Monday, February 24, 2014

What We Have in Common with Aesop, Thurber and Seuss

Aesop (about 550 BC) 

Dr. Seuss
Dr. James Thurber

A fable is a short story usually featuring anthropomorphized animals, i.e., animals that take on human characteristics and mannerisms and talk to each other. They are the main characters and almost always, humans are absent in a fable. A fable is different from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants and inanimate objects.

 Each of the men pictured wrote numerous fables. Aesop is the "poster child" for magnificently written fables. We all know the stories of The Tortoise and The Hare and The Lion and The MouseThurber wrote over seventy-five fables collected in Fables for Our Time & Famous Poems Illustrated and Further Fables for Our Times.  These were short fables which featured anthropomorphic animals as main characters and ended with a moral being true to the profile of a fable. An exception to this format was his most famous fable, The Unicorn in The Garden, which featured an all-human cast except for the unicorn which does not speak. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, wrote several books of fables including Dr. Seuss' Fabulous Fables. According to most, all of Dr. Seuss' books were fables in that they taught through fantastical animals that talked.

Why should writers step outside our comfort zone of our usual genres and write fables? The main reason is to exercise our brains by stretching our imaginations and writing something different. Reason two is that practice of any kind of writing is good and necessary. Fables are fun to write and short which provide the break we need from our sometimes arduous regular writing.

1. Read lots of fables to understand the main format and structure.

2. Your writing can begin with the moral you wish to teach via your story and then develop your story. "The truth is always best." "You will get caught in a lie eventually." "Work is its own reward." "Helping others brings you both joy." or "Do not count your money before you've earned it."
3. Decide which animals you wish to tell your story beginning with the main character. The main character can (a) be the one who learns the moral or (b) the one who leads the story by telling a tale to another or by giving examples to another.
4. Your characters must have abundant dialogue. You should provide good descriptions of the environments and physical characteristics of your characters.  It is important to find characters to fit the moral. A slithery snake clad in a shimmering, silky, sienna-colored sheath who wears lots of makeup and jewelry could be the antagonist and the mild-mannered, milky-colored moth is drawn to her glitz. (Everything is not what is seems.) A stubborn donkey may make a good character for a moral about persistence and plodding work until the task is done. A firefly may make a convincing persona for someone who flits here and there never settling down to work or to prepare ahead.
5. Some fables are written in poetry so, if that appeals to you, try various kinds of poetical forms.

"The Panchatantra  is an ancient Indian inter-related collection of animal fables in verse and prose, in a frame story format. The original Sanskrit work, which some scholars believe was composed in the 3rd century BC, is attributed to Vishnu Sharma. It is based on older oral traditions, including "animal fables that are as old as we are able to imagine." It is "certainly the most frequently translated literary product of India", and these stories are among the most widely known in the world." []  Click on this web address to read many lovely fables from Panchantantra. They will delight you and give you many ideas for your own fables. Here is large resource for Aesop's fables in oral and written form. 

Tolstoy, da Vinci, Franz Kafka, David Sedaris, and Sholem Aleichem were fabulists. George Orwell's Animal Farm is a longer fable using anthropomorphized animals to tell the evils of Stalinist communism and totalitarianism. Why not write a fable or two especially if you have children or grandchildren or are a teacher with access to children and people of all ages who love a good story? It is great fun.



Mary Jane Honegger said...

Great post! I've never even given writing a fable a thought. Now I think I might try one with my grandson. Your post also reminded me of many animal tales in Native American folklore.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Having been in the habit of making up stories to tell my daughter before bed, all those years ago, it never occurred to me that I may have been composing fables. The definition was not entirely clear to me either. We learned it at one time, but as with many facts from long ago, they tend to get a bit watery with time. Thank you for refreshing my memory, and reminding me how much I love the form.

Jennifer Rova said...

Every "tribe," Native American, white suburban, Inuit, Russian peasants, African Masi Mara, all have long histories of fables. As you both pointed out, each of us has had some history ourselves of telling fables. One of my daughters' favorite that I made up often involved a tiny family of mice who lived underneath a blueberry thicket. The problem came when they said "Again," meaning to tell us the same story exactly as you just did. I could never remember all the details but they could. "No, mommy, you are supposed to say..."