What is the correct term for this kind of short dialog with a moral?

I heard this short story about a Native American woman and her grandson:

Grandma: There are two wolves in my heart. One is loving, the other is vicious. They are at war.

Grandson: Which will win?

Grandma: The one I feed.

When I read this, it was tagged as a "proverb". But I think a proverb is a statement, not a dialogue. That means "proverb" would be the wrong term for this.

  • Fable? Think Aesop.
    – Kris
    May 15 '12 at 18:24
  • 2
    Neither parable nor fable are applicable here because the tale is not allegorical; we do not take a lesson from the interaction of the grandmother and grandson, but from the words of the grandmother.
    – choster
    May 15 '12 at 18:56
  • If you left out the grandma/grandson and just told the story, i.e., "There are two wolves in my heart ... The one that wins will be the one I feed" then I think it would clearly qualify as a parable. So the question is, if instead of just telling the story, you tell a story about someone else telling a story, does that change it from a parable to something else? If you made clear that the people in the story are real and that this really happenned -- I mean that the grandmother really told this story to her grandson, not that she literally has two wolves in her heart -- would that ...
    – Jay
    May 15 '12 at 19:25
  • ... be a different answer then if the people telling the story are themselves fictional characters? (I don't know, that's why I'm making this a comment and not an answer.)
    – Jay
    May 15 '12 at 19:25
  • I'd still vote for parable (a simple story containing a moral lesson), but much of the confusion depends on if the dialog is isolated (as you've depicted it in your question) or embedded into a short story (as was done on this blog).
    – J.R.
    May 16 '12 at 1:32

The alternative would be a parable, but this feels a little short for that.

Having it formatted in this way with the name of the speaker indicated as in a play or script is part of what makes it seem strange, I expect.

I think, as a proverb, it seems more familiar if the conversation is abstracted: "The wise woman says to the child that there are two wolves in her heart, one loving and one vicious. When the child asks which will be the victor, she says it will be the one she feeds." But even this is longer than the typical proverb.

As a parable, I would expect it to be a somewhat more fleshed out narrative in which she and the child reason back and forth before she finally tells in the answer.

I would probably settle on parable, or if I felt uncomfortable with that designation, refer to it instead as "traditional short story about a Native American woman and her grandson," as you've done here.

  • I'd agree with parable, though I might qualify that by calling it a parable presented in the form of a dialogue, at least as presented here.
    – J.R.
    May 15 '12 at 19:50

It's not a proverb. These are proverbs:

  • Haste makes waste
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • Ignorance is bliss
  • Mustn't cry over spilt milk.
  • You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
  • Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

It's not quite a fable, either:

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

I argue that it doesn't qualify as fable because there's no narrative on the part of the wolves, just the grandmother supposing.

Personally, I find it a poor setup for a moral. They're both wolves. Try leaving two wolves together in the morning having fed only one and see how many wolves you have at the end of the day.

I wouldn't even call it parable or adage. An adage would be something like don't count your wolves before you've shone a light in the den.

  • 1
    Anthropomorphism is not a necessary condition for a fable.
    – Kris
    May 15 '12 at 21:45
  • Fable = “1a. A fictitious narrative or statement; a story not founded on fact. b. esp. A fictitious story relating to supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents, and more or less current in popular belief; a myth or legend. Also, legendary or mythical stories in general; mythological fiction. c. A foolish or ridiculous story; idle talk, nonsense. d. A fiction invented to deceive; a fabrication, falsehood. 2. A short story devised to convey some useful lesson; esp. one in which animals or inanimate things are the speakers or actors; an apologue. Now the most prominent sense.”
    – tchrist
    May 15 '12 at 21:56
  • What if, instead of two people talking, it was a unicorn talking to a tea kettle? Then would it qualify as a fable? May 15 '12 at 22:43
  • @MikeM.Lin It'd be closer but still perhaps too short and lacking in narrative.
    – Charles W
    May 18 '12 at 16:50

How about "lesson"? It's not a proverb, nor a parable, and certainly not a tale. You could of course call it a moral analogy, but that begins to smack of academic classification rather than colloquial labeling.


Fable. Think Aesop and the famous Aesop's Fables.

Betal & Vikramarka, the Arabian Nights, The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari and more such 'moral stories' qualify as fables.


I think I'd call it an epigram - a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying.

An epigram can also more specifically be a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought, but the "poem" format itself isn't central to the concept, in my opinion.

OP's particular example is too long to be an "epigrammatic one-liner", and for me it's a bit too short to call an "epigrammatic tale", but these seem like reasonable terms for very similar things.

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