The Fables of Jean de La Fontaine
In France, Jean de la Fontaine is not only a classic author but also a popular one. We all learned his Fables at school, the first edition of which was published in 1668.
Fables? Let's call them short, incisive stories, made up of dialogue, which is what makes them so lively. They usually feature animals that look an awful lot like humans, and have all the faults. In short, they are as vain, cunning and power-hungry as their human models.
Despite the unflattering mirror he holds up to them, like Molière, his contemporary, more than three and a half centuries later, La Fontaine still speaks to the hearts of the French.
Les fables de La Fontaine - Karambolage - ARTE
La Fontaine's fables: childhood classics
Yesterday morning, in a hurry, like any self-respecting Parisian, I bumped into an old man. I barely had time to apologise when he said to me: "There's no point in running, you have to leave on time. I smile at him. We understand each other. I want to go too fast, so I stumble and lose time. I'm a hare, fast and shallow. He's a tortoise, slow and wise. For any French person, the reference is obvious: it's the moral of the fable 'The Hare and the Tortoise' by Jean de La Fontaine.
This fable, like "The Raven and the Fox" or "The Cicada and the Ant", is familiar to everyone. They were the first poems I learned at school. The old man probably did too. And before him, generations and generations of French children had to learn them, going back perhaps to Louis de France, the eldest son of Louis XIV. It was to him that the 1st collection of these fables, published in 1668, was dedicated.
A pessimistic look at society and power
The fables are about animals, but not just animals, and tell simple, often funny, sometimes cruel adventures. Ideal for 7 or 8 year olds. They end with sentences so striking that they have become part of everyday language.
Simple stories for the little ones, then? In fact, fables are much more than that. The vision of the world they offer is in no way childish, on the contrary. It's cynical and disillusioned. The most powerful or devious always triumph, or almost always triumph, over the weak and naive, as the wolf so aptly sums up before devouring the lamb in "The Wolf and the Lamb": "The reason of the strongest is always the best.
The philosopher J.-J. Rousseau was well aware of the profoundly immoral side of these morals. He found it absurd that children should be taught them.
The disgrace of Fouquet, the poet's protector
It has to be said that their author, Jean de La Fontaine, had good reason to be so pessimistic about the world: he had seen his protector, Nicolas Fouquet, the all-powerful Intendant of Finances, thrown into prison overnight by Louis XIV. Why was this? It seems that the king was jealous of his wealth and splendour. All of Fouquet's friends had abandoned him. La Fontaine was one of the few who defended him. Our writer denounces weakness, hypocrisy, carelessness, pride - in short, all the vices of man.
An elegant, lively and concise style
But there's something else that explains the immense success enjoyed by these fables over the last three and a half centuries, and why we don't just learn them at primary school, but study them at secondary school and university, and suddenly what seemed so dull and boring when we were little turns out to be fascinating and dazzling. German friends, it will be difficult for you to appreciate this if you don't speak French: the fables are a masterpiece of French poetry.
And here again, they are simple and childlike in appearance only. Variety of lines, rhythms, rhymes, purity of language, and above all, incredible conciseness. Not a word too many because, as we know, "the shortest works are always the best". Who exactly said that? I think it was La Fontaine.
La Fontaine's fables have been lavishly illustrated by a host of illustrators. Here are a few images taken from Les Fables choisies de La Fontaine. Printed in Paris by Martinet, circa 1890.