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"Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. . .

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men."

If an author wants to make an Anvilicious point about human society, there's no better way than replacing people with an animal stereotype. An entire class of people will be replaced by a type of animal, and different animals will reflect the different social classes of a society.

So, if a writer wants to criticize conformity, she will create a society of anthropomorphic ants like in Antz. Or, perhaps the author wants to criticize society for not working hard enough, like in A Bugs Life, so she adds in locusts that never work and only loot the hard work of others... and calls them grasshoppers.[1]

Aesop himself was famous for these. It is particularly common in children's stories in an attempt to make moralistic messages more entertaining and palatable for the tykes.

Beast Fables feature a range between Intelligent Wild Animals and Petting Zoo People. These are Older Than Dirt (going back to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt), which means, in the oldest stories, it's hard to tell if the original teller saw actual animals as equal to people, or saw them as humanoid versions of animals; a character may behave as a human one minute and a talking animal the next. It's been argued that the modern cartoon Funny Animal is an inheritor of this tradition.

Examples of Beast Fable include:

Anime & Manga

  • Apocalypse Meow is a beast fable manga about the Vietnam War. Vietnamese (North, South and Montanyard tribesmen) are all cats, Americans are rabbits, Soviets are bears, Chinese are pandas, French are pigs, and Japanese are monkeys.

Comic Books

  • A number of underground and alternative comics use this device:
    • Robert Crumb's underground comic Fritz the Cat, portrayed African-Americans as crows. The 1972 film adaptation, directed by Ralph Bakshi, specifically portrayed police officers as pigs, whereas Crumb's comics did not make this distinction. Art Spiegelman credits Fritz the Cat as paving the way for all adult-oriented comics featuring anthropomorphic characters.
    • The graphic novel Maus took place in WWII Poland, with the Germans depicted as cats, the Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, the French as frogs, and American soldiers as dogs. It also played with the trope by showing a half-Jewish, half-German as a mouse with tabby stripes. Also, at one point, the author discusses with his wife whether he should try to symbolize her conversion by making a frog turn into a mouse. When visiting his psychiatrist, he notices he has dogs and wonders whether depicting them will ruin the metaphor.
    • The underground comic Horndog portrays African-Americans as black cats, and police officers as pigs.


  • The ants (and wasps) in Antz
  • The ants (and grasshoppers) in A Bugs Life
  • An American Tail uses the metaphor of mice as the oppressed races of the world, and the cats as their oppressors.
  • The penguins, and emperor penguins in particular, in Happy Feet have been interpreted as both critiques upon religious conformity and, by some, as Christianity by itself, among other things. The director has also talked about the film as an allegorical straight "first contact" story, from the perspective of an undiscovered tribe, and how this relates to the penguins, as one of the layers. Looking at it like this, several astonishing thematic and visual similarities to The Abyss are revealed.


  • The classic example is Reynard The Fox, a series of medieval folk stories satirizing the feudal system with the Heroic Sociopath Reynard as the hero to the downtrodden peasants. His most favorite antagonist was Isengrim\Ysengrin the wolf who represented the Corrupt Church of the time. Disney was originally going to film the story but it ended up becoming a telling of Robin Hood with Robin as an anthropomorphic fox.
    • Reynard makes a guest appearance in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in the Nun's Priest's Tale, along with Chanticleer the puffed-up rooster and his more sensible wife, Pertelote.
  • The Kalila and Dimna stories are essentially the Middle Eastern version of Reynard the Fox. They're about two wily jackals who sometimes work as viziers to the king (a lion, of course).


  • Jean De La Fontaine retold Aesop's fables and created some of his own.
  • James Thurber used animals in the same way. He had a version of the mouse fable mentioned below - his moral is roughly the same as Potter's.
  • George Orwell's Animal Farm used a rural setting to critique communist societies decaying from their high ideals. Communist commissars were replaced by pigs that walked on two legs, who literally skimmed the cream of the farm's labor for themselves.
    • Pink Floyd's Animals does the same for capitalism: the dogs are the business executives/social climbers, the pigs are those who "rule on high", and the sheep are the everyday proletariat.
  • Watership Down replaced frightened peasants with rabbits. Popularly thought be a fable about the dangers a democracy faces from appeasement and fascism. The rabbit heroes escape a monarchy, discover a seemingly idyllic warren with a horrific secret coming from placating humans, arrive at their new home and create a democracy that must lock horns with another warren that is a fascist tyranny.
  • The Book of the Named tackles child abuse and racism, among other things, using prehistoric sentient cats.
  • Beatrix Potter's books. Particularly her telling—and subverting — The City Mouse and the Country Mouse; as told by Aesop, the moral is that the simple but safe countryside is better; as told by Potter, the moral is that both locales have their dangers, and people prefer their own.
  • Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow and sequel The Book of Sorrows are fascinating beast fables; though their moral isn't simple enough to put into one line, this troper feels they qualify because the animals are definitely used to represent distinct, stylized human roles & personalities.


  • The Insect Play by Josef and Karel Čapek has the lives of fickle-hearted butterflies, capital-hoarding beetles, predatory ichneumons, home-loving crickets, warlike ants etc. as an allegory for human society.

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Western Animation


  1. (Locusts are, in fact, a type of grasshopper)