Fables and parables are both types of folk literature that are defined by a relatively simple story and a moral lesson. They both also have a strong history of an oral tradition dating back to ancient times. They were originally used in a didactic sense: storytelling to teach a lesson (as opposed to entertain). Fables and parables certainly have many aspects in common, with more similarities than differences. But although they are often confused, certain traits do separate them.
Simply put, fables are short tales that use animals or inanimate objects--through personification--to teach morals and ethics to people. By giving human traits and human dilemmas to a tortoise or hare (or the wind, or a tree, or just about anything else), the storyteller is able to tell a simple story that has greater truths beneath it for his audience. There is a blurring of lines with fairy tales in many respects, except that fairy tales are meant more for entertainment, and fables are used to teach a moral lesson.
The word "parable" comes from the Greek "parabole," meaning "comparison." Parables are allegorical stories that teach a basic truth or religious principle. They usually involve ordinary people who are faced with a moral dilemma, or who must make a moral decision and then deal with the effects of that decision (which is usually wrong, to help teach the lesson). Many folktales from all cultures fall into the category of parable. There is always an underlying theme that teaches the listener (or reader) how he should act and behave.
Obviously, fables and parables have much in common. There is often a blurring of lines between the two, and some stories don't fall easily into one category or the other. Both genres offer relatively simplistic narratives, because the lesson is what matters. As the website Le Favole ("fable" in Italian) says, "the particular story soon gets to an end because what matters is not the tale, but its moral, a teaching which the reader gets from the story." They are both metaphors on some level, stretched to a fictional story to impart moral and ethical wisdom. They both have a long oral history, having originally been used by teachers and storytellers to teach lessons to students.
Fables and parables do differ in a couple of specifics, however. The main difference between the two is that fables always use non-human characters to teach their lessons, while parables are always about people. Fables are set in a fantasy world ("fabulous" having the same root word as "fable"), and parables are much more rooted in reality. They both use comparison, but in one the audience identifies with a talking frog, and in the other the Prodigal Son. (A story in which a human interacts with a talking animal would be considered a fable, due to the non-realistic story.) The other significant difference between the two is that parables almost always have a religious or spiritual aspect to them. While fables can teach moral and ethical lessons (about how to behave, or how to treat others, for example), parables include those sorts of lessons, but also deal with larger spiritual truths (such as heaven, or one's relationship with God).
Examples of Fables
The most famous examples of fables are obviously Aesop's. Tales credited to this slave-turned-storyteller include "The Tortoise and the Hare" and "The Lion and the Mouse." Some Hebrew fables are versions of Aesop's. Fables also are among the tales in "One Thousand and One Nights" (aka "Arabian Nights") and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." Many well known children's tales feature a cautionary fable ("Little Red Riding Hood"). Many modern writers such as Orwell, Kafka and Dr. Seuss use aspects of fables in their work. And many modern stories share the traits of fables, although with much more complex storylines (such as Orwell's "Animal Farm," and Pixar films like "Toy Story" and "Cars").
Examples of Parables
Secular examples of parables again go as far back as Aesop. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," listed under his fables, is actually a parable. As with fables, many well-known children's tales are parables, such as Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperor's New Clothes." But the majority of well-known parables are religious. Jewish culture is full of parables, as in the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer. As Jewish theologians and professors Wilhelm Bacher and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach write: "The Talmudic writers believed in the pedagogic importance of the parable." And perhaps best known are the parables of Jesus. Considered to be a primary method of his teachings, Jesus used many parables to reach his followers. These include "The Rich Man and Lazarus," "The Good Samaritan" and "the Mustard Seed."