Fables and Fairy Tales; What's the Difference?

by Tolovaj

The terms 'fables' and 'fairy tales' are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. This article will show you the main differences between fables and fairy tales.

So you wanna know more about fables and fairy tales? What are their basic characteristics? What do they share and where are the main differences? While most people don't really care, others know that each literary form has its own structure, own set of rules, and - not last, and definitely not least - its own goals.

Fairy tales and fables are related, of course, and we tend to connect both with children. We expect both in colorful books and adapted to cartoons. Well, such thinking soon leads us to slippery terrain. I believe the majority of people can point at the morals of fables and fairy tales, and maybe also note the difference in their lengths, yet there is much much more, and here is a chance to make things straight once and for all.

Or at least until a better article pops up. So here is a list of 10 differences between fairy tales and fables!

1. Origin

The web will provide all kinds of information on this subject but scholars who dived a bit deeper will inevitably lead to one conclusion: the oldest known fables come from East Asia with Panchatantra as an example with more than two thousand years of age and the oldest fairy tales (in today's sense) come from France in the 17th century with roots in Italy, where Straparola's The Pleasant Nights (the 15th century) and Basile'a Pentamerone (the 16th century) made the base for French authors.


2. Goal

This difference is easy to spot if you have a bit of background in literary history. Fables are supposed to be written to educate kids of the kings with clear morals and a few entertaining notes to be more attractive to present and easier to digest. Essentially they are educational tools from the very beginning and they still are.


Fairy tales, on the other hand, were written told, and performed (performance of fairy tales in front of guests was a big deal) for entertainment only. First morals to the fairy tales were added with obvious irony, even sarcasm, and only Jacob and William Grimm started looking at them as a chance to instill some moral values in the audience, which brings us to the next difference.

3. Audience

We already stated that fables were written for teaching kids. Only later grown-ups realized their universal appeal. With fairy tales, it was vice versa. They aimed at a spoiled adult audience which was very hard to impress. Unbelievable plots (poor boys become kings, for instance) with the addition of magic were mixed with rough and saucy humor, mostly inappropriate not only for kids but for most decent people as well.

Only later, Grimms played an important part here too, the focus of fairy tales changed to younger audiences, and the existing tales were heavily censored.


4. Magic

Yes, magic is one of the major differences between fables and fairy tales. Even the word fairy suggests the presence of supernatural beings and happenings. But fables are a completely different kind of beast. If we forget the talking animals who are the most common protagonists, the action is very down-to-earth. Fables are realistic and fairy tales are imaginary.

5. Message

Each fable or fairy tale carries a specific message but generally, we can make two groups of messages. One for fables and one for fairy tales. Fairy tales mostly tell us how the world could be and fables are telling how the world is.


6. Number of characters

Fairy tales have typically more characters than fables. For a fairy tale, it's normal to have a dozen, even ten or more characters among which many play only supporting roles. At fables it's different. We typically have only two or three characters. And all the roles are crucial.


7. Development of characters

The development of characters is the essence of fairy tales. Their characters make mistakes and learn from them. They make friends and enemies by the way and most of them learn too.

Characters in fables can be reduced to pure functions. Each one starts with a set of skills and after an interaction with another character with a different set of skills something happens but nobody really changes. A fox is still a fox and a crow is still a crow. None of them will ever become a prince or a princess.


A typical fairy tale consists of an introduction, several scenes, and a grand finale, typically with the main opponent destroyed, followed by a celebration.

A fable is mostly one scene only. Two ideas clash and one wins. That's that.


9. Settings

Fairy tales typically have colorful settings which can play important roles in plots as well. Think about a glass mountain or a dark wood. There are huts and caves and castles and all sorts of places where interesting stuff can happen. In the same story, a setting can change several times

Fables don't really bother with settings. A lake is just a lake, a lawn is just a lawn. And one setting is in most cases enough. Many fables don't even need one. The presented idea could be often developed in different settings in completely the same way.

10. Interpretation

Fables are based on morals. They were mostly written this way: moral first, presentation later. This means their messages are very clear and can hardly be misunderstood. Of course, with some fables being several thousand years old, some of their messages could be positioned in different contexts, which can lead us to rewritings and reinterpretations, but essentially one fable carries one message in that's it.

Fairy tales, on the other hand, can be (and should) understood in numerous ways. By this, I mean that each (at least the good one) fairy tale brings different morals. Just think about Puss in Boots saying from: 'Life's not fair.' to 'Make the best of what you got.' and everything in between.

Updated: 10/14/2023, Tolovaj
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Tolovaj on 10/21/2023

Indeed, DerdriuMarriner, educational values of fables and fairy tales overlapp . Kids, the 'original' audience of fables were royalty and they had private teachers who were often athors and always superb storytellers. No, I am not familiar with graphic versions of modern Rapunzel or Snow White. Of course, the audience is different but we should also mention Brothers Grimm were not so very popular in the 19th century with seven editions of their collection of fairy tales while Bechstein, for instance, had over forty. Grimms just stood the test of time with their constant rewritings which continued until today.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/21/2023

The third difference, Audience, becomes quite an eye-opener what with fairy-tale reputations nowadays oft communicated in happy, upbeat blues and pinks.

Catering to "a spoiled adult audience" contradicts 21st-century filmed and graphic-noveled and rewritten representations of fairy tales that dare their political correctness not at all in "rough and saucy humor" unkind to the time's "underserved" peoples.

For example, have you seen graphic-novel versions of Rapunzel and Snow White?

Fairy-tale initial audiences look quite different from Grimm-brothered fans.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/21/2023

Your third difference, Audience, advises us that "We already stated that fables were written for teaching kids."

Did that kids-teaching exist on its own or was it accompanied by something adults-teaching? (Or were adults expected to be kids grown up for the better because of their exposure to fables early on;-D?)

DerdriuMarriner on 10/20/2023

It's interesting that the Grimm Brothers looked at fairy tales as educationally entertaining and entertainingly educational.

Grimm emphases on moral values puts fairy tales closer to or overlapping with fables.

Might there be overlaps in fable and fairy-tale moral values? Or would fables have emphasized some sets and fairy tales others?

Tolovaj on 10/20/2023

Everything's fine, DerdriuMarriner. I am glad to have so active commenter. Have a great day!

DerdriuMarriner on 10/19/2023

Looking over my comments caused me to consider a possible confusion in my question-phrasing.

Fairy-tale goals of entertainment delight me even as their added goals of irony and sarcasm regarding moral values disappoint me.

Is that clear from my phrasing?

There's no way that I'd want you to think that I was disappointed in this wizzley or in fact in any other of your ever-educational, ever-entertaining wizzlies;-D!

Tolovaj on 10/19/2023

Originally, fairy tales, were made for aristocracy who mocked the lower class with their wishful thinking. Later, when they become more educational, the values presented to lower class, were still the values of the upper class. The chance to climb the social ladder is still very close to zero. Not impossible, yet very very close.

Tolovaj on 10/19/2023

This is possible, yes.

Tolovaj on 10/19/2023

Yes, it's possible. No, I am not familiar with Ms Petzinger's work. Every picture, in my opinion, presents a story and every story can be seen as a fable.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/19/2023

The second difference, Goal, disappoints me when I discover what fairy tales deemed apart entertainment.

Might the added irony and sarcasm arise from lower classes trying to replace upper classes or upper classes trying to suppress lower classes when the two started sharing entertainment forms?

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