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Does either imply a lesson, or a fantastical setting?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

My understanding is that a fable involves (speaking) animals or other mythical creatures, while a parable does not. A moral is typical for both genres.

Wikipedia is more accurate in its wording:

A fable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a "moral"), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.

A parable is a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters. It is a type of analogy.

Merriam-Webster basically agrees, but has a few points to add:

parable: example; specifically: a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle

fable: a fictitious narrative or statement: as
a: a legendary story of supernatural happenings
b: a narration intended to enforce a useful truth; especially: one in which animals speak and act like human beings
c: falsehood, lie

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I think the key distinction is that a parable is religious while a fable is not. I have never heard the term "parable" used outside of a religious setting. –  alcas Sep 5 '12 at 1:41
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My observations - not an authority's formal definitions:

The most famous fables (Aesop's) all feature animal protagonists, but I don't believe that has ever been a requirement, Wikipedia notwithstanding. Any fictitious story with an implied or explicit moral, or lesson, and which is obviously contrived for the purpose of communicating that moral or lesson can be referred to as a fable. Example: http://www.userfocus.co.uk/fable/index.html

A parable is not necessarily contrived, but usually contains a relatively specific analogy. A fable is more vague and illustrates a more general principle or concept. The parables in the New Testament (per my poor memory) are all things that "could have actually happened like that".

Edit: Apparently the root of "parable" is from the Greek "to compare", so a specific analogy is definitely implied.

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You have a point, one of my favorite video games is "Fable", which is all about people, or a story of one man. It does feature quite a few mythical creatures, but they are not really central to the story or to any of the lessons you might or might not end taking from it. However, even this video game is still nicely covered by Merriam-Webster ("a fictitious narrative, as a legendary story of supernatural happenings"), as is that book you linked to ("a narration intended to enforce a useful truth"). –  RegDwigнt Sep 17 '10 at 13:53
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