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What Is an Apologue?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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“Apologue” is a literary term for a short story intended to convey a moral, better known as a fable. Such a story will often feature animals or inanimate objects that possess human motives, actions, and speech. The goal of an apologue is to supply listeners with a bit of wisdom that can be applied in any similar situation. It is an ancient form of storytelling known to cultures around the world. In modern times, writers still employ apologues for whimsical illustrations of human nature.

The earliest surviving apologue is believed to be Jotham’s Parable, which may have originated as far back as the 13th century BC. This old Hebrew tale is recorded in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. The trees of the world seek a king, but the only tree that will take the job is the jujube, which is known for crowding out other plants with its root growth. This was Jotham’s warning that people who seek leadership roles often have their own motives for doing so. Later parables, such as those of the New Testament, use exclusively human characters and more direct symbolism, which differentiate them from fables or apologues.

The most well-known fabulist, or teller of fables, was Aesop, a Greek slave who lived around 600 BC. Scholars have speculated that slaves used fables so as not to risk enraging their masters with comments about the powerful or wealthy. Such people feature prominently in Aesop’s fables, such as “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs.” A poor farmer becomes rich when his goose produces eggs of gold; he greedily kills the goose to see if more gold is inside, but succeeds only in ending his windfall. Like many an apologue, the lesson in human nature and greed is as true today as it was during Aesop’s era.

Many later writers expanded on the works of Aesop or created fables of their own. Their appeal was summed up by the French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, who wrote, “We yawn at sermons, but gladly we turn/To moral tales, and so amused we learn.” Philosophers and theologians such as Martin Luther agreed that the apologue was a useful tool for moral instruction. These stories were often spread as folk tales, such as the stories of “Reynard the Fox” from medieval Europe. The British poet Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed one of the Reynard stories for his masterpiece Canterbury Tales.

Modern authors have used the form of the apologue for their own purposes. Joel Chandler Harris transcribed the folk stories of 19th-century America for his Uncle Remus books. Like Aesop, the original tellers of these tales had been slaves. George Orwell created the most famous modern fable with his book Animal Farm, a warning against communism and totalitarianism. Humorists James Thurber and David Sedaris used fables to portray the average person’s distress in an increasingly complicated modern world.

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