A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

5

The Beast Fable

Brian Gastle

A fable, simply put, is a short didactic narrative that serves to exemplify the morality of specific human behaviors and characteristics. Its most common form has traditionally been and still is that of the beast fable, a relatively short verse or prose narrative or description focusing on animals rather than on human characters, for “although fables do not have to contain animals, animals have always bulked large in fable collections and in fable theory” (Ziolkowski 18). The beast fable uses animals to represent human characteristics, and indeed, many of the characteristics we associate with animals today—the sly fox and the deceptive snake, for example—stem from the beast-fable tradition. This is not to say that humans do not appear in beast fables, but rather that they take a back seat to the animals, who are there to represent the morality of the tale. The animal characters become the vehicle for overtly moralistic and sometimessatiric commentary on human behavior and society, pointing a moral that is often explicitly spelled out at the end of the fable.

There are actually three distinct genres of beast fable. A beast or animal fable proper—sometimes referred to as an apologue—is a short narrative in verse or prose using animals as the main characters and concluding with an explicitly defined moral relating to the human characteristics displayed by the animals. A second type of story, the beast or animal epic, is a variant of the beast fable. The main difference between the beast fable and the beast epic is that the focus of the beast epic is upon its narrative, whereas the focus of the beast fable is upon didacticism: the fable is used to teach something, sometimes about the animal, but usually about humans. The beast epic–s narrative is usually much more developed than the beast fable–s narrative, as are the characters. In fact, the fable–s characters tend to be types rather than fully developed characters in and of themselves. Modern works like Richard Adams–s Watership Down or

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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