One of France’s most celebrated men of letters and a member of the nation’s Academy, Jean de la Fontaine was among the most-read French poets of the seventeenth century, and his work is still enjoyed today. He is best remembered for his work as a fabulist, adapting fables by writers from classical antiquity to ancient Asia into French verse. In doing so, he worked within a national literary tradition dating back to the medieval period. What is more, he revitalized the form, which, during his lifetime, became more popular than ever. Here, we will explore just five of his fables so as to get a sense of the irony, humor, moral didacticism, and political commentary with which la Fontaine imbued his fables.
1. The Grasshopper and the Ant
Based on Aesop’s fable “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” the fable tells the story of an industrious Ant and a Grasshopper (or Cicada) who spends her summer singing, only to find that she has failed to make the requisite provisions for the winter. She, therefore, goes to beg from the Ant, who turns her away. Traditionally, this fable was interpreted as offering a moral lesson on the virtues of taking responsibility for oneself, planning for the future, and reaping the rewards of one’s own hard work.
However, this interpretation seems distinctly uncharitable. While it should be noted that in some classical retellings of this Aesopian fable, the Ant’s meanness is emphasized, Jean de la Fontaine’s retelling, in particular, makes clear that neither creature is morally exemplary. Just as the Grasshopper fails to take responsibility for her own wellbeing, la Fontaine lists among the Ant’s “few faults” (l. 13) her aversion to acts of charity or generosity.
As is typical of la Fontaine’s style as a fabulist, there is, therefore, a certain irony to the supposed moral wisdom conveyed at the end of the fable. When the Grasshopper tells the Ant that she spent her summer singing rather than making provision for the coming winter, the Ant responds: “Singing, did you say? / I’m delighted to hear it. Now you can dance!” (ll. 21-22). Here, la Fontaine resists the temptation to turn this fable into a morally simplistic tale about the importance of responsibility.
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It is therefore interesting to note that after la Fontaine’s retelling of this Aesopian fable, the Grasshopper became virtually synonymous with improvidence in French culture. For example, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre’s 1872 nude painting La Cigale (The Cicada of Grasshopper) is generally considered a thinly veiled criticism of Napoleon III following France’s ill-fated war with Prussia.
2. The Farmer and the Viper
Taking inspiration from Aesop’s fable 167 in the Perry Index, La Fontaine states that Aesop tells of a kind but dim farmer who noticed a serpent while going over his acres of land. As it was winter, the snake was numb with cold, so the farmer brought it home with him to warm itself by the fire. Having done so, however, the snake tried to bite the farmer. Resentful of the snake’s ingratitude, the farmer then took an axe to the snake in retaliation.
La Fontaine sums up the moral of the story: “It’s a fine thing to be kind, but it all depends: / Kind to whom? As for ingrates who turn on friends, / Sooner or later they come to sticky ends” (ll. 24-26). It is from this Aesopian fable that the idiom “to nourish a viper in one’s bosom” derives.
Like “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” however, this fable may seem to have a somewhat unchristian message that runs contrary to the teaching to turn the other cheek and to forgive those who sin against us. Moreover, while the snake is a symbol of evil within Christianity, the snake fulfills an ambiguous role in the story, being both the wrong-doer and the source of a moral lesson for the farmer. Of course, the fable is originally derived from pagan ancient Greece, but la Fontaine’s retelling is intended for a largely Christian readership.
The Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov adapted la Fontaine’s fable at a time when affluent Russian families were taking in French prisoners of war to educate their children following Napoleon’s failed invasion of 1812. Krylov expresses his distrust of the defeated enemy via the snake, who, in his retelling, is turned away by the peasant in the interest of his own family’s safety.
3. The Oak and the Reed
“The Oak and the Reed” is another fable based on a work by Aesop, specifically Aesop’s fable 70 in the Perry Index. In the story, the Oak contrasts their ability to withstand breezes and “the sun’s glare” (l. 9) with the Reed, who is not only buffeted by the wind but also grew “[o]n the moist borders of the kingdom of the storm” (l. 14) rather than taking shelter under the Oak’s canopy of leaves. The Reed, however, replies with “I bend, but I never break” (l. 19), from which we derive the proverb “better bend than break.” Soon enough, the Reed is proved right when the “worst storm the north had ever bred in its womb / Furiously aw[akes]” (ll. 23-24) and uproots the Oak while the Reed stays safely anchored to the riverbank.
Aside from the proverbial wisdom that it is “better to bend than break,” this fable is often interpreted as demonstrating the virtue of humility, as shown by the Reed. However, in la Fontaine’s fable, the Oak could be interpreted as boastful or as compassionate and genuinely concerned for the Reed.
It should therefore be remembered that la Fontaine wrote “The Oak and the Reed” under the autocratic reign of Louis XIV of France, and so while the fable suggests that the mighty may, in fact, be weaker than they seem, the suggestion is couched in such a way as to make the fable seem innocuous. While the Reed demonstrates the virtue of humility, the Oak is equally not portrayed as morally corrupt, allowing la Fontaine to covey a potentially radical message with his characteristically light touch.
4. The Fox and the Grapes
Based on Aesop’s fable 15 in the Perry Index, “The Fox and the Grapes” is a relatively short fable, though it not only gave rise to the English idiom “sour grapes,” but it was also incorporated into Pierre Julien’s sculpture of la Fontaine, which is now displayed in the Louvre.
On the surface, the fable seems to be a work of straightforward moral didacticism, as is typical of the genre. A starving fox notices a bunch of grapes but cannot reach them. The fox, however, remains philosophical about his dilemma, stating: “Ah well, it’s more than likely they’re not sweet – / Good only for green fools to eat!” (ll. 7-8). And le Fontaine underlines the message of the fable by rounding it off with the rhetorical question: “Wasn’t he wise to say they were unripe / Rather than whine and gripe?” (ll. 9-10).
However, the fable can also be read as having sexual undertones. The “luscious-looking” (l. 3) but potentially unripe grapes have been interpreted as symbolizing underage girls. And, indeed, the seedy undertones that such a reading lends the fable would seem to explain why la Fontaine states that Normans claim the fox is a Gascon, yet “Gascons say a Norman” (l. 2) – otherwise, why would Gascons and Normans be eager to distance themselves from the seemingly wise and philosophical fox? Viewed in light of this interpretation, the fable’s seemingly otherwise straightforward moralism is seriously undermined.
5. The Bear and the Garden-lover
As the involvement of a bear in the plot might suggest, this fable is from further afield than ancient Greece. It is, in fact, based on a translation of the Bidpai stories of the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of interconnected animal fables written in Sanskrit poetry and prose in c. 200 BCE, though the fables themselves are much older still.
In the story, a lonely bear and an equally lonely garden-lover meet when the gardener takes a stroll through the countryside. Though he is afraid, such is the man’s loneliness that he invites the bear back to his cottage. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and live together.
However, when a fly lands on the man’s nose, the bear swats the fly with a paving stone and so kills the man. Thus the moral of the story, as la Fontaine puts it, is that it is “better to live alone than with a fool,” since an “enemy with common sense / Is far less dangerous than a friend who’s dense” (ll. 49, 67-68).
In another earlier variant of the story written by Rumi, a man rescues a bear from a serpent and so wins the bear’s devotion before being inadvertently killed by the bear in the manner related above.
While building on the traditions of the genre and taking inspiration from tales from around the world, Jean de la Fontaine brought the fable up to date – and made it relevant to the politics of France during his own lifetime. In doing so, fables became more popular than ever before, and his own works continue to be read to this day. His enduring popularity, combined with his admittance into the esteemed French Academy, would seem to suggest that his legacy will live on for many more years to come.
Jean de la Fontaine, Selected Fables, trans. by James Michie (London: Penguin, 2006).