Reflecting and reinforcing the moral consequences of good and evil actions, dualities frame more than one fable and can be found both in place and title, including town and country, sky and moon, and wind and sun. Familiar and timeless, these elements too, and the animals and human characters who speak from them, are comfortable constructs for the preservation and communication of social values. The pairing of dichotomies echoes the moral choices faced by characters in the fables and simplifies most life choices to an either/or dilemma, a comfortable logic for children’s tales. Important too, as is reflected in these settings, is the suspension of disbelief that fables, by their nature, require. Rooted in superstition and early pagan and mythical belief systems, speech among animals and elements of the sky is presented as a naturally occurring event in the times and places where the tales are set.
Celestial and exotic settings. At least one fable betrays its Greek classical origins because it is set in Olympus, the mythical land of the gods. Some of the other more exotic settings involve encounters with lions, leopards, apes, and monkeys. While these are not the most common scenes, these atypical frameworks provide a vivid contrast to the scenes of domestic drudgery and serve to reinforce the notion that lessons may be learned from animals of all sorts. In addition, although these junglelike settings may not have been part of the everyday life of ordinary people during the time of the English translation, in that period, as well as in the period of antiquity from which these tales originate, lions and leopards and the like would have inspired awe among the stories’ largely untravelled listeners.
Domestic settings. To appeal to audiences of largely uneducated children and adults, most of the fables take place in simple domestic settings drawn from the everyday lives of ancient agrarian people. Such settings include the tiled roof of a house, a butcher’s shop, a well, a rim of a pot of jam, a jar containing nuts and figs, a manger, a farmyard, a straw yard, a heath, a cornfield, a meadow, and the outskirts of a village. This use of common, familiar images creates homelike settings that would appeal to peasant farmer families, who for centuries constituted the bulk of the fables’ audiences. The domestic world is, after all, where people make many of their ethical choices. Thus, it is a practical matter to set most of the lessons in that timeless environment.
References to time appear in several fables, but they are as general as most of the settings, expressed in phrases such as “many years ago,” “before your great-great grandparents were born,” and “in days of old.” Such phrasings resemble those of oral tradition in conveying a sense of universality of experience that includes and involves the audience in the tales and permits a broad identification of the setting in time. The individual fables are brief; to suit their audiences and to stress their moral points, they tended to compress time.
Hazardous settings. Perils of travel in ancient and medieval times are typically reflected in settings such as forests, thick woods, and high roads. Harsh weather also occasionally provides a challenging element to both domestic and travel tales. One fable, for example, is set amid a severe winter, another is set on a farm in a cold part of the world, while still another tale occurs on a hot day in June. Realistic and frightening natural events, such as powerful winds or rain, snowstorms, and particularly dark nights, represent the sort of conditions that might have created tension and suspense in the lives of early peoples, and which served, no doubt, to add excitement to the tales.