The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/La Fontaine Fables
LA FONTAINE FABLES. The Fables of La Fontaine are part and parcel of French literary consciousness to a greater degree than any other classic of its literature. For generations many of these little apologues have been read, committed to memory, recited, paraphrased, by every French school boy and school girl. Countless phrases from them are current coin of conversation; familiarity with them is assumed among all who have more than the rudiments of education.
The first collection of these Fables appeared in 1668 when La Fontaine was already 47 and known to readers chiefly as the author of ‘Contes,’ lively stories in verse, grazing and sometimes transgressing the bounds of license. The ‘Fables’ had no such over-spicing. Additional groups of them appeared in 1678-79 and in 1694. After 1683 La Fontaine's mellowed genius expressed itself in this form alone. In all there are 239 of the ‘Fables,’ varying in length from a few lines to some hundred, those written later being as a rule longer than the earlier. They are divided into 12 books. The first six books, collected in 1668, were in the main adapted from the classical fabulists Æsop, Babrius and Phædrus. In the later books there is a wider range. The Indian Bidpai is drawn upon, as those Eastern fables had come to the French through the Persian. Avienus and Horace are laid under contribution and the earlier French writers, Rabelais, Marot, Maturin Regnier and Des Periers. Contemporary happenings, too, were occasionally turned to account, as for instance an accident at the funeral of M. de Boufflers (vii, II). No fable, so far as appears, is of La Fontaine's invention. The subject is often common property of many ages and races. What gives La Fontaine's ‘Fables’ their rare distinction is the freshness in narration, the deftness of touch, the unconstrained suppleness of metrical structure, the unfailing humor of the pointed moral, the consummate art of their apparent artlessness.
The personages of the ‘Fables’ are usually animals, each, as Taine has observed, standing as a rule, of course with frequent exceptions, for a distinct class in French society in the age of Louis XIV. The lion is the king; so, too, the rarely introduced elephant. The tiger and the bear stand for the great nobles and the arrogant officials. The ape, the fox and the wolf represent different types of courtiers, as they might he observed at Versailles, shallow imitators of royalty, shrewd self-seekers, time-servers, knavish fops. The dog is the gentleman in waiting, obsequious and supercilious by turns; the cat the hypocrite, watching his chance of advantage; the ass the eternal dupe. But, though these animals stand for men, La Fontaine never forgets that they are animals, and shows himself always a keen, if desultory, observer of nature. Where men are introduced, these too are social types, the king, the lord, the priest, the monk, the recluse, the burgher, the pedant, the doctor, the coward, the vain man, the arrogant man, the hypocrite, the self-seeker, and, most sympathetically treated of all, the peasant laborer. It has been well said of La Fontaine that he knew men like Molière and society like Saint-Simon. Keen insight into the foibles of human nature is found throughout the ‘Fables,’ but in the later books admirable ingenuity is employed to make the fable cover, yet convey, social doctrines and sympathies more democratic than the age would have tolerated in unmasked expression. So these ‘Fables,’ first delighting the child for their own sake, delight the man as social parables, full of ageless teachings of worldly wisdom, of ironic observation, of broad humanity, for all their seeming child-like simplicity.
Lamartine could find in La Fontaine's ‘Fables’ only “limping, disjointed, unequal verses, without symmetry either to the ear or on the page.” But the poets of the Romantic School, Hugo, Musset, Gautier and their fellows, found in the popular favor these verses had attained and held an incentive to undertake an emancipation of French prosody which they in large measure achieved. Yet it may be doubted if any lines they wrote awaken so manifold an echo wherever French is spoken as the little apologues of the Grasshopper and the Ant, the Crow and the Fox, Death and the Wood-cutter, the Animals in the Pestilence, the Two Pigeons and many more that crowd to memory. “La Fontaine's Fables,” wrote Madame de Sévigné, “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.” There are translations into English verse by E. Wright and Rev. W. L. Collins. An attractive edition of the original text with a preface by Jules Claretie was published in two volumes (New York 1910).