taken up as literature, numerous fables were written, sometimes in conscious imitation of AEsop, in Germany and France, and in our own day in Russia. The names of La Fontaine and Kriloff will at once suggest themselves, and there were many German fabulists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Lessing, attacking these fabulists for deserting the simple directness of AEsop in favour of a flowery style, wrote a series of fables (in which the moral is left to inference) as concise as those ascribed to AEsop, and an essay on the fable, in which he argues that a fable differs from a simile or illustration in being the story of a concrete case, from which, however, a general moral can be inferred. He insisted that the fable should be moral, not merely satirical, in its significance. He also discussed the reason why animals are the usual personages in fables. Partly, he concluded, it is because they have definite and well-marked characteristics: partly because our attention is not diverted from the moral by human sympathies as it would be were the characters living beings. This view doubtless attributes too much deliberate invention to the earliest fabulists; and moral conclusions are now mostly so trite that it may be doubted whether any attempt to enforce them by stories such as Lessing's can be very successful. Possibly political satire may again employ the fable, but for its use in moral teaching the time has passed.

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