Metamorphoses: Ovid, Horace and Æsop
According to the editors[i] of my collection of La Fontaine‘s Fables, the moral this fable (Book II: xviii), The Cat Metamorphosed into a Maid (La Chatte métamorphosée en femme), finds its roots in Horace‘s (8 December 65 BCE – 27 November 8 BCE) Epistles, Book I. ii, lines 69-71.[ii] The moral is Horatian, but the source of La Fontaine’s fable is a Aesopic fable entitled Venus and the Cat and Aesop‘s (c. 620 – 564 BCE) Fables predate Horace’s Epistles. However, metamorphoses are a theme linked with Ovid (20 March 43 BC – AD 17/18), the author of Pygmalion, one of the metamorphoses, and with Lucius Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 180 CE), the author of The Golden Ass, an entertaining story.
Interestingly, in Jean de La Fontaine’s La Chatte métamorphosée en femme, a metamorphosis is used to show that metamorphoses are not possible, at least not altogether. In other words, in The Cat Metamorphosed into a Maid, La Fontaine uses a metamorphosis, his exemplum, to demonstrate that nature is mostly immutable. A cat is cat and remains a cat, despite appearances, and a woman is a woman and remains a woman, despite appearances.
In seventeenth-century France, particularly after the Fronde, the aristocrats and honnêtes hommes[iii] who gathered in the salons of refined women gave free rein to fantasy and would eventually create children’s literature, but nature reigned supreme, not to mention Cartesian reason and absolutism. Absolutism had taken their power away from the highest ranked aristocrats. It was a time when one had to heed Horace’s advice: “Limit your desires” (Epistles, Book I, ii, lines 55–71), but the cast of our fable seems not to have known Horace.
La Fontaine’s fable, entitled La Chatte métamorphosée en femme (II. xviii), is about a metamorphosis — a cat is “successfully” transformed into a woman — the purpose of which, i.e. the metamorphosis, is to tell that a metamorphosis is not possible, which is somewhat paradoxical. The metamorphosis that has occurred goes amiss. In other words, the exemplum shows that, if taken away, what nature has ordained, le naturel, will always return. As the French proverb goes: Chassez [chase away] le naturel, il revient au galop [it comes galloping back]. So our cat has been turned into a woman, but the woman’s instincts, the core, are those of a cat. Let us read the fables.
La Fontaine: The Cat Metamorphosed into a Maid
In The Cat Metamorphosed into a Maid (simply click on the title to read the fable) (La Chatte métamorphosée en femme), a man so loves his cat that he wants to transform her into a woman using every trick: from tears and prayers, to charms and magic. This man succeeds in transforming his cat into a woman, but the moment she hears mice, our newly fashioned woman is crawling on the floor chasing them, but without instilling fear in the mice. Our former cat looks like a woman, so the mice have no reason to fear her in the least. Appearances are deceptive.
La Fontaine, however, does not tell us the rest of the story, i.e. what happens to the cat-woman. He simply writes a moral according to which one cannot change: “Old habits die hard.” It is as Horace wrote:Limit your desires (Horace, Epistles, Book I, ii, lines 55-71) A jar will long retain the odor of what it was Dipped in when new. (lines 69-70) The Delights of Nature (Horace, Epistles, Book I. x, lines 1-25) Drive Nature off with a pitchfork, she’ll still press back, And secretly burst in triumph through your sad disdain. (lines 24-25)
Æsop: Venus and the Cat
La Fontaine’s narrative resembles its source, Æsop‘s fable entitled Venus and the Cat or The Cat and Venus. This time, however, the cat herself wishes to be metamorphosed into a woman because she is in love with a man. Roles have therefore been reversed: the man is a cat. Consequently, La Fontaine’s fable is a mirror image of its sources which would be, first, Névelet or Isaaci Nicolai Neveleti’s Mythologia Aesopica (Frankfurt, 1610), a retelling of Æsop, and, second, Æsop’s own Venus and the Cat.
In Venus and the Cat, our enamoured cat so wishes to become a woman that she asks Venus, the goddess of love, called Aphrodite in Roman mythology, to turn her into a woman. The goddess Venus obliges but, when night falls or “one day,” curiosity leads her to the bride’s chamber where she places a mouse in the middle of the room. The woman leaps out of bed and goes chasing after the mouse. Contrary to La Fontaine, Aesop provides a full narrative, leaving little to the imagination. A disappointed Venus turns the woman back into a cat, which seems a form of punishment. V. S. Vernon Jones’ translation of Venus and the Cat is as follows:
Æsop: Venus and the CatGutenberg (EBook #11339) V. S. Vernon Jones, Translator G. K. Chesterton, Introduction Arthur Rackham, Illustrator “A Cat fell in love with a handsome young man, and begged the goddess Venus to change her into a woman. Venus was very gracious about it, and changed her at once into a beautiful maiden, whom the young man fell in love with at first sight and shortly afterwards married. One day Venus thought she would like to see whether the Cat had changed her habits as well as her form; so she let a mouse run loose in the room where they were. Forgetting everything, the young woman had no sooner seen the mouse than up she jumped and was after it like a shot: at which the goddess was so disgusted that she changed her back again into a Cat.” Æsop (c. 620–564 BC)
La Fontaine’s Moral: Horace, Epistles Book I. x, 1-25
The editor of my copy of La Fontaine, Fables et Contes is quite right. The moral of La Fontaine’s fable is linked with Horace’s first book of Epistles or Letters. However, it is related to both Book I, ii, 55-71, and Book 1, x, 1-25. We may in fact have a translation for “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop[,]” which would be: “Drive Nature off with a pitchfork, she’ll still press[.]” (Horace Epistles, Book I, x, line 24). The two relevant morals are the above-mentioned Horatian:A jar will long retain the odor of what it was Dipped in when new. Drive Nature off with a pitchfork, she’ll still press back, And secretly burst in triumph through your sad disdain.
Æsop’s Moral: “Nature will out”
In La Fontaine’s version of Æsop’s Venus and the Cat or The Cat and Venus, the moral is largely implicit, yet clear. However, some translations of Aesop’s version and the source of La Fontaine’s fable end with an explicit moral. As he concludes his 1887 Cat and Venus, author-translator George Fyler Townsend writes that “Nature exceeds nurture.” Similarly, Joseph Jacobs‘ 1894 The Cat-Maiden ends on the proverbial: “Nature will out.”[iv]
Alishman does not include La Fontaine’s Cat Metamorphosed into a Maid in his list of fables classified as Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 2031. Type 2031’s chief fable is The Mouse Who Was to Marry the Sun. La Fontaine’s cat is changed into a woman and the mouse, into a woman, but this motif is that of another fable by entitled The Mouse metamorphosed into a Girl (IV:vii), published in La Fontaine’s 1678 collection of fables, his second volume of fables a volume that reflects the influence of Le Livre des lumières ou la conduite des roys (The Book of Enlightenment or the Conduct of Kings), a French translation of fables by Bidpai, originating in the Sanskrit Panchatantra (Pañcatantra) and Arabic Kalīlah wa Dimnah, written by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muquaffa’. This one fable is in fact taking us all the way to Japan.______________________________ [i] René Groos et Jacques Schiffrin, La Fontaine, Fables et Contes (Paris: Gallimard, collection La Pléiade, 1954), p. 688. [ii] Epistles are letters. Horace was born on 8 December 65 BC and died on 27 November 8 BC. [iii] “honnête homme.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 27 Jul. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/271056/honnete-homme>. [iv] To read other translations of Aesop’s fable, click on The Cat and Venus. Arthur Rackham (19 September 1867 – 6 September 1939) Music by Jonn Serrie Book cover, 1912 edition, by Arthur Rackham Photo credit: The Project Gutenberg © Micheline Walker 17 July 2013 WordPress