Of Parables & Fairy Tales

What is the difference between a fairy tale and a parable?

Are either type of story the same things as a fable?

All 3 of these story types are considered morality tales with the goal of helping people better understand the world around them and who they want to be in it.

But how do you tell which type of story you’re writing?

Ask Yourself 3 Questions

Question 1 – Are all my characters animals or insects?

Question 2 – Are some of my characters animals and some humans?

Question 3 – Are all my characters human?

Check Your Answers

If your answer to Question 1 = Yes, you are likely writing a FABLE.

If your answer to Question 1 = Yes, you are likely writing a FAIRY TALE.

If your answer to Question 3 = Yes, you are likely writing a PARABLE.

1847 illustration of the tortoise and the scorpion
The scorpion and the tortoise, a.k.a. the scorpion and the frog. A famous fable.

Checking your answer to Question 1 is a good thing to do before submitting to the BATTLE of the BARDS competition because there is no Fable category. Only Modern Fairy Tales and Modern Parables.

So, if all your characters are animals, you will need to change at least one of them to be a human for this contest.

While fables deal with straightforward actions and consequences in nature, fairy tales and parables invite us to examine the human motives that can put us in tough spots.

Gustav Dore's etching of Little Red

In traditional tales, these decisions can lead to terrible consequences — up to, and including, death.

Originally, Little Red dies. So does the little mermaid; she goes all-in for the man of her dreams, loses her voice and turns into seafoam (then an earthbound spirit) while the Prince marries someone more suitable.

In fairy tales, little kids get thrown into ovens, boys who cry wolf are left to fend for themselves, and boys seeking treasure end up murdering to acquire the wealth.

Actions and consequences. Fairy tales and parables both explore this theme.

So what’s the difference?

The quick take you can use that will guide you right in choosing the correct category of submission in The BATTLE of the BARDS is this:

Fairy tales share principles, based on an understanding of basic human/animal nature — incorporating both animal and human characters as metaphors.

Parables share principles couched in an understanding of human cultures and practices — where setting and roles can replace the laws of nature as being the first line of consequences the characters have to deal with.

For example, if you have a morality tale about a girl in the woods who runs into three animals, you probably have a fairy tale; if you have a morality tale about an inmate in a prison who has a run-in with three other inmates, you probably have a parable.

Parables require an understanding of cultural setting to explore the world the character lives in.

Fairy tales require an understanding of basic natures to explore the character’s journey.

So, to summarize:

What’s in a parable?

One of the first signs that you are writing a parable is:

All the characters driving the story are human.

Setting, culture, religion, politics, or cultural circumstances are embedded into the dominoes of the actions and consequences.

The more you know about the culture/dynamics a story is set in, the better you understand the arc and outcome of the parable.

Take the parable of the Ten Virgins, for example.

Illustration depicting the 10 virgins from Matthew 25 of the New Testament.
Anyone know who this artist is?

Understanding the culture the story is set in can change your understanding of the 5 prepared virgins not sharing their lamp oil from:

Why didn’t they just give their friends half? What difference does that make?


Why didn’t the five girls who had the $10 bills to get into the party just tear their bills in half and give the other half to their friends so they could all get in?

Because, in parables, cultural practices and situations are context to the dilemma presented.

What’s in a Fairy Tale?

Fairy tales explore the dynamics we can all relate to, using both humans and animals as metaphors.

Anyone from anywhere — human or not — can relate to a wolf being at their door.

Everyone can relate to the temptation to play rather than work, stray off a safe path for a bit, or wanting to escape an isolated tower.

The use of universal metaphors in fairy tales makes them easy to understand across time and cultures.

Because whether they’re talking about losing a mom and gaining a step-mother who only cares about her own children or underestimating wolves, there is a level of understanding that can be universally applied by the audience.

Summary: Parables and Fairy Tales — Similarities and Differences

The thing that parables and fairy tales have in common is that they invite discussion and reflection on things we deal with every day.

The main difference is that fairy tales invite all to examine our basic, universal natures while parables invite us to explore situational ethics.

Said another way: Fairy tales explore different actions and outcomes tied to our basic natures; parables dive into the morality of our cultures, practices, and more complex behaviors.

Thus, the challenge for the fairy tale/parable author is to see the dynamics and drives of each character with clarity that leaves personal bias on the cutting room floor.

Keep these tips in mind as you submit and your entry should be solid!

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