A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as actors that assume speech and other powers of humankind.
The descriptive definition of "fable" given above has not always been closely adhered to. In the King James Version of the New Testament, "μύθος" ("mythos") was rendered by the translators as "fable in First and Second Timothy, in Titus and in First Peter.
The word "fable" comes from the Latin "fabula" (a "story"), itself derived from "fari" ("to speak").
In a pejorative sense, a "fable" may be a deliberately invented or falsified account of an event or circumstance. Similarly, a non-authorial person who, wittingly or not, tells "tall tales," may be termed a "confabulator." In its original sense, however, "fable" denotes a brief, succinct story that is meant to impart a moral lesson.
An author of fables is termed a "fabulist," and the word "fabulous," strictly speaking, "pertains to a fable or fables." In recent decades, however, "fabulous" has come frequently to be used in the quite different meaning of "excellent" or "outstanding".
Fables frequently have as their central characters animals that are given anthropomorphic characteristics such as the ability to reason and speak. In antiquity, Aesop presented a wide range of animals as protagonists, including The Tortoise and the Hare which famously engage in a race against each other; and, in another classic fable, a fox which rejects grapes that are out of reach, as probably being sour ("sour grapes"). Medieval French fabliaux might feature Reynard the Fox, a trickster figure, and offer a subtext mildly subversive of the feudal social order. Similarly, the 18th-century Polish fabulist Ignacy Krasicki employs animals as the title actors in his striking verse fable, "The Lamb and the Wolves." Krasicki uses plants the same way in "The Violet and the Grass."
The fable is one of the most enduring forms of folk literature, spread abroad, modern researchers agree, less by literary anthologies than by oral transmission. Fables can be found in the literature of almost every country.
Several parallel animal fables in Sumerian and Akkadian are among those that E. Ebeling introduced to modern Western readers; there are comparable fables from Egypt's Middle Kingdom, and Hebrew fables such as the "king of trees" in Book of Judges 9 and "the thistle and the cedar tree" in II Kings 14:9. Many other familiar ones include “The Crow and the Pitcher,” “The Hare and the Tortoise,” and “The Lion and the Mouse.”
The varying corpus denoted Aesopica or Aesop's Fables includes most of the best-known western fables, which are attributed to the legendary Aesop, supposed to have been a slave in ancient Greece around 550 BC. When Babrius set down fables from the Aesopica in verse for a Hellenistic Prince "Alexander," he expressly stated at the head of Book II that this type of "myth" that Aesop had introduced to the "sons of the Hellenes" had been an invention of "Syrians" from the time of "Ninos" (personifying Nineveh to Greeks) and Belos ("ruler"). Epicharmus of Kos and Phormis are reported as having been among the first to invent comic fables.
Hundreds of fables were composed in ancient India during the first millennium BC, often as stories within frame stories. These included Vishnu Sarma's Panchatantra, the Hitopadesha, Vikram and The Vampire, and Syntipas' Seven Wise Masters, which were collections of fables that were later influential throughout the Old World. Ben E. Perry has argued that some of the Jataka tales and some of the fables in Panchatantra may have been influenced by similar Greek and Near Eastern ones. Earlier Indian epics such as Vyasa's Mahabharata and Valmiki's Ramayana also contained fables within the main story, often as side stories or back-story. The most famous fables from the Middle East were the One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights.
Fables had a further long tradition through the Middle Ages, and became part of European literature. During the 17th century, the French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) saw the soul of the fable in the moral — a rule of behavior. Starting with the Aesopian pattern, La Fontaine set out to satirize the court, the church, the rising bourgeoisie, indeed the entire human scene of his time. La Fontaine's model was subsequently emulated by Poland's Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801) and Russia's Ivan Krylov (1769–1844).
In modern times, the fable has been trivialized in children's books. Yet it has also been fully adapted to modern adult literature. For instance, James Thurber used the ancient style in his books, Fables for Our Time and The Beast in Me and Other Animals. George Orwell's Animal Farm satirizes Stalinist Communism in particular, and totalitarianism in general, in the guise of animal fable. Felix Salten's Bambi is a Bildungsroman — a story of a protagonist's coming-of-age — cast in the form of a fable.