By Rebecca Smith
Charles Perrault was appointed to L’Académie Française in 1671. Jean de La Fontaine was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1684. Both awards from the Royal Court were for literary contributions to France, but neither was for poetry or novels, history or philosophy, as one might expect. Perrault won for his fairy tales (as detailed in an earlier blog on this site). La Fontaine won for fables.
Until moving into the realm of the fable, La Fontaine was known for his Contes, stories in verse sometimes considered mischievous or naughty in relation to the prevailing moral code. For his fables, he adhered more to recognized standards.
It is accepted that he was not the creator of the tales. A poet himself, he simply collected them and converted them into French free verse (in much the same way as Perrault reshaped his fairy tales). Besides metered structure, he inserted fresh new narrative devices, a clever wit and his singular insight into human nature. His later works even include veiled democratic sensibilities and social comment, some which may have been seen as threatening to the king. But above all, the fables were entertaining – lively stories artfully presented with subtle comments on life and morality. Madame de Sévigné wrote, “La Fontaine’s Fables are like a basket of strawberries. You begin by selecting the largest and best, but, little by little, you eat first one, then another, till at last the basket is empty.”
La Fontaine drew from a wide array of sources for his numerous volumes. His first collections in 1668 were classic in origin – from the Greek Babrius and Roman Phaedrus, both sources of Aesop’s fables.
A second phase saw La Fontaine drawing from the Orient. Tales translated from the Persian had made their way to France. Many can be traced back to the Indian Panchatantra, an ancient Sanskrit set of connected animal fables recorded from traditional oral storytelling. The historic collection by the Indian Bidpai (Pilpay) is most often cited as a main source worldwide and indeed La Fontaine credits him in one of his collections, “I must acknowledge that I owe the greatest part to Pilpay, the Indian sage.”
In later efforts, La Fontaine turned to Horace and Avienus, as well as French authors Rabelais and Marot. Even Italian authors Machiavelli and Boccaccio were sources.
All in all, there are 239 fables making up 12 volumes published between 1668 and 1694. Some are only a few lines long while others are lengthy. Many are beautifully illustrated by Gustav Doré. Trading cards and postcards and even chinaware were produced promoting the fables. There have even been tv series – the 1958 Canadian “Fables of La Fontaine” and the 1989-91 French “Les Fables Géométriques.”
The first set was dedicated to le Grand Dauphin, Louis XIV’s young son with the queen Maria Theresa of Spain. In 1679 the dedication was to the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and in 1694, the last set to Louis, Duke of Burgundy, the grandson of the king.
La Fontaine described his mission, “Je me sers d’animaux pour instruire les hommes” (I’m using animals, to teach people.). Originally the sophisticated tales were directed to adults but eventually they were aimed at children through the education system; French schoolchildren regularly learn to recite a few. The most popular are “La Cigale et la Fourmi” (The Grasshopper and the Ant), “Le Corbeau et le Renard” (The Crow and the Fox), “Le Lièvre et la Tortue” (The Rabbit and the Turtle aka The Hare and the Tortoise), “Le Lion et le Rat” (The Lion and the Rat) and “La Grenouille Qui se Veut Faire Aussi Grosse Que Le Bœuf” (The Frog Who Wants to Make Itself as Big as the Ox). As with Molière, underlying messages/lessons are surprisingly contemporary and meaningful, four centuries later.
Unlike the literary fairy tales, La Fontaine’s fables are a challenge for the French language learner, as they are often written in a difficult, older style of the language. But for anyone confident to try, the website commeunefrancaise.com offers a chapter about La Fontaine accessible under Exercise Your French, as well as a videos about the fables and their important, lasting moral lessons.
A step beyond that would be to tackle a set of fables and for that Dr. Felicia Londré recommends the expertly selected and compiled “Fifty Fables of La Fontaine” translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Exquisitely translated and illustrated, it even has pages with side-by-side French and English for comparison and mastering. And is affordable.
There are many from which to choose. Start with the best, “then another, till at last the basket is empty.”
By Rebecca Smith
KC MOlière: 400 in 2022 teams with Kansas City's Sunday Script Circle and KKFI Community Radio to present a reading of Molière's ever-popular comedy The Miser in a brand-new translation. For free admission to this premiere at 7:00pm on Sunday 26 July, go to
When you register for our event on Eventbrite, prior to the reading you will be sent an email with a Zoom link and info on how to view the event.
Who better to captivate an American audience into Molière than writer, translator and “European-American” at heart, Nick Henke? And why are we so excited to premiere his translation of The Miser?
“This translation was very intentionally conceived of in contemporary language, and I hope audiences are able to take joy in the neurotic wordiness of it all.”
He explains, “The Miser's’ concerns are modern ones. In their best moments, the characters search for truth, in their worst, they intentionally twist it with half-baked schemes worthy of 2020 politics. Yes, it's a play about money, but at its heart, it is a story about what reality the mind creates with the raw material it is given.“
In other words, this play is of utmost relevance right now, as we stand “at the dawn of modern capitalism”, in Henke’s view.
Nick grew up in St. Louis but with long periods spent in Italy, the UK and France with his academic parents. He chose to concentrate on French studies at Northwestern, Washington University and the Sorbonne, finishing with a degree in French Literature. He has most recently been teaching in France (cut short by the pandemic), while writing his own short stories and poems.
“Molière's vision of France is so much of what attracted me to the country in the first place. His is a world of backroom dramas, bourgeois neuroses and conspiracies, money troubles, mental troubles, and sexual troubles. His sons and daughters need solutions to their romantic dramas, their fathers just need some liquid capital. This mental chaos and emotional yearning feels like the work of a 17th-century French Woody Allen.” (It’s notable that Molière has often been compared to Charlie Chaplin, as well.)
Molière vs. Shakespeare? You can predict where Henke falls. He rejects arguments that Molière is less expansive. “Yes, he is particular, but what he does, he does so well.”
Henke will be further contemplating and developing these and other issues in his writings as he heads off for an extended stay in La Réunion, a French island off the coast of Madagascar. Clearly, no shores are too far for him - or Molière.
By Chantal Roberts
I hope to improve my French in advance of KC MOlière: 400 in 2022’s festival. The Board wants to invite the French glitterati, and I’d like to be able to speak with them in their native language (if only to rub elbows with the Rich & Famous). However, I, like most people stuck in the middle, encounter several problems whether they are real or imagined when thinking of my abilities in a foreign language.
I dislike speaking French because I’m embarrassed by my accent, and I become frustrated when I don’t know a word. Let’s unpack the first part: when you speak with someone who is not a native English speaker, you do not mock her accent, do you? So, it stands to reason the person you are speaking with in French thinks your accent is as charming as you find hers. The second piece of advice was offered by Pierre, a French teacher. He suggests you speak aloud to yourself in the language you want to learn. This has two benefits: first, you overcome your embarrassment of speaking, and second, you realize what words you don’t know. You can then look them up, write them down, and practice them.
Another method to help you overcome your shyness for spoken word is to read aloud a French book. Pierre suggests a young adult novel since it would have easier words; however, if you like whodunits, read those!
Podcasts are excellent listening comprehension tools if you’re concerned you will be unable to understand French when it is spoken.
If you prefer to watch your French, Netflix has several current French TV shows, which are beneficial for learning new vocabulary and slang. I’m currently enjoying Call My Agent (Dix Percent) and C’est du Gâteau! (the French version of Nailed It!). If murder-mystery is more your style, you may like La Mante. Watch with French subtitles so you can learn pronunciation and vocabulary. Although I can figure out what is happening based on the action and the subtitles, I find it often beneficial to watch the series with English subtitles at a later date.
I devote an hour a day, four to five times a week, to studying French—which is sometimes a combination of a podcast and a TV show or sometimes a grammar lesson from one of my old university books. I’ve yet to get bored—even when reviewing grammar! Perhaps I’ll pluck up enough courage one day to go to The Kansas City French Connection[iii], a group who works solely on their spoken French.
By Catherine Rush Thompson
Bastille Day, the French national holiday celebrated annually on July 14th (le quatorze juillet), marks the birth of the French Republic. This holiday is named after the Bastille fortress, an important symbol for the French Republican movement. While the Bastille fortress, built in 1357, was originally designed to strategically keep invading armies from England out of Paris during the Hundred Years’ War, it evolved into an edifice for political prisoners in the 1700s. Under the reign of King Louis XVI the French people were suffering from high taxes to cover his debt, food shortages, and limited representation in government. After many years of misrule by the Monarchy, the French people united to free the political prisoners and to rise against their government. July 14, 1789, marks the date of the violent uprising that helped usher in the French Revolution.
Another symbol of the French Revolution is the tricolor flag, believed by some to represent the causes of the revolution: liberté (freedom/blue), égalité (equality/white), and fraternité (brotherhood/red).
Prior to the French Revolution the French flag honored the Monarchy and featured the early coat of arms of the French kings in the early 1200s (a blue crest decorated with gold fleurs-de-lis) and the standard of the Bourbon family (a white backdrop with gold fleurs-de-lis).
Bastille Day is celebrated all around the world. The National Geographic illustrates unique Bastille Day celebrations from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Franschhoek, South Africa in its article, 9 Bastille Day bashes that celebrate French culture: Parades, fireworks, and food honor the historic holiday that shaped modern France - (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/lists/seasonal/experience-french-culture-at-these-bastille-day-celebrations/).
Whether you have French heritage, are a Francophile, or seek a unique way to enjoy French culture, here are 10 fun ways to celebrate this year’s Bastille Day from the comfort of your own home:
Best Wishes for a Fun Bastille Day Celebration!
French Revolution: https://www.history.com/topics/france/french-revolution
The Fascinating History Behind the French Flag: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/articles/fascinating-history-behind-french-flag/
14 Revolutionary Facts About Bastille Day: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/82401/14-revolutionary-facts-about-bastille-day
France's Striped Shirt and Beret: Origins of a Stereotype: https://www.thoughtco.com/french-striped-shirt-beret-origins-stereotype-1368581
Food Critics: The Best French Food In Kansas City: https://www.kcur.org/arts-life/2018-04-27/food-critics-the-best-french-food-in-kansas-city
By Chantal Roberts
As I write this, I am currently in quarantine longing for summer vacation. No one knows how long the requirement for physical distancing will last, or if it will be lifted and then reinstated, as some scientists propose. However, I suggest we use this time to inject more French in our daily lives.
Summer is a wonderful time in Paris. The tourists invade the capital city, while the natives rush to the countryside or beach. But for those who cannot leave the City of Lights, there are numerous opportunities to stop and enjoy what life has to offer. We can emulate that joie de vivre here in the Kansas City metro area.
Parisians love to picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries. Sun King Louis XIV’s gardener, André Le Nôtre, landscaped the gardens in 1664 into a French formal style. No doubt Molière, who would have been 42 at this time and in the midst of writing three plays (Le Mariage forcé, La Princesse d’Elide, Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur), saw Le Nôtre’s work when he was in Paris.
Rather than packing their own picnic basket, Parisians can order from a restaurant in order to make life simpler, and you can, too. While some restaurants are using the down time to revamp their menu or kitchens in order to better serve you, Chez Elle and Café Provence are open and offering curbside pickup so you can emulate the French lifestyle.
You may prefer a light meal in the heat of the day, and Chez Elle Crêperie will hit the spot with their curbside service of three crêpes and two drinks. What better way to have lunch than with a French pancake? Perhaps you can have two savory crêpes and one sweet to take the place of dessert. Just the perfect size as to not be too heavy to cause the mid-afternoon sleepiness.
As the days are longer in June, the extended sunlight allows for more luxurious dinner in your favorite park. Chef Phillip of Café Provence can provide a three-course, prix fixe dinner encompassing wonderful appetizers such as a hearty salad or pasta dish, a main course of meat or fish, and a mouth-watering French dessert. All you have to do is find the perfect bottle of wine to accompany your meal and a shady spot to spread your blanket.
But if the park is not your style, and you prefer to have your toes in the sand, rest assured—Parisians do, too.
Every summer the mayor of Paris brings in sand, palm trees, umbrellas, and lounge seats along both banks of the Seine, and the Paris-Plages are born. You can take your picnic to Shawnee Mission Park which has a 120-acre lake and beach. Of course, you can’t be French if you don’t take your beloved Fido everywhere with you. Shawnee Mission Park also has a Doggy Beach, a small, sand beach in the park’s off-leash area. Fido and his amis won’t mind if you dip your toes in the water to cool off a bit!
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