1902 Encyclopedia > Fable


FABLE. With certain restrictions, the necessity of which will be shown in the course of the article, we may accept the definition 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 feroe), are, for the purpose of moral instruction, feigned to act and speak with human interests and passions." Before tracing the history of the fable we may compare it with its nearest congeners in literature, the myth, the allegory, and the parable. The myth, whether, as is most commonly the case, it has its origin in some physical phenomenon, or can be traced to mistaken metaphor or distorted history, or is merely a play of the imagination, is always the unconscious product of the race, never like the fable invented expressly for a moral or didactic purpose. A closer analogy to the fable is to be found in the literary myth, the artificial product of a later age, such, for instance, as the _____ of the Iliad, the Hesiodic legend of Pandora, or the story of Er in the Republic of Plato. Yet these allegorical myths are clearly distinguished from the fable, inasmuch as the story and the moral are intermingled throughout. Between the parable and the fable there is no clear line of distinction. Archbishop Trench insists on two essential differences,—first, that the parable teaches spiritual truths, whereas the fable never lifts itself above the earth, and secondly, that the parable never transgresses the actual order of nature. But, though the parables of the New Testament may well be set in a class by themselves, a comparative study of religious writings will show that the parable is one of the commonest forms of religious teaching, and that no hard or fast line can be drawn between moral and spiritual truths. The second difference we should regard as accidental, and it is not altogether borne out by facts.

Must writers on the history of the fable are content to trace its origin to Aesop or the Panca Tantra of the mythical Vishnu Sarman, and these are doubtless the oldest collections which have been preserved in writing; but though we possess no earlier record, we may, from its wide diffusion, regard it as a natural growth of the imagination, and one of the most primitive forms of literature. It springs from the universal need of men to express their thoughts by concrete images and emblems, and thus is strictly parallel to the use of metaphor in language. Even now fables are made every day, and a quick-witted race like the Arabs will invent fables at every turn as the readiest form of argument. To take a familiar illustration, the wise saws and modern instances of Sam Weller would only need a slight expansion to form a very respectable book of fables. Our most familiar proverbs are often fables in miniature.

With the fable, as we know it, the moral is indispensable. As La Fontaine puts it, an apologue is composed of two parts, one of which may be called the body, the other the soul. The body is the fable, the soul the morality. But if we revert to the earliest type we shall find that 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 our fairy tales of Little Red Ridinghood 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 un aided by the example of higher races seems sufficiently proved by the tales quoted by E. B. Tyior (Primitive Culture, vol. i. p. 411). From the beast-fables of savages we come next to the Oriental apologues which are still extant in their original form. The East, the land of myth and legend, is the natural home of the fable, and Hindustan was the birth-place, if not of the original, of these tales, at least of the oldest shape in which they still exist. The Panca Tantra, or fables of the Brahma Vishnu Sarman, have been translated into almost every language and adapted by most modern fabulists. The Kalila wa Damna (names of two jackals), or fables of Bidpai, is an Arab version made about 760 A.D. From the Hebrew version of Rabbi Joel, John of Capua produced a Latin translation about the end of the 15th century, whence all later imitations are derived. (See Monier Williams, Indian Wisdom, p. 508.) 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 has been made by Captain T. Rogers, R.E. As the work is little known we may venture to extract a single gem. A young mother, disconsolate for the death of her first-born son, carries the dead body of her child from house to house seeking medicine to restore it. At last she is sent to Para Takem, the lord and master of the Buddhists, who promises to help her, but she must herself fetch the medicine, which is some mustard seed taken from a house where no son, husband, parent, or slave has died. Gladly the girl speeds on her errand, carrying the dead body of her son on her hip. By degrees she is taught that she is not the only mourner. In the whole of the Savetthi country everywhere children are dying, parents are dying. She leaves her dead son and returns to Para Takem, having learnt the first and last commandment of the Buddhist creed.

From Hindustan the Sanskrit fables passed to China, Thibet, and Persia; and they must Lave 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 of the 1st 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, and have been edited by Sir G. C. Lewis.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, who tells us that he published in senarian verse the rude materials produced by Aesop ; but the numerous allusions to contemporary events, as, for example, that to 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 reflexion 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 moral with which each concludes, ____. The moral inculcated is that of wordly wisdom and reasonable self-interest. 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.

If we consider their striking gift of narrative and their love of moralizing, it is strange that the Romans should have produced no body of national fables. But, with the doubtful exception of Phaedrus, we possess nothing but solitary fables, 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 in Greek prose, and those in Latin elegiac verse attributed to Avianus or Avienus, make, in the history of the apologue, a sort of link between the classical and the dark ages. In that overflowing chaos which constitutes the literature of the Middle Ages, the fable reappears in several aspects. In a Latin dress, sometimes in prose, sometimes in regular verse, and sometimes in rhymed stanzas, it 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 always easier reading, and were often held to be safer and more instructive reading also, than the difficult and slippery classics, for those monks who cared for reading at all, and were not learned enough for any pursuit deserving the name of study. For those who were a little more active-minded, they aided the Gesta Romanorum and other collec-

FOOTNOTE (page 838)

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

tions of fabliaux or short novels, in suggesting illustrations available for popular preaching. Among those mediaeval fables in Latin, very little of originality is to be detected. The writers contented themselves with working up the old fables into new shapes, with rendering from prose into verse, or from verse into prose,—a species of attempts which had its merits in such hands as those of Babrius or Phaedrus, but from which no fruit could be expected to be gathered in the convents. The few monks who could have performed such a task well aimed wisely at something higher. It might be enough to name, among the monkish fabulists, Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican of the 12th century, in whose Speculum Doctrinale are a good many prose fables, more than half of them from Phaedrus, About the end of the same century, too, a considerable number of fables, some of which have been printed, were compiled by an English Cistercian monk, Odo de Cerinton. Nor was this the only collection that arose in England.

As the modern languages became by degrees applicable to literary use, fables began to appear in them. A good many still exist in Norman-French, of which may be noted the fables called those of Ysopet, and those composed by Marie de France, the authoress of the well-known fabliaux. Later, also, they were not wanting, though not numerous, in our own 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 of France; another is Lidgate’s tale of The Churl and the Bird. But the course of the short and isolated fables through the Middle Ages is not here worth prosecuting.

Several of Odo’s tales, like Chaucer’s story, can be ultimately traced to a work, or series of works, for the sake of which chiefly the mediaeval history of the apologue is interesting—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 having independent episodes, but all woven upon a common basis. The Latin form is probably the earliest, and the poem Reinardus et Ysengrinus dates 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. 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. It was written in 1793, during the siege of Mainz, and the philosophic poet sought, in the study of animal nature and passions, to divert his thoughts from the bloody scenes of the Reign of Terror. 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, so as to form what has been quaintly called an animal-romance. The moral, so prominent in the fable proper, shrinks so far into the background, that the work might be considered as a mere allegory. Indeed, while the suspicion of its having contained personal satires has been convincingly set aside, some writers 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 ii 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 mediaeval polity and manners and religion are incessant and palpable. j

It is needless, as has already been said, to attempt tracing the appearance which fables, or incidents borrowed from them, make so frequently as incidental ornaments in the older literature of our own country and others. Nor is there here fit occasion for dwelling minutely on the cultivation of the apologue in modern times, as a special form of poetical composition. 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 our own language, Prior indicated the possession of much aptitude for it; but neither the fables of Moore, nor even the much more lively ones of Gay, possess any distinguished merit. 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 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. 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 Mr 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 Gillea Corrozet, Guillaume Haudent, and Guillaume Guerouit in the 16th, are now studied only 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. Referring for fuller details to the article LA FONTAINE, we must content ourselves here with briefly indicating his chief characteristics. He is a true poet; his verse is exquisitely modulated; his love of nature often reminds us of Virgil, as does 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."

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 value of the work is infinitely enhanced by the monograph on the essence of the fable which appeared at the same time, and as an illustration of which the fables were written. Much of the essay is taken up with the refutation of the theories of contemporary fabulists, De la Motte, Richer, Breittinger, Batteux, who only survive in Lessing’s pages like the fly in amber. Passing over this negative criticism we may briefly state the results of Lessing’s investigation. 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. (F. S.)

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