Universal and timeless stories that teach

A friend recently told me that her coworkers gave her the nickname “The Little Red Hen” because she often took on everyone else’s task when others were not willing to get their jobs done.  This old folktale has all of the characteristics of a Fable with animal characters who teach the value of hard work and personal initiative as well as the consequences of laziness.

A fable is told from the point-of-view of smart, sassy and tenacious animal characters who speak as if they are all human and the protagonist eventually comes out on top despite any likelihood of winning. All fables include a lesson or moral.

Aesop’s Fables are considered the oldest fables in Western literature, although Asian, African and the Middle Eastern fables are possibly as old, if not older. Aesop’s tales like The Boy who Cried Wolf, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and The Fox and The Crow are thought to have originated in Greece in the mid-sixth century B.C.E.  The word “fable’ comes from Latin fabula meaning story or tale.  The author, if identified, is called a fabulists.

Like Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine in France, Joel Chandler Harris was an American fabulist -who created the character of storyteller Uncle Remus as well as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Harris’s Uncle Remus Stories are archetypal trickster tales – many identical to stories carried to the United States from the oral-story traditions in Africa.

In 1908, when Joel Chandler Harris died, he and Mark Twain were the most widely read authors in America.  Twain enjoyed telling Uncle Remus stories to his children and described Harris during a visit to their home as “the bashfulest grown person I have ever met… The sweetness of the immortal Remus looked out from his eyes, and the graces and sincerities of his character shone in his face.”

I have fond memories of my father reading Uncle Remus fables to me when I was a child too, as I pictured Brer Rabbit out-foxing Brer Fox in every mishap.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Sheryl James, author of a 2016 newspaper feature article, “The forgotten author: A place in history for Uncle Remus,” explains how Harris’s stories lost popularity during the 20th century with the public spotlight on racism in America.

Fables are universal and timeless and found in virtually every human society.  Today’s blockbuster stories such as Star Wars and Harry Potter continue to entertain children of all ages.

In an online class that I led recently with the theme of exploring dreams during sleep, I suggested that participants rewrite their dream as a fable, fairy tale, myth or hero’s journey.

One participant writing in a child-like voice changed the tenor of the original dream from fear into an exciting adventure. She spent less than 10 minutes composing her fable and said, “I had no preconceived notion of how it was going to turn out… it just appeared on the page.” Even the moral at the end surprised her with its perfect message.

If writing a fable appeals to your sense of discovery, here are a few suggestions.

Characters in fables are animals who think, speak and act like human beings and personify the best and worst of human tendencies – greed, pride, honesty, benevolence, lying and more. Some examples include:

  • The lion – strength and pride
  • The wolf – dishonesty and greed
  • The donkey – ignorance
  • The fly – wisdom
  • The fox – cleverness, trickiness, cunning
  • The hawk – bossiness and absolutism
  • The lamb – innocence and shyness

As you begin your fable, choose two or more characters with opposing traits to set up a clear conflict.  Release any preconceived notions and let your pen lead the way as you write freely.  Watch for the morale to arise from your story.  It may offer new insights.

Benefits gained from reading and writing fables have a long history also.

In an October, 1712 article in The Spectator, Joseph Addison wrote: “Upon reading of a fable, we are made to believe we advise ourselves…. We are taught by surprise.”

According to the English philosopher, writer and poet, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), “Fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.”

Write your own Fable for fun and personal illumination. Illustrating it will deepen your appreciation too.

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Susan leads guided personal and therapeutic writing groups and workshops in Columbia, SC and is an online instructor for The Writing Institute & Center for Journal Therapy. Social workers and other mental health counselors may earn CEU credits by taking part in Susan’s groups and classes.  Read all previous articles in the Columbia Star Newspaper at: www.susanhendricks.com/columbia-star-news



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