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Literature / Aesop's Fables

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Pictured: Exactly one Aesop.
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Aesopos (Greek Αἴσωπος, shortened to Aesop in modern English) was a slave, later freedman, living somewhere in Asia Minor in the sixth century BC. If, that is, he existed at all.

But European fables — mostly Beast Fables — had a marvelous tendency to accrete onto the collections claimed to be his. Being fables, they have rather obvious morals, which are sometimes (but not always) explicitly pointed out at the end. The most famous writer of this trend is certainly Jean de La Fontaine.

Aesop's most famous fables are:

  • The Grasshopper and the Ants: A grasshopper is lazy and does nothing during spring and summer, while the ants work. When winter arrives the ants survive because they harvested food and had built a warm home, while the grasshopper dies from cold and starvation.
  • The Tortoise and the Hare: A slow tortoise and a speedy hare decide to hold a race. The hare, overconfident in his victory, takes a nap during the race, and as a result the tortoise wins through his perseverance.
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  • The Boy Who Cried Wolf: A shepherd boy trolls the villagers by yelling that he's being attacked by a wolf. Eventually they get so annoyed by his lying that when the wolf really does come to kill the sheep, nobody believes him.


These fables are the Trope Namers for:

They are also the former trope namer for Big Bad Wannabe (originally titled "Evil Frog Who Wants to Be an Ox").


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Tropes in these fables:

  • Acting Out a Daydream: A milkmaid plans to sell all her milk in order to go to the fair and attract suitors by tossing her hair, but when she tosses her hair in the daydream she knocks the real pail of milk over.
  • An Aesop: Yes, pretty much all the fables have the moral lesson spelled out at the end.
  • Beast Fable
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • In "The Frogs Pick a King", a community of frogs prays to Jupiter to send them a king. In order to quiet them, he drops a log into their pond. The frogs were frightened of the log at first, but before long, they started using it as a platform. They grew dissatisfied with their "sovereign" and asked Jupiter for a different king. His response was to send a stork to eat them.
    • In "Zeus and the Bee", Zeus offers to grant the bee a wish after she presents him with honey. The bee tells him that she is constantly having her honey stolen from her and asks for a weapon to defend her honey. Zeus is displeased by the selfish nature of the wish, but being obliged to grant it, he gives her a barbed spear... which he implants directly into her abdomen, so that it will tear out her insides and kill her if she uses it.
  • Being Good Sucks: "The Wolf and the Crane" shows the dangers of thoughtless altruism. The premise of the story is that a wolf gets a bone stuck in his throat and promises a reward to anyone who can dislodge it. Naturally, nobody wants to help him until a crane hears the wolf's pleas and begrudgingly agrees to dislodge the bone with her beak. When it was dislodged the wolf was grateful and started walking away. When the crane asked about the reward, the wolf said she should be grateful that he didn't bite off her head during the procedure. Later versions of the story have the wolf receiving his comeuppance and the crane feeling disappointed yet wiser by her experience with him.
  • Caligula's Horse: In "The Frogs Pick a King", a community of frogs prays to Jupiter for a king. He responds by dropping a log in their pond and calling it their king.
  • Cats Are Mean: Lions are the king of beasts, and in Aesop's Fables they won't let you forget it.
  • The City vs. the Country: The Country Mouse visits her friend the City Mouse. While at first impressed by his lavish lifestyle, she soon changes her mind once she learns about the cat or dog living in the same house.
  • Clever Crows:
    • One tale involves a crow, dying of thirst, finding a pitcher of water with the water level just out of reach of the bird's beak. So, it uses several pebbles to raise the water level and save itself.
    • Subverted in "The Crow, the Fox, and the Cheese." The crow has a nice piece of cheese that the fox wants, so the fox resorts to flattery and coaxing to get her to "sing" which drops the cheese right in front of him. He slinks off with a full stomach and a warning to the crow to beware flatterers.
  • Consummate Liar: One of the two travelers in "The Apes and the Two Travelers", the other traveler is an inversion of this.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Foxes are always wily and try to trick other animals to get what they want. Some are a bit more noble, but most of them have a low cunning that helps only themselves. In most cases the fox is successful, but occasionally the other animal is smart enough to thwart the designs of the fox.
    • In "The Fox and the Goat", a fox falls down a well and gets trapped. He sees a young goat and convinces the goat to join him because he is enjoying his time there. As soon as the goat leaps into the well, the fox climbs up on its horns to escape and leave the goat to its fate.
    • In "The Lion, the Bear, and the Fox", a bear and a lion catch a goat kid and fight because each of them wants to eat it alone. When they are exhausted from fighting, they call a truce to take a rest; as they lie down, a fox takes the opportunity to swoop in and run away with the kid.
    • In "The Fox and the Crow", the hungry fox encounters a crow eating a piece of cheese and uses its charm to persuade the bird to sing. When the crow opens its beak to sing, it drops the cheese and the fox runs away with it.
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • In "Belling the Cat", a herd of mice living in the walls of a house hold a meeting to determine how to deal with the constant threat of the family cat. One of them proposes, as you might suspect from the title, tying a bell around the neck of the cat so that they'll always hear her when she's coming for them. The other mice are like "Eureka!" until an old mouse reveals the only hiccup of the plan: who among them will put the bell on the cat?
    • "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs" combines this trope with Farming Your Friend. A man finds that his goose can lay golden eggs, so he has her lay many of them so that he can make a profit off of her. He becomes impatient and concludes that if he cuts her stomach open, he'll be able to find lots of eggs to sell by himself. He does just that, and the inside of the goose is completely empty. The man is devastated that he's ruined his one source of income for nothing.
  • Diligent Draft Animal: In "The Horse and the Donkey", a horse and a donkey are traveling together and the donkey is carrying all the items. The struggling donkey asks for help by sharing the load but the horse refuses to help. The overworked donkey eventually dies and the horse is now forced to carry the very load that killed the donkey, as well as the donkey's body.
  • Dog-Kicking Excuse: In "The Wolf and the Lamb", the wolf makes excuse after excuse to eat the lamb, but is refuted every time until the wolf finally decides that he needs no excuse for what he wants and has set out to do anyway and eats the lamb.
  • Downer Ending: Some tales illustrate hard truths and end with the character who is right (or at least sympathetic) being punished. One example is "The Wolf and the Lamb," where the lamb argues for its right to live, only to be devoured anyway.
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: "The Wolf and the Crane" has the titular crane ask the wolf for the promised reward for dislodging a bone from his throat. The wolf instead tells her that the actual reward was allowing the crane to survive the experience since her head was in the wolf's maw and he refused to attack while she was vulnerable.
  • Epic Fail: The hare from "The Tortoise and the Hare" loses to the tortoise. Even better? The hare could have won easily, and the only reason why he lost was because he took a nap in the middle of their race, arrogant enough to believe he would still win owing to the tortoise's slow speed.
  • Everything Talks: "The Two Pots".
  • Farming Your Friend: In "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs", a man finds that his goose can lay golden eggs, so he has her lay many of them so that he can make a profit off of her. He becomes impatient and concludes that if he cuts her stomach open, he'll be able to find lots of eggs to sell by himself. He does just that, and the inside of the goose is completely empty. The man is devastated that he's ruined his one source of income for nothing.
  • Forgiven, but Not Forgotten: The story of "The Man and the Serpent" where the man asks the serpent to put aside their differences and "forget and forgive", but the serpent rejects, saying that he will never forget the death of his son and he won't forget the loss of his tail. This leads to the lesson that "Injuries may be forgiven, but not forgotten."
  • Gender Bender: The core theme of "The Hyena and the Fox" (also titled "The Fox and the Hyena") and "The Two Hyenas". In the former, the hyena is rejected by the fox because the hyena's gender-bending nature makes it impossible for the fox to place as girlfriend or boyfriend, with the moral basically amounting to "don't be too ambiguous". In the latter uses the hyena's gender-bending nature comes into play in a dispute; the current male wants the current female to perform an "unnatural" sexual act or is abusing her, so the current female warns him to remember that eventually the tables will be turned.
  • Gladiator Games: "Androcles and the Lion"
  • Idiot Ball: In "The Tortoise and the Hare", the hare would have easily curb-stomped the tortoise in their race if he hadn't decided to take a nap under a tree in the middle of it, arrogantly believing that the tortoise is so slow that falling asleep would change nothing. We all know how well that went for the hare.
  • It Only Works Once: As the Bulgarian variant of "The Wolf and the Crane" shows, the bird is unlikely to accept the same reward when another bone gets stuck in the throat.
  • Jerkass Gods: Jupiter could sometimes come off as this for example in one story where he judged the animals' children, to find out which one was most beautiful, and coldly laughed at an ape's attempt. The ape's reaction was to say that Jupiter could have his judgement but to her, her offspring was the most beautiful of all.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The Young Crab and its Mother is a story about a mother crab scolding her son for not walking forward with pride and then embarrassing itself in turn once the young crab asks for a demonstration.
  • Last-Second Showoff: "The Tortoise and the Hare" is the Trope Codifier. During a race between the two titular characters, the Hare gains such a massive lead over the Tortoise that the Hare takes a nap under a tree. By the time the Hare wakes up, the Tortoise has almost crossed the finish line. Despite a frantic scramble from the Hare, the Tortoise ultimately wins the race thanks to the Hare's hubris.
  • Liminal Being: The bat, in one fable, took advantage of its differing traits to keep flip-flopping between the sides of the birds and the beasts when they went to war. Eventually, they made peace just long enough to unite and declare that the bat did not belong to either side, and that is why bats only come out at night.
  • Manipulative Bastard: The depiction of the fox in the various fables are often this.
  • Medal of Dishonor: A dog made a habit of mischievously biting people, causing his owner to put a bell around his neck to warn others he was there. Although he initially disliked it, the dog eventually grew proud of it and pranced around showing it off. Finally an older dog tells him it's a sign of infamy, not of honor.
  • Never My Fault: The thief from "The Young Thief and His Mother" does not take responsibility for his actions, instead choosing to blame his mother for not teaching him the consequences of stealing.
  • Resourceful Rodent: "The Lion and the Mouse" is about a lion sparing a mouse and laughing off the idea of the mouse helping him in return since the lion considers the mouse to be too small and weak to be of any use. When the lion is caught in a net trap, the mouse is able to free him by gnawing at the rope so the lion could escape.
  • Revenge Is Not Justice: "The Horse and The Stag" has shades of this; in the story, a horse is in a feud with a stag. The vengeful horse makes an arrangement with a hunter to kill the stag and the two successfully hunt the stag. When the horse asks for its freedom, the hunter refuses to take off the bit and bridle and instead enslaves the horse since its too useful to release. The moral of the story is that revenge isn't worth it and always comes with a cost, for the horse, it lost its freedom.
    If you allow men to use you for your own purposes, they will use you for theirs.
  • The Old North Wind: "The North Wind and the Sun" describes a contest between the two titular entities over who will be able to strip a passing traveller of his cloak. The North Wind blew his harshest, strongest winds to tear the garment away from the man, but the more he did so the more the traveller pulled his cloak close to himself. The Sun simply shone brightly and warmly, and the traveller took off the cloak of his own accord in the pleasant weather. The story is meant to teach a moral about the value of civility and persuasion, as embodied by the Sun, instead of using the North Wind's brute force to solve problems.
  • Pushover Parents: "The Young Thief and His Mother"; in the story, a thief is condemned to die for stealing and as a final request he wanted to see his mother one last time. When she arrived, he suddenly bit off her ear and blamed her for his situation because she never disciplined him. The thief started stealing as a child and his mother chose to help him hide the evidence than punish him for it.
  • Savage Wolves: Wolves in these stories are brutal predators who answer only to a predator stronger and more brutal than they are (c.f. "The Wolf and the Lion.")
  • Science Is Bad: "The Satyr and the Traveller" is a story about a satyr meeting a traveller and being introduced to thermodynamics. The satyr is intrigued and then frustrated by how the traveller can warm his hands and cool his food with his breath, leading to the moral "A man who talks for both sides is not to be trusted by either".
  • Speed Demon: The hare is so cocksure that his speed guarantees his triumph that he takes a nap while the race is still going on. His overconfidence allows the tortoise to win.
  • Stealing from Thieves: In "The Wolf and the Lion," a wolf steals a lamb, only to have it stolen from him by a lion. The wolf yells at the lion for stealing "his" property, but the lion mockingly asks the wolf if he obtained the lamb legally. The fable ends there, implying that the wolf had no grounds to argue back.
    Moral: "What is evil won is evil lost."
  • Sturdy and Steady Turtles: One of the most famous fables, The Tortoise and the Hare, tells of a race between a proud, speedy hare and a slow, plodding tortoise. The hare, being the fastest animal around, has no doubts that he will win, quickly gains a large lead and stops partway through to nap under a tree, confident in his advantage. The tortoise instead keeps making his slow but steady progress towards the finish line. By the time the hare finally wakes up and realizes that the tortoise has passed him and is approaching the finish, it's too late for even his speed to close the distance and the tortoise wins. The moral of the story is not to let oneself be blinded by arrogance, and that determination and perseverance can make up for a lack of natural advantages.
  • Temporary Bulk Change: Predating Winnie-the-Pooh, one fable is about a fox who discovers a stash of food hidden inside a tree. The fox gorges on the entire supply, becoming so fat that he is unable to get out. Depending on how the fable is translated, the fox is told by a weasel or another fox that he'll have to wait until he's back to his normal weight to come out of the tree.
  • Who Will Bell the Cat?: The origin of the trope is the fable of the same name. The mice agree that putting a bell on the cat to act as an alarm is an excellent plan...but none of them are willing to risk their lives to do the deed in the first place.
  • Wicked Weasel: Since the cats hadn't arrived to Europe yet, the weasels took the roles usually reserved for the felines.

Alternative Title(s): Aesop, The Tortoise And The Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf

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