A definition of Fables
“Fables are among the oldest forms of folk literature. The word “fable” comes from the Latin “fabula” (“little story”). Typically, a fable consists of a narrative and a short moral conclusion at the end. The main characters in most fables are animals. The purpose of these stories is to ridicule negative human qualities.” http://www.worldoftales.com/fables.htmlPerched on a lofty oak, Sir Raven held a lunch of cheese; Sir Fox, who smelt it in the breeze, Thus to the holder spoke: “Ha! how do you do, Sir Raven? Well, your coat, sir, is a brave one! So black and glossy, on my word, sir, With voice to match, you were a bird, sir, Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days.” Sir Raven, overset with praise, Must show how musical his croak. Down fell the luncheon from the oak; Which snatching up, Sir Fox thus spoke: “The flatterer, my good sir, Aye lives on his listener; Which lesson, if you please, Is doubtless worth the cheese.” A bit too late, Sir Raven swore The rogue should never cheat him more.
The Moral“The flatterer, my good sir, Aye lives on his listener[.]” (Sir Fox)
In this post, I will focus on the moral of this fable, as Belaud suggested. The moral is explicit. Sir Fox is quoted in full. Flattery, on the part of the fox, fools the raven/crow into singing and, as he sings, he lets go of his piece of cheese. By the way, in European beast literature, animals usually eat cheese, honey and ham.
However, it so happens that the French translation for blackmail is le chantage. Sir Fox fait chanter le corbeau (makes the raven sing) and manages to convince a rather vain Sir Raven or Crow to sing or to “crow.” The cheese falls to the ground. Now that cheese was Sir Crow’s dinner. Sir Crow’s loss is therefore significant.
Meanwhile, in Washington
So, although Mr Boehner (Sir Fox) threatened to create a global recession by having Congress refuse to raise the debt ceiling, thus blackmailing Sir Raven (President Obama), Sir Raven or Crow did not sing, as he would have lost the cheese: the cheese being the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (still imperfect, but…) and his credibility. Sir Raven (President Obama) probably suspected that Sir Fox (Mr Boehner) would not risk a default, thereby harming a currently global economy, including himself and the citizens of his very nation.
Yet, Sir Raven (President Obama) could not know with complete certainty whether or not Sir Fox (Mr Boehner) would loosen his grip, but, as he looked at his deck of cards (the hand we are dealt), Sir Raven probably speculated that others might put pressure on Sir Fox to desist, because they had too much to lose. He also knew that, had he sung, surrendering to chantage (blackmail), he would have given in to a form of coercion, which would have been unacceptable.
So what we have seen is how a fable can shape a language. Chances are that the word ‘chantage’ is not rooted in our fable (faire chanter), but there is a strong likelihood that it is. For instance, we now hear people say a “perfect storm,” without referring to the 2000 film based on Sebastian Junger‘s non-fictional account of events. In this case, events were fictionalized into a film and the title of the film is entering the English language and may remain a useful but uninformed English-language metaphor.
Moreover, in Le Poète et le Roi; Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle (Paris: Fallois, 1997), a book about La Fontaine, Marc Fumaroli, the most prominent member of the Académie française, wrote “to know how far one can go too far” (“savoir jusqu’où on peut aller trop loin”), without using quotation marks and without naming his source: Jean Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963). The clever expression is therefore entering the French language and, a few years from now, people might not know who coined the expression.
For those of us who also speak English, the word “crow” is significant. When Sir Raven or Crow opens his mouth, he does not sing, he “crows,” which is not flattering. Could that be rooted in the “Fox and Crow?” To crow suggests a degree of boastfulness. Remember that “Æsopian” fables entered England, at least in part, when printer and translator William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422 – ca. March 1492) printed the Latin fables of Avianus and then translated them, naming his collection The Fables of Avian. Avian’s translation of Æsop’s fables into Latin was a favourite and was rooted in both the Latin and the Greek traditions: Phædrus (Latin) and Babrius (Greek). (See “The Cock and the Pearl:” La Fontaine cont’d [michelinewalker.com]).
We know that La Fontaine is writing about humans because he calls his protagonists “Sir” (Maître or Monsieur). How subtle! Moreover, we may have uncovered the origin of the word chantage as well as an instance of unsuccessful chantage (blackmail), a deceiver-deceived narrative: trompeur trompé.
But I must go, or Belaud the cat won’t be pleased.
SourcesThe Fables of Pilpay (online) EN Les Fables de Pilpay ou la Conduite des Roys (online) FR http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5674720s http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/oxford/104.htm Related narratives: Aarne-Thompson
- “The Cock and the Pearl:” La Fontaine cont’d
- The Fox and Crane, or Stork
- “Le Chêne et le Roseau” (The Oak and the Reed): the Moral
- La Fontaine’s Fables Compiled & Walter Crane
Le Corbeau et le RenardMaître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché, Tenait en son bec un fromage. Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché, Lui tint à peu près ce langage : “Et ! bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau. Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau ! Sans mentir, si votre ramage (the way he talks) Se rapporte à votre plumage, (your feathers) Vous êtes le Phénix des hôtes de ces bois. ” À ces mots, le Corbeau ne se sent pas de joie ; Et pour montrer sa belle voix, (voice) Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie. Le Renard s’en saisit, et dit : “Mon bon Monsieur, Apprenez que tout flatteur Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute. ” Le Corbeau honteux et confus Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (19 December 1676 – 26 October 1749). Clérambault wrote music based on La Fontaine’s fables. The pictures show le Mont-Saint-Michel, a monastery I visited frequently as we, my husband and I, lived a short distance away. Magnificat (3 voices & basso continuo) The Raven and the Fox, illustrated by John Rae [EBook #24108] (Please click on the small images to enlarge them.) © Micheline Walker October 24, 2013 WordPress 1. A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine, Percy J. Billinghurst http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25357/25357-h/25357-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25357/25357-h/25357-h.htm#Page_60 [EBook #25357] 2. The Fables of La Fontaine, Elizur Wright, J. W. M. Gibbs, 1882  http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8ffab10h.htm (Fable 2) “The Raven and the Fox” [EBook #7241] (1882) 3. Fables in Rhyme for Little Folks, From the French of La Fontaine W.T. (William Trowbridge) Larned (tr), John Rae, illustrator http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24108/24108-h/24108-h.htm [EBook #24108] (1918) Photo credit: Site officiel 1. V. S. Vernon Jones (tr), G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Rackham (ill) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339-h.htm#036 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339-h.htm “The Fox and the Crow” [EBook #11339] (1912) 2. Harrison Weir, John Tenniel and Ernest Griset, illustrators http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18732/18732-h/18732-h.htm “The Fox and the Crow” [EBook #18732] 3. The Æsop for Children, Milo Winter, illustrator http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milo_Winter http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19994/19994-h/19994-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19994/19994-h/19994-h.htm#Page_101 “The Fox and the Crow” [EBook #19994] (1919)