The difference between folklore and fable

Folklore refers to the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. No one knows the origins of folklore.

A fable is a parable starring animals instead of humans. This distinction has been lost in popular usage of the term, in which ‘fable’ is sometimes used instead of ‘parable’. Commentators know the lines have blurred and will now sometimes use the word apologue to describe a moral fable with animals as characters.

Arthur Rackham Illustration published in 'Aesop's Fables', London William Heinemann, 1912
Arthur Rackham Illustration published in ‘Aesop’s Fables’, London William Heinemann, 1912

(A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles.)

In a fable, there is not necessarily any obvious moral but there is usually some kind of rough justice.

When it comes to the depiction of animals, and their closeness to humanity, folklore and fable are opposites.

Folklore vs Fable

Animals in Folklore

  • talking animals
  • clever animals who have an ambiguous or helpful role (the helper is one of Vladimir Propp’s seven character types)
  • they may even have private lives and families based on the human model
  • they may co-exist with human masters/owners/acquaintances

The Problem With Fables And Children

Fables, like fairytales, came about before the concept of ‘child’ existed. In short, fables were not written for children. Here’s what we know about children, courtesy of Scholars and Storytellers:

Researchers from the University of Toronto read children, ages 3 to 7, three stories: George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Pinocchio or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Only one of these stopped kids from telling a lie.

The story about George Washington telling the truth to his father about chopping down the tree, and the pride he felt that when his father praised his honesty, was the only effective story. Why did the researchers believe this worked? Because this story, unlike the others which feature high stakes and scary outcomes, featured positive consequences. In other words, instead of being scared, the kids focused on the lesson at hand. Learning not to lie.

And while the researchers didn’t point to realism, decades of research demonstrates that for young kids, realistic, relatable stories are more effective … So perhaps the fact that nearly any child can relate to wanting their father to be proud of them, rather than an obscure story about a wolf eating them, was a reason they actually got the point of the fable.

Developmentally, children aren’t ready to get the morals of fables (or other kinds of stories) until they’re about 9 years old.

For a related word, which may not immediately strike you as related to ‘fable’, see Fabulism In Children’s Literature.

The Folklore Authenticity Debate

The concept of authenticity has been important in the study of folklore and folk narrative. Starting in the 1700s, people were searching for the genuine, real and unspoiled. This had huge social, economic and political implications. The concept ‘authenticity’ was generally associated with ‘traditional’ in the ‘tradition versus modernity’ binary view of the world. Old things are authentic; new things are fake. Once industrialisation happened mass production happened, and mass produced goods weren’t valued as much as unique handmade objects, which were considered more ‘real’.

The same thing happened with stories. Oral tales were considered authentic. Epic poems were considered especially authentic, especially by people (Romantic nationalists) wanting a narrative to replace the elitist language and culture of the monarchies.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, collections of folktales, as part of their marketing material, assured audiences that the tales had been recorded straight from the mouths of the common people and taken from unspoiled places.

In the 1960s, folklorists were arguing among themselves using the authentic/spurious binary, but this argument had long since been resolved. Folklorists now accept that folklore evolves with influence from pop culture (books, comics, film and so on).

Fables have been parodied for a long time. The header illustration is from Fables for the Frivolous (1899) by Guy Wetmore Carryl, illustrated by Peter Newell

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