THE FABLE - HISTORY
In this section we shortly go through the history of fable, from its
origins to our days.
The folk tale is the expression of that fanciful heritage
spontaneously created in any kind of culture, for the man's innate
At first it was handed down by word of mouth, then it was collected by enthusiasts and scholars, and in the end, it was revised by the individual inspiration of story-tellers and fabulists, who added some elements of personal invention. The exigency of fancy often joins the reality of the environment where the fable was born: so, together with certain natural elements common to the folk creative power (contrast between the good and the bad, the sly and the fool, the tyrant and the victim; a happy ending at the conclusion of a succession of more or less intricate adventures), it is not difficult to find in the types, in the names used, in the outlined customs, the characteristics which mark its country of origin.
The fable (in the Greek language “muzos”, which you can also literally translate with “myth”) has its own evolution in the time, according to the development of the people expressing it. Some famous collections belong to the oriental traditions, which, in that way, handed down warnings rich in ancient wisdom or adventures rich in extraordinary fact, tricks and unexpected events. Other collections, the Greek and Roman ones, show religious elements (the origin of the world or cosmology, the stories of gods, heroes and men), where we can search for the fanciful transfiguration of the struggles of man against nature, of his advance towards his redemption from ignorance and from atavic terrors: these are exactly called “myths”.
With the advance of society it is asserted the need of a different
kind of fable, more critical towards man and society itself: so it was
born the Aesopic fable which, employing the animals
as main characters, intends to represent, by them, well-defined human
types: the bully, the insatiable, the sly,
the fool, the vain, the arrogant, etc.
This genre of fables is the one which has had the best luck and has produced the greatest number of imitators; in fact, although the progress changes the aspect and organization of society and man's habit, the human instincts and vices are timeless and, luckily, the exigency of condemning their deceits, passions and faults is kept alive at the same rate.
Aesop's fable was taken to Rome by Phaedrus who renewed its language and spirit; it revived in the Middle Age in France, when, during the XI century the Aesopic matter was collected by some French authors who worked together to compile the “Roman de Renart” (Romance of the Fox), which tells the fox and wolf's adventures. In it, with eloquent and acute vein, are told the adventures of the sly fox, which always succeeds, with unpredictable and funny tricks, in making fun of Ysenguin, the wolf.
The Fifteenth century did not love much the moralistic fable, which was, instead, renewed in the Sixteenth century (in Italy we remember Firenzuola and A.F.Dini).
The Fable - The baroque age
The baroque age, in Italy, Spain, Germany, ignored
the fable, even if it cultivated the fairy tale (in Italy it is sufficient
to remember Lo cunto de li cunti by G.B.Basile); instead, it was then
that in France Jean de La Fontaine published, as from 1668,
his wonderful Fables, rich in ideas and spirits, destined to have so
much impulse in the following fables.
In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries the philosophers sometimes enjoyed disguising as fables their high concepts about man and society.
The Eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment
and of education, was the golden age of the
fable, whose theory was then formulated by Lessing (1759).
Among the Italians we can remember A.Bertola, author of a Saggio sopra le favole (Essay about fables) (1788), L.Pignotti, G.B.Roberti, etc.
The Romantics, who also preferred the fairy tale, rejected the fable as too didactic and not very naïve.
Today a magnificent animal epos is The Jungle Books by R.Kipling (1894-95), which, however, are different from the fable and the fairy tale, while the Roman poet Trilussa refers back to the tradition of fables.
The fable - Modern texts
In the more modern texts, above all in the fables
of our century, the authors more frequently bring out
the behaviours which are different from the ones of most people (the
non conformist attitudes) and explain that truth and justice do not
always triumph, in this way they offer a not much optimistic outlook
on society, but also a more truthful and didactic one, with pedagogical
Remarkable are the differences between yesterday's and today's fables: in the latter ones, besides, the characters and places are described in detail and the story appears better-constructed.
An example of very successful and widespread contemporary fable writing are those by Gianni Rodari, where the writer imagines not only to tell his tales on the phone, but changes the moral, too. For example, in the fable “The mouse of strip cartoons” (Il topo dei fumetti) the mouse of strip cartoons will make friends with a cat instead of the other mice which do not understand his language.
The fable, so, in opposition to what most people think of, is not a simple text nor is “just for kids”, as it demands the comprehension of different levels of meaning (the story, the qualities which the animals are the symbol of, the moral).
Our time has not lost its liking for the fable, but it has put in it a sharper critical, symbolical and moralistic potential, or it has studied this literary genre, through the researches, collections and interpretations of the folk fable heritage. The political allusions, the satire of the present society peeps out through the modern fable, which keeps on pursuing, today too, the aim for which it was born: to warn while entertaining (warning while entertaining).