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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, (1773) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fables & Parables

When Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) published his first collection of fables, he drew his subject matter from Greek fabulist Æsop (c. 620 – 564 BCE). Interestingly, Æsop lived before Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE – c. CE/AD 30 / 33) and the prophet Mohammad (c. 570 CE – 8 June 632 CE). Yet, in the Préface to La Fontaine’s first collection of poems, 6 books, published in 1668, La Fontaine compared his fables to the parables of Jesus of Nazareth: “Truth has spoken to men in parables; and is the parable anything else than a fable? ”

And what I say is not altogether without foundation, since, if I may venture to speak of that which is most sacred in our eyes in the same breath with the errors of the ancients, we find that Truth has spoken to men in parables; and is the parable anything else than a fable? that is to say, a feigned example of some truth, which has by so much the more force and effect as it is the more common and familiar?


Ce que je dis n’est pas tout à fait sans fondement puisque, s’il m’est permis de mêler ce que nous avons de plus sacré parmi les erreurs du paganisme, nous voyons que la Vérité a parlé aux hommes par paraboles; et la parabole est-elle autre chose que l’apologue, c’est-à-dire un exemple fabuleux, et qui s’insinue avec d’autant plus de facilité et d’effet qu’il est plus commun et plus familier?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son does resemble a fable. Its narrative is “the more common and familiar.” However, despite a “more common and familiar,” exemplum, it tells the otherwise ineffable. How does one speak of love unconditional and forgiveness, which is at the core of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings? In The Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of two brothers asks to be given his half of his father’s estate. This son then leaves home, squanders his money foolishly, and is reduced to starvation when a famine occurs. He therefore returns to his father’s home, saying that he has sinned.

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’

(Luke 15:11-32 NIV [New International Version])

A lay, or secular, reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son does point to foolish and, therefore, relatively “common” human behaviour on the part of the prodigal son. From the very beginning of La Fontaine’s fable about the two pigeons, the pigeon who has fallen prey to wanderlust is called fool enough, “assez fou.

Two doves once cherished for each other
The love that brother has for brother.
But one, of scenes domestic tiring,
To see the foreign world aspiring,
Was fool enough to undertake
A journey long, over land and lake.
The Two Doves

Deux Pigeons s’aimaient d’amour tendre.
L’un d’eux s’ennuyant au logis
Fut assez fou pour entreprendre
Un voyage en lointain pays.
Les Deux Pigeons

However, La Fontaine’s pigeon was merely tired of “scenes domestic,” which is not a sin. He suffers the consequences he was told he would suffer, except that the dreaded falcons are an eagle and that children are “pitiless” human beings who try to harm our traveler.

My heart forebodes the saddest lot
The falcons [faucons], nets Alas, it rains!
The Two Doves

Je ne songerai plus que rencontre funeste,
Que Faucons, que réseaux [nets]. Hélas, dirai-je, il pleut : …
Les Deux Pigeons

To a large extent, the moral of The Two Pigeons is embedded in the story or exemplum. Yet, early in his fableLa Fontaine inserts a proverb, a genre that does not require a narrative or exemplum. Proverbs are related to fables and parables, but they are short, as are maximsLa Rochefoucauld wrote maxims.

L’absence est le plus grand des maux :
Non pas pour vous, cruel. …
Les Deux Pigeons

This absence is the worst of ills;
Your heart may bear, but me it kills.
The Two Doves

Absence was a topic discussed in the French Salons of the first half of the 17th century, by Précieuses and Précieux. Précieuses discussed “questions of love,” chaste love mostly. Although La Fontaine’s poem is not a disquisition on absence, he inserts a proverb in the early verses of Les Deux Pigeons: L’absence est le plus cruel des maux [pl. of mal].” This proverb, the word “absence” in particular, introduces romantic love, which constitutes a discourse between human beings, mainly, and doves. Jean de La Fontaine’s fable is not altogether about two pigeons. Anthromorphism characterizes only one part of the fable, its beginning. (See Romance, Wikipedia.)

La Fontaine’s motto (devise) was:

Diversité c’est ma devise.
Pâté d’anguille, Contes de La Fontaine

and his fable features modulations and transpositions, as in music. He writes “variations” on the theme of love. The segment I quoted in my last post expresses romantic love.

Ah, happy lovers, would you roam?
Pray, let it not be far from home.
To each the other ought to be
A world of beauty ever new;
In each the other ought to see
The whole of what is good and true.
The Two Doves

Amants, heureux amants, voulez-vous voyager ?
Que ce soit aux rives prochaines ;
Soyez-vous l’un à l’autre un monde toujours beau,
Toujours divers, toujours nouveau ;
Tenez-vous lieu de tout, comptez pour rien le reste [.] 
Les Deux Pigeons

Moreover, although both our pigeons and the prodigal son have been fools, the prodigal son has sinned: “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:11-32), which suggests a gradation among exempla (pl.). When both pigeons are reunited, they rejoice, pigeons are pigeons, but the prodigal son confesses: “I have sinned” (Luke 15:11-32).  

The Parable of the Prodigal Son features two sons, one of whom, the “good” brother, is rather miffed because his father celebrates his prodigal brother’s (the “bad” brother) return. The parable has three figures, one of whom, the father, is a wise and Christic figure, and tells the ineffable.

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

(Luke 15:11-32 NIV [New International Version])

Given that one son is miffed, La Fontaine may have been inspired by the Biblical enemy brothers or Cain and Abel, sons born to Adam and Eve, one of whom, Cain, kills his brother, Abel. (See Cain and Abel, Sophocles’ Antigone, Jean Racine’s La Thébaïde, and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Wikipedia.) Were it not for a wise father, the prodigal son’s brother, or “good” son, may have harboured resentment. But La Fontaine’s fable’s dramatis personae consists of two, not three, figures: Les Deux Pigeons.


Cain slaying Abel by Peter Paul Rubens, 1608 (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The Exemplum: Sermons

Fables and parables also describes sermons. The word exemplum is usually associated with the sermons of the Middle Ages. Jacques de Vitry (Jacobus de Vitriaco c. 1160/70 – 1 May 1240), a French canon regular who rose to prominence, wrote hundreds of exempla (pl.). In the English language, John Donne (22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) is the author of very fine sermons. But few preachers have empowered their words to the same extent as French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet.

The unexpected and suspicious death, perhaps poisoning, at the age of 26, of ‘Madame,’ Henriette d’Angleterre, 26 June 1644 – 30 June 1670, the wife of Louis XIV’s brother, called ‘Monsieur,’ was an exemplum few circumstances could equal. [1] In 17th-century France, the age of Louis XIV, an absolute monarch, the memento mori (remember that you have to die), nearly supplanted the carped diem (seize the day) of Horatian Odes I.XI. [2] How does one keep an absolute monarch humble? One approach is to remind him of his mortality, but indirectly. Louis XIV attended Madame‘s funeral and heard Bossuet’s Oraison funèbre. Bossuet also wrote the funeral oration of Louis III, Prince de Condé, 10 November 1668 – 4 March 1710, a “prince of the blood(un prince du sang). [3] There is a king greater than Louis XIV. Coincidentally, or ineffably, Jean de La Fontaine ends Les Deux Pigeons suggesting that he may be too old to love:

Ai-je passé le temps d’aimer ?
Les Deux Pigeons

Is love, to me, with things that were?
The Two Doves

The Rose

You may remember the vanitas, still lifes, created by artists who often used flowers to express the brevity of life. The Roman de la Rose is our best example. But who can forget François de Malherbe‘s [4] exquisite Consolation à M. Du Périer:

Et rose elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses,
L’espace d’un matin.
Consolation à M. Du Périer (1598) [5]
(See Consolatio.com, transl.)


Roses in a Glass Vase by Henri Fantin-Latour1873
(Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England) (Photo credit: Venetian Red)

Contrary to Horace’s precept, to inform and to delight, or blending l’utile et l’agréable,  sermons may not provide delight or pleasure, which Horace (Ars Poetica) teaches. It remains that wrapped in a story, a message is easier to convey, and to remember, than non-fiction. Gustave Doré has ‘illustrated’ the anthropomorphic nature of The Two Pigeons, (Gutenberg [EBook #50516]).

The Two Doves by Gustave Doré, Gutenberg  [EBook #50316]

La Fontaine: http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/meunfils.htm FR
La Fontaine: http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/nine1_2_3.htm EN

The Personal and the Pastoral

After “le reste” or “good and true,” La Fontaine speaks about himself and recalls a bergère, a shepherdess. Pastorals are a discourse on love. Salonniers and salonnières also compared themselves to shepherds and shepherdesses. The most famous bucolic or pastoral novel of 17th-century France is Honoré d’Urfé‘s L’Astrée, written in the first quarter of the 17th century and modelled on Guarini‘s Il Pastor Fido (1590). Having loved, La Fontaine writes:

J‘ai quelquefois aimé ! je n’aurais pas alors
Contre le Louvre et ses trésors,
Contre le firmament et sa voûte céleste,
Changé les bois, changé les lieux
Honorés par les pas, éclairés par les yeux
De l’aimable et jeune Bergère (shepherdess)
Pour qui, sous le fils de Cythère, (Kythira)
Je servis, engagé par mes premiers serments.
Les Deux Pigeons

Myself have loved; nor would I then,
For all the wealth of crowned men,
Or arch celestial, paved with gold,
The presence of those woods has sold,
And fields, and banks, and hillocks, which
Were by the joyful steps made rich,
And smiled beneath the charming eyes
Of her who made my heart a prize
To whom I pledged it, nothing loath,
And sealed the pledge with virgin oath.
The Two Doves

Pigeons, Doves and Turtledoves

  • Dove, and the symbology of love
  • Homing pigeons

The translator of La Fontaine’s Site officiel uses the word “dove,” not pigeon. Doves are colombes and tourtelles, turtledoves. In the symbology of love, one uses the word colombe. Doves, colombes and pigeons are columbidae, but they differ from one another. Therefore, the translator of the Musée de France introduces love, romantic love, by using the word colombe, in the title of his translation. As for Walter Thornbury [EBook #50316], he translated the French pigeons using the English pigeons. It is the same word in both languages. But it should be noted that we do not have homing doves, just homing pigeons. By using pigeons, Jean de La Fontaine suggests that his columbidae will return home. He describes the pigeon as a volatile (a bird, noun) FR and volatile (adjective) FR/EN. 


There is a sense in which literature (non-fiction), speaking animals in particular, always tell, to a smaller or greater extent, that which cannot be told. Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are effective recourses, but the exemplum, and various displacements (modulations or transpositions) may also be used. In the context of our two pigeons, “L’absence est le pire des maux” seems too elevated a moral. But La Fontaine raises the curtain only to let it fall again.


Very few of his poems are specifically lyrical in character, and those few are not among his most typical. It is clear, however, that the power of La Fontaine’s lyricism depends on its displacement into the most surprising contexts.[6] 

Charles Gounod has set to music verses from Les Deux Pigeons, and so have I (shame on me). Charles Aznavour has composed a song based on La Fontaine’s Deux Pigeons.


Love to everyone 

[1] Oraison funèbre d’Henriette-Anne d’Angleterre is a Wikisource publication FR
The Funeral Oration of Henrietta of England is a Wikisource publication EN (Gordon Goodwin, transl.)
[2] Gather Ye Roses by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1875, is a Wikisource publication
[3] On the Death of the Great Condé is a Wikisource publication (Robert Turnbull, transl.) EN
Oraison funèbre du très haut et très puissant prince Louis de Condé is a Wikisource publication FR
French, Malherbe (geudensherman.WordPress) EN 
[5] Consolatio.com  (01 February 2005) EN 
[6] Charles Rosen, “The Fabulous La Fontaine,” The New York Review of Books, 18 December 1997. 

Charles Aznavour sings Les Deux Pigeons 

Bruno Laplante sings Les Deux Pigeons by Charles Gounod


Picasso’s Dove of peace, 1949

© Micheline Walker
12 June 2018