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On the Teaching Value of Fables and Folktales

On the Teaching Value of Fables and Folktales

A Woman had a Hen that laid an egg every day. The Fowl was of a superior breed, and the eggs were very fine, and sold for a good price. The Woman thought that by giving the Hen double as much food as she had been in the habit of giving, the bird might be brought to lay two eggs a day instead of one. So the quantity of food was doubled accordingly, and the Hen grew very fat, and gave over laying altogether.

~ Aesop, The Woman and the Hen (courtesy of Penguin Classics)

 Written by the world’s most famous fabulist and storyteller, Aesop (ca. 620 BC – 564 BC), the lesson in this fable is clear: If, through greed, you look for more than you have, you lose even that which you do possess. 

Fables contain educational value that is often overlooked and underappreciated in our high-tech, modern world. Yet their value is matchless. Although some were written centuries (if not millennia) ago, the lessons on morality endure. 

A fable is a short story that teaches a moral lesson.  Fables tend to be full of wisdom and are often passed from generation to generation. Through his great skill as a storyteller and teacher, Aesop invented an oral tradition that continued for centuries. 

 According to Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) and Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC), Aesop was born in Thrace but lived in in Samos, Greece. He was a slave of Ethiopian origin as researched by Byzantine Greek monk and scholar Maximus Planudes (1260 - 1330).  In his biography, Maximus Planudes wrote about Aesop saying that “his Complexion [was] black, from which dark Tincture he contracted his Name (Aesopus being the same with Aethiops)" and that Aesop reported to a potential new master that “I am a Negro.”


Was Aesop a black storyteller and slave from Ethiopia?

Was Aesop a black storyteller and slave from Ethiopia?

Depiction of Aesop by Velazquez at the Prado Museum, Madrid.

Depiction of Aesop by Velazquez at the Prado Museum, Madrid.

Aesop’s second owner, ladmon, freed him. He later worked (not as a slave) for a wealthy man, and then travelled to Delphi on a diplomatic mission for King Croesus of Lydia. Aesop was reportedly known as the “sage of Lydia” though this was noted by writers in the 3rd century and later. Legend reports that, on the diplomatic mission for King Croesus, Aesop insulted the Delphians for which he was then executed by being pushed from a cliff. 

Aesop’s fables belonged to the oral tradition and were not collected until 300 years after his death.  Some of the most famous fables attributed to Aesop were “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy who cried Wolf” and “The Fox and the Grapes” from which the English idiom of “sour grapes” was derived.  

Thanks to Aesop (and translators who collected his vast number of stories), fables became and remain a popular form of teaching moral lessons.  And many cultures have adopted this dual form of educational entertainment. 

In African culture, fables have long been used and cherished by people of all ages.  In fact, fabling is a successive generational activity, predictably passing from parents to children.  African fables tend also to use Africa-based animal characters—the lion and the hyena are perennial favorites--as the protagonists, are set in a traditional African setting such as a village or savannah and teach lessons useful to African children. 

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The recent book, Fables from Africa (2010), authored by Timothy Knapman, contains stories such as “The Tortoise and the Baboon” and “The Hungry Hyena” both of which present moral lessons to children.  The archetypal fable from the book recounts the story of the “The Upside-down Lion” in which a family of warthogs (another favorite African animal) rescues Lion from a trap.  Lion plans to eat Baby warthog until Mrs. Warthog tricks Lion back into the trap where he learns his lesson. Truly, a classic story!

Animal trickster fables such as “The Upside-down Lion” are found in many cultures, handed down through generations.  The type of animal may differ and the setting may change. In African culture, jackals represent characters that are able to outwit stronger animals. Lions represent courage, strength and occasionally foolish pride.  And the fables may appear under a different title and use different animals as protagonists. For example, “The Upside-down Lion” has been retold and retitled as “The Lion and the Mouse.” But the trans-cultural moral lesson remains the same.

Tigers (king of the jungle in Asian culture), often feature in fables from India as in the following fable called, “The Tiger, the Stag and the Crocodile.

 A STAG, named High Horn, went to a stream to quench his thirst. A tiger, named Long Leap, had been watching him from an adjacent bush. At the same time a monstrous crocodile, named Great Jaw, came to the edge of the water to seize the stag. High Horn had just finished drinking, when Long Leap darted at him, and Great Jaw drew near. But it so happened that Long Leap missed his prey and fell into the water, where Great Jaw caught him, and drew him down to the bottom of the stream. High Horn, who, a moment ago, had no idea of what the two animals had been planning, exclaimed with a beating heart, "The weak and the meek can hope to live if the wicked destroy each other like these."

~ P.V. Ramaswami Raju, Indian Fables (2009)

 The moral lesson is clear and unmistakable in this classic Indian tale. (Just re-read the last sentence in the quote if it was neither!)

The Fox and the Tiger by Aesop

The Fox and the Tiger by Aesop

One of the most famous—non-Aesopian—fables is often not even recognized as a fable. George Orwell’s (1903 – 1950) timeless and timely story, Animal Farm, illustrates the dangers of communism—all on the “benign” setting of a Russian Revolution-mimicking farm, using typical farm animals as the protagonists.  Satirical in form, Animal Farm is also a political allegory that utilizes anthropomorphism in which the animals develop increasingly human-like characteristics. Indeed, at times, the animals become so “human” that they are barely recognizable as animals, noting the iconic slogan,

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

~ Animal Farm

Revolutionary scene from George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Revolutionary scene from George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Animal Farm.jpg

Animal Farm was first published in 1945 as a sophisticated and cautionary fable designed to expose the dangers of Stalinism and totalitarian government following the Second World War. It takes the moral lesson to a different audience during the turbulent post-WWII era.

As educational tools, fables are powerful literary instruments for teaching basic moral lessons and complex political and social insights. 

Take a quick look at Austrian novelist, Franz Kafka’s (1883 – 1924) one-paragraph fable, written in 1920 and posthumously published in 1931. It is appropriately titled, “A Little Fable.”

a little fable.jpg

“Alas", said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up. ~ “A Little Fable

No, you didn’t miss any part of the story!  It opens with the mouse in misery, then hopeful. Then he dies. In true Kafka-esque style, it has been analyzed as a story of destiny and how one can manipulate it but never avoid it.

The lessons in fables now extend beyond the simple but important Aesopian lessons of telling the truth, treating your neighbor well and taking life slow and steady.  Fables have evolved to present complex social and political ideas and even morbid life lessons. 

Nevertheless, power of the fable derives from its components. Like many genres, fables are formulaic:

  1.    Animal characters with human characteristics known as anthropomorphism

  2.    Problem or dilemma caused by a character trait or weakness

  3.    Resolution with a definite more lesson at the end, usually a proverb

 Would you like to write a fable? Here’s a free fable planning tool (courtesy of WikiHow) to get you started.

Now consider this…

Folktales are also powerful teaching and educational tools that are similar to fables. Like fables, folktales are usually culture-based, folklore-driven and custom-dependent stories found worldwide, and teach an important moral and enduring lesson. The difference? Folktales have humans as protagonists.  (They also tend to be longer and more developed stories.)

The Lion’s Whisker” is a leading example of an African folktale. The folk story features a young couple in which the wife feels that she and her husband are miserable together. The wife wants her husband to love her again so she turns to the village elder for advice. The elder offers to make a secret potion that will help the couple regain their love. A lion features as an important element in the solution to their problem. To read the entire folktale, click here. Many other folktales and fables from Africa are also available for your education and entertainment.

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