Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1586
La Fontaine (VIII.10)
Perry Index of Æsop’s Fables 525 (The Bald Man and the Fly)
Æsop’s The Bald Man and the Fly
D. L. Alishman‘s The Foolish Man (ATU 1586)
Laura Gibbs’ Bestiaria Latina (mythfolklore.net/aesopica)
Nītiśāstra Oxford Reference
This fable by Jean de la Fontaine, was published in 1678, ten years after the publication of his first collection (recueil) of fables, 1668. His third and final collection was published in 1694, shortly before his death in 1695. We therefore have three collections (trois recueils) of fables by La Fontaine.
La Fontaine’s first collection of fables (6 books) reflects Æsop. Æsop did not write fables; he told fables. His fables therefore belong to an oral tradition and did not enter literature until Roman and Greek writers: Phædrus (1st century CE) and Babrius (2nd century CE) wrote his fables in Latin and Greek respectively. Future collections of Æsopic fables are rooted in Phædrus’ Latin publication or Babrius’ Greek publication and were rewritten several times by various European fabulists of whom there have been a large number. La Fontaine differs from other fabulists because of the manner in which he used the story. For La Fontaine, the story is truly skeletal. As a French author, La Fontaine is second only to Victor Hugo.
La Fontaine’s second collection of fables differs of his first collection in that it reflects the influence of Le Livre des Lumières or “Le Livre des lumières ou la Conduite des rois, composé par le sage Pilpay, Indien (1644) : lettres persanes et fables françaises,” The Book of Lights or the Conduct of Kings, by Pilpay: Persian Letters and French Fables, by the wise Bidpai.
Nītiśāstra: the Conduct of Kings
The Hitopadesha is a collection of Sanskrit fables, dated 1373, but it finds its roots in Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra (3rd century BCE) and its Arabic translation by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (d. 756-759), entitled Kalīla wa Dimna. In both the Panchatantra and Kalīla wa Dimna, the sage Bidpai/Pilpay tells fables concerning the conduct, or the behaviour, of kings (la conduite des rois).
Bidpai is the story teller, not Vishnu Sharma, the author of the Panchatantra, nor Ibn al- Muqaffa’, the translator into Persian of the Panchatantra entitled Kalīla wa Dimna. Therefore, stories are told within a frame story. Moreover, the Panchatantra, Kalīla wa Dimna, and the Hitopadesha contain fables that are lessons for a future king (see nītiśāstra, Oxford Reference).
A 1663 Indian miniature of the story from Rumi’s “Mas̱navī” (Walters Art Museum)
The Bald Man and the Fly
A fly settled on the head of a bald man and bit him. In his eagerness to kill it, he hit himself a smart slap.
But the fly escaped, and said to him in derision, “You tried to kill me for just one little bit; what will you do to yourself now, for the heavy smack you have just given yourself?”
“Oh, for that blow I bear no grudge,” he replied, “for I never intended myself any harm: but as for you, you contemptible insect, who live by sucking human blood, I’d born a good deal more than that for the satisfaction of dashing the life out of you!”
Translated by V.S. Vernon Jones in Gutenberg [EBook #11339]
Variants: Rumi’s “Mas̱navī”
Wikipedia’s entry on La Fontaine’s “L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins” (See The Bear and the Gardener) mentions other variants. The most immediate would be Rumi‘s 13th-century poem Masnavi. Rumi was a Persian Sufi poet.
La Fontaine’s “L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins,” [FR text], The Bear and the Amateur of Gardens [EN text] juxtaposes a human being and an animal. Animal fables are the better-known fables. Fables feature animals and nature in general: the wind, trees, mountains, stone, etc., all of which are anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism, humans in disguise, is a form of obliqueness and, in the case of fables, an indirect lesson. Fables flourish when speaking directly is dangerous. For instance, La Fontaine lived under Louis XIV. His lion is king, but Louis was not a lion.
Our story is about an older man and a bear called Bruin, as in Reynard the Fox. Both the older gentleman, a garden lover, and the bear are very lonely. They meet and start keeping one another company. The gardener tends to his garden and the bear goes hunting. All is well until the bear uses a large stone (un pavé) to kill a fly that lands on the nose of his friend, the gardener. He kills the gardener.
La Fontaine’s moral is:
Rien n’est si dangereux qu’un ignorant ami ;
Mieux vaudrait un sage ennemi.
A foolish friend may cause more woe
Than could, indeed, the wisest foe.
Several morals can be associated with the Bear and the Garden Lover. La Fontaine’s moral is that a foolish friend is worse than an enemy. One could add that it is necessary to consider the consequence of one’s actions (ill-considered actions), a common moral. The moral also reflects the “Stoic” moderation in everything. (See The Bear and the Gardener, Wikipedia.)
The chief moral, however, is that we can hurt ourselves, and our friends, when we mean no harm. Bruin the bear kills the gardener who was his very best friend. Such was not his intention.
Anthropomorphism: a Twist
However, the moral can also be that animals differ from human beings, which is ironic because it seems a negation of anthropomorphism, or animals as humans in disguise. The bear cannot tell that the gardener is a human being that is not in disguise. The bear, however, is anthropomorphic. In this fable, the moral could be that humans are humans and beasts are beasts and the two shan’t mix, which is an ironic twist on the concept of anthropomorphism. Fables featuring human beings interacting with animals are called Libystic.
Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov
Robert Dodsley‘s Select fables of Esop and other fabulists (1764), entitled “The Hermit and the Bear”
“The Seven Wise Men of Buneyr”
Androcles and the Lion
Mary Anne Davis’ Fables in Verse: by Aesop, La Fontaine, and others, first published about 1818
Jefferys Taylor’s Aesop in Rhyme (1820)
“The Seven Wise Men of Buneyr”
The Wise Men of Gotham
Foolish Hans (Austria)
Giovanni Francesco Straparola‘s tale of Fortunio in Facetious Nights (13.4), written about 1550
(See The Bear and the Gardener, Wikipedia.)
One finds a different savour to La Fontaine’s second collection (recueil) of Fables. He had not abandoned his Æsopic source, but he had read Gilbert Gaulmin’s Le Livre des Lumières ou La Conduite des roys, a translation of Pilpay /Bidpai, published in 1644, as well as Rumi‘s Mas̱navī, a poem. Æsop told his fables in Greek, but if there ever lived an Æsop, he is called a Levantin and therefore originated from the Levant. Much of our worldly-wisdom is derived from the East.
Love to everyone ♥
- Medieval Bestiaries: the Background (22 February 2013)
Sources and Resources
- L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins in French (La Fontaine)
- The Bear and the Amateur of Gardens in English (La Fontaine)
- The Project Gutenberg [EBook #11339] (Æsop’s Fables)
- Site Officiel (bilingual) (La Fontaine’s Fables)
- Elizabeth Kolbert, Such a Stoic, The New Yorker
 Gutenberg [EBook #11339]
 (Musée La Fontaine) Site Officiel
 Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 18.
© Micheline Walker
28 February 2017