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L'Homme et la Couleuvre, by J. J. Grandville

L’Homme et la Couleuvre, by J. J. Grandville*

*J. J. GrandvilleIllustrations des Fables de La Fontaine (1838-1840)
Video: Fabrice Luchini (reading in French by an excellent actor)
Text: « L’Homme et la Couleuvre » (La Fontaine) FR
Text: “The Man and the Snake” (Gutenberg’s [EBook #50316]) EN
Illustration: J. J. Grandville, born Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (1803 – 1847)

In Volume 1, Book 6.1 (1668) of his Fables, Jean de La Fontaine tells about man’s lack of gratitude.  This particular fable is one of La Fontaine finest.

As you know, the snake (le serpent) lost his reputation when he tempted Eve into eating the forbidden fruit: the apple.  However, La Fontaine had the brilliant idea of comparing man with the snake and succeeded in vilifying, not the snake, but humankind.

Summary of “L’Homme et la Couleuvre”

A man sees a snake and decides to kill it.  But the serpent resists saying that the symbol of ingratitude is man, not the serpent.  However, witnesses are brought in to testify.  Trials are not uncommon in Beast Literature.  For instance, there is a trial in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).

The Trial

The Cow as witness

A cow happens to be nearby, so she is called and has her (la vache) story to tell.  The cow says that there was no point involving her in the judgement.  She points out that for years and years, she has fed human beings, but that now that she is old, she is tied up in a meadow where there is not sufficient grass to feed her.  In short, she is of the same opinion as the snake.  The symbol of ingratitude is man, not the serpent.

The Bull as witness

Next, a bull is called to testify.  He and other bulls have tilled the land, so that Ceres would be generous to mankind.   According to Wikipedia,

 [i]n ancient Roman religion, Ceres was a goodness of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships.

But now that they are old, they were being sacrificed so man could appease the gods.  The symbol of ingratitude is man, not the serpent.


The Tree as witness

So, a third witness is introduced: a tree.  He testifies that trees have been man’s refuge against the heat, the rain, and high winds.  Moreover, certain trees bear fruit that man eats and others provide logs for chimneys.  They keep humans warm in winter.  Yet, instead of pruning trees, man cuts them down.  Again, the witness ascertains that the symbol of ingratitude is man, not the serpent.

So the man who has caught the serpent and put it in a sack, hits the sack against a wall until the serpent dies.

The Moral of the fable

La Fontaine then writes that so it is with people in high places, les grands.  They do not listen to reason and believe they are entitled to everything.  The question is whether things have changed.  People who cut down entire forests to harvest the wood and do not replant it.  In fact, when they are grands (rich and powerful), they have no compassion for the poor, the sick, the elderly, those in need…

music (please click to hear the music)
Felix Mendelssohn (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847)
Songs without Words (3)
Daniel Barenboim, piano
© Micheline Walker
9 November 2011