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“Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi”

Le Chêne et le Roseau”  is an exquisite fable, containing many lessons, one of which is the Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, Ecclesiastes 1:2) that permeates French seventeenth-century literature. We all die, even kings. Death is the equalizer.

More timely, however, is a fable entitled “The Frogs who desired a King (book three, number IV of La Fontaine’s first volume of Fables [1668]).

“Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi” tells the story of “silly and frightened” frogs who live in a democracy, but, tired of democracy, ask Jupiter for a monarch. Jupiter acquiesces. From the skies  descends a peace-loving king who makes a huge noise as he lands. This king is a beam (un soliveau) often represented as a log.

Frightened by the din, the frogs go into hiding, only to return slowly to look at the king. The peace-loving king is a beau, which is not very kingly. The frogs start jumping on the beam-king, which the king tolerates as Jupiter grumbles. The beam-king is a kindly monarch, but he does not move.

Dissatisfied, the people go back to Jupiter to ask for a king who moves. So Jupiter sends them a crane who starts eating them up. In Æsop’s  version of this fable, the crame is a stork.

Our silly frogs complain, and Jupiter tells them, first, that they should have kept their government (a democracy), second, that they should have been pleased to be sent a gentleman-king, the beam-king, and, third, to settle for the king they have for fear of encountering a worse one, La Fontaine’s celui-ci (this one) pointing to the voracious crane.

The Moral

One of the morals of this fable is the eternal “Leave well enough alone,” but we are also reading a “Beware-of-your-wishes-as-they-may-come-true” narrative. I would therefore suggest that my neighbours to the south take a good look at their duly-elected President and count their blessings. President Obama’s first gesture when he came into office was to save an economy that is no longer confined to the United States. Furthermore, as the US borrowed a huge amount of money to pay a debt incurred by the previous administration, President Obama set about providing the citizens of his country with social programs, beginning with health care. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had not succeeded in allowing the US to take this gigantic step toward nationhood, but she had traced a path. I salute her and thank her on behalf of her nation.

Then came July 2011! America could not default on its debt and the Republicans knew it, but the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann’s turf, and hardline Republicans were so slow in coming up with a relatively acceptable plan that the US lost its triple-A credit rating and left Europeans gasping for air. What on earth was Congress doing?

However and fortunately, because the rest of the world knows the US has an extraordinary President, the consequences were not catastrophic.  President Obama’s administration has credibility and America has great minds, people who, unlike Bachmann’s campaign aids, would not push CNN’s Don Lemon into a golf cart as he attempted to chronicle Bachmann’s campaign at the Iowa’s State Fair, in Des Moines.

Who are these pompous people? Could they be heirs to the “gent fort sotte et fort peureuse” (people so silly and so afraid) of La Fontaine’s fable, ready to throw stones mindlessly?

P.S.  By the way, Ramsay Wood has continued to translate of The Tales of Kalila and Dimna (tales told by Dr Bidpai), the Arabic version of Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra.  I own and cherish a 2000 paperback edition of the first volume of the Tales of Kalila and Dimna, published in 1986 by Inner Traditions (Rochester, Vermont).  Ramsay Wood writes in a manner that makes the reader think Wood himself wrote Kalila and Dimna, and the stories sound as young as the morning dew.  The first volume of Ramsay Wood’s translation of Kalila and Dimna has a brilliant and informative introduction by Doris Lessing.  (See my post on Le Chêne et le Roseau”).

© Micheline Walker
18 August 2011