Saturday, August 14, 2010

Overview: Fables and Folklore

Aesop's fables are a folklore genre. Of course, many poets have also retold the fables in verse, thus making Aesop into a literary genre as well, a very successful one, in fact. Yet the fables live on in real life, too, as stories a person might tell to some other person for some specific reason. There are all kinds of reasons why people have told these stories, and that variety of motivations is reflected in the variety of fables that form the Aesopic tradition. Already in antiquity, the fable collections were quite a hodgepodge. There is no one thing that defines what an Aesop’s fable is (or is not), but if you keep an eye open for these features, you’ll get a feel for the fables as a whole:
  • Tiny stories. In general, Aesop's fables are very brief, sometimes just a sentence or two in length (although in literary sources they often expand in size).
  • Animal stories. Aesop's fables are often, but not always, about animals, usually animals who can talk. Gods and humans also have their place in the fable tradition.
  • Antagonistic tales. Many fables feature a confrontation between two or more antagonists in a debate, contest, or fight. The outcome can range from humiliation to death.
  • The mistake. The plot of an Aesop's fable often depends on someone making a mistake. Sometimes a trickster is involved and sometimes even the trickster is tricked.
  • Origins. Another common type of Aesop's fable is the aetiological story, which explains the origin of something: how the turtle got its shell, why the bat flies at night, etc.
  • Jokes. Some Aesop's fables are simply jokes, sometimes in the form of a taunting insult. The joke may depend on a pun or other word play that can be hard to translate.
If you keep these various features in mind, you'll be able to see just how each of the thousand and one stories in this book can be regarded as an Aesop's fable.

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