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poule-aux-oeufs-or

The Hen with the Golden Eggs (La Fontaine, 1.V.13)

How avarice loses all,
By striving all to gain,
I need no witness call
But him whose thrifty hen,
As by the fable we are told,
Laid every day an egg of gold.
“She has a treasure in her body,”
Bethinks the avaricious noddy.
He kills and opens—vexed to find
All things like hens of common kind.
Thus spoiled the source of all his riches,
To misers he a lesson teaches.
In these last changes of the moon,
How often does one see
Men made as poor as he
By force of getting rich too soon! 
 
Jean de La Fontaine
(1.V.13)
 
Poule aux oeufs d’or (La) FR
Recueil 1, Livre 5, Fable 13
(please click on the title to read the fable in French)
 

Fables and Morals

This fable is very well known and, at first glance, it seems to possess only one moral. Avarice loses all.

The main character in Jean de La Fontaine‘s (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) The Hen with the Golden Eggs is a very lucky man who is not satisfied with the golden egg his hen lays once a day. He thinks that if he opens her body, he will find a treasure. He therefore kills her only to discover there is no treasure inside her body. Greed causes this man to destroy the source of his growing wealth. Oudry and Doré have captured this man’s bitter disappointment. So, on one level, this fable is about greed, greed that kills the hen and impoverishes a man.

However, this fable is also about hurting oneself in an attempt to improve a situation that is already very good. Fables, especially as retold by La Fontaine, often have more than one moral. Such is the case with The Hen with the Golden Eggs (1.V.13).

(Please click on the smaller images to enlarge them.)

  05-13

POULE-AUX-OEUFS-OR

Jean-Baptiste Oudry 1686-1755 (lafontaine.net)
Gustave Doré 1832-1883 (lafontaine.net) 
Milo Winter (bottom of post)
 

The Fable as Motif

La Fontaine’s The Hen with the Golden Eggs (1.V.13) has not been cross-referenced by D. L. Alishman‘s.[i]  However, La Fontaine’s fable (1.V.13) is a retelling of older fables.  In the Æsopic corpus, we find The Goose that laid the Golden Eggs or The Goose and the Golden Eggs listed as fable number 87 in the Perry Index. Changing the dramatis personæ of fables is current practice. A single fable may have several morals, but going from hen to goose to mallard to duck is an easier process and, therefore, more common. Moreover, although motifs are cross-cultural, they  nevertheless reflect differences between cultures. In the Buddhist Jatāka tales or the Stories of The Buddha’s Former Births, our story features a golden mallard: The Golden Mallard.  Its Kashmir title is The Lucky-Bird Humá. In Russia, the hen is a duck: The Duck that laid Golden Eggs.

I have yet to find a “Golden Egg” motif in Aarne-Thompson’s Classification System, but the motif has to be somewhere in that very long list, i.e. six volumes. Interestingly, however, there is a link between Donkeyskin (Donkey-Skin), and The Hen with the Golden Eggs in that both fables feature gold producing animals.  The hen, goose, mallard, or duck lays a golden egg.  As for the Donkey killed by Donkey-Skin’s father, he defecated gold.  That is a motif.  Donkey-Skin, however, is classified under the heading of “unnatural love” and is linked with CatskinLittle Catskin, Cap-o’-Rushes, Allerleirauh, The King who wished to marry his Daughter and other tales listed under Catskin, in Wikipedia.

Conclusion

I have provided an alternative moral for The Hen with the Golden Eggs There are more morals to the Golden Eggs, but the extent to which we can harm ourselves is chief among them.  We blame others, but are others always to blame?  Remember Matthew 7. 4: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

Let this be the end of the post as this fable can lead to considerable discussion and no end of proverbs.  I like the following proverb: Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”  (Voltaire, perhaps) (Perfect is the enemy of good.)

Sources:

Musée La Fontainehttp://www.musee-jean-de-la-fontaine.fr/index.php
Gutenberg EBook # 24108, translation: W. T. Larned; illustration: John Rae (La Fontaine)
Gutenberg EBook # 19994, illustrations by Milo Winter (Æsop for Children)
D. L. Alishmanhttp://www.pitt.edu/~dash/goldfowl.html
John Rae, artist
La Fontaine: http://www.lafontaine.net/
La Fontaine, Château-Thierry: http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/
Musée Jean de La Fontaine: http://www.musee-jean-de-la-fontaine.fr/
 

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[i] D.L. Alishman http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/goldfowl.html

Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764)
“La Poule” (The Hen)
Grigory Sokolov (b. 1950)
 
Milo
© Micheline Walker
1 June 2013 
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