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FABLE (Fr. fable, Lat. fabula)

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Originally appearing in Volume V10, Page 115 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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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 pro-poses in his Life of Gay: " A fable or apologue seems to be, in its genuine state, a narrative in which beings irrational, and some-times 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 con-fusion, 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.' 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, o µuOos I1Xo' 6n, K.T.X. 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 he 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 IVerpil 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 ' 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
End of Article: FABLE (Fr. fable, Lat. fabula)
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