A short narrative which is often a commentary upon society or the human condition, presented as an Allegory or parable, almost always with a hidden (though not obscure) message. It may share common idioms with the Folktale or Fairytale, particularly in its moral counsel, but is not Twice-Told. It often uses animals to symbolize aspects of humankind, so that, although the original fables were Satires for an adult audience appreciative of their more subtle imagery (see Beast Fable), their anthropomorphism also lent an appeal to younger audiences – hence the appeal of the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris.
The earliest known fables are those of Aesop (6th century BC), a Greek slave, although most of them were probably by later Greek writers, including Gaius Julius Phaedrus (?15BC-AD50), Claudis Aelianus (?170-235), Aulus Gellius (117-180) – who wrote the well known fable "Androcles and the Lion" – Babrius (2nd century AD) and Flavius Avianus (4th century AD). Frequently these fables were seen as subversive (see Aesopian Fantasy): Phaedrus was severely punished during the tyranny of Sejanus. Other early fables are found in the Indian collection the Panchatantra (6th century AD) and a similar collection by Bidpai or Pilpay (8th century AD), now lost. Many of these tales found their way into other medieval texts, especially the Gesta Romanorum ["Deeds of the Romans"] (13th century).
By the time William Caxton (circa 1422-circa 1491) produced the first published text of Aesop's Fables (coll 1484), it was difficult to attribute source with any accuracy, and this was further blurred by Jean de la Fontaine, whose own collection, Fables choisies mises en vers (coll 1668; exp 1678; exp 1693), drew heavily on earlier sources, not always with due credit; they needed to be severely rewritten when William Godwin produced his Fables Ancient and Modern (anth 1805), the first modern compilation aimed specifically at children. Other noted writers include John Gay (1685-1732) with Fables (coll 1727 first series), Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) with Abhandlungen über die Fabel ["Treatise about Fables"] (1759), Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794) with Fables (coll 1792), Ivan Krilof (1768-1844) with Fables (coll 1809), Robert Louis Stevenson with Fables (coll 1896 US) and Ambrose Bierce in the rather more sardonic Fantastic Fables (coll 1899). The fable continues to be a popular medium, though its use today focuses more on political commentary or satire; its appearance in fantastic fiction is less visible. Authors who have used fables to good effect include Marcel Aymé, Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Lafcadio Hearn, John Morressy, Jessica Amanda Salmonson and James Thurber.
Two comprehensive compilations of fables are An Anthology of Fables (anth 1913) ed Ernest Rhys (1859-1946) and Ride the East Wind (anth 1973) ed Edmund C Berkeley (1909-1988). [MA]