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Le Chêne et le Roseau, by Achille-Etna Michallon (1816)

Achille-Etna Michallon (1796-1822, aged 26)
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Jean de la Fontaine (I.22)
The Oak Tree and the Reed (Æsop, No. 70, Perry Index)

Under the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Sun-King, Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) published twelve books of fables. The first book was published in 1668; the second, in 1678; and a collection, in the 1690s, shortly before La Fontaine’s death.

Fables, as you know, date back to Antiquity. Let us mention, first, Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra (Pañcatantra [Five Principles]), 3rd century BCE or much earlier times: 1200 BCE. Its Arabic version, entitled Kalīla wa Dimnah (750 CE), was written by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa. For most most of us, however, fables are Æsop’s Fables (c. 620-564 BCE) and they belong to an oral tradition. Æsop, if there ever lived an Æsop, was probably a freed slave from Samos, Greece.

Fables are usually looked upon as children’s literature because most feature animal protagonists. Some fables may be intended for children, but others encompass the wordly-wisdom a prince should acquire.  Moreover, fables may feature plants or human beings speaking with animals. The latter are called libystic fables.

When reading “Le Chêne et le Roseau,” one may be reminded of Virgil’s Georgics (1st century BCE), but this fable is mostly a La Fontaine fable. As mentioned above, it was published in 1668 and is the last fable (number XXII) of La Fontaine’s first book of Fables. La Fontaine published a second book of Fables in 1678-1679, and a third book, in 1694 or somewhat earlier.

In “Le Chêne et le Roseau,” the Oak tree boasts to the Reed that he is strong and could protect the humble Reed from powerful winds.  The Reed’s response is that “he bends” in the wind, “and does not break:” “Je plie, et ne romps pas.” As the two, the Oak tree and the Reed, are conversing, a devastating wind fells the Oak tree. As for the Reed, he is whipped back and forth by this ferocious wind, but survives.

Fables are lessons presented in Horatian (Horace, 1st century BCE) fashion:  Prodesse et delectareˮ (To Delight and to Instruct, or plaire et instruire). So, a lesson or lessons can be drawn from “The Oak and the Reed,” (La Fontaine [I.22]) lessons for the prince.

Usually, my students would respond that the oak tree is punished for boasting, which is a correct answer.  Destiny being fickle and life, fragile, one should not boast.

I would then remind them of the Roseau ’s statement: “Je plie, et ne romps pas.ˮ Not all of them could grasp readily that La Fontaine’s fable contained another lesson, one that could be useful for the prince or the man at court.

The lesson is simple. If one is flexible, chances are one might survive and perhaps blossom in the ruthless halls of the power.[i] It could be that nothing has changed, that one must still accept compromises or otherwise be totally ineffective and unhappy in any office to which he or she is elected, or has chosen.

Ideally, the prince acts according to a set of principles. He knows, for instance, that he must serve his people, so he listens. He also knows how to serve his people. But, rigidity is an extreme that precludes listening and militates against both reasoned and reasonable leadership.


[i] This lesson is obvious in Æsop’s “The Oak and the Reeds” [EBook #11339], Perry Index 70, but not in La Fontaine’s “Chêne et Roseau” (“The Oak and the Reed”)

© Micheline Walker
16 August 2011