Fables are kind of weird. This is probably why they’re so rare in fiction. Once you get through Aesop’s Fables, there’s really no more genre for you to get through outside of children’s literature. But I’d like to see more of this genre in the fantasy space, and I think there’s wealths of creative potential in the fable yet, so it’s worth exploring.
The good news is, since this genre is so hard to find, I can only actually think of two examples of it, and have decided to dedicate my first joint book analysis to these two!
The two books in question are George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and George Saunders’s ‘The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.’ (Hereon referred to as just ‘Gappers’ for simplicity’s sake.)
I guess being named George is one of the criteria for writing a fable, huh?
The other main defining characteristic of the genre is of course its strong moral backbone – the stories being used as an allegory for some greater point about modern life. This is usually accomplished through some anthropomorphic animals, but doesn’t have to be.
Something I have also found to be a defining characteristic of the genre is its one-dimensional characters. When I said earlier that fables are weird, I was referring to this. See, the thing is, in a fable the one dimensional nature of the characters is not really a flaw like it would be for most stories. Instead, sprinkling these one dimensional characters into your setting allows the writer of a fable to use them as allegories for peoples, qualities, times, or just about anything – and then explore the interactions between these sort of ‘generalised’ characters in order to analyse how certain situations arise, or how certain kinds of personalities cause problems for one another.
This would technically still be possible with more multifaceted characters, and might even produce a more compelling story, but if your goal is simply to explore an idea and reach a morally-oriented conclusion, these extremely solid-block-colours that are your characters are perfect for exactly that kind of story.
The final characteristic of a fable, I would say, is a short length. You could argue this is not a necessary part of the equation… but I would disagree. On the basis of your simple characters, on the basis of whatever point your story ultimately is intended to lead towards, a short length is a must for a fable. Otherwise, you run the risk of dragging on too long, or overcomplicating whatever message you’re trying to send.
And if it is a fable you’re writing, then the message you’re trying to send needs to be somewhat streamlined.
So with all that said, how exactly am I going to analyse the two books that are the subject of today’s essay? Well, first of all I want to point out that ‘Animal Farm’ is much darker, and more ‘adult’ than most fables, while ‘Gappers’ has your more expected lighter, younger audience-friendly approach. Combine this with their differing tones – ‘Animal Farm’ with a grounded, realistic vision, and ‘Gappers’ with a surrealist, dreamlike vision – and we have two polar opposite approaches to the fable. This is great for me, as it gives me a lot of scope to talk about the variety even something as narrowly-defined as a fable can have.
I’m going to start by talking about ‘Animal Farm’ on the basis that it’s probably going to be more familiar to more people.
(I usually talk about books in these essays with as few spoilers as possible, but after writing this week's blog post I'm coming back to add this amendment so I can point out that, because of the nature of today's subject, it wasn't possible for me to keep this one spoiler free. That said, I haven't gone over every single detail about either book, so hopefully I don't spoil too much for you. However, if you haven't read these books yet, and want to do so without spoilers, I recommend reading them first, then coming back to this essay.)
In case you need a refresher, ‘Animal Farm’ tells the story of a farm on which the animal residents are mistreated and neglected by their owner, Mr Jones. On one evening, the well-respected pig Old Major tells the farm animals about a dream he had, which leads the farm to rebel against Mr Jones and take over the farm for themselves under the leadership of Snowball (another pig), with the goal of creating a more equal, utopian farm where animals work as equals for their own benefit rather than the benefit of a cruel, human master.
Straight away the ‘real world’ parallels are on show. Not only does Orwell make reference to the very real mistreatment that farm animals suffer at the hands of humans, he uses this cruelty as an allegory for the way human ‘masters’ treat their own kind as well. I’m sure I don’t need to name any specific oppressive governments as a baseline here – the unfortunate truth is that, no matter which country in which time period you live in, you’re almost certainly familiar with the idea of a corrupt government treating its people like garbage. The good news is that this universal, uneasy-feeling base makes the story itself also universally relatable.
To begin with, Orwell introduces us to a barnyard of animals, each one with qualities we’re familiar with seeing for that animal, but subtly (and other times less subtly) also qualities that certain people are likely to exhibit too. You have the old donkey who has grown pessimistic about basically everything, the intelligent, ambitious pigs reminiscent of a compelling activist or political speaker, the apathetic rats who remind us of the uncaring, wilfully ignorant branches in any given society, or possibly of anarchists, the sheep (I’m sure I don’t need to explain what the sheep represent), strong, trusting horses representing the optimistic working class, and so on.
Immediately, the socio-political balance of the farm is clear to us, but also reminds us (whether consciously or unconsciously) of our own selves and our relationship to how we are led and supported by our own, ‘real world’ leaders.
But if you’re familiar with any aspect of ‘Animal Farm,’ it’s likely one quote in particular:
All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others.
See, while the story begins with a well-meaning, just and right rebellion, that basically all readers will agree with and support the animal characters around, the cracks begin to show very soon. We don’t like the humans, and we don’t want anything to do with them. But, erm, how do you run a farm without tools? Four legs are good, and two legs are bad. But wait a minute, what about birds? Oh, their wings count as legs? Erm, okay. All animals are equal and we will never kill a single animal. But the dogs vote in favour of being allowed to kill rats. They’re outvoted, but still, questions arise.
These questions are important because, even though the first half of the book keeps us firmly on the side of the animal revolution, we’re aware of tension, we’re aware of an uneasy feeling around the whole thing. We’re left thinking, this is great, but it can’t possibly work out, can it?
And as it turns out… no. It can’t. But not for any of the reasons these questions and tensions might have made you think.
See, there really wasn’t anything wrong with the movement itself, nor any of its policies. Perhaps a little idealistic, but no. The problem is that you have one pig in charge… and another pig doesn’t like that.
From very early in the story, we’re introduced to two separate pigs – Snowball and Napoleon. They disagree on every single possible thing that two beings could disagree on. But Snowball consistently wins the vote off. Around the midway point of the book, there is disagreement on whether the animals should build a windmill.
Snowball says yes.
Napoleon says no.
But then something shocking happens.
Puppies that had been hidden away early in the book, and since been forgotten, reappear as now fully grown dogs, and chase Snowball away. Snowball is now gone. Napoleon is in power.
And tells the animals to build a windmill.
It turns out, Napoleon was never against the idea of a windmill. In fact, the plans Snowball had drawn up for a windmill were stolen from Napoleon. So why had he spoken against it so strongly? Well, he wanted to seem to oppose the windmill as a manoeuvre to get rid of Snowball, who was a dangerous character and a bad influence.
Yeah, alright, we believe you.
It is here, right at the midpoint of the novel, that the point is made clear:
The past is wrong. Everything you think you remember didn’t happen. It was actually like this. Napoleon is always right.
And it is also at precisely this point that the rebellion – the policies both the characters and we the readers fully supported, start getting twisted. All on one simple tactic.
Oh, no. It never said that. It actually always said this. You just remember it wrong.
It’s interesting, and scary, how many tweaks you can slowly make to a good cause in order to gradually, almost unseen, turn it into the complete opposite manifesto, just through this one tactic.
Which manifesto, exactly?
Mr Jones’s. The same Mr Jones the cause was initially all about overthrowing. And it’s very easy to convince people you’re not doing that – if anyone opposes you, just put on a sly face and ask, “You don’t want things to go back to how they were with Mr Jones do you?”
No. No. Of course not. And suddenly you agree, even though both choices are the same choice.
The corrupt leader. Who lies, and manipulates, and oppresses. Just to stay on top.
From this one very simple piece of writing, it allows the character of Napoleon to slowly, gradually turn one manifesto into another. This happens over several chapters – around fifty pages – as the animals are sure that they remember it one way, only to be proven wrong because the rules on the wall have been rewritten. And with the sheep bleating out that same manifesto – “Four legs good, two legs bad” – they shut down any disbelief. Because they cannot argue against it.
Until the day comes that the manifesto is almost the complete opposite than it used to be, and the sheep have been taught a new slogan – “Four legs good, two legs better” – alongside a damn creepy section of prose where the pigs parade around the farm on two legs.
Later, the animals look into the farmhouse. They look between the pigs and the humans. And they can no longer tell the difference.
The book ends there, and the message is clear – corrupt leaders take advantage of mistreated peoples, taking a good cause and twisting it, breaking it apart inch by inch, until unseen, unknown to you, all of a sudden you realise it has been turned into a completely different cause to the one it started out as. And you’ve only realised the similarity far too late, when the corruptor already has all the power.
That right there is a perfect – and very dark – take on fables as a genre. And it succeeds by following three fable-writing characteristics:
Keep it simple.
Keep it short.
Use as a basis something universal.
But Orwell puts his own spin on it.
He still has the simple characters, but there are so many that it gives him a greater breadth of storytelling potential. He makes it slightly longer than most fables would be, but this allows him to almost fuse two fables together into a larger whole that twists and breaks down into something creepy and nightmarish in the latter half, changing what you thought you were reading. And he has chosen something universal, but by making it something darker, scarier, and on a grander scale he produces a fable that is unique within the genre.
With all that said, how does ‘Gappers’ differ? And how does it stay the same?
Well, like I mentioned earlier, ‘Gappers’ is aimed at a younger audience. This is par for the course in the world of fables – with most of the genre’s stories being aimed at children, hence the moral lesson at the end. What makes ‘Gappers’ different from any of those children’s stories though, and also different from ‘Animal Farm,’ is that it’s… Well, frankly, it’s really weird.
This is good though. Personally, I love finding stories that are really weird – the level of creativity a story can reach by being as weird as possible is inspiring to me, and besides, there’s nothing I like more than finding a really unique story, which the weirdest stories out there usually accomplish purely on the basis of their strangeness.
But how does this weirdness help the book as a fable? Well, it actually combines nicely with that one-dimensional character element of the genre – with characters being so easily defined, making them odd has the benefit of making the story much easier to get through. The unique approach to dialogue that Saunders has, the surreal, dreamlike illustrations perfectly paired with its characters and plot.
So let’s talk about that plot.
‘Gappers’ begins with a description of the titular creature – a yellow, round, eyeball-covered virus-looking thing which likes to attach itself to goats and scream loudly.
Look, I told you the book was weird, alright?
Anyway, the book then moves into an introduction of the setting – the tiny village of Frip. This village has three houses, each with a yard, and a small herd of goats. Every day, the children of the town walk into the yard and brush the gappers off their goats, into a sack, then dump the sack into the nearby ocean. Three hours later, the gappers return, and the children repeat their job.
In the beginning, every house has its children do this job. But after a while, a slightly smarter gapper realises that they could just go to the nearest house. And so, they do. This is the house of our main character, a young girl named Capable, who has lost her mother, and whose father wants to an extreme degree for everything to stay the same as it ever was.
At this point, Capable is the only person in the village with gapper-brushing duties. The other houses are happy being gapper-free, and her father doesn’t want to ask for help because they’ve never done that before.
Even when Capable specifically asks for help, no one will help her because the other households have decided they are gapper-free because of something they did, implying Capable is therefore inferior to them for still having gappers.
In fact, the other families would rather pay to have their houses carried further away from Capable purely to stay gapper-free.
So Capable gives up, sells her goats, and takes up fishing.
This, on account of being something very new and different for the village of Frip, shocks everyone. But more importantly, it leads to the second house being overrun with gappers. And the third house won’t help out.
Until finally, the second house moves away again, leading the second and third houses to keep moving further away over and over, until they’re half-buried in a swamp and all out of money.
All so they didn’t have to help out.
See the moral?
Well, it’s actually double-sided – the first point is that ‘the normal’ isn’t necessarily the right way – they could just take up fishing instead of dealing with the gappers. But they won’t, because that’s different, and they don’t want to be judged.
The second point is that helping people out is probably easier than not doing so anyway – and so Capable eventually does help her neighbours, teaching them to fish, and sharing food and shelter with them, despite the fact that they never helped her.
The book also goes a little further, even developing the gappers – who give up on goats, and instead latch onto fences which are easier to get hold of, and don’t end up disliking the experience like the goats did.
It’s a simpler fable than ‘Animal Farm’ on account of its younger target audience, but thanks to its weird, surreal, dream-like tone it still manages to present a really interesting ‘moral tale’ that the genre hasn’t seen before.
Let’s take a look at those three characteristics again, and see how ‘Gappers’ holds up:
Keep it simple.
Keep it short.
Use as a basis something universal.
‘Gappers’ keeps things simple by casting characters with a single defining trait and analysing first how they interact with opposites, then how they interact with other characters with the same trait. The book is very short, and never strays into a subplot it doesn’t need to – we only ever see the gappers, and the village of Frip. As for something universal – I don’t think you can get much more universal than ‘be kinder and more helpful to those who would benefit from it’ and ‘don’t get stuck in a rut just on the basis of what’s normal,’ which is great for the younger audience, but also makes the book appealing to older audiences too.
The lesson to take from ‘Gappers’ if you’re a writer though, is that taking an old formula and doing something really weird and unexpected with it can lead to a compelling and interesting take on familiar ideas.
Combining that lesson with what we learned from ‘Animal Farm’ and its much darker tone than fables usually employ, I think it’s clear that there’s always room to do something new and different, and as an extension much better and more creative, no matter how limiting and narrowly-defined a genre might at first appear.
Hopefully, this essay has convinced you to check out ‘The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip’ if you also want to see more from the fable genre, and that I’ve also given you more to think about in regards to the classic Orwell book, ‘Animal Farm.’ One of my main goals with these essays is to draw attention to unknown books, and new ways of looking at more famous books.
With any luck, this might have also convinced any authors reading to take a stab at writing a fable, or at least to implement some ideas from that genre.