What Is the Difference Between a Fable & a Fairy Tale?

Written by frank b. chavez iii
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What Is the Difference Between a Fable & a Fairy Tale?
The German folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm helped establish fairy tales as worthy subjects of academic study. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

People have probably been telling stories since prehistoric men first bragged about their prowess as hunters while sitting around a campfire. Stories serve many purposes. Myths, for example, describe a culture's gods and heroes. Some, such as fables, may teach a thinly veiled lesson. Others, such as fairy tales, excite the imagination with magical tales of long ago and far away.

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A fable is a short story in either prose or verse that satirises human behaviour or presents a moral. The characters in fables are typically animals, plants or inanimate objects that speak and behave like people. The oldest known fables are found in the ancient Indian collection called the "Panchatantra" which scholars believe was written between the third and second centuries B.C. The Greek writer Aesop is attributed with the best known fables in the West such as "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Fox and the Grapes" and "The Milkmaid and Her Pail."

Modern Fable Creators

Many modern writers have also written fables. The 17th century French author Jean de La Fontaine rewrote Aesop's fables into social and political commentaries for adults. The late 18th and early 19th century Russian poet Ivan Krylov translated La Fontaine's stories into Russian and created some fables of his own. Although intended for adults, his stories were also popular with children. American author James Thurber wrote fables that satirised modern life in his 1940 book "Fables for Our Time." British author George Orwell used talking animals and other elements of the fable in his 1945 political satire, "Animal Farm."

Fairy Tale Origins

A fairy tale is a short story that features magic and may include folkloric creatures such as fairies, trolls and elves. Fairy tales are found in the oral tradition of nearly every culture on Earth. However, they didn't develop into a literary genre until the 16th and 17th centuries. The first written fairy tales were created for adults by Italian and French authors such as Giovan Francesco Straparola, Giambattista Basile the Baroness de Aulnoy, Marie Catherine Jumel de Barneville and Charles Perrault. Stories by the Baroness de Aulnoy and Charles Perrault were first translated into English in the 18th century.


Fairy tales weren't written for children until the mid-1700s. The English publisher John Newbery began including fairy tales such as "Red Riding Hood," "Cinderella," "Diamonds and Toads" and "Puss in Boots" in his children's books in 1743. In the 1750s, Madame Le Prince de Beaumont published fairy tales and Bible stories mixed with lessons on geography and history in her children's magazine "Magasin des Enfants." The 18th century publication of tales from the "Arabian Nights" helped popularise fairy tales from other countries. In the 19th century educators such as Robert Bloomfield, Sarah Trimmer and Marry Sherwood denounced fairy tales as immoral. However, the research by the German folklorists the brothers Grimm made fairy tales an acceptable subject for academic research. By the mid-1800s, their collections of fairy tales were joined on bookstore shelves by the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, T.C. Croker and Sir George Dasent.

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