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Fable, short literary composition in prose or verse, conveying a universal cautionary or moral truth. The moral is usually summed up at the end of the story, which generally tells of conflict among animals that are given the attributes of human beings. The fable differs from the parable, also a short narrative designed to convey a moral truth, in that the fable is concerned with the impossible and improbable, whereas the parable always deals with possible events. Both fables and parables are forms of allegory.

One of the earliest and most notable collections of animal fables is that of Aesop, reputedly a freed Greek slave who lived in the 6th century BC. Aesop circulated his fables orally, and they were transmitted in this same manner for a long period. Greek and Roman writers subsequently wrote down versions of Aesop's fables in either prose or verse. The best-known fables of modern Europe have come from a Latin edition by the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes. Another famous collection of beast fables is the Sanskrit collection Panchatantra, probably of the 3rd century AD. Attributed to a Brahman sage, Bidpai, the Panchatantra was subsequently translated into more than 50 languages; more than 200 versions of it are known.

During the medieval period fables were written in monasteries, but few of any consequence have survived. The writing of fables was revived in France during the 12th century, and from that time on the fable literature of France was more voluminous than that of any other European country. The most important French fabulist of the 12th century was the poet Marie de France. Between the 12th and 14th centuries a popular collection of animal fables entitled Roman de Renart appeared in France, the principal character of which was a wily fox known as Reynard.

Many collections of fables were published in France from the 16th to the late 18th century. One of the greatest of all French fabulists was Jean de la Fontaine, whose verse fables were published between 1668 and 1694 and were extensively imitated by later writers in all countries.

Throughout the medieval period a German version of the Reynard the Fox stories, Reinecke Fuchs, was popular. The important German fabulists of the 18th century, all influenced by La Fontaine, include Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

The best-known early fable in English is the Nun's Priest Tale in The Canterbury Tales by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Another English writer of fables was John Gay, whose Fables (first series, 1727; second series, 1738) are written in sprightly verse and are characterized by great originality and wit.

Other important modern European fabulists include the 18th-century Spanish poet Tomás de Iriarte y Oropesa, author of Fábulas literarias (Literary Fables, 1782); and the famous 19th-century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, many of whose fairy tales are actually fables. In the United States a contemporary form of fable developed, the chief exponents of which included Ambrose Bierce (Fantastic Fables, 1899), George Ade (Fables in Slang, 1900), James Thurber (Fables for Our Time, 1940), and William Saroyan (Fables, 1941).

"Fable," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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