Why do we prefer fairy tales over fables? In her presentation, "The Fable that Morphed: Retelling The Town and Country Mouse," Andrea Immel, the director of the Cotsen Children's Library at Princeton University Library, raised this fascinating question during her lively discussion of four versions of the famous fable illustrated and retold by John Ogilby, William Godwin, Thomas Bewick, and Beatrix Potter.
Immel presented her talk, sponsored by the Center for Children's Books and the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, at the University of Illinois on May 6. As I listened to her lecture, like all good presentations, Immel got me to thinking about the differences between fables and fairy tales.
I, too, have also thought it was a bit curious that John Locke, in his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), should praise the fable, but condemn the fairy tale. Both are fantastical stories often involving talking animals and in many, although not all cases, point to moral. Is "Little Red Riding Hood" less moralizing or didactic that "The Town and Country Mouse."
It is true that most fables do have the moral tacked on to the conclusion as was the case of Charles Perrault's Histories, ou contes du temps passe, avec des Moralitez (1697), his collection of fairy tales that was published only four years after Some Thoughts Concerning Education. It is also true that often times fairy tales have been liberated from the overt moral that has hung over the conclusion of fables. But a moral can often times been easily teased out. One of the reasons fairy tales were assigned as appropriate reading for children is that they combined instruction and delight.
But over the years, as Immel noted, fables have earned the reputation of being simply didatic, while fairy tales were seen as more entertainment. But she showed how different retellers or illustrators can discover differing morals in the same fable, which is a common practice with fairy tales. But perhaps a more significant difference between fairy tales and fables are that many fairy tales are wishfulfillment, while fables are survival stories that show how to negoitate in a world of unequal distribution of power. While most of us would want to be Cinderella, who wants to be the country mouse, or even the town mouse?
But given the recent economic downturns, which have made clear the distinctions between the haves and the have nots--Wall Street vs Main Street, perhaps we are about to experience a revival of fables. With Jerry Pinkney winning the Caldecott Award for his picture book retelling of Lion and the Mouse (2009) perhaps we moving into new era of the fable.