1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fable

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FABLE (Fr. fable, Lat. fabula). With certain restrictions, the necessity of which will be shown in the course of the article, we may accept the definition of “fable” which Dr Johnson proposes in his Life of Gay: “A fable or apologue seems to be, in its genuine state, a narrative in which beings irrational, and sometimes inanimate (arbores loquuntur, non tantum ferae), are, for the purpose of moral instruction, feigned to act and speak with human interests and passions.” The description of La Fontaine, the greatest of fabulists, is a poetic rendering of Johnson’s definition:

“Fables in sooth are not what they appear;
Our moralists are mice, and such small deer.
We yawn at sermons, but we gladly turn
To moral tales, and so amused we learn.”

The fable is distinguished from the myth, which grows and is not made, the spontaneous and unconscious product of primitive fancy as it plays round some phenomenon of natural or historical fact. The literary myth, such as, for instance, the legend of Pandora in Hesiod or the tale of Er in the Republic of Plato, is really an allegory, and differs from the fable in so far as it is self-interpreting; the story and the moral are intermingled throughout. Between the parable and the fable there is no clear line of demarcation, and theologians like Trench have unwarrantably narrowed their definition of a parable to fit those of the New Testament. The soundest distinction is drawn by Neander. In the fable human passions and actions are attributed to beasts; in the parable the lower creation is employed only to illustrate the higher life and never transgresses the laws of its kind. But whether Jotham’s apologue of the trees choosing a king, perhaps the first recorded in literature, should be classed as a fable or a parable is hardly worth disputing. Lastly, we may point out the close affinity between the fable and the proverb. A proverb is often a condensed or fossilized fable, and not a few fables are amplified or elaborated proverbs.

The history of the fable goes back to the remotest antiquity, and Aesop has even less claim to be reckoned the father of the fable than has Homer to be entitled the father of poetry. The fable has its origin in the universal impulse of men to express their thoughts in concrete images, and is strictly parallel to the use of metaphor in language. It is the most widely diffused if not the most primitive form of literature. Though it has fallen from its high place it still survives, as in J. Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. The Arab of to-day will invent a fable at every turn of the conversation as the readiest form of argument, and in the Life of Coventry Patmore it is told how an impromptu fable of his about the pious dormouse found its way into Catholic books of devotion.

With the fable, as we know it, the moral is indispensable. As La Fontaine puts it, an apologue is composed of two parts, body and soul. The body is the story, the soul the morality. But if we revert to the earliest type we shall find that this is no longer the case. In the primitive beast-fable, which is the direct progenitor of the Aesopian fable, the story is told simply for its own sake, and is as innocent of any moral as the fairy tales of Little Red Riding-Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. Thus, in a legend of the Flathead Indians, the Little Wolf found in cloud-land his grandsires the Spiders with their grizzled hair and long crooked nails, and they spun balls of thread to let him down to earth; when he came down and found his wife the Speckled Duck, whom the Old Wolf had taken from him, she fled in confusion, and this is why she lives and dives alone to this very day. Such animal myths are as common in the New World as in the Old, and abound from Finland and Kamtchatka to the Hottentots and Australasians. From the story invented, as the one above quoted, to account for some peculiarity of the animal world, or told as a pure exercise of the imagination, just as a sailor spins a yarn about the sea-serpent, to the moral apologue the transition is easy; and that it has been effected by savages unaided by the example of higher races seems sufficiently proved by the tales quoted by E. B. Tylor (Primitive Culture, vol. i. p. 411). From the beast-fables of savages we come next to the Oriental apologues, which we still possess in their original form. The East, the land of myth and legend, is the natural home of the fable, and Hindustan was the birthplace, if not of the original of these tales, at least of the oldest shape in which they still exist. The Pancha Tantra (2nd century B.C.), or fables of the Brahma Vishnu Sarman, have been translated from Sanskrit into almost every language and adapted by most modern fabulists. The Kalilah and Dimna (names of two jackals), or fables of Bidpai (or Pilpai), passed from India to western Europe through the successive stages of Pahlavi (ancient Persian), Arabic, Greek, Latin. By the end of the 16th century there were Italian, French and English versions. There is an excellent Arabic edition (Paris, 1816) with an introduction by Sylvestre de Sacy. The Hitopadesa, or “friendly instruction,” is a modernized form of the same work, and of it there are three translations into English by Dr Charles Wilkins, Sir William Jones and Professor F. Johnson. The Hitopadesa is a complete chaplet of fables loosely strung together, but connected so as to form something of a continuous story, with moral reflections freely interspersed, purporting to be written for the instruction of some dissolute young princes. Thus, in the first fable a flock of pigeons see the grains of rice which a fowler has scattered, and are about to descend on them, when the king of the pigeons warns them by telling the fable of a traveller who being greedy of a bracelet was devoured by a tiger. They neglect his warning and are caught in the net, but are afterwards delivered by the king of the mice, who tells the story of the Deer, the Jackal and the Crow, to show that no real friendship can exist between the strong and the weak, the beast of prey and his quarry, and so on to the end of the volume. Another book of Eastern fables is well worthy of notice, Buddhaghosha’s Parables, a commentary on the Dhammapada or Buddha’s Paths of Virtue. The original is in Pali, but an English translation of the Burmese version was made by Captain T. Rogers, R.E.

From Hindustan the Sanskrit fables passed to China, Tibet and Persia; and they must have reached Greece at an early age, for many of the fables which passed under the name of Aesop are identical with those of the East. Aesop to us is little more than a name, though, if we may trust a passing notice in Herodotus (ii. 134), he must have lived in the 6th century B.C. Probably his fables were never written down, though several are ascribed to him by Xenophon, Aristotle, Plutarch and other Greek writers, and Plato represents Socrates as beguiling his last days by versifying such as he remembered. Aristophanes alludes to them as merry tales, and Plato, while excluding the poets from his ideal republic, admits Aesop as a moral teacher. Of the various versions of Aesop’s Fables, by far the most trustworthy is that of Babrius or Babrias, a Greek probably of the 3rd century A.D., who rendered them in choliambic verse. These, which were long known in fragments only, were recovered in a MS. found by M. Minas in a monastery on Mount Athos in 1842, now in the British Museum.[1] An inferior version of the same in Latin iambics was made by Phaedrus, a slave of Thracian origin, brought to Rome in the time of Augustus and manumitted by him. Phaedrus professes to polish in senarian verse the rough-hewn blocks from Aesop’s quarry; but the numerous allusions to contemporary events, as, for example, his hit at Sejanus in the Frogs and the Sun, which brought upon the author disgrace and imprisonment, show that many of them are original or free adaptations. For some time scholars doubted as to the genuineness of Phaedrus’s fables, but their doubts have been lately dispelled by a closer examination of the MSS. and by the discovery of two verses of a fable on a tomb at Apulum in Dacia. Phaedrus’s style is simple, clear and brief, but dry and unpoetical; and, as Lessing has pointed out, he often falls into absurdities when he deserts his original. For instance, in Aesop the dog with the meat in his mouth sees his reflection in the water as he passes over a bridge; Phaedrus makes him see it as he swims across the river.

To sum up the characteristics of the Aesopian fable, it is artless, simple and transparent. It affects no graces of style, and we hardly need the text with which each concludes, ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ ὅτι, κ.τ.λ. The moral inculcated is that of Proverbial Philosophy and Poor Richard’s Almanacks. Aesop is no maker of phrases, but an orator who wishes to gain some point or induce some course of action. It is the Aesopian type that Aristotle has in view when he treats of the fable as a branch of rhetoric, not of poetry.

The Latin race was given to moralizing, and the language lent itself to crisp and pointed narrative, but they lacked the free play of fancy, the childlike “make-believe,” to produce a national body of fables. With the doubtful exception of Phaedrus, we possess nothing but solitary examples, such as the famous apologue of Menenius Agrippa to the Plebs and the exquisite Town Mouse and Country Mouse of Horace’s Satires.

The fables of the rhetorician Aphthonius about A.D. 400 in Greek prose, and those in Latin elegiac verse by Avianus, used for centuries as a text-book in schools, form in the history of the apologue a link between classical and medieval times. In a Latin dress, sometimes in prose, sometimes in regular verse, and sometimes in rhymed stanzas, the fable contributed, with other kinds of narratives, to make up the huge mass of stories which has been bequeathed to us by the monastic libraries. These served more uses than one. They were at once easier and safer reading than the classics. To the lazy monk they stood in place of novels; to the more industrious and gifted they furnished an exercise on a par with Latin verse composition in our public schools; the more original transformed them into fabliaux, or embodied them in edifying stories, as in the Gesta Romanorum. It is not in the Speculum Doctrinale of Vincent de Beauvais, a Dominican of the 12th century, nor in the collection of his contemporary Odo de Cerinton, an English Cistercian, nor in Planudes of the 14th century, whose one distinction is to have added to the fables a life of Aesop, that the direct lineage of La Fontaine must be traced. It is the fabliaux that inspired some of his best fables—the Lion’s Court, the Young Widow, the Coach and the Fly.

As the supremacy of Latin declined and modern languages began to be turned to literary uses, the fable took a new life. Not only were there numerous adaptations of Aesop, known as Ysopets, but Marie de France in the 13th century composed many original fables, some rivalling La Fontaine’s in simplicity and gracefulness. Later, also, fables were not wanting, though not numerous, in the English tongue. Chaucer has given us one, in his Nonne Preste’s Tale, which is an expansion of the fable Don Coc et don Werpil of Marie de France; another is Lydgate’s tale of The Churl and the Bird.

Several of Odo’s tales, like Chaucer’s story, can be ultimately traced to the History of Reynard the Fox. This great beast-epic has been referred by Grimm as far back as the 10th century, and is known to us in three forms, each with independent episodes, but all woven upon a common basis. The Latin form is probably the earliest, and the poems Reinardus and Ysengrinus date from the 10th or 11th century. Next come the German versions. The most ancient, that of a minnesinger Heinrich der Glichesaere (probably a Swabian), was analysed and edited by Grimm in 1840. The French poem of more than 30,000 lines, the Roman du Rénard, belongs probably to the 13th century. In 1498 appeared Reynke de Voss, almost a literal version in Low Saxon of the Flemish poem of the 12th century, Reinaert de Vos. Hence the well-known version of Goethe into modern German hexameters was taken. The poem has been well named “an unholy world Bible.” In it the Aesopian fable received a development which was in several respects quite original. We have here no short and unconnected stories. Materials, partly borrowed from older apologues, but in a much greater proportion new, are worked up into one long and systematic tale. The moral, so prominent in the fable proper, shrinks so far into the background, that the epic might be considered a work of pure fiction, an animal romance. The attempts to discover in it personal satire have signally failed; some critics deny even the design to represent human conduct at all; and we can scarcely get nearer to its signification than by regarding it as being, in a general way, what Carlyle has called “a parody of human life.” It represents a contest maintained successfully, by selfish craft and audacity, against enemies of all sorts, in a half-barbarous and ill-organized society. With his weakest foes, like Chaunteclere the Cock, Reynard uses brute-force; over the weak who are protected, like Kiward the Hare and Belin the Ram, he is victorious by uniting violence with cunning; Bruin, the dull, strong, formidable Bear, is humbled by having greater power than his own enlisted against him; and the most dangerous of all the fox’s enemies, Isengrim, the obstinate, greedy and implacable Wolf, after being baffled by repeated strokes of malicious ingenuity, forces Reynard to a single combat, but even thus is not a match for his dexterous adversary. The knavish fox has allies worthy of him in Grimbart the watchful badger, and in his own aunt Dame Rukenawe, the learned She-ape; and he plays at his pleasure on the simple credulity of the Lion-King, the image of an impotent feudal sovereign. The characters of these and other brutes are kept up with a rude kind of consistency, which gives them great liveliness; many of the incidents are devised with much force of humour; and the sly hits at the weak points of medieval polity and manners and religion are incessant and palpable.

It is needless to trace the fable, or illustrations borrowed from fables, that so frequently occur as incidental ornaments in the older literature of England and other countries. It has appeared in every modern nation of Europe, but has nowhere become very important, and has hardly ever exhibited much originality either of spirit or of manner. In English, Prior transplanted from France some of La Fontaine’s ease of narration and artful artlessness, while Gay took as his model the Contes rather than the Fables. Gay’s fables are often political satires, but some, like the Fox on his Deathbed, have the true ring, and in the Hare with many Friends there is genuine pathos. To Dryden’s spirited remodellings of old poems, romances and fabliaux, the name of fables, which he was pleased to give them, is quite inapplicable. In German, Hagedorn and Gellert, both famous in their day and the latter extolled by Goethe, are quite forgotten; and even Lessing’s fables are read by few but schoolboys. In Spanish, Yriarte’s fables on literary subjects are sprightly and graceful, but the critic is more than the fabulist. A spirited version of the best appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1839. Among Italians Pignotti is famous for versatility and command of rhythm, as amongst Russians is Kriloff for his keen satire on Russian society. He has been translated into English by Ralston.

France alone in modern times has attained any pre-eminence in the fable, and this distinction is almost entirely owing to one author. Marie de France in the 13th century, Gilles Corrozet, Guillaume Haudent and Guillaume Gueroult in the 16th, are now studied mainly as the precursors of La Fontaine, from whom he may have borrowed a stray hint or the outline of a story. The unique character of his work has given a new word to the French language: other writers of fables are called fabulistes, La Fontaine is named le fablier. He is a true poet; his verse is exquisitely modulated; his love of nature often reminds us of Virgil, as do his tenderness and pathos (see, for instance, The Two Pigeons and Death and the Woodcutter). He is full of sly fun and delicate humour; like Horace he satirizes without wounding, and “plays around the heart.” Lastly, he is a keen observer of men. The whole society of the 17th century, its greatness and its foibles, its luxury and its squalor, from Le grand monarque to the poor manant, from his majesty the lion to the courtier of an ape, is painted to the life. To borrow his own phrase, La Fontaine’s fables are “une ample comédie à cent actes divers.” Rousseau did his best to discredit the Fables as immoral and corruptors of youth, but in spite of Émile they are studied in every French school and are more familiar to most Frenchmen than their breviary. Among the successors of La Fontaine the most distinguished is Florian. He justly estimates his own merits in the pretty apologue that he prefixed to his Fables. He asks a sage whether a fabulist writing after La Fontaine would not be wise to consign his work to the flames. The sage replies by a question: “What would you say did some sweet, ingenuous Maid of Athens refuse to let herself be seen because there was once a Helen of Troy?”

The fables of Lessing represent the reaction against the French school of fabulists. “With La Fontaine himself,” says Lessing, “I have no quarrel, but against the imitators of La Fontaine I enter my protest.” His attention was first called to the fable by Gellert’s popular work published in 1746. Gellert’s fables were closely modelled after La Fontaine’s, and were a vehicle for lively railings against the fair sex, and hits at contemporary follies. Lessing’s early essays were in the same style, but his subsequent study of the history and theory of the fable led him to discard his former model as a perversion of later times, and the “Fabeln,” published in 1759, are the outcome of his riper views. Lessing’s fables, like all that he wrote, display his vigorous common sense. He has, it is true, little of La Fontaine’s curiosa felicitas, his sly humour and lightness of touch; and Frenchmen would say that his criticism of La Fontaine is an illustration of the fable of the sour grapes. On the other hand, he has the rare power of looking at both sides of a moral problem; he holds a brief for the stupid and the feeble, the ass and the lamb; and in spite of his formal protest against poetical ornament, there is in not a few of his fables a vein of true poetry, as in the Sheep (ii. 13) and Jupiter and the Sheep (ii. 18). But the monograph which introduced the Fabeln is of more importance than the fables themselves. According to Lessing the ideal fable is that of Aesop. All the elaborations and refinements of later authors, from Phaedrus to La Fontaine, are perversions of this original. The fable is essentially a moral precept illustrated by a single example, and it is the lesson thus enforced which gives to the fable its unity and makes it a work of art. The illustration must be either an actual occurrence or represented as such, because a fictitious case invented ad hoc can appeal but feebly to the reader’s judgment. Lastly, the fable requires a story or connected chain of events. A single fact will not make a fable, but is only an emblem. We thus arrive at the following definition:—“A fable is a relation of a series of changes which together form a whole. The unity of the fable consists herein, that all the parts lead up to an end, the end for which the fable was invented being the moral precept.”

We may notice in passing a problem in connexion with the fable which had long been debated, but never satisfactorily resolved till Lessing took it in hand—Why should animals have been almost universally chosen as the chief dramatis personae? The reason, according to Lessing, is that animals have distinct characters which are known and recognized by all. The fabulist who writes of Britannicus and Nero appeals to the few who know Roman history. The Wolf and the Lamb comes home to every one whether learned or simple. But, besides this, human sympathies obscure the moral judgment; hence it follows that the fable, unlike the drama and the epos, should abstain from all that is likely to arouse our prejudices or our passions. In this respect the Wolf and the Lamb of Aesop is a more perfect fable than the Rich Man and the Poor Man’s Ewe Lamb of Nathan.

Lessing’s analysis and definition of the fable, though he seems himself unconscious of the scope of his argument, is in truth its death-warrant. The beast-fable arose in a primitive age when men firmly believed that beasts could talk and reason, that any wolf they met might be a were-wolf, that a peacock might be a Pythagoras in disguise, and an ox or even a cat a being worthy of their worship. To this succeeded the second age of the fable, which belongs to the same stage of culture as the Hebrew proverbs and the gnomic poets of Greece. That honesty is the best policy, that death is common to all, seemed to the men of that day profound truths worthy to be embalmed in verse or set off by the aid of story or anecdote. Last comes an age of high literary culture which tolerates the trite morals and hackneyed tales for the sake of the exquisite setting, and is amused at the wit which introduces topics and characters of the day under the transparent veil of animal life. Such an artificial product can be nothing more than the fashion of a day, and must, like pastoral poetry, die a natural death. A serious moralist would hardly choose that form to inculcate, like Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees, a new doctrine in morals, for the moral of the fable must be such that he who runs may read. A true poet will not care to masquerade as a moral teacher, or show his wit by refurbishing some old-world maxim. Yet Taine in France, Lowell in America, and J. A. Froude in England have proved that the fable as one form of literature is not yet extinct, and is capable of new and unexpected developments.

Bibliography.Pantschatantrum, ed. Kosegarten (Bonn, 1848); Hitopadesa, ed. Max Müller (1864); Silvestre de Sacy, Calilah et Dimna, ou Fables de Bidpai, en Arabe, précédées d’un mémoire sur l’origine de ce livre (Paris, 1816), translated by the Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull (Oxford, 1819); Comparetti, Ricerche intorno al Libro di Sindebād (Milan, 1869); Max Müller, “Migration of Fables,” Chips from a German Workshop, vol. iv. (1875); Keller, Untersuchungen über die Geschichte der griechischen Fabel (Leipzig, 1862); Babrius, ed. W. G. Rutherford, with excursus on Greek fables (1883); L. Hervieux, Les Fabuiistes latins (1884); Jakob Grimm, Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin, 1834); A. C. M. Robert, Fables inédites des XIIe, XIIIe, et XIVe siècles, &c. (Paris, 1825); Taine, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (1853); Saint-Marc Girardin, La Fontaine et les fabulistes (Paris, 1867).  (F. S.) 

  1. M. Minas professed to have discovered under the same circumstances another collection of ninety-four fables by Babrius. This second part was accepted by Sir G. C. Lewis, but J. Conington conclusively proved it spurious, and probably a forgery. See Babrius.