The World of Fables and Legends - 03

Why Fables & Legends are Still Relevant?

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Despite many technological developments and diversions in the modern age, many People still read legendary and mythical tales, fables and fairy tales because literature of this genre carries universal and timeless themes in addition to a link to their erstwhile civilizational and cultural traits. They are also a source of enriching human experience and knowledge with the value systems and practices followed by their ancestors in the ancient age. Notwithstanding the elements of some exaggeration through possible extrapolations and amendments, these tales give a fair account and insight into the stages of development, norms of living and values systems of bygone cultures, including how ancestors people physically lived and the kind of societies formed. In a way, the mythical and legendary tales also define scales and parameters to evaluate how the human life has changed during the course of time and how good or bad the present life is vis-à-vis to their ancestors’ life.

In the previous parts, it was explained through illustrations from the ancient epics particularly from the Indian and Greek civilizations as also relevant literature from the other parts of the world as to how the legends and fables represented traditional tales concerning some event, protagonist, even extraordinary or supernatural beings, and with or without ascertainable basis of facts involving gods and deities, or demigods and even bizarre creatures like dwarfs, dragons, and so on, dealing with contemporary practices, rituals and rites, and even some natural phenomenon. In this part, the author proposes to deal with the relevance and reasons why fables and legends are still necessary in the modern age and gross benefits accrued to human beings in the contemporary societies in different parts of the world.

Fables and Legends of Folklore Genre

Fables and legends that became common and popular among people mainly under oral tradition are also known as folklore or folktales. Although such stories have also been documented at some or the other point of time but in many cases their original author or creator is not well established or established by speculation. In oral tradition, they are told time and again, and passed on from one generation to the other. Quite often, the same story with its variant narrative(s) is told in different parts and different societies too. They may be based on true incidents, or some exaggeration or interpolations made at some point or it may be based on pure imagination. Also, some elements of commonalities are found in these folklores such as common people as characters whose lives may be on stake, presence of superstitions and supernatural powers, and conflict between good and evil. Folktales usually also derive some moral(s) towards the end.

For instance, different cultures and civilizations independently grew in various parts of the world such as Bharatvarsha (India), Mesopotamia, Rome, Greek, Chinese, and so on in ancient times; they were distant apart with inadequate communication facilities those days. Notwithstanding, the stories of Matsyavtar, Noah’s Ark and Safina Nuh originated in various lands yet have elements of commonality and resemblance. They all mention about a great deluge, which had once threatened the existence of life on this planet. In all these stories, God had chosen a good and kind subject intrusting him the duty and responsibility to carry necessary seeds and wherewithal to fresh start life after the destructive deluge. Similarly, Panchatantra and other tales popular in Indian sub-continent have many common stories with Aesop’s Tales developed in the West such as “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin, The Fox and the Grapes, The Crow and the Pitcher, The Hare and the Tortoise, The Fox and the Heron, The Fox and the Crow, and so on.

The tales of Folklore genre could be useful for healthy development of children with requisite knowledge and skills, and for that matter also for the adults in many ways. Firstly, they are a good source of knowing own civilizational and cultural values and legacies; then they can be purposefully utilized to develop good reading skills among the children, morals derived from these stories inspire good habits and positive attributes among them. In addition, they are also good and interesting source of learning and acquiring knowledge about other cultures. For instance, in Hinduism Vedas and Upanishads are a treasure of learning truth of universe variety of other disciplines but they are difficult to read and understand by common folks. Therefore, the ancient sages and scholars had developed many Puranas and Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata to disseminate same knowledge and learnings through stories and interesting narratives.

Why Fables and Legends are so Valued

While the fables are specifically meant for children, which generate and raise curiosity, specific leanings, quest for knowledge and learning besides imparting moral lessons to make them good citizens and human beings. On the other hand, the legendary tales have no less significance because they mostly relate to civilizational history, culture and religion of the concerned race or ethnic groups which is relevant not only for them but entire human race as well. Notwithstanding many uses, the main objective of this genre of literature is to entertain and teach people. Many of these tales have been passed on orally from one generation to the other for the hundreds of years but more recent phenomenon has been to record and preserve them in printed book form or electronically for the regular use. Some of the main reasons why they are so values is given in the following paragraphs with illustrations.

1. Illustrated Account of Civilizational Glory

Some of the world’s greatest epics include The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Divine Comedy, The Paradise Lost, Don Juan, and so on. Actually, after the advent of the Christian era and English as the dominant communication language during the colonial era, many other great languages and their works in various parts were systematically downplayed and marginalized. Consequently, such illustrated list mostly include work in old European languages and/or their English translations. Though it is now widely agreed that the Hinduism is the oldest surviving culture and religion in the world with rich scriptural knowledge as Vedas and Upanishads as also Puranas and Epics, which essentially are historical account and records of people and events of Vedic and post-Vedic period.

For instance, Yoga Vasistha and Harivamshsa are two great epics though not so popular as Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are based on the lives of Sri Ramchandra and Shree Krishna with description of contemporary philosophy and events. Similarly, Bhartrihari’s Satakatraya, Somadeva Bhatta’s Katha-Sarit-Sagara, Kshemendra’s Brihat-Katha-Manjari, Kalidasa’s Abhijnana-Shakuntalam, Meghadutam, Kumara-sambhava and Raghuvamsha are some other examples of classical writings in the genre of poetry and drama in ancient India. Eighteen Mahapuranas essentially represent history of ancient India with the essence of religion and philosophy through storytelling pedigree wise. All of them were primarily composed in Sanskrit, Tamil and other Indian languages, and, sadly, have not been given due consideration and recognition by the Western historians and Indologists. Besides providing a link with past, the ancient history and culture also play a vital role in shaping the present society, and their customs and rituals.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are the greatest epical contribution to world on Indian history, culture, religion and philosophy; the latter being largest compilation with about one hundred thousand verses. Similarly, The Gilgamesh, Odyssey and Iliad are among the oldest extant works of Western literature, depicting their old history and culture. The underlying themes of some of great epical poems is summarized as under:

The Ramayana: The Ramayana is the historical account of the life of Sri Ramchandra of Ikshvaku dynasty, who is also an iconic symbol of Hindu culture and faith. The epic poem originally written in Sanskrit by Sage Valmiki and latter translated and rewritten in several languages represent the saga of the conflict and war between the good and evil, and establishment of an ethical and moralistic social order under Sri Ram. Even today, he is a source of veneration and inspiration to millions of Indians, and popularly remembered as Maryada Purushottam being an ideal and iconic ruler, citizen, son, husband, brother, and so on.

The Mahabharata: This great Indian epic is the longest single literary piece of all time, written by Sage Vedvyasa. It depicts the story of the rivalry and conflicts of two dynasties represented by feuding cousins that culminates into a great world war over five thousand years ago. However, the chief protagonist is actually Shree Krishna, who is believed to be incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He not only tooks the side of “good” but also delivered a seminal discourse in the battle field of Hastinapur, which is popularly known as “Srimad Bhagavad Gita”, an immutable knowledge on spirituality and morality and a source of inspiration not only to Hindus but also the entire mankind across the world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Epic of Gilgamesh probably written by Homer is supposedly of about four thousand years vintage; the epic poem narrates the legendary story of the young god-king Gilgamesh in Sumerian city-state of Uruk. He befriends Enkidu, a Wildman and together they confront Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, who is sent to attack them by goddess Ishtar (alias Inanna) after Gilgamesh rejects offer to become her consort. Some Western scholars have tried to establish it as the world’s oldest epic depicting themes of the human/deity divide, mortality, seduction, legacy, arduous chase of the secret of immortality, and so on.

The Iliad: The Iliad is famous ancient Greek epic poem again traditionally attributed to Homer. The story is set in the background of Trojan War, the ten-year siege of Troy by the coalition of Greek states, with illustrated accounts of the battles and events as also the quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. While there is some involvement and intervention of the Greek gods too, the story mainly revolves around humans, depicting heroism, romance and lust, statesmanship and military strategies, war, and vulnerability as “Achilles’ Heel” as also deception in the form of a “Trojan Horse”.

The Odyssey: The Odyssey is yet another great Greek classic depicting the life and journey of the warrior Odysseus, who tried to find his way home from Troy across the Peloponnesian sea. In the process, he had to face and fend off the malevolence of gods, the seduction of Calypso (supposed nymph in Greek mythology, who seduced and detained Odysseus for many years) and rescue own wife from the suitor’s coercion into a matrimony. Odyssey is yet another great epic in Western literature rated very high.

Needless to mention, all the aforesaid epic poems represent the most important Indian and Western classics of the bygone era depicting the history, culture and religion of the ancient Indian and Greek civilizations, possibly with some elements of interpolation and exaggeration in the story and plot during the passage of time. However, they are still gemming of these civilizations representing cultural heritage, ethical and moral lessons for the people in the modern age.

2. Life Lessons Wrapped in Legendary Tales

Civilizations in various parts of the world have their own stock and share of mythical and legendary tales, both in oral traditions and written classics as well. In a way, they provide a sense of identity to the narrators and listeners in the part of the world they live. Many of these tales teach us valuable life lessons irrespective of the age and maturity of the reader. Also, for every age and maturity, they often provide commensurate message and learning lessons. Take for example, the Western tales of oral traditions such as “The Princess and The Frog” and “Alice in Wonderland”, which have been later popularised and documented in various languages as well. The former conveys a valuable message that the physical appearance may be deceptive and we must also give chance to those who may not appear well disposed in outer appearance. In other words, we should be objective instead of being merely subjective. The Alice story inspires to come out of the restrictive comfort zone allowing own inquisitive nature liberty to explore and experiment which might open many new and better avenues.

Many fairy tales and fables take a person close to the nature inspiring him (or her) to be kind and considerate to the animals and plants. Legendary tales often deliver a particular moral and ethical message to the reader for imbibing good qualities and relinquishing bad ones. For instance, there is a famous tale of Trishanku, an ancestor of Sri Ram, in Bal Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana, who was one among the early kings of Ishvaku (solar) dynasty ruling in Ayodhya and whose nemesis denotes a limbo between one's desires (and consequent goal) and his current disastrous state (achievement).

Trishanku: Trishanku was born Satyavrata, who lived a righteous life of a king and his soul deserved to achieve Moksha (liberation). In later age, he, however, developed a desire for ascension to the heavens with his mortal body. He requested Guru Vasishtha who refused to perform necessary rituals, his wish being against the laws of nature. He could not resist his passionate desire and requested Sage Vishwamitra, an arch rival of Guru Vasistha. Vishwamitra agreed to use his powers acquired through hard penance to raise Satyavrata to the heavens with his mortal body. Following necessary yagna and sage’s ascetic powers, the king ascended to the heavens but the Devas became threatened with this unnatural arrival and made Indra to expel him down on earth again. Vishwamitra took this as his insult, and used his power again to stop the king’s fall. Consequently, Satyavrata remain suspended in the mid-air upside-down and with this nemesis he was known as Trishanku (Hung). The story teaches human beings not to work against the laws of natures or nurturing unrealistic desires and dreams.

3. For Education and Grooming of Children

Perhaps children are the best target groups that could be influenced, educated and groomed through folklores. Despite advent of modern technology and new means of entertainment, perhaps in most families the children still have such oral story sessions with their elders, particularly grandparents. They help children to develop good reading habits, inculcate positive attributes and moral character, enrich them about different civilizations and cultures, and develop interest and love for reading. The tales of diverse history and culture may help children to explore valuable insight about different value and belief systems, customs and rituals, cultural heritage and personality attributes.

As many folktales in various cultures are passed down through the oral tradition, usually they are well adapted for listening, and are easy to remember and further disseminate. Many of these classical stories are useful in not only in entertaining but also developing ethical values and moral character among target people. To sum it up, folktales are useful for children in developing good reading skills, moral character and positive attributes, knowledge of other cultures and traditions, zeal to explore variety ways of doing things, sharpening of wit and intellect, decision making depending upon contingency and circumstances, and love for reading and learning about society, relationships, emotions, values, vices, the good and evil etc.


The Panchatantra, Jataka Tales and Aesop’s Fables are classical examples of the stories for children in oral tradition and also available in book compilation form, which are interesting, educational and inspirational for the small and young children. One such story common to Indian Panchatantra and Western Aesop’s Fable as well is briefly illustrated here:

The Monkey and The Crocodile: Long ago, a monkey lived on a berry (jamoon) tree in the forest. This tree was located on the banks of a river, where lived a crocodile and his wife too. In due course, the monkey and crocodile became good friends and whenever the latter would come near the banks, the former invariably offered him juicy and sweet jamoon fruits. One day, the monkey gave him extra fruits for the crocodile’s wife. She ate the fruits and liked them, but her evil and jealous mind started brooding over the prospects eating the monkey itself. Now she told her husband, “If the fruits are so sweet and juicy, I wonder how tasty the monkey’s heart would be. So I can’t wait anymore, you go and get me the heart of the wretched monkey.”

The crocodile did not want to betray his friend but had no choice either. So, he went to monkey and told him that his wife was so happy to eat berries and had invited him for dinner. The monkey was glad to know, but he didn’t know swimming, so the crocodile took him on his back. The crocodile was happy and satisfied that he had so easily hoodwinked the monkey. However, in midway he divulged with the real motive imagining monkey had no escape now. The monkey was shocked but didn’t lose his presence of mind, “Dear friend, you should have told me earlier, I left my heart on the tree. We must now go back to get it.” The crocodile trusted him and took him back to the tree. The monkey promptly jumped to climb up the tree to safety and rebuked the crocodile for his treachery. Moral of the story is that one should choose his company wisely and should not lose presence of mind in difficult situation.

4. Enriching Knowledge and Human Perspective

Without any doubt, the mythical and Legendary tales enrich our knowledge and perspective towards the own life and the world at large. They are important link between the past and present society and render knowledge about the state of development, nature and intricacies of societies of the past, many of which may still be relevant to the current societies. Thus, people can learn a lot from their ancestors, and this knowledge could be gainfully applied to the welfare of the current society. For instance, all civilizations had their own contemporary operating laws, which were essentially based on the moral codes and ethics. Of course, these moral codes and ethics originated from the most powerful beings who could be gods/goddesses, demi-gods, kings, warriors, sages, heroes etc. For example, Greece was strongly patriarchal and its most powerful god Zeus, the master of sky and thunder, ruled as the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. His mythology and powers were somewhat similar, if not exactly same, to Lord Indra of Vedic Indian civilization. Zeus and related tales constantly remind that men were better than women in ancient Greece, and the laws of the society were accordingly framed and more favourable for men.

The Vedic society in India was based on sacrificial rituals mainly carried out by men but women too received considerable acceptance and recognition in the society. The higher education and learnings were more favourably inclined towards men Brahmins and Kshatriyas classes in the society. The Manusmá¹›iti is an ancient legal text, probably written sometime in post-Vedic period, which defines laws regarding society, taxes, warfare, crimes and punishments, etc. Many provisions of this treaty were used while formulating Hindu law during the British colonial government. Thus, study of ancient mythological, legendary and other texts is helpful in understanding how people lived, who was in lead and in-charge, what was expected code of conduct of men and women, levels of education and learning, and so on.

The knowledge and learning of mythology and legendary texts, like any other piece of literature, enhances brain power and empathy, builds vocabulary, prevents cognitive decline, reduces stress on mind and body, alleviate depressive thoughts and even induces a sound sleep. Fables and parables are often found even more useful because they are usually very close to nature and other living creatures, have less complicated storyline and derive explicit moral lessons. Such engagements are even more helpful when people are perplexed, worried or hurt following certain difficulties because the fables and legends not only divert their minds but also offer solace and solution at times. Hindu scriptures, Puranas and Epics and some of the old classics of Greek culture have not only preserved the civilizational heritage but are also rich source of inspiration, knowledge and entertainment, though many in dominant Western media and scholars, consciously or unconsciously, do not appreciate and promote contribution of Indic languages and literature.

5. Quest of Happiness and Happy Ending

Although Hindu texts encourage human beings to be desireless for achieving eternal peace and tranquillity but this state very difficult to achieve. As a matter of fact, every living being on earth, irrespective of culture or ethnicity, wants happiness in life. On the contrary, the struggle in life of human beings starts with their birth and every age has new and different challenges that one has to cop with alone or collectively as family or society. More specially, when people grow older, they face more challenges and obstacles in life. Perhaps this is the reason why everyone looks for a happy ending in life situations as also from various means of engagement and entertainment. Due to this everlasting quest and craving of human beings, they endeavour to work or do things as an individual and society so that the ending should always lead to solace and happiness.

In the modern age with the advent of technology, we have various means of comfort and entertainment for keeping ourselves happy and contented. However, in the past, folklore comprising of fairy tales, fables and legends in oral tradition were the best source of entertainment keeping the man happy and contented with till at least he learnt to read, write and emulate it through acting in plays and dramas. In most of the tales, after considerable struggle one would find that the intended goal is achieved or the good prevails over the evil ultimately bringing joy and satisfaction to the protagonist(s), and in turn to the listener or reader of the story. To illustrate this, one popular legend from the Greek mythology is briefly outlined here. The same legend was subsequently allegorised by many Western writers in their novel/stories, including in Christianity, with some amends and extrapolations.

Psyche and Eros: Psyche was a woman of extreme beauty and grace that the whole world was curious about her. This made even goddess Aphrodite so envious of her that she directed her son, Eros (alias Cupid) to poison the souls of men who desired her and make her to fall in love with some ugly and worthless creature; instead, Eros himself ended up falling in love with her at first sight. In the absence of suitable match for Psyche, her father became desperate and consulted the oracle of Apollo. Consequently, Psyche was given to understand that she was destined to end up marrying an ugly beast whom she should never look at. After wedding, Psyche found herself living in a marvellous palace with all luxuries and comfort; also, she was able to sleep with her husband but was not allowed to look at his face. After the days of marriage, she realised that her husband was tender and loving as also showed extreme care and consideration for her. The husband used to visit her at the night and depart before the sunrise.

The envious sisters convinced Psyche that she was married to the vile winged serpent and her husband’s true identity needed to be revealed. So in the night, after her husband slept, Psyche carried a lamp and dagger to identify and kill the beast but to her utter surprise in the light of the lamp, she found the most beautiful and handsome being, Eros – the god of love, gracefully lying on the bed. In her utter shock, she erroneously spilled drops of hot oil on his face awaking him, who now ran away rebuking her for the betrayal of trust. Desperate in love, Psyche begged goddess Aphrodite for help, who gave her three almost impossible tasks in return to prove her love for her son. Psyche accomplished two tasks but her own mistake encountered Morpheus, the god of sleep and dreams, in third task and she fell asleep forever. Moved by her love and devotion, Eros begged his father Zeus to save his love. The king of gods, Zeus did not save her mortal body but blessed her with immortality so that Eros and Psyche could happily be together forever.

6. Escape from Vagaries of Life

Whether from the oral traditions or illustrated literature on fables and legends, they allow us to varied experiences and aspirations; many of which may even be unattainable or beyond normal human imagination yet their exposure may be useful in many ways as explained in the earlier paragraphs. In real life, many a time we feel situations which are totally beyond control and unmanageable by normal human efforts yet we want to be happy by overcoming these problems. Similarly, human beings nurture dreams, desires and wishes, which are often beyond their guts and reach. In such situations, people tend to fantasize to achieve the same through some superhuman or supernatural efforts and even start getting kick and satisfaction in fantasizing even though things are not practically realized. Perhaps, such human nature and tendency gave rise to the stories of super heroes, supernatural beings and fairy tales in the past.

This is like escaping from the vagaries and troubles of real life by dreaming or fantasizing to achieve it through supernatural or magical powers. Such people are escapists who seek diversions to avoid unachievable and unpleasant situations by engaging in tasks that could successfully distract their attention at least for the time being. They hear or read about the extraordinary feats of super heroes, gods, demi-gods and other imaginary creatures that provides a psychological comfort and escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the person in exotic situations. Protagonists in such tales and events assume a larger than life dimension making it unbelievable by many people. In fact, this trait of human beings appears to have created several mythical characters which we do not encounter or experience in real life. The classical examples of such super heroes from the West are the Luke Skywalker, Batman and Phantom, who are legendary characters with super natural powers to fight vile creatures and evil forces. Similarly, folktales of Arabian Nights such as “Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp” and “Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” as also “Baital Pachisi” and "Singhasan Battisi" of Indian origin fall in the same genre.

In the context of escapism, the fairy tales have traditionally provided a lot of stimulation and impetus to authors both in the East and West. In fact, during the Victorian age and well beyond that, many people in England actually believed in the existence of fairies and witches. This led to an increased focus on folklore and creation of mythological tales. In fact, even the legendary author Shakespeare himself had created his own legend of witchcraft and ghosts in Macbeth. The 19th century British author Arthur Conan Doyle, who created spy thrillers of Sherlock Holmes, too believed the existence of the "Cottingley Fairies" reported by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. In a way, escapism is justified that allows people to constructively grow and aspire to dream of a better tomorrow for the self and society. Particularly when a person is going through a rough and turbulent phase, a temporary disconnection from the real world is helpful to give much needed break only to start a fresh with newer ideas to deal with it subsequently.

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More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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