Fables Invite Perception
Rev. Gregory I. Carlson, S.J.
Bestia, Vol. 5 (1993)
(Note: Those who want immediately to find the definition I offer should use this bookmark link.)
In its short history, Bestia has already furthered discussion on the definition of fable, in particular through the keynote addresses of Professors Jan Ziolkowski ("The Form and Spirit of Beast Fable," Bestia II  4-40) and Pack Carnes ("The Fable and the Anti-Fable: The Modern Faces of Aesop," Bestia IV  5-34). This article reviews briefly what they offer on the definition of Aesopic fable, questions one point, and proposes a more specific definition. I attempt then to demonstrate the value of the definition by trying it out in some test cases. I move on finally to offer two comments on fable definitions operative in recent publications.
It has of course not been easy to define Aesopic fable. The tides of time have shifted sands in peculiar fashion around the word "fable." Bulfinch's The Age of Fable has nothing to do with what we most often mean by "fable." A recent cartoon book called Freaky Fables is a funny account of ancient legends, including the story of the Trojan War, in which a can of cleanser labelled " Ajax " runs around the battlefield. In fact, "fable" seems to be in vogue today as a romantic word that can be applied to folktale, legend, fairy tale, and more. As the word "fable" continues to enjoy popularity and even increases its extension, we need to define Aesopic fable all the more carefully. I believe that there is a particularly effective and engaging kind of story that we associate with the name of Aesop. With Ziolkowski, I am speaking not of "fables by Aesop" but of "fables that are felt to be in the manner of Aesop" (4, italics his). Shaped and reshaped by every good contributor to the genre, this kind of story has a typical form and a typical effect.
The foundational work for fable definition in recent scholarship has come from Ben Edwin Perry, to whom both Ziolkowski and Carnes are indebted.  Of particular value are Perry's careful essay "Fable" (Studium Generale 12 , 17‑37) and the introduction to Babrius and Phaedrus (Cambridge, MA, 1984). For Perry, fable "relates a fictitious event in the past for the obvious purpose of illustrating an ethical truth" (Studium 19). It is a past fictional narrative understood to be metaphorical, that is, to picture a metaphorical truth (Babrius xxii-xxiii). Perry dissociates fable from any particular content and sees it rather as a specific literary form.
Ziolkowski's goal is to frame the basic questions that lead to an understanding of the form of beast fable. En route to that goal, Ziolkowski summarizes Perry's delimitations on the field of Aesopic fable succinctly. Let me recount those delimitations here and question the last of them. 1) Fables must be fictitious; they are therefore different from pseudo-scientific nature observations, anecdotes, legends, etiological stories, and myths. 2) Fables must record a single action, short chain of actions, or speech that took place once in the past; they are thus unlike proverbs, which usually show a consuetudinal present. 3) Fables must relate the actions of specific characters, not those, e.g., of allegorical figures. 4) Fable must at least pretend to be told for the sake of a moral, not merely for entertainment. The presence of a moral, as Ziolkowski sees it, distinguishes fable formally from other types of short narrative such as riddles, allegory, parables, and animal folktales. Since I question this view, let me quote Ziolkowski's summary of Perry on this fourth point:
The fourth, and most important, of Perry's four criteria is that a fable at least pretends to be told for the sake of a moral, not merely for entertainment. The presence of a moral protects the story part of a fable from the charge of being an out-and-out lie, since the moral gives the fabulist a meaning, at once deep and explicit, that goes beyond the fiction; and the presence of a moral distinguishes fable formally from other types of short narrative such as riddles, allegory, parables, and animal folktales. Although even the simplest kinds of folktale (including animal stories) are often fraught with philosophical significance (whether profound or worldly), the storyteller is interested in this meaning only secondarily. His primary concern is to relate a story -- to move along the action or the drama of the explanation. In contrast, the most distinctive feature of the fable form is that this philosophical import is divulged openly in the moral. [Ziolkoski 10, italics mine.]
That Aesopic fable aims to do more than to entertain is clear. I write here to try to specify what it does that goes beyond entertainment. I likewise agree with Prof. Ziolkowski that fable is distinct from the other genres he mentions. But I want to challenge the notion that the chief distinguishing feature of Aesopic fable lies in the explicit presence of a moral. While Perry comes close to saying this on a couple of occasions, I think his point is really different. What distinguishes fable from other genres in Perry's mind is its import, not the presence or absence of an announcement of that import. Here is what Perry himself writes :
It is true that even the simplest kind of folktales, including the M @rchen and animal stories which are told for their own sake as entertainment, are often pregnant with philosophical meaning, which may be at times profound and poetic, or shrewd and worldly-wise; but this inner meaning is not something that the story-teller consciously strives to convey. He is interested primarily in the action or the drama of his story.... By contrast, the teller of a fable, qua fable, is concerned before all else with the metaphorical meaning of his story, which he consciously aims to impart without delay, and to which his story, as such, must be strictly subordinated and made summary in nature, and thereby brief and fast. (Studium 28)
Of course, the metaphorical meaning that is uppermost in fable can be articulated in a moral, but what Perry argues for here as the distinguishing characteristic of fable is not the physical presence of a moral. He has just criticized Phaedrus and Babrius for sometimes creating the illusion of fables by recounting mere animal stories and adding morals that do not grow naturally out of them (69). What distinguishes fable for Perry is the import that a structuring mind gives a story, not the presence of a particular vehicle for delivering articulation of that import. Perry points out that the earliest collections of fables featured not explicit morals at all, but rather promythia pointing to the contexts in which they could best be used. Ziolkowski himself admits in his next paragraph that the moral as we know it was slow in evolving. Does his fourth criterion not then lead his argument to the conclusion that the most original Aesopic fables were not in his sense Aesopic? Furthermore, through the centuries since the first collections, many Aesopic fabulists have written without explicitating the morals of their fables: is what they write any the less fable because they choose the more suggestive strategy of letting the hearer create the moral? In brief, I question identifying fable by an explicitated moral, and recommend rather that we look, with Perry, to the metaphorical purpose that gives sense to a moral.
Ziolkowski in this fourth criterion is responding to a real problem: How are we to distinguish fable from other short narrative genres? Let us look at the sample types of narrative which he attempts to distinguish from Aesopic fable by means of the criterion of an explicit moral: riddle, allegory, parable, and animal folktale. Formally, riddles are different from fables, since they are accounts of a question difficult to answer. There is, however, a type of joke whose story is indistinguishable from the story of a fable. The definition I offer will attempt to discriminate between the two. Allegory, it seems to me, is already distinguished from fable by Ziolkowski's third criterion, which prescribes that "the characters in a fable do not merely embody abstract concepts" (Ziolkowski 9). The naming or identifying of characters by means of the single entity they represent seems to me to offer a ready criterion for the distinguishing of allegory. Parable in the form in which we know it best is indeed structurally indistinguishable from fable. Because the mere presence or absence of a stated moral does not seem to me sufficient to separate fable from parable, I attempt to distinguish them by the criterion I will shortly propose.
Animal folktale is mentioned by Perry in the quotation above, who distinguishes fable from it in terms of the primary intentionality of the author. If I understand Perry correctly, folktale for him is really not a structure at all but a content. It differs from fable in that its accent is on the story rather than its upshot, as Ziolkowski correctly explains. To compare fable and folktale is thus to compare, not apples and oranges, but apples and apple-juice. Animal folktale can become the stuff of fable. The criterion for distinguishing the two is not the mere presence of an announced moral, but rather the question of whether the material here has been structured to bear a fable's particular kind of meaning. As Perry points out at the end of his Studium essay, it is into folktale that fable lapses when it loses its structure (37). In summary, then, Aesopic fable is a fictitious past-tense story about specific characters with an import beyond entertainment. Since the presence or absence of a stated moral will not serve as a sufficient criterion to distinguish Aesopic fable, there is a problem of distinguishing it from two genres that are structurally identical: joke and parable.
Carnes' particular interest is the relationship of the anti-fable to the fable. He begins his discussion with a definition of what he sees as the "fable in strict terms," the "fable proper," namely the Aesopic type. For Carnes, Aesopic fable is best defined in terms of structure, length and application possibilities ("The Fable" 6-7). That is, an Aesopic fable 1) is a short narrative, with a fairly standard structural format; 2) contains a single motif or narrative type or a short concatenation of simple motifs; and 3) is an implicit or explicit general metaphor that is instructive, prescriptive, descriptive, and paranaetic. That is, Aesopic fables are invariably used to make a point. For Carnes, the structure of Aesopic fable is more or less exactly the same as that of the joke. I agree with his three defining elements. I write to offer a further specification of the last of them.
I think it fair to say that the upshot of reading Perry, Ziolkowski, and Carnes is that Aesopic fable is a short past-tense fictitional narrative with a metaphoric or teaching purpose of some sort. For Perry, this purpose was "illustrating an ethical truth." For Ziolkowski, this is the purpose "beyond entertainment." For Carnes it is the "point" which fable is invariably called on to make. "What sort of purpose?" and "What sort of point?" are the questions I address here. In answer, the definition I have come to espouse is: An Aesopic fable is a short past-tense fictional narrative that invites perception of a point about how to live life. The definition I offer specifies the teaching character of fable by insisting that the story itself invites perception of a point about how to live life. A fable does not command perception or deliver it. Above all it does not specify entirely the point to be perceived. Its form is such that a hearer experiences being invited to learn something particular and definite about how to live.
This definition attempts to meet one of the most serious problems in the understanding of Aesopic fable. The most often repeated statement about fables is that fables teach. The most basic experience of hearing or reading fables is that different people find different teachings in them. Our common-sense grasp that fables have lessons to offer keeps running into our experience that a given fable teaches various people various things. Mistakes on understanding fable at this point lead to ludicrous expressions like that on the first page of one paperback edition: "Can you guess the moral?" (Aesop's Fables, Magnum Easy Eye Books). H.J. Blackham insists correctly against this kind of thinking that a summary statement never gets all the meaning of a fable: "There is no definitive `moral'. The metaphor is open; the comparison invites exploratory reflection" (The Fable as Literature, xiii).
Thus there is a question raised by the twin facts that fables teach and that it is impossible to define a given fable's teaching. My answer is that Aesopic fable invites perception. Whatever moral‑‑if any‑‑the fabulist gives, a good fable's story is so structured as to invite us to find a particular pointed meaning. That point need not be profound, uplifting, or ethical. It may be self‑serving or cynical.
In Blackham's words just quoted, a fable is always a metaphor. As Carnes insists, the resolution of the metaphor is multivalent, admitting of many possibilities ("The Fable" 7). The leap from story to application invites and even demands our perception, and no one person‑‑even the fabulist‑‑can state the point exhaustively. He or she may not even state it aptly. Fable teaches, then, the way a good teacher teaches, by laying out engaging material and by provoking students to put it together for themselves. The pleasure of fable‑reception lies not only in hearing a good story but also in accomplishing or possessing something that is our own. If the fabulist is good, what he or she had in mind and what we perceive will be roughly the same, but the history of fables teaches that a good fable can do no more than to invite. It questions our perceptions, and we reveal ourselves in the way we understand it. It is thus only natural that responses to a fable vary so much. Different people naturally feel invited to different perceptions. The teaching character of fable lies, then, in the very suggestiveness of the story presented.
Can this definition help us to distinguish Aesopic fable from joke and parable? For fable is, as I have claimed, structurally identical with these two other literary genres. First, fable is identical in structure with one of the most popular forms of the joke. "A Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew all died and met St. Peter at the pearly gates...." What is this but the beginning of a short fictitious past‑tense narrative that culminates in a point? Structurally, fables and jokes of this form are the same. And parable too--for example, as we find it in the New Testament--does not differ from fable formally or structurally, for it again is a short fictitious past-tense narrative with a point to make. "The sower went out to sow his seed...." "A traveller on his way to Jerusalem</st1:place> </st1:City> fell in with robbers...." "A young man asked his father for his inheritance...."
These three genres--joke, fable, parable--share the same "Do you get it?" character. Do you get the joke? Do you see the point of the fable? Do you understand how the parable touches you? Put in Nathan's words to David, do you understand how "That man is you" (2 Samuel 12:7)? Though I cannot find a structural difference among these three, I do find a different effect, and I suggest that we see them as three parts of a spectrum, a continuum along which joke moves into fable and fable moves into parable. Some individual works may, of course, be close to the borderlines, but overall the three genres themselves remain distinct.
The difference among these three genres lies, then, not in their form but in their respective effects. In a joke, the effect is typically not to invite a reflection about how to live life but rather to point out some of the incongruity of life. The joke offers us a laugh, and we move on. The joke does not change our minds or our ideas. We would be surprised after a good joke if someone asked us "What new perception do you find in the story you have just heard?" And what of parable? Whereas fable invites perception, I believe parable invites reconsideration of values. Parables keep on raising fresh questions for us on our way through life. Who is my neighbor? What have I built on that is rock, and what is sand? What do I think of those who like the prodigal son were lost and are found: is my response more like that of the happy father or that of the begrudging older brother? Do I, like the priest and the levite, walk past the half-dead victim on the road, or do I, like the Samaritan, respond to his need? Parables invite reconsideration of our values. Fables usually stop short of challenging our values.  They lure us rather into playing our way into understanding; they invite us to expect that snakes will be snakes and foxes foxes; they urge us to be ourselves, to be savvy and perceptive.
Let us try out the definition I have given on seven texts presented by their authors as fables. Is each text a joke, an Aesopic fable, or a parable? I would suggest that readers come to their own conclusions immediately after each story before reading my comment on it.
1.THE FROG WHO WANTED TO BE A TRUE FROG
There was once a Frog who wanted to be a True Frog, and every day she worked hard at it.
In the beginning she bought a mirror in which she studied herself long and carefully, anxiously searching for the Real Frog within.
At times it seemed to her that she had found it and at other times not, according to her mood of the day or hour, until she tired of it and put the mirror away in a trunk.
Finally she concluded that the only way to know her own value was to seek it in the opinion of others, and she began to preen and dress up and undress (when there was no other way) to discover whether others approved of her and recognized her as a True Frog.
One day she observed that what they regarded most highly was her figure, especially her legs, so she practiced deep-knee-bends and jumping to make her thighs even sightlier, and she was sure that they all admired her.
And so she went on striving until--anything to be considered a True Frog--she let them pull her legs off; and they ate them; and she lasted just long enough to hear with deep bitterness as they said, "What good Frog -- just like Chicken."(Augusto Monterroso, The Black Sheep and Other Fables 63-4.)
We probably laugh as this text concludes. The timing of the story is excellent: it finishes the frog's life just as she realizes how futile her striving has been. But her bitterness may change the taste of our laughter, for there is more than joke here. The story reaches out not only to question sexist perceptions of women but to probe any person's understanding of how he or she is to know the self. In the fashion of a parable, the story suggests that someone dining at the wayside inns of mirrors and others' comments is on the highway to trouble. As we read, the story invites us not only to perceive the foolishness of this frog but to ask if we in our own ways may not be prostituting ourselves to the expectations of others.
2. AN UNSPEAKABLE IMBECILE
A Judge said to a Convicted Assassin:
"Prisoner at the bar, have you anything to say why the death-sentence should not be passed upon you?"
"Will what I say make any difference?" asked the Convicted Assassin.
"I do not see how it can," the Judge answered, reflectively. "No, it will not."
"Then," said the doomed one, "I should just like to remark that you are the most unspeakable old imbecile in seven States and the District of Columbia." (Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables 55)
Bierce is, as always, funny. The structure and timing are perfect. The rich irony is just one sign that this short dialogue is by no means mindless. The story gives us a sense of the situation, offers a glimpse of the judge in action, and then frees the defendant for the most honest statement of his life. The narrative achieves its effect of provoking laughter as we relish the situation in which for once someone tells the old judge the truth, clearly and with proper emphasis. But I, at least, cannot see any learning or perception provoked by the narrative. Bierce has written a good joke, and no more.
3. THE ASS AND THE FLUTE
Be it good or bad,
This little lay
To me occurred to-day,
Through a field in our village
A wandering ass
One day did pass,
Left by a careless swain,
Forgotten on the ground,
There a flute he found,
As he stopped to smell it--
This donkey grave--
A snort he gave,
Into the flute his breath
Happened to find its way,
And the flute began to play,
"Oho!" said the wise beast,
"How well I can play!
Who will say me nay?
There are donkeys plenty,
Who, without one jot of art,
May, for once, well play a part,
By chance. (George H. Devereux, trans., Literary Fables of Yriarte 17-18)
Here is Aesopic fable at its traditional best. Iriarte's story is well structured to invite readers to perceive something about the possibilities of one-time haphazard success in art. The point, deftly made in the narrative, touches easily upon episodes in our life-story, but it stops short of questioning our values or those of others. The fable works rather to open our eyes to a fact of life. Iriarte's fable parallels an Aesopic fable, "The Ass and the Lyre" (Perotti's Appendix #14, Perry #542). Many would say that he specifies and improves upon the earlier fable. His parody (in the broadest sense of the word) does not change this story into something other than fable.
4. THE DONKEY AND THE FLUTE
Flung into a field a long time ago, a Flute lay soundless, until one day a passing Donkey blew into it, bringing forth the sweetest sound of its life--that is to say, of the Donkey's life and the Flute's life too.
Incapable of understanding what had happened, since rationality was not their forte and both believed in rationality, they hurriedly separated, abashed by this finest thing that either had ever done during its doleful existence. (Monterroso 85)
Monterroso cleverly picks up Iriarte's well known fable. The first sentence tells the old story quickly and efficiently. The other sentence opens new ground. This story not only opens our eyes to something that happens in life. It raises questions about how people deal with the singular events of their lives. It even names a particular ideology, a value-system, that stops people from seizing on the best gifts of their lives. Monterroso makes the traditional fable into his own parable; parody here has carried the story into a new genre.
5. THE YOUTH AND THE WOMAN
A young man was going along the road on a hot summer day and met an older woman who was going the same way. Seeing that she was quite near fainting from the heat and the weariness of the journey, he took pity on her weakness, and when she could simply bear to go no further he picked her up and carried her on his shoulders. As he carried her along, he was assailed by shameful thoughts as a result of which his penis rose straight up under the stimulus of unrestrained desire and strong lust. So he put the woman down on the ground and had intercourse with her wantonly. She simply said to him, "What is this that you are doing to me?" He replied, "You were heavy and therefore I intend to chisel off some of your flesh." So saying, when he had come to the climax with her, he picked her up and set her on his shoulders again. When he had gone some distance along the road, the woman said to him, "If I am still heavy and burdensome for you, put me down again, and chisel off some more." (Lloyd Daly, Aesop Without Morals, 226)
This narrative from the Aesopic corpus (Perry #410) finishes with a strong surprise. Though our values may be offended here, I do not think that they are questioned: this text is not a parable. The surprise revelation at the end is artfully delivered through the woman's use of the man's own image. I do not find in that revelation that the story offers some particular perception about life. We laugh, or perhaps grimace, and move on. The joke is over. Note that the distinction among joke, fable, and parable is not based on relative size. This joke is longer than most of the true fables in the Aesopica collection.
6. THE SINGER
"Listen! What's that awful raspy noise coming from those reeds down by the pond?" asked Chicadee. "Could that be Frog singing?"
"So he thinks," scoffed Bluejay. "Just because one does, doesn't mean one can!" (Paul David Holman, Fables, 13)
Holman's witty story plays cleverly off of proverbial wisdom about "can" and "do." Its few sentences will almost certainly bring a laugh to readers or hearers. But there is more than humor in this story: we are invited to perceive something about how to behave, or as is often the case in Aesopic fables, how not to behave. A parable would probe the value questions behind the singing frog's bloated identity, but the fable is content to open our eyes to ways of acting.
7. A BUTTERFLY'S DREAM
Once upon a time a caterpillar fell asleep on a blade of grass that gently swayed back and forth in the breeze. He began to dream that he was a butterfly, floating like a petal in the wind.
Soon the other butterflies welcomed him. "Come with us," they called. So he flitted with them from flower to flower, quenching his thirst with dew from the rose and enjoying the perfume of the lily and the jasmine.
The butterflies seemed to live from minute to minute. Unlike the other creatures of the earth, they did not have a warlike nature, worries of life, fears of death, or complicated feelings like jealousy.
Too soon the caterpillar awoke and was astonished to find that he was still a caterpillar. Or was he? "Did I dream myself a butterfly?" he wondered. "If you compare a caterpillar and a butterfly, the difference between them is only in their material forms." Finally he said to himself, "Who knows? Perhaps my life is only a butterfly's dream."
This is truly a reflective fable.
(Demi, Demi's Reflective Fables, 22)
This unusual text offers its reader new and shifting perspectives on reality and dream. While it is different in its bearing and tone from many traditional fables in the Aesopic corpus, it does just what a fable does: it opens our eyes to a particular point about viewing and living life. It is what its last line claims that it is, a reflective fable.
In the light of the definition of fable that I have offered here, I present two comments: on the loose usage of "fable" today and on a welcome trend among recently published popular books of Aesopic fables to take the specific nature of fable seriously. I commented near the beginning of this article that care in defining Aesopic fable is particularly important today. I am concerned about the way the word "fable" is used today, particularly for materials that are not in any sense short. With Ziolkowski summarizing Perry I find that "fables must record a single action, short chain of actions, or speech that took place once in the past" (9). For Carnes, "fables are very short partly because of their environment and partly from their function, which in some cases is the same thing. Since fables are invariably used to make a point, and are therefore rhetorical devices, their brevity is an essential feature, even though there have been some fables that were considerably longer than the classical forms" ("The Fable" 7). "What thou dost, do quickly" applies to this kind of story if it is to have its specific effect of inviting pointed perception. This sense of Aesopic fable as short, which is compelling in my experience of fable and crucial in the definitions of Ziolkowski and Carnes, does not seem as compelling in the theories and descriptions of others. I have trouble understanding what "fable" means when it is applied to longer and arguably different works.
H.J. Blackham's The Fable as Literature is a fascinating case in point. It presents a wealth of valuable material for the student of fable to ponder. Its descriptions of fable are wonderfully suggestive. For Blackham, fable "gets past the garrison of resident assumptions"; it is a "tactical manoevre to prompt new thinking" (xi). "A fable embodies the general in an invented particular which, when it is recognized, informs the general notion with more perceptive recognitions" (9). Fable says more than it seems to say (xi); it never says "Think this" but always says "Think about this" (223); it does not state anything but only shows (252). "The message is not delivered--certainly not in the `morals' tagged to the Aesopic fables: it is embodied" (xviii-xix). These suggestive expressions give a strong sense of fable.
But Blackham's work fails to go beyond description of Aesopic fable to achieve satisfying definition. Blackham's project is to extrapolate from Aesopic fable to all sorts of other literary works:
One can see in the primitive Aesopic fable a potentiality for development as a mental artefact, which detains the thought that conceived it in the further reflection it prompts. Stripped and focused as it must always be, fable is then, like any work of art, dense enough to abide repeated examination, and to abound in stimulus. It is this development, with the achievements that have marked it, which the present study sets out to describe. (xiii)
My fear is that in the project, the very sense of fable itself can be lost, including the sense of Aesopic fable, "stripped and focused as it must always be." His definition of fable is "a narrative device to provoke and aid concrete thinking, focused on some general matter of concern" (xvii). My problem lies not with his descriptions of Aesopic fables, which are helpful, but with his attempts to apply "fable" to all sorts of works quite distinct from Aesopic fable. Thus for Blackham, Animal Farm, 1984, Erewhon, Brave New World, and Gulliver's Travels are fables, but Watership Down is not. I know what it means to talk of Aesopic texts as fables; I am not sure I know what it means to call these works fables.
Why do people in fact speak of these and other such long works as "fables"? I suspect that they use the word "fable" of a longer work in order to evoke the kind of response that one would make to a work that is simple and profound in meaning. Perhaps they mean to suggest that the literary piece in question yields its meaning more easily, clearly, or directly than other literary pieces. Probably they want the work in question to be seen in a positively nostalgic light as something similar to the tales we may remember lovingly from our youth.
Consider three books that I as a collector of editions of fables have found recently. They are taken almost at random from my shelf: a delightful 90-page book published in 1965 titled The Biggest Pig in Barbados and subtitled "A Fable by Wolf Mankowitz"; Louis Auchincloss' 1972 anthology containing 13 recent short stories of all sorts averaging over 20 pages apiece, the collection titled Fables of Wit and Elegance; and, from the children's shelf, Dean R. Koontz's delightful 1988 book Oddkins, 182 pages long, subtitled "A Fable for All Ages." It is of course impossible to set strict limits, but something different happens in the paragraph or two of "The Fox and the Grapes" (Perry #15) or "The Rooster and the Jewel" (Perry #503) than happens in these longer works. If we hope to be precise about the effect of Aesopic fable, we need to respect that difference. There is already an extensive and sometimes bewildering literature built up around fable. Borders and distinctions are difficult enough among the many genres that touch on "fable." Amid all those things that come to be called "fable," one can understand Carnes' insistence that "there really is only one sort of fable in strict terms, and it is fairly important to get into mind what that is" ("The Fable" 6). My fear is that loose understanding of the applicability of "fable" to all sorts of literature will end up confusing even the one part of fable literature that we can define with some strictness, the Aesopic fable that Carnes calls the "fable proper" ("The Fable" 6). Extension of the name "fable" to other and longer works which are doing different things may come to obscure what Aesopic fable does clearly and effectively: it invites and even provokes pointed perception about how life is lived.
As a collector of versions of Aesopic fables, I am accustomed to wincing over what I find in or on editions meant for popular consumption. For what is written on their dust jackets or in their introductions often plays loose with the definition of Aesopic fable so patiently elaborated in discussions like this. In popular editions fables have been frequently equated with fairy tales, or emphasis is put on the magical powers of animals, assumed to be the only characters of fables. The stories themselves and their illustrations often suffer a sentimentalizing softening as fables are converted into comforting bedtime reading. Or, finally, they are given banal and generalized morals that seem added after the fact in the manner Perry criticized, namely to make non-fables look like fables. To the collector of Aesopic fables, it is a sign of the strength and resiliency of this genre that it has survived the sometimes cumbersome handling it has received from fables' own writers and editors!
Against this background, I am happy to report that a survey of popular editions of Aesopic fables in the past five years  shows, despite some lapses, a decided tendency to respect the genre's character. The definition over which this article and the literature it cites labor actually makes a difference to good writers of Aesopic fables today!
There are lapses, to be sure. In particular, some recent editions tend especially to soften the harsh conflicts that help give Aesopic fables their power to awaken perception. In them killing, losing, dying, wounding and other negative experiences are simply written out of the fables.  There may be little left to learn in each case as stories inevitably end in the most reassuring way possible.
Despite these lapses, a spectator of Aesopic fable publication has to be heartened at the careful and creative respect being shown this genre by many of its present practitioners. Let me mention seven examples in chronological order. Christine Allison's I'll Tell You a Story, I'll Sing You a Song is an excellent introduction to the reading of stories for children. Chapter Three is devoted exclusively to fables. It presents 26 fables well told and well moralized. A short introduction to this chapter shows remarkable sense. It finds fables "more a case of intelligent gossip over a fence than a sermon" and "better suited to illuminate than to instruct." It advises parents not to lengthen Aesopic fables when telling them. It distinguishes clearly the style and rhythm of fables from those of fairy tales, finding fables crisp and dispassionate against the leisure and romance of the latter. Fables should never be prescribed to a young child who needs correction or punishment. For Allison, life teaches the lessons; fables shed light on the lessons. Once a hearer is ready for fables, Allison says, "you cannot hear them too often" (97-8). I am heartened to find a parents' coach so sensitive to the particular medium of Aesopic fable.
Cry Wolf and other Aesop Fables by Naomi Lewis puts together sophisticated stories with versified, many‑sided morals and a strange art style. This book works creatively with the morals of Aesopic fables. The best of them is the story of the eagle & the tortoise, who in this case asks to "see the world from above, even if only this once." Aesop, asked what he makes of the tale, responds with these seven different lessons:
I could read this several ways,
Some of blame and some of praise.
No single answer fits the case.
The lowly born should know their place?
You cannot wish beyond your range?
It's all ordained; things cannot change?
Or--greatly wishing is no vice?
But every wish demands its price?
No vision can be wholly lost?
The dream fulfilled is worth the cost? (15)
Here is no simple moral slapped on a story for form's sake, but rather a probing of, in Carnes' phrase, the "multivalent resolution of the metaphor." Fables this carefully moralized invite perception effectively.
Anno's Aesop is an engaging though sometimes frustrating book-within-a-book done from a 1987 Japanese original. The book's fiction is that a young fox finds a book (Aesop's fables) and asks Mr. Fox to read it for him. Mr. Fox does so, creating his own idiosyncratic stories from the pictures, for, as we soon discover, he cannot read. His stories given below the found book's pages thus have almost nothing to do with the traditional fables narrated in the found book just above them. Though the fiction may sometimes strain the reader with maddeningly irrelevant interpretations of familiar fables and beautiful pictures, this kind of counterpoint helps fable to do just what it does best: to challenge perception.
Demi's Reflective Fables presents thirteen ancient Chinese fables, including one from the normal Aesopic corpus: "The Bat & the Weasels." This book takes a physical approach to fostering reflection: a mirror on the oversize flyleaf lets a reader look at each fable's picture in reverse. "Butterfly's Dream" above is a good example of the effectiveness of these reflective fables.
In The Best of Aesop's Fables, Margaret Clark offers a pleasing and tasteful book illustrated by Charlotte Voake. The stories here are brief and have no morals. Clark explains this decision in her foreword:
The stories ascribed to [Aesop] were not written down until about 200 years later. So whether he insisted on spelling out the morals underlying his stories we don't know. Charlotte Voake and I decided they were best left unsaid: if children understand and enjoy the stories as we have presented them, they will certainly appreciate the morals behind them. What we have tried to do is to dispel altogether the "preacherly" tone from the best of Aesop's shrewd and funny stories. (7)
In several stories Clark goes one step further. She leaves out the last phase of the narrative. She stops, for example, after the villagers ignore the boy shouting "Wolf!" Instead of narrating further, Clark asks "And can you guess what happened next?" (20). This book shows a good sense of the reader's and listener's responsibility to take up fable's invitation.
Aesop & Company by Barbara Bader is the most reflective popular book of Aesop's fables to appear for some time. An excellent introduction draws upon Perry, Daly, Carnes and others to offer readers some glimpses into the history of fables from Sumeria on. She touches upon Demetrius, Phaedrus and Quintilian, Luther and Caxton, Locke and Lincoln. One happy result of her study, this observer surmises, is the care with which she approaches the telling of the fables and the crafting of their morals. In any case, it is encouraging to see an active writer using the results of fable-scholars' researches.
Animal Fables from Aesop by Barbara McClintock takes a dramatic approach to its fables: a set of animals is introduced on a stage as actors eager to perform several of Aesop's fables. In fact, they perform them admirably: McClintock's color illustrations in the anthropomorphic tradition of J.J. Grandville present the fables in engaging and provocative fashion. The reader is surprised then by an excellent last illustration: the masks come off to reveal a cast made up of a human family. It was humans after all that we were observing the whole time! The dramatic presentation of the fables underscores their fictitious character, while the human actors inside the animals suggest to us the metaphorical leap we need to make. There are points about our human lives to perceive in these animal stories.
These seven are but a small representation of the strong output of Aesopic fable publications in the past five years. Their excellence suggests that we stand only to profit from attending carefully to the nature of Aesopic fable.
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 . Help on fable definition comes not only from Ziolkowski and Carnes ("The Fable," Note 1) but also from Peter Hasubek, who traces the debate over the definition of fable, especially in the German‑speaking world of the 16th through the 19th centuries, in his essay "Erkenntnis und Vergn hgen‑‑Fabeldefinitionen" in Fabula Docet 9-19.
 . For a different understanding of the relationship between parable and fable, see Blackham, xiii-xvi.
 . A special bibliography at the end of the article lists English-language books of which I am aware from the years 1987 to the present that contain more than three Aesopic fables.
 . One example is John Miles' otherwise engaging Troll Treasury of Animal Stories. Here the eagle drops the turtle, as is traditional in Perry #230. Then, however, he catches the turtle before he can hit the ground! The ant serves a nice meal to the near-frozen grasshopper (Perry #373). The same tendency is apparent in Linda Jennings' Bedtime Tales; for example, the tortoise here is only bruised when he falls from the eagle's grasp in Perry #230. The old man's donkey does not fall into the river and drown; rather the old man is so furious at being laughed at that he lets his donkey loose in a field, while he returns home with his son (Perry #721).
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Aesop's Fables. New York: Magnum Easy Eye Books. 8Lancer Books. 1968.
Auchincloss, Louis, editor. Fables of Wit and Elegance. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1972.
Bierce, Ambrose. Fantastic Fables. New York: Dover. 1970.
Blackham, H.J. The Fable as Literature. London & Dover, NH: The Athlone Press. 1985.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable. Boston: S.W. Tilton. 1894.
Carnes, Pack. "The Fable and the Anti-Fable: The Modern Faces of Aesop," Bestia IV  5-34.
---. Proverbia in Fabula. Bern: Peter Lang. 1988.
Daly, Lloyd W. Aesop Without Morals. New York and London: Thomas Yoseloff. 8A.S. Barnes and Company. 1961.
Demi. Demi's Reflective Fables. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. 1988.
Handelsman, J.B. Freaky Fables. Foreword by John Cleese. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1984.
Hasubek, Peter. "Erkenntnis und Vergn hgen‑‑Fabeldefinitionen," Fabula Docet. Wolfenb httel: Herzog August Bibliothek. 1983.
Holman, Paul David. Fables. Flagstaff, AR: Northland Publishing. 1990.
Iriarte, Tomas. Literary Fables of Yriarte. Translated by George H. Devereux. Boston: Ticknor and Fields. 1855.
Koontz, Dean R. Oddkins. A Fable for All Ages. Illustrated by Phil Parks. Created by Christopher Zavisa. New York: Warner Books. 1988.
Mankowitz, Wolf. The Biggest Pig in Barbados. A Fable by Wolf Mankowitz. London: Longmans, Green and Company. 1965.
Monterroso, Augusto. The Black Sheep and Other Fables. Garden City: Doubleday. 1971.
Perry, Ben Edwin. Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge, MA. 1984.
---. "Fable," Studium Generale 12 , 17‑37; reprinted in Carnes, Proverbia.
Ziolkowski, Jan. "The Form and Spirit of Beast Fable," Bestia II  4-40.
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Books Containing More Than Three Aesopic Fables, 1987 to Present
Allison, Christine. I'll Tell You A Story, I'll Sing You a Song. A Parents' Guide to the Fairy Tales, Fables, Songs, and Rhymes of Childhood. New York: Delacourte Press. 1987.
Anno, Mitsumasa. Anno's Aesop. A Book of Fables by Aesop and Mr. Fox. New York: Orchard Books: Franklin Watts. 1989.
Arnsteen, Katy Keck. Animal Tales & Fables. A Hide‑and‑Seek Book. New York: Derrydale Books. 1990.
Ash, Russell, and Bernard Higton, editors. Aesop's Fables: A Classic Illustrated Edition. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 1990.
Bader, Barbara. Aesop & Company. With Scenes from His Legendary Life. Pictured by Arthur Geisert. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1991.
Benjamin, Alan. The Country Mouse and the City Mouse. A First Little Golden Book. Illustrations by Jeffrey Severn. Racine: Western Publishing Co. 1987.
Bierhorst, John. Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables. Pictures by Wendy Watson. New York: Macmillan. London: Collier Macmillan. 1987.
Billinghurst, Percy J., illustrator. A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine. No translator acknowledged. London: Hampstead Editions. 1988.
Black, Fiona. Aesop's Fables. Illustrated by Richard Bernal. Kansas City: Ariel Books: Andrews & McMeel. 1991.
Bolliger, Max. Tales of a Long Afternoon. Paintings by Jindra Capek. Translated by Joel Agee. New York: E.P. Dutton. 1989.
Brown, Jerome C. Fables and Tales Papercrafts. Fearon Teacher Aids. Belmont, CA: David S. Lake Publishers. 1989.
Carr, Samuel, and Carolyn Jones, editors. The Treasury of Children's Classics. New York: Weathervane Books: Crown Publishers. 1987.
Carter, Geraldine. Town Mouse & Country Mouse and Other Tales. Illustrations by Jane Harvey. London: Bracken Books. 1987.
Cipolla, Gaetano, translator. Giovanni Meli: Moral Fables. A Bilingual Edition. Illustrations by William Ronalds. Vol. 6 of Biblioteca di Quaderni d'italianistica. Ottowa: Canadian Society for Italian Studies. 1988.
Clark, Margaret. The Best of Aesop's Fables. Illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Joy Street Books. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1990.
Dalmais, Anne-Marie. Classic Bedtime Fairytales and Fables. Illustrated by Violayne Hulne. New York: Derrydale. 1988.
Dang, Sam Joong. Aesop's Fables. #8 in English‑Korean Bilingualism series. No translators acknowledged. Seoul: Sam Joong Dang Publications Company Ltd. 1987.
Demi. Demi's Reflective Fables. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. 1988.
Derrydale Books. The Fox and the Grapes. A Pop‑Up Book. No author or illustrator acknowledged. New York: Derrydale Books: Crown Publishers. 1988.
---. The Lion and the Mouse. A Pop‑Up Book. No author or illustrator acknowledged. New York: Derrydale Books: Crown Publishers. 1988.
---. The Tortoise and the Hare. A Pop‑Up Book. No author or illustrator acknowledged. New York: Derrydale Books: Crown Publishers. 1988.
---. The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. A Pop‑Up Book. No author or illustrator acknowledged. New York: Derrydale Books: Crown Publishers. 1988.
Dixon, Peter, editor. Great Tales of Old. New York: Lantern Books. 1988.
Exeter. Fairytales and Fables. No editor or illustrator acknowledged. New York: Exeter. 1987.
Goepfert, Paula S., editor. The Children's Treasury. Best‑Loved Stories and Poems from Around the World. Gallery Books. New York: W.H. Smith Publishers. 1987.
Handford, S.A. Fables of Aesop. Choun English Library. Seoul: Choun Moon Wha SA. 1988.
Hayes, Barbara. Folk Tales and Fables of the World. Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. New York: Portland House. 1987.
Hejduk. John, illustrator. Aesop's Fables. After versions from Joseph Jacobs. New York: Rizzoli. 1991.
Hirata, Shogo, illustrator. Country Mouse and Town Mouse/The Monkey King. #1 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. A Donkey in Lion's Disguise/A Wolf and a Lamb/The Bear and the Travelers. #2 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. Ants and Grasshoppers/Three Oxen and a Lion. #3 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. A Cowardly Bat/A Donkey and a Foolish Wolf/A Crow that was Tricked. #4 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. A Mouse's Gratitude/The Foolish Tiger and the Foolish Leopard/Outsmarting the Cat. #5 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. A Mouse's Wedding/A Fox and Grapes/An Ant and a Dove. #6 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. The North Wind and the Sun/A Lion and a Mosquito/An Eagle and a Crow. #7 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. A Crow in Borrowed Feathers/The Shepherd who Always Lied. #8 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. The Hare and the Tortoise/A Foolish Miller and His Donkey. #9 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
---. A Greedy Dog/The Gold Ax and the Silver Ax. #10 in series of 10. Tokyo: Joie, Inc. 1989.
Holman, Paul David. Fables. Flagstaff, AR: Northland Publishing. 1990.
Ideals Publishing Corporation. Aesop's Fables: One‑Minute Bedtime Tales. No author or illustrator acknowledged. Nashville: Ideals Publishing Corporation. 1988.
James, Henry Gray. Limericks, Fables, and Poems. Los Angeles: Universal Research. 1987.
Jennings, Linda. Bedtime Tales. Illustrated by Hilda Offen. London: Octopus Books. 1989.
Jerrold, Walter, editor. The Big Book of Fables. Illustrated by Charles Robinson & Jane Harvey. New York: Portland House. 1987.
Kent, Graeme. Aesop's Fables. Illustrated by Tessa Hamilton. Newmarket: Brimax. 1991.
---. Aesop's Fables. Illustrations by Eric Kincaid. New York: Checkerboard Press. 1989.
Kincaid, Eric, illustrator. 1987 The Best of Fairy Tales and Fables. Newmarket, England: Brimax. 1987.
Kinghorn, Harriet, and Robert King. The Big Lion and the Little Mouse. Illustrated by Jane Shasky. Storytime Classics. Tag‑A‑Long Series. Minneapolis: T.S. Denison & Co. 1987.
---. The Tortoise and the Hare. Illustrated by Jane Shasky. Storytime Classics. Tag‑A‑Long Series. Minneapolis: T.S. Denison & Co. 1987.
Koontz, Dean R. Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages. Illustrations by Phil Parks. Created by Christopher Zavisa. New York: Warner Books. 1988.
Lewis, Naomi. Cry Wolf and other Aesop Fables. Paintings by Barry Castle. New York: Oxford University Press. 1988.
Littlejohn, Claire. Aesop's Fables. A Pull‑the‑Tab Pop‑Up Book. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, NAL Penguin. 1988.
Lydecker, Laura, illustrator. The Country Mouse and the City Mouse. Knopf Nursery Tale Library. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1987.
MacDonald, Suse, and Bill Oakes. Once Upon Another: The Tortoise and the Hare/The Lion and the Mouse. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. 1990.
Martell, Ralph. Aesop's Fables in Song. Hollywood, CA: Ralmar Enterprises. 1987.
McClintock, Barbara. Animal Fables from Aesop. Boston: David R. Godine. 1991.
McGlocklin, Cheryl. Overhead Transparencies for Creative Dramatics: Fables I. Illustrations by Terra Muzick. For Grades 2‑5. Cypress, CA: Creative Teaching Press. 1989.
Miles, John C., editor. Troll Treasury of Animal Stories. Illustrated by Mary Oak‑Rhind & Graham Dennison. Mahwah: Troll Associates. 1991.
My Book of 1‑Minute Stories and Verses. No editor acknowledged. Various illustrators. 8 Marshall Cavendish. New York: Exeter Books. 1987.
O'Mara, Lesley, editor. Classic Animal Stories. Illustrated by Angel Dominguez. New York: Arcade Publishing: Little, Brown & Company. 1991.
Paxton, Tom. Aesop's Fables. Illustrations by Robert Rayevsky. New York: Morrow Junior Books. 1988.
---. Androcles and the Lion and Other Aesop's Fables. Illustrated by Robert Rayevsky. New York: Morrow Junior Books. 1991.---. Belling the Cat and Other Aesop's Fables. Illustrations by Robert Rayevsky. New York: Morrow Junior Books. 1990.
Percy, Graham, illustrator. The City Mouse and the Country Mouse. 8 Editiones Peralt Montagut. New York: Derrydale Books. 1987.
Riccio, Frank, illustrator. The Fables of Aesop. Chicago: Calico: Contemporary Books. 1988.
Rose, Gerald. The Hare and the Tortoise. Aladdin Books. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1988.
---. The Lion and the Mouse. Aladdin Books. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1988.
---. The Raven and the Fox. Aladdin Books. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1988.
---. Wolf! Wolf! Aladdin Books. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1988.
Santore, Charles, illustrator. Aesop's Fables. No editor acknowledged. New York: JellyBean Press. Dilithium. 1988.
Sauvageau, Juan. Fabulas para Siempre: Fables Are Forever, Vol 1. Illustrated by Johnny Jett. Los Angeles: Pan American Publishing Company. 1991.
Schaffer, Frank. Literature: Fables and Tall Tales. No editor or artist acknowledged. Blackline Reproducibles. Palos Verdes: Frank Schaffer Publications. 1990.
---. Literature: Fables, Tall Tales, Myths. No editor or artist acknowledged. Blackline Reproducibles. Palos Verdes: Frank Schaffer Publications. 1990.
Schorsch, Kit. The Hare and the Tortoise. A Read Along With Me Book. Illustrated by Erasmo Hernandez. New York: Checkerboard Press. 1989.
---. The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. A Read Along With Me Book. Illustrated by Pat Schories. New York: Checkerboard Press. 1989.
Scrocco, Jean L. Aesop's Fables. Illustrations by Walt Sturrock. New Jersey: Unicorn Publishing House. 1988.
Shapiro, Norman R., translator. Fifty Fables of La Fontaine. Illustrations by Alan James Robinson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1988.
Spector, Norman B, translator. The Complete Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 1988.
Spiegel, Harriet, editor and translator. Marie de France: Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1987.
Stevens, Janet. Androcles and the Lion. New York: Holiday House. 1989.
---. The Town Mouse & the Country Mouse. New York: Holiday House. 1987.
Testa, Fulvio, illustrator. Aesop's Fables. New York: Barron's Educational Series. 1989.
Thomas, Peter, and Donna Thomas. Aesop's Frog Fables. Santa Cruz: Peter Thomas. 1990.
Vernet, illustrator. The Little Shepherd and his Flock. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 1st in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
---. The Lion and the Fox. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 2nd in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
---. The Blacksmith and his Dog. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 3rd in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
---. The Hen That Laid Golden Eggs. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 4th in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
---. The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 5th in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
---. The Mother Deer and her Fawn. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 6th in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
---. The Fox and the Grapes. Adaptation of a fable by Samaniego. 8th in a series of 8. Holland Enterprises Limited. Barcelona: Artes Graficas Cobas, S.A. 1987.
Wainwright, Sheila. A Magical Menagerie: Tales from Perrault, Andersen, La Fontaine and Grimm. Illustrations by Francis Wainwright. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1988.
Wallner, John, illustrator. City Mouse‑‑Country Mouse and Two More Mouse Tales from Aesop. Text 81970 by Scholastic Inc. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1987.
Wang, Mary Lewis. The Ant and the Dove: An Aesop Tale Retold. Illustrated by Ching. Start‑Off Stories. Chicago: Childrens Press. 1989.
Zorn, Steven. Aesop's Fables. Miniature. Philadelphia: Running Press. 1990.
Zwerger, Lisbeth, illustrator. Aesop's Fables. 8Neugebauer Press, Salzburg. Saxonville, MA: Picture Book Studio. 1989.
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