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Essential Fables


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Over 655 fables with accompanying moral

A selection of Chinese fables

Classic and more recent illustrations of fables
A Short Guide To Fables

In fables' classic form the dramatis personae are animals who represent the characteristics of humans. From this comes our conviction that tortoises are slow but steady and foxes cunning. They also provide English with a number of now rather hackneyed phrases like 'to cry wolf'.

Aesop is the name most closely associated with the fable (although the form existed long before he was born). An obscure and semi-legendary figure Aesop was a sixth century Greek slave who, thanks to his skill in the telling of his moral tales, won fame and his freedom. Unfortunately it also led to an untimely death as the people of Delphi accused him of sacrilege and threw him off a precipice.

The components of fable are a moral combined with an element of humour (perhaps not laugh-out-loud but at least a small smirk at the foolish behaviour that is described). What fables don't do is supply us with a sentimental ending, or indeed much sentiment at all - losers are losers and little feeling is spared on them. The message is practical and frequently hard-hearted, force and cunning prevail and advantage is taken of the feeble.

Throughout the centuries the fable has made regular appearances through translation and re-workings. Most famously in the 17th century La Fontaine (the Aesop of France) composed 240 fables in a poetic style that elevated them from teaching parable to the level of literature.

In more modern times however the fable has fallen out of favour, perhaps we prefer more subtle forms of teaching or dislike or simply disbelieve the morals that are on offer. In 'Hotel du Lac' Anita Brookner's heroine speculates cynically that Aesop was only consoling the meeker 'tortoise market' and that in fact the Hare always finishes first. Writers such as Ambrose Bierce have exploited this modern cynicism by adapting and developing the form towards more satirical work. However even if we doubt the validity of the morals proposed, crude fables frequently remain eloquent pieces of short prose.



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