Illustration from "A Tale About Little Rabbits." Taken from the first Remus volume (1881).
Credit: Courtesy of American Studies @ the University of Virginia
Fables and trickster stories are short narratives that use animal characters with human features to convey folk wisdom and to help us understand human nature and human behavior. These stories were originally passed down through oral tradition and were eventually written down. The legendary figure Aesop was reported to have orally passed on his animal fables, which have been linked to earlier beast tales from India and were later written down by the Greeks and Romans. Ananse trickster tales derive from the Asante people of Ghana and were brought by African slaves to the Caribbean and parts of the U.S. These tales developed into Brer Rabbit stories and were written down in the 19th century in the American South.
The following lessons introduce children to folk tales through a literary approach that emphasizes genre categories and definitions. In this unit, students will become familiar with fables and trickster tales from different cultural traditions and will see how stories change when transferred orally between generations and cultures. They will learn how both fables and trickster tales use various animals in different ways to portray human strengths and weaknesses in order to pass down wisdom from one generation to the next.
This unit is related to the lesson Aesop and Ananse: Animal Fables and Trickster Tales, which provides the same background information for the teacher with different activities appropriate for students in grades K-2. Please note that different versions of spellings of “Ananse” and “Anansi,” and of “Asante,” “Ashante,” and “Ashanti” exist.
Read to the class the Asante tale from West Africa, "Ananse's Stories," which tells how a certain type of story came to be called Ananse Stories.
Point out the last two lines of the story as a piece of folk wisdom, a typical ending element of Ananse tales:
"And from that day the stories of the Ashante people and their descendants in the West Indies have been called Ananse Stories."
"And that is why Old People say: If yu follow trouble, trouble follow yu."
Have students identify characteristics of this story and use this list of elements to collaboratively devise a definition of a fable or trickster tale as a short narrative that uses animal characters with human features to convey some universal truth about human nature and human behavior and to pass down wisdom from earlier generations in ways that can be used for present-day situations. Point out to students that, while fables tend to end in moral or cautionary lessons, trickster tales often celebrate values or actions that are disapproved of by society but that may be necessary for the survival and success of the small and weak; together, fables and trickster stories allow us to see the complexities of the human character. Ask students what they think about the Spider character in the story, whether they like him and his actions, and why? Why is Spider called a "trickster"?
Discuss with students the notion of "the talking drum," a story that is passed orally through generations and cultures, and that changes as it moves from person to person and from place to place. Discuss with students the differences between telling and writing stories, and ask them what the advantages and disadvantages are of the oral and written forms. Have students retell the tale from "Ananse's Stories" and note how the story changes in the retelling.
The following stories involve cases where the less powerful of two animals (including one human) who are natural enemies frees the more powerful animal. The divergent responses of the animals freed lead to different lessons about human behavior and values. Using the chart below, have students identify the characters, problem and solution, and moral of these fables.
"Mr. Buffu and the Snake" (Ananse) (scroll down)
Have students fill out an online version or printed-out version of the Story Structure Chart:
Ask students to compare the characters, plot, and lessons of these stories. Which characters did they like best? Which did they like least? Which story had the best ending? The best moral? To see how fables teach universal lessons about human nature and behavior, ask students to think of a real-life situation that applies to one of the stories.
B) Divide students into small groups and give each group one of the following fables/tales, located through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library, that offer lessons on the dangers of being too clever:
Have each group fill out the Story Structure Chart from Lesson 2A for their particular fable or tale. Ask students to compare the animals and their behavior in each story: Why do the types of animals change or not from one culture's fable to the next? How does the behavior change according to the type of animal? What types of behaviors lead to what types of endings in these stories?
In fables and trickster tales, certain animals are associated with certain human traits - which animals have which human traits in which cultures? Do you associate these animals with the traits given to them in the stories?
Have students fill out the following chart online or as a downloaded, printed document. Ask them to list the animals in the fables they have read and heard, and then to list the corresponding traits. Then, ask students to add their own animals to the chart and to provide traits that they associate with these animals.
Add Your Own
Ask students what animal they would choose to be and why? What traits do they associate with their chosen animal? Could they think of a new form of made-up animal and give it the traits they would like to see in humans?
Often fables and trickster tales illustrate how a smaller or weaker animal uses cunning to outwit a stronger, more powerful animal. Why would this theme occur repeatedly in so many stories and across countries and cultures? What implications do such stories have for human society?
Look at the list of "Selected Aesop's Fables," located through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library and discuss the moral listed. Have students choose a moral and write an original fable to go with it, or have students make up their own fable with an original lesson/moral.
EDSITEment Partner Site Resources:
ARTSEDGE Lesson Plans:
3-5 class periods