Fables, Fairy Tales, And Parables – CSFF Blog Tour, The Wolf Of Tebron, Day 2

Who knew fairy tales are controversial? The question, of course, arises because the CSFF Blog Tour feature this week is a book touted as a modern fairy tale. I’m referring to The Wolf of Tebron, first in the Gates of Heaven series by C. S. Lakin (Living Ink Books). Precisely, the back cover says “The Gates of Heaven series celebrates the reinvention of the fairy tale in the tradition of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.”

That statement caught me off guard because I’ve never thought of Narnia as a fairy tale. So what exactly is a fairy tale?

Perhaps we should start with what it is not. First, it is not a parable. All reliable definitions (Oxford Dictionary, Columbia Encyclopedia, and others) agree that a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or moral. However, these are stories that take the every day—setting, characters, action—and create from them a metaphor to illustrate some moral or supernatural truth.

At first glance, those who have already read The Wolf of Tebron may think this definition of parable fits the story. However, parables are unique because they do not employ magic; animals and inanimate objects are not characters in a parable.

Does this mean the book is indeed a fairy tale? Is Narnia a fairy tale?

Here’s where the controversy begins. Some scholars claim that fairy tales are stories written primarily for children while others describe the progression of stories written for adults who believed in fairies, to the for-children happily-ever-after tales we have today.

One component seems to be a constant in all the definitions: fairy tales must include some form of magic. A minority clings to the idea that the stories must involve fairies. Another group of scholars claim that “transformation” is a necessary element in fairy tales (think of Cinderella’s pumpkin changing into a coach or the queen/witch turning into an old woman to give Snow White an apple). A third view is that these stories must involve the fantastic. Oxford explains this type of literature in this way:

a mode of fiction in which the possible and the impossible are confounded so as to leave the reader (and often the narrator and/or central character) with no consistent explanation for the story’s strange events.

Using these components, I conclude that Narnia is not a fairy tale.

While The Wolf of Tebron includes most of these elements (no fairies), I wonder if a more accurate categorization might not be the fable.

From the Oxford American Dictionaries:

fable – a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral.
• a story, typically a supernatural one incorporating elements of myth and legend.

Then this from Wordiq

In its strict sense a fable is a short story or folk tale embodying a moral, which may be expressed explicitly at the end as a maxim.

Here’s a short example:

The Bear Who Let It Alone
“In the woods of the Far West there once lived a brown bear who could take it or let it alone. He would go into a bar where they sold mead, a fermented drink made of honey, and he would have just two drinks. Then he would put some money on the bar and say, ‘See what the bears in the back room will have,’ and he would go home. But finally he took to drinking by himself most of the day. He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

“At length the bear saw the error of his ways and began to reform. In the end he became a famous teetotaler and a persistent temperance lecturer. He would tell everybody that came to his house about the awful effects of drink, and he would boast about how strong and well he had become since he gave up touching the stuff. To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

“Moral: You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward.”

(James Thurber, “The Bear Who Let It Alone,” from Fables for Our Time)

Does The Wolf of Tebron end in such a statement of general truth? Not structurally, to be certain, but without giving away the ending, I’ll say, I think a good case can be made for the story being more fable than fairy tale.

Published in: on January 4, 2011 at 7:14 pm  Comments (8)  
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  1. Thanks for explaining the differences between the three forms.


  2. My wife just reminded me that Lewis himself compared the Chronicles to fairy tales — even using the term “fairy stories” as a catch-all — because of their simplicity and the fact that some story elements are not explained. Yet Lewis never called his stories “fairy tales” proper. Similarly, as Lewis scholars and just-folks-who-read know, while the Chronicles certainly contain allegorical elements, he specifically denied they were meant as “allegories” proper.


  3. I had wondered at that phrase on the back of the book as well because I had never thought of The Chronicles of Narnia as Fairy Stories.

    I would tend to call THE WOLF OF TEBRON simply an “allegory”. The elements seem too strong for it to be anything else. For me, even the fantastic creatures were made into allegories … such as the women representing the moon, sun (or mother of), and the south wind, etc.



  4. I know some lump folk tales, fables, and fairy tales together. After all, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Three Little Pigs often are referred to as fairy tales, but the first two are folk tales (because the main characters are ordinary folk) and the second could be considered a fable (because the central characters are anthropomorphic animals.) I think some people use the term fairy tale like “speculative fiction” to refer to all three forms. Fairy tales proper also always are about royalty, kings and queens. If we want to get technical, I believe The Wolf of Tebron is a folk tale based on a fairy tale as the original story did feature royalty. I looked it up. 🙂


  5. Interestingly, I was listening to the audiobook recording of Aesop’s Fables and the introduction was written by G. K. Chesterton, my champion of fiary tales. He said something very to the point. That fables are ALWAYS about animals and have NO people in them, and fairy tales are about people (and may have some animals) BUT he gives the reason for the difference–that fables are specifically to give a moral. And that when a wolf does something bad and a rabbit does something good, the animals shouldn’t make you think of humans or a specific kind of wolflike person or rabbitlike person. That the need for fables to use only animlas keeps the moral message clear apart from people associating the characters with certian types of people.

    I know I’m not saying it as astutely as Chesterton (never could!) but I got the point. If you want to explore that, check out his intro and see what he says. I based my fairy tale genre category on Chesterton’s definition in Orthodoxy, in which he devotes an entire chapter on the fairy tale.


  6. Interesting discussion.

    One of my favorite fables in my book of Aesop’s Fables when I was a kid was the story about Icarus so I wonder why Chesterton would say fables have no people. What about The Boy Who Cried Wolf? I’m sure that many fables have people for characters.


  7. As I said, who knew fairy tales were controversial? 😀

    You all spurred me to write on this topic again.



  8. […] further discussion, see “Fables, Fairy Tales, and Parables” and “Fables and […]


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