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.”
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