Be a Fabulous Fabulist

by Steve McCluer©

When does a story become a fable?
Is a fable the same thing as a parable? Here is an example.

Wind and Sun were having a friendly argument about which was stronger. As quickly as one threw out example of why he was surely the strongest, the other countered with an equally reasonable example of his own.  Finally they decided the only way to resolve the matter was to have a contest. At that very moment they spied below a fellow walking upon a road.

“I see a way to decide our dispute,” said Sun. “Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You may go first.” 

So Sun retired behind a cloud, and Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him. “My, it certainly is a miserably cold and windy day,” the man said, and he buttoned up some more. At last Wind had to give up in despair.

Then Sun came out from behind the cloud and shone in all his glory upon the traveler. Pretty soon the man unbuttoned his coat. Before long he was sweating. “Such strange weather,“ he said. “Now it is a beautifully warm and sunny day.”  And he took off his coat.

Sometimes an act of kindness achieves more than bluster.

The elements of a fable are as follows:

  • It is short and succinct (in this case just over 200 words).
  • This story is in prose, but sometimes a fable can be in verse.
  • A fable anthropomorphizes animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature; that is, they have human qualities such as language.
  • It illustrates a moral principle, which is usually bluntly stated.


It is frequently the moral of a fable that endures more than the story itself.   Have you ever used phrases such as “the lion’s share” …or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”  …or “the hen that laid the golden egg” …or “the boy who yelled wolf”?   Such phrases have become endemic in our language, but the stories themselves may have come from a culture half way around the world — Chinese, Persian, African, Nordic, or….

The writer (or more frequently the teller) of a fable is known as a fabulist.  The genre goes back as much as three thousand years.  Aesop is frequently credited with many of the familiar fables, but the true authors of the stories, which had been passed orally from one generation to another without being written down, will never be known.  Hans Christian Anderson is another legendary fabulist.  Who does not know the story of the tortoise and the hare?  But there are many more fabulists.  For all their passage through time and from culture to culture, the lessons of a fable are as true to us today as they were centuries ago.

When you are asked on the spot to tell a story, you would be well advised to pull a fable from your quiver.

Here are two more fables to use.

Witty Birbal and the Farmer’s Well

Once a man sold his well to a farmer. Next day when a farmer went to draw the water from that well, the man did not allow him to draw the water from it. He said, “I have sold you the well, not the water, so you cannot draw the water from the well.”

The farmer became very sad and came to the Emperor’s court. He described everything to the Emperor and asked for the justice.

The Emperor called Birbal and handed over this case to him. Birbal called the man who sold the well to the farmer to come forward. Birbal asked, “Why don’t you let him use the water of the well. You have sold the well to the farmer.” The man replied, “Birbal, I have sold the well to the farmer, not the water. He has no right to draw the water from the well.”

Then Birbal smiled and said to him, “Good, but look, since you have sold the well to this farmer, and you claim that water is yours, then you have no right to keep your water in the farmer’s well. Either you pay rent to the farmer to keep your water in his well, or you take that out of his well immediately.” The man understood, that his trick has failed. Birbal has outwitted him.

Moral: Cheaters never prosper. You will end up paying for it regardless of how clever you think you are.

Fox and the Goat

Once a fox was roaming around in the dark. Suddenly, and much to his surprise, he fell into a well. He tried his level best to come out but all in vain. So, he had no choice but to remain there until help came. The next day, a goat came that way. She peeped into the well and saw the fox there. The goat asked, “What are you doing there, Mr. Fox?”

The sly fox replied, “I came here to drink water. It is the best I have ever tasted. Come and see for yourself.” Without thinking even for a moment, the goat jumped into the well, quenched her thirst, and then looked for a way to get out. But just like the fox, she also found herself helpless to come out.

Then the fox said, “I have an idea. You stand on your hind legs. I’ll climb on your head and get out. Then I shall help you come out too.” The goat was innocent enough to understand the shrewdness of the fox and did as the fox said and helped him get out of the well.

While walking away, the fox said, “Had you been intelligent enough, you would never have jumped in without seeing how to get out.”

Moral: Look before you leap.  Do not just blindly walk in to anything without thinking.

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