A fable is an allegorical narrative about personified animals or objects that behave like humans. When a story is an allegory, it has two layers. The first layer is the literal story; the events that occur between the characters. The second layer is the underlying symbolism and moral lesson that the fable teaches.
Lessons in Aesop Fables
Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller credited with creating many of the narratives in his eponymous collection of fables. The stories are about humans or animals and their social interactions as they deal with situations that occur in everyday life. In some instances, the allegorical elements of the fables are satirical as they comment on human nature. For example, in the Aesop fable of the lion and the mouse, a lion, who symbolizes the powerful, spares the life of a mouse, who symbolizes the ignored or the powerless. The mouse says he will one day return the favor. When hunters trap the lion in a net, the mouse gnaws the ropes to free him. The underlying message of the fable is to value even your smallest friends.
Allegory in African Fables
African folktales often include fables about animals that have underlying lessons, making them an allegory. Instead of concluding with a happy ending, some African fables are tragedies in which one of the main characters endures a hardship at the end of a narrative, allowing the reader to learn from the character's misfortune. For example, in one such fable, a dog and a hedgehog grow bananas together, but the dog eats all of them. After eating, the hedgehog proposes a game where the two jump from the banana plant and onto a stick that protrudes from the ground. The hedgehog’s quills protect him from the stick when he jumps. When the dog jumps, the hedgehog tells the dog to ask the banana peels to help him, because the hedgehog won't. One the surface, this story seems to be about a selfish dog and a vengeful hedgehog, but the allegory in the fable is in it's underlying message: don’t neglect your friends when you experience good times or they may neglect you in a time of need.
Allegory in the Panchatantra Fables
The “Panchatantra” is a collection of ancient Indian fables originally written in Sanskrit. In the fable “The Sparrow, the Woodpecker, the Fly, the Frog and the Elephant,” an elephant accidentally breaks a sparrow’s eggs. The sparrow seeks revenge and enlists the help of a woodpecker, fly and frog to kill the elephant. By working together, the small animals get justice for the sparrow. At first, the fable may seem to be about a vengeful sparrow who gets other animals to harm a careless elephant, but the fable teaches the lesson that small beings working together can accomplish big tasks, making it an allegory.
Fables by John Gay
John Gay was an 18th-century English poet who wrote “Fifty-One Fables in Verse” for the young Prince William, Duke of Cumberland in 1727. In the poem “The Turkey and the Ant,” a turkey and her young search for food and find ants. The turkey complains about humans eating turkeys during the holidays, and an ant says that turkey is about to take the same action. On the surface, the fable appears to be about a turkey who finds ants on which to feast, while the underlying lesson is that it’s simple for humans to point out the imperfections of others as they overlook their own, making the narrative an allegory.