fennel-tutorial - Man Page

Getting Started with Fennel


A programming language is made up of syntax and semantics. The semantics of Fennel vary only in small ways from Lua (all noted below). The syntax of Fennel comes from the lisp family of languages. Lisps have syntax which is very uniform and predictable, which makes it easier to write code that operates on code (https://stopa.io/post/265) as well as structured editing (http://danmidwood.com/content/2014/11/21/animated-paredit.html).

If you know Lua and a lisp already, you'll feel right at home in Fennel. Even if not, Lua is one of the simplest programming languages in existence, so if you've programmed before you should be able to pick it up without too much trouble, especially if you've used another dynamic imperative language with closures. The Lua reference manual (https://www.lua.org/manual/5.4/) is a fine place to look for details, but Fennel's own Lua Primer (https://fennel-lang.org/lua-primer) is shorter and covers the highlights.

If you've already got some Lua example code and you just want to see how it would look in Fennel, you can learn a lot from putting it in antifennel (https://fennel-lang.org/see).

Ok, So How Do You Do Things?

Functions and lambdas

Use fn to make functions. If you provide an optional name, the function will be bound to that name in local scope; otherwise it is simply an anonymous value.

A brief note on naming: identifiers are typically lowercase separated by dashes (aka "kebab-case"). They may contain digits too, as long as they're not at the start. You can also use the question mark (typically for functions that return a true or false, ex., at-max-velocity?). Underscores (_) are often used to name a variable that we don't plan on using.

The argument list is provided in square brackets. The final value in the body is returned.

(If you've never used a lisp before, the main thing to note is that the function or macro being called goes inside the parens, not outside.)

(fn print-and-add [a b c]
  (print a)
  (+ b c))

Functions can take an optional docstring in the form of a string that immediately follows the argument list. Under normal compilation, this is removed from the emitted Lua, but during development in the REPL the docstring and function usage can be viewed with the ,doc command:

(fn print-sep [sep ...]
  "Prints args as a string, delimited by sep"
  (print (table.concat [...] sep)))
,doc print-sep ; -> outputs:
;; (print-sep sep ...)
;;   Prints args as a string, delimited by sep

Like other lisps, Fennel uses semicolons for comments.

Functions defined with fn are fast; they have no runtime overhead compared to Lua. However, they also have no arity checking. (That is, calling a function with the wrong number of arguments does not cause an error.) For safer code you can use lambda which ensures you will get at least as many arguments as you define, unless you signify that one may be omitted by beginning its name with a ?:

(lambda print-calculation [x ?y z]
  (print (- x (* (or ?y 1) z))))

(print-calculation 5) ; -> error: Missing argument z

Note that the second argument ?y is allowed to be nil, but z is not:

(print-calculation 5 nil 3) ; -> 2

Like fn, lambdas accept an optional docstring after the argument list.

Locals and variables

Locals are introduced using let with the names and values wrapped in a single set of square brackets:

(let [x (+ 89 5.2)
      f (fn [abc] (print (* 2 abc)))]
  (f x))

Here x is bound to the result of adding 89 and 5.2, while f is bound to a function that prints twice its argument. These bindings are only valid inside the body of the let call.

You can also introduce locals with local, which is nice when they'll be used across the whole file, but in general let is preferred inside functions because it's clearer at a glance where the value can be used:

(local tau-approx 6.28318)

Locals set this way cannot be given new values, but you can introduce new locals that shadow the outer names:

(let [x 19]
  ;; (set x 88) <- not allowed!
  (let [x 88]
    (print (+ x 2))) ; -> 90
  (print x)) ; -> 19

If you need to change the value of a local, you can use var which works like local except it allows set to work on it. There is no nested let-like equivalent of var.

(var x 19)
(set x (+ x 8))
(print x) ; -> 27

Numbers and strings

Of course, all our standard arithmetic operators like +, -, *, and / work here in prefix form. Note that numbers are double-precision floats in all Lua versions prior to 5.3, which introduced integers. On 5.3 and up, integer division uses // and bitwise operations use lshift, rshift, bor, band, bnot and xor. Bitwise operators and integer division will not work if the host Lua environment is older than version 5.3.

You may also use underscores to separate sections of long numbers. The underscores have no effect on the value.

(let [x (+ 1 99)
      y (- x 12)
      z 100_000]
  (+ z (/ y 10)))

Strings are essentially immutable byte arrays. UTF-8 support is provided in the utf8 table in Lua 5.3+ (https://www.lua.org/manual/5.3/manual.html#6.5) or from a 3rd-party library (https://github.com/Stepets/utf8.lua) in earlier versions. Strings are concatenated with ..:

(.. "hello" " world")


In Lua (and thus in Fennel), tables are the only data structure. The main syntax for tables uses curly braces with key/value pairs in them:

{"key" value
 "number" 531
 "f" (fn [x] (+ x 2))}

You can use . to get values out of tables:

(let [tbl (function-which-returns-a-table)
      key "a certain key"]
  (. tbl key))

And tset to put them in:

(let [tbl {}
      key1 "a long string"
      key2 12]
  (tset tbl key1 "the first value")
  (tset tbl key2 "the second one")
  tbl) ; -> {"a long string" "the first value" 12 "the second one"}

Sequential Tables

Some tables are used to store data that's used sequentially; the keys in this case are just numbers starting with 1 and going up. Fennel provides alternate syntax for these tables with square brackets:

["abc" "def" "xyz"] ; equivalent to {1 "abc" 2 "def" 3 "xyz"}

Lua's built-in table.insert function is meant to be used with sequential tables; all values after the inserted value are shifted up by one index: If you don't provide an index to table.insert it will append to the end of the table.

The table.remove function works similarly; it takes a table and an index (which defaults to the end of the table) and removes the value at that index, returning it.

(local ltrs ["a" "b" "c" "d"])

(table.remove ltrs)       ; Removes "d"
(table.remove ltrs 1)     ; Removes "a"
(table.insert ltrs "d")   ; Appends "d"
(table.insert ltrs 1 "a") ; Prepends "a"

(. ltrs 2)                ; -> "b"
;; ltrs is back to its original value ["a" "b" "c" "d"]

The length form returns the length of sequential tables and strings:

(let [tbl ["abc" "def" "xyz"]]
  (+ (length tbl)
     (length (. tbl 1)))) ; -> 6

Note that the length of a table with gaps in it is undefined; it can return a number corresponding to any of the table's "boundary" positions between nil and non-nil values.

Lua's standard library is very small, and thus several functions you might expect to be included, such map, reduce, and filter are absent. In Fennel macros are used for this instead; see icollect, collect, and accumulate.


Looping over table elements is done with each and an iterator like pairs (used for general tables) or ipairs (for sequential tables):

(each [key value (pairs {"key1" 52 "key2" 99})]
  (print key value))

(each [index value (ipairs ["abc" "def" "xyz"])]
  (print index value))

Note that whether a table is sequential or not is not an inherent property of the table but depends on which iterator is used with it. You can call ipairs on any table, and it will only iterate over numeric keys starting with 1 until it hits a nil.

You can use any Lua iterator (https://www.lua.org/pil/7.1.html) with each, but these are the most common. Here's an example that walks through matches in a string (https://www.lua.org/manual/5.4/manual.html#pdf-string.gmatch):

(var sum 0)
(each [digits (string.gmatch "244 127 163" "%d+")]
  (set sum (+ sum (tonumber digits))))

If you want to get a table back, try icollect to get a sequential table or collect to get a key/value one. A body which returns nil will cause that to be omitted from the resulting table.

(icollect [_ s (ipairs [:greetings :my :darling])]
  (if (not= :my s)

(collect [_ s (ipairs [:greetings :my :darling])]
  s (length s))
;; -> {:darling 7 :greetings 9 :my 2}

A lower-level iteration construct is for which iterates numerically from the provided start value to the inclusive finish value:

(for [i 1 10]
  (print i))

You can specify an optional step value; this loop will only print odd numbers under ten:

(for [i 1 10 2]
  (print i))


If you need to loop but don't know how many times, you can use while:

(while (keep-looping?)


Finally we have conditionals. The if form in Fennel can be used the same way as in other lisp languages, but it can also be used as cond for multiple conditions compiling into elseif branches:

(let [x (math.random 64)]
  (if (= 0 (% x 2))
      (= 0 (% x 9))
      "multiple of nine"
      "I dunno, something else"))

With an odd number of arguments, the final clause is interpreted as "else".

Being a lisp, Fennel has no statements, so if returns a value as an expression. Lua programmers will be glad to know there is no need to construct precarious chains of and/or just to get a value!

The other conditional is when, which is used for an arbitrary number of side-effects and has no else clause:

(when (currently-raining?)
  (wear "boots")

Back to Tables Just for a Bit

Strings that don't have spaces or reserved characters in them can use the :shorthand syntax instead, which is often used for table keys:

{:key value :number 531}

If a table has string keys like this, you can pull values out of it easily with a dot if the keys are known up front:

(let [tbl {:x 52 :y 91}]
  (+ tbl.x tbl.y)) ; -> 143

You can also use this syntax with set:

(let [tbl {}]
  (set tbl.one 1)
  (set tbl.two 2)
  tbl) ; -> {:one 1 :two 2}

If a table key has the same name as the variable you're setting it to, you can omit the key name and use : instead:

(let [one 1 two 2
      tbl {: one : two}]
  tbl) ; -> {:one 1 :two 2}

Finally, let can destructure a table into multiple locals.

There is positional destructuring:

(let [data [1 2 3]
      [fst snd thrd] data]
  (print fst snd thrd)) ; -> 1       2       3

And destructuring of tables via key:

(let [pos {:x 23 :y 42}
      {:x x-pos :y y-pos} pos]
  (print x-pos y-pos)) ; -> 23      42

As above, if a table key has the same name as the variable you're destructuring it to, you can omit the key name and use : instead:

(let [pos {:x 23 :y 42}
      {: x : y} pos]
  (print x y)) ; -> 23      42

This can nest and mix and match:

(let [f (fn [] ["abc" "def" {:x "xyz" :y "abc"}])
      [a d {:x x : y}] (f)]
  (print a d)
  (print x y))

If the size of the table doesn't match the number of binding locals, missing values are filled with nil and extra values are discarded. Note that unlike many languages, nil in Lua actually represents the absence of a value, and thus tables cannot contain nil. It is an error to try to use nil as a key, and using nil as a value removes whatever entry was at that key before.

Error Handling

Errors in Lua have two forms they can take. Functions in Lua can return any number of values, and most functions which can fail will indicate failure by using two return values: nil followed by a failure message string. You can interact with this style of function in Fennel by destructuring with parens instead of square brackets:

(case (io.open "file")
  ;; when io.open succeeds, it will return a file, but if it fails
  ;; it will return nil and an err-msg string describing why
  f (do (use-file-contents (f:read :*all))
  (nil err-msg) (print "Could not open file:" err-msg))

You can write your own function which returns multiple values with values.

(fn use-file [filename]
  (if (valid-file-name? filename)
      (open-file filename)
      (values nil (.. "Invalid filename: " filename))))

Note: while errors are the most common reason to return multiple values from a function, it can be used in other cases as well. This is the most complex thing about Lua, and a full discussion is out of scope for this tutorial, but it's covered well elsewhere (https://benaiah.me/posts/everything-you-didnt-want-to-know-about-lua-multivals/).

The problem with this type of error is that it does not compose well; the error status must be propagated all the way along the call chain from inner to outer. To address this, you can use error. This will terminate the whole process unless it's within a protected call, similar to the way in other languages where throwing an exception will stop the program unless it is within a try/catch. You can make a protected call with pcall:

(let [(ok? val-or-msg) (pcall potentially-disastrous-call filename)]
  (if ok?
      (print "Got value" val-or-msg)
      (print "Could not get value:" val-or-msg)))

The pcall invocation there means you are running (potentially-disastrous-call filename) in protected mode. pcall takes an arbitrary number of arguments which are passed on to the function. You can see that pcall returns a boolean (ok? here) to let you know if the call succeeded or not, and a second value (val-or-msg) which is the actual value if it succeeded or an error message if it didn't.

The assert function takes a value and an error message; it calls error if the value is nil and returns it otherwise. This can be used to turn multiple-value failures into errors (kind of the inverse of pcall which turns errors into multiple-value failures):

(let [f (assert (io.open filename))
      contents (f.read f "*all")]
  (f.close f)

In this example because io.open returns nil and an error message upon failure, a failure will trigger an error and halt execution.

Variadic Functions

Fennel supports variadic functions (in other words, functions which take any number of arguments) like many languages. The syntax for taking a variable number of arguments to a function is the ... symbol, which must be the last parameter to a function. This syntax is inherited from Lua rather than Lisp.

The ... form is not a list or first class value, it expands to multiple values inline. To access individual elements of the vararg, you can destructure with parentheses, or first wrap it in a table literal ([...]) and index like a normal table, or use the select function from Lua's core library. Often, the vararg can be passed directly to another function such as print without needing to bind it.

(fn print-each [...]
  (each [i v (ipairs [...])]
    (print (.. "Argument " i " is " v))))

(print-each :a :b :c)
(fn myprint [prefix ...]
  (io.write prefix)
  (io.write (.. (select "#" ...) " arguments given: "))
  (print ...))

(myprint ":D " :d :e :f)

Varargs are scoped differently than other variables as well - they are only accessible to the function in which they are created. Unlike normal values, functions cannot close over them. This means that the following code will NOT work, as the varargs in the inner function are out of scope.

(fn badcode [...]
  (fn []
    (print ...)))

Strict Global Checking

If you get an error that says unknown global in strict mode it means that you're trying compile code that uses a global which the Fennel compiler doesn't know about. Most of the time, this is due to a coding mistake. However, in some cases you may get this error with a legitimate global reference. If this happens, it may be due to an inherent limitation of Fennel's strategy. You can use _G.myglobal to refer to it in a way that works around this check and calls attention to the fact that this is in fact a global.

Another possible cause for this error is a modified function environment (https://www.lua.org/pil/14.3.html). The solution depends on how you're using Fennel:


There are a few surprises that might bite seasoned lispers. Most of these result necessarily from Fennel's insistence upon imposing zero runtime overhead over Lua.

Other Stuff Just Works

Note that built-in functions in Lua's standard library (https://www.lua.org/manual/5.4/manual.html#6) like math.random above can be called with no fuss and no overhead.

This includes features like coroutines, which are often implemented using special syntax in other languages. Coroutines let you express non-blocking operations without callbacks (https://leafo.net/posts/itchio-and-coroutines.html).

Tables in Lua may seem a bit limited, but metatables (https://www.lua.org/pil/13.html) allow a great deal more flexibility. All the features of metatables are accessible from Fennel code just the same as they would be from Lua.

Modules and Multiple Files

You can use the require function to load code from other files.

(let [lume (require :lume)
      tbl [52 99 412 654]
      plus (fn [x y] (+ x y))]
  (lume.map tbl (partial plus 2))) ; -> [54 101 414 656]

Modules in Fennel and Lua are simply tables which contain functions and other values. The last value in a Fennel file will be used as the value of the whole module. Technically this can be any value, not just a table, but using a table is most common for good reason.

To require a module that's in a subdirectory, take the file name, replace the slashes with dots, and remove the extension, then pass that to require. For instance, a file called lib/ui/menu.lua would be read when loading the module lib.ui.menu.

When you run your program with the fennel command, you can call require to load Fennel or Lua modules. But in other contexts (such as compiling to Lua and then using the lua command, or in programs that embed Lua) it will not know about Fennel modules. You need to install the searcher that knows how to find .fnl files:

local mylib = require("mylib") -- will compile and load code in mylib.fnl

Once you add this, require will work on Fennel files just like it does with Lua; for instance (require :mylib.parser) will look in "mylib/parser.fnl" on Fennel's search path (stored in fennel.path which is distinct from package.path used to find Lua modules). The path usually includes an entry to let you load things relative to the current directory by default.

Relative Require

There are several ways to write a library which uses modules. One of these is to rely on something like LuaRocks, to manage library installation and availability of it and its modules. Another way is to use the relative require style for loading nested modules. With relative require, libraries don't depend on the root directory name or its location when resolving inner module paths.

For example, here's a small example library, which contains an init.fnl file, and a module at the root directory:

;; file example/init.fnl:
(local a (require :example.module-a))

{:hello-a a.hello}

Here, the main module requires additional example.module-a module, which holds the implementation:

;; file example/module-a.fnl
(fn hello [] (print "hello from a"))
{:hello hello}

The main issue here is that the path to the library must be exactly example, e.g. library must be required as (require :example) for it to work, which can't be enforced on the library user. For example, if the library were moved into libs directory of the project to avoid cluttering, and required as (require :libs.example), there will be a runtime error. This happens because library itself will try to require :example.module-a and not :libs.example.module-a, which is now the correct module path:

runtime error: module 'example.module-a' not found:
        no field package.preload['example.module-a']
        no file './example/module-a.lua'
stack traceback:
  [C]: in function 'require'
  ./libs/example/init.fnl:2: in main chunk

LuaRocks addresses this problem by enforcing both the directory name and installation path, populating the LUA_PATH environment variable to make the library available. This, of course, can be done manually by setting LUA_PATH per project in the build pipeline, pointing it to the right directory. But this is not very transparent, and when requiring a project local library it's better to see the full path, that directly maps to the project's file structure, rather than looking up where the LUA_PATH is modified.

In the Fennel ecosystem we encourage a simpler way of managing project dependencies. Simply dropping a library into your project's tree or using git submodule is usually enough, and the require paths should be handled by the library itself.

Here's how a relative require path can be specified in the libs/example/init.fnl to make it name/path agnostic, assuming that we've moved our example library there:

;; file libs/example/init.fnl:
(local a (require (.. ... :.module-a)))

{:hello-a a.hello}

Now, it doesn't matter how library is named or where we put it - we can require it from anywhere. It works because when requiring the library with (require :lib.example), the first value in ... will hold the "lib.example" string. This string is then concatenated with the ".module-a", and require will properly find and load the nested module at runtime under the "lib.example.module-a" path. It's a Lua feature, and not something Fennel specific, and it will work the same when the library is AOT compiled to Lua.

Compile-time relative include

Since Fennel v0.10.0 this also works at compile-time, when using the include special or the --require-as-include flag, with the constraint that the expression can be computed at compile time. This means that the expression must be self-contained, i.e. doesn't refer to locals or globals, but embeds all values directly. In other words, the following code will only work at runtime, but not with include or --require-as-include because current-module is not known at compile time:

(local current-module ...)
(require (.. current-module :.other-module))

This, on the other hand, will work both at runtime and at compile time:

(require (.. ... :.other-module))

The ... module args are propagated during compilation, so when the application which uses this library is compiled, all library code is correctly included into the self-contained Lua file.

Compiling a project that uses this example library with --require-as-include will include the following section in the resulting Lua code:

package.preload["libs.example.module-a"] = package.preload["libs.example.module-a"] or function(...)
  local function hello()
    return print("hello from a")
  return {hello = hello}

Note that the package.preload entry contains a fully qualified path "libs.example.module-a", which was resolved at compile time.

Requiring modules from modules other than init.fnl

To require a module from a module other than init module, we must keep the path up to the current module, but remove the module name. For example, let's add a greet module in libs/example/utils/greet.fnl, and require it from libs/example/module-a.fnl:

;; file libs/example/utils/greet.fnl:
(fn greet [who] (print (.. "hello " who)))

This module can be required as follows:

;; file libs/example/module-a.fnl
(local greet (require (.. (: ... :match "(.+)%.[^.]+") :.utils.greet)))

(fn hello [] (print "hello from a"))

{:hello hello :greet greet}

The parent module name is determined via calling the match method on the current module name string (...).


Fennel Maintainers.


2024-02-23 fennel 1.4.2-dev Getting Started with Fennel