The sites listed below may be very useful. Posts about a particular fable may contain classification or cataloging information, but not necessarily. The Project Gutenberg has published very fine collections of Æsop’s Fables, including illustrations. La Fontaine is also online, most successfully. These collections are old, but they are the classics.
I spent a lifetime in the classroom and wish to praise initiatives such as the Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archives. I didn’t have those precious tools. Æsop’s fables are available online, including lovely illustrations one can also use for to illustrate La Fontaine’s retelling of an Æsopic fable. As for Bestiaria Latina or mythfolklore.net, it is a rich and accurate source of information and also leads to texts. Needless to say, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia is an excellent and exhaustive source of information as is the monumental Encyclopædia Britannica.
In an earlier post on the “The Oak and the Reed,” I commented on this line, the moral of the “The Oak and Reed:” ‘Je plie, et ne romps pas.’(‘I bend, and do not break.’) This line illustrates La Fontaine’s uncanny ability to tell what he is not telling (dire-sans-dire). In fact, it was long believed that this fable expounded the importance of humility and little else:
“Written in the autocratic time of Louis XIV of France, this was so successfully achieved that it appeared to teach the value of humility at the same time as suggesting that rulers may not be as powerful as they think themselves.” (“The Oak and the Reed” [I.22], Wikipedia)
La Fontaine as a Protégé of Nicolas Fouquet
La Fontaine had been a protégé of Nicolas Fouquet/Foucquet (January 27, 1615 – March 23, 1680), the Superintendant of Finances, from 1653 until 1661, the year Louis XIV became King of France. After 17 August 1661, the day Louis XIV attended a fête at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet’s magnificent castle, Louis XIV accused Fouquet of embezzlement. Fouquet was convicted and condemned to banishment, a sentence Louis XIV himself, then aged 22, commuted to life imprisonment, at Pignerol (now Pinerolo, Italy), a sadder fate than banishment. La Fontaine had written his “Élégieaux Nymphes de Vaux,” in the vain hope of obtaining a degree of clemency towards his former patron, Nicolas Fouquet. He also wrote “Le Songe de Vaux.”
As a university teacher, I often taught La Fontaine’s “Chêne et Roseau” and would ask my students to provide a moral for La Fontaine’s fable. What did “Je plie, et ne romps pas” (I bend, and do not break) mean?
At first, they saw a fable about “the value of humility.”
They also said that it was about the mighty. They could break.
Third, they commented on the underlying structure of fables and farcical comic texts, the formulaic “deceiver deceived” (“le trompeurtrompé”). People who allow themselves to boast, even moderately, are punished.
However, they did not see that “The Oak and the Reed” was about human behaviour and, in particular, about the importance of flexibility. He who bends does not break. The meaning of La Fontaine’s fables does not jump off the page.
“Je plie, et ne romps pas.” (I bend, and do not break)
Earlier in the history of this fable, this moral, “I bend but do not break,” was expressed more explicitly. According to Wikipedia, such was the moral of Avianus‘ (400 CE) telling of this fable, and the moral of earlier Greek retellings. It is the moral expressed in Geoffrey Chaucer‘s (c. 1343 – 25 October 1400) Troilus and Criseyde, (II.1387-9) [EBook #257].
A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall.
In footnote 28 of Gutenberg’s version of La Fontaine’s Fables, classified as [EBook #7241], American translator Elizur Wright and J. W. M. Gibbs, editor, state that “[t]he groundwork of this fable is in Æsop, and also in the Fables of Avianus.” Flavius Avianus lived in the 5th century CE (the 400s) and translated 42 Æsopic fables. Famous translator and printer William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422 – ca. March 1492), translated “The Fables of Avian” into “Englyshe.”[i]
Two Traditions: Phædrus and Babrius
Phædrus (Latin) and Babrius (Greek)
Yet, it should be pointed out that, although Flavius Avianus‘ translation was in Latin verse, his main source had been Babrius who translated Æsop’s Fables into Greek. It could be, therefore, that Babrius’ moral was more explicit. European sources of Æsopic fables were either the Latin translation by Phædrus‘ (c. 15 BCE – c. 50 CE) or Babrius‘ Æsop’s Fables. In fact, Avianus became a source to fable writers as did Névelet, whose Latin translation of Æsopic fables La Fontaine used, the Mythologia Æsopica Isaaci Nicolai Neveleti, Frankfurt, 1610. (See lafontaine.net.)
According to Wikipedia’s entry on “The Oak and the Reed,” flexibility was the teaching of the RabbinicTalmud and the moral of earlier versions of “The Oak and the Reed,” all of which are rooted in “Near Eastern dispute poems.” The Talmud‘s “Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar” is attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar. The same moral is expressed in a Chinese proverb “A tree that is unbending is easily broken,” and the saying goes back to the Tao Te Ching. (See The Oak and the Reed, Wikipedia.)
In France, l’honnête homme is the perfect gentleman and courtier and he is, furthermore, as he seems. There is very little, if any, sprezzatura, a form of studied carelessness, about “l’honnête homme.” “Honnêteté,” in its literal sense, that of “honesty,” militates against the idea of a mere façade. I should think there were exceptions, but, in theory, l’honnête homme was well-educated (but not pedantic), had fine manners, dressed well, spoke well, never boasted and avoided all extremes, favouring modération.[ii]
Bernard Salomon‘s woodcut of “The olive tree and the reed” from a French collection of Æsop’s Fables in rhyme (Lyon 1547)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Oak, the Cedar and the Olive tree
Trees have been rigid for a very long time, but they have not been oak trees consistently. The Talmud features a cedar and fabulists Gilles Corrozet (1547), Gabriele Faerno (1564) Giovanni Maria Verdizotti used an olive tree. As for Swabian translator Heinrich Steinhöwel, he also used an olive tree. His 1480 translation of Æsopic fables is rooted in Avianus, Babrius (Greek) and Romulus (a 5th-century Latin-language fabulist). Romulus may be a legendary figure, which may also be the case with respect to Æsop himself.
I must close, but the above illustrates the depth of “The Oak and the Reed,” its age, not to mention its universality. It is not only about the doomed pride of the mighty, but also about the flexibility humans require to function in society, under Louis XIV especially. As for the ambiguity of its moral, it illustrates La Fontaine’s mute eloquence and may point to the Latin source of this fable. However talkative animals, trees and willows can be in literature, they do not speak. La Fontaine himself gave everyone the impression he was absent-minded and he was often referred to as a “bonhomme.” After Vaux-le-Vicomte, the fall of Nicolas Fouquet, he let animals, trees, willows and, at times, humans retell a fable that had been told for centuries and, perhaps, millennia.
28. The groundwork of this fable is in Æsop, and also in the Fables of Avianus. Flavius Avianus lived in the 5th century. His Æsopic Fables were written in Latin verse. Caxton printed “The Fables of Avian, translated into Englyshe” at the end of his edition of Æsop.
29. This fable and “The Animals Sick of the Plague” [I.7] are generally deemed La Fontaine’s two best fables. “The Oak and the Reed” is held to be the perfection of classical fable, while “The Animals Sick of the Plague” is esteemed for its fine poetic feeling conjoined with its excellent moral teaching. [EBook #7241]
[ii] If you can read French, you may wish to visit Larousse’s site: honnête homme.
Patrick Dandrey, (2nd edition) La Fabrique des Fables (FR) (Paris: Klincksieck, 1992).Marc Fumaroli, Le Poète et le Roi. Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle (FR) (Paris: Le Fallois, 1997).
Jürgen Grimm (various articles)
A hungry Fox saw some fine bunches of Grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis, and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of reach: so he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking, “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.” (V S Vernon Jones, translator [EBook #11339])
Le Renard et les Raisins, by La Fontaine
Certain renard Gascon, d’autres disent normand,
Mourant presque de faim, vit au haut d’une treille (Mourant: Dying)
Des raisins mûrs apparemment
Et couverts d’une peauvermeille.
Le galant en eut fait volontiers un repas; (un repas: a meal)
Mais, comme il n’y pouvait atteindre : (atteindre: to reach)
« Ils sont trop verts, dit-il, et bons pour des goujats. » (verts: green)
Fit-il pas mieux que de se plaindre ?
The Fox and the Grapes, by La Fontaine
A fox, almost with hungerdying,
Some grapes on a trellis spying,
To all appearance ripe, clad in
Their tempting russet skin,
Most gladly would have eat them;
But since he could not get them,
So far above his reach the vine
“They’re sour,” he said; “such grapes as these,
The dogs may eat them if they please!”
Did he not better than to whine?
Cognitive Dissonance: incompatible Ideas
“The Fox and the Grapes” is one of Æsop‘s as well as Jean de La Fontaine‘s (III. 11) better-known Fables. La Fontaine’s “Fox and Grapes” was published in the third book of in his first collection of Fables (1668). According to Wikipedia, this fable “can be held to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance.” (See The Fox and the Grapes, Wikipedia) “In this view, the premise of the fox that covets inaccessible grapes is taken to stand for a person who attempts to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously. In that case, the disdain the fox expresses for the grapes at the conclusion to the fable serves at least to diminish the dissonance even if the behaviour in fact remains irrational.”[ii]
The Fox and the Grapes, by Gustave Doré, 1870 (below), 1880 (above)
(Photo credit: Google images)
Linguistic Dissonance: ‘vert’ and ‘sour’
La Fontaine writes that the grapes were ‘vert(s)’ (green) instead of ‘sour.’ Vert is associated with a lack of maturity or naivety, in both French and English. In the French language, ‘vert’ may also refer to female immaturity. In Wikipedia’s entry on “The Fox and the Grapes,” the author mentions an illustration by Gustave Doré (6 January 1832 – 23 January 1883) that reveals the second meaning of ‘unripe,’ ‘vert,’ and, consequently, also reveals the story’s “subtext:”[iii]
“Gustave Doré‘s illustration of the fable for the 1870 edition pictures a young man in a garden who is looking towards the steps to a mansion in the distance on which several youung women are congregated. An older man is holding p his thumb and forefinger, indicating that they are only little girls. The meaning of this transposition to the human situation hinges on the double meaning of ‘unripe’ (vert) in French, which could also be used of a sexually immature female. From this emerges the story’s subtext, of which a literal translation reads
“The gallant would gladly have made a meal of them
But as he was unable to succeed, says he:
‘They are unripe and only fit for green boys.’”
Des Vertes et des pas mûres
The French expression « Des vertes et des pas mûres » (the green and the unripe) may refer to difficult experiences, but it may also refer to things racy (saucy) and shocking. Babrius‘ Greek “Fox and Grapes” has the same “ambiguity.” The literal meaning of the word(s) ‘omphakes eisin,’ ‘Omphax,’ is unripe grape. Metaphorically, however, it describes a girl “not yet ripe for marriage.”
As for the English expression “sour grapes,” it is from the fable “The Fox and the Grapes,” and would mean: false pretenses. (See The Fox and the Grapes, Wikipedia)
The translations of the Moral
“I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour” (Æsop, V S Vernon Jones)
« Fit-il pas mieux que de se plaindre ? »
Did he not better than to whine?
“Better, I think, than an embittered whine.” (La Fontaine, Marianne Moore)
American modernist author Marianne Moore (15 November 1887 – 5 February 1972) provided a lovely prose translation of La Fontaine’s last line. Marianne Moore’s translation “sings” and it moves: alliteration, consonance: b, t, r; and assonance: i, e(r). It is therefore a truly poetical English-language moral.
Cognitive dissonance and linguistic dissonance
“The Fox and the Grapes” illustrates the theory of cognitive dissonance (the perversion of rationalization). There is cognitive dissonance when a person “attempts to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously” (Jon Elster). However, according to this theory, expressing scorn for what cannot be attained “serves to diminish the dissonance,” which makes it a rather useful ‘perversion.’ It would seem that such a moral is consistent with the popular moral of “The Fox and the Grapes,” which is that, from a practical point of view, it is quite appropriate to lessen one’s disappointment by finding imperfection with what is beyond one’s reach.
But, although this fable is part of the Roman de Renart, where the fox is a trickster, the fox featured in “The Fox and the Grapes,” is a rather philosophical character. Playing tricks requires savvy or savoir-faire, as does negotiating the various events of life, some pleasant but some not so pleasant. So if our fox can find fault with what he coveted, he is a happy fellow and, to a certain extent, he is also wise. As for the young girls of the subtext, they were undoutedly too ‘vertes’ (green).
In “The Cat’s Only Trick,” the cat’s claws allow the cat to climb a tree and thereby escape the hunting dogs who kill the fox. In that fable, the trickster is fooled. It is a comic text. As for our fox, he is not the wise fox featured in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s (1900-1944) The Little Prince (1943), but he is emotionally competent, a form of wisdom.
Green is the colour of hope, and hope, the finest of virtues. I will always remember discovering Charles Péguy‘s petite fille espérance, the little girl hope, the second virtue: faith, hope and charity.
In the Aarne-Thompson classification index, The Miller, his Son and the Donkey is motif 1215 and bears many names. For the time being, we will call it The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey.[ii] By clicking on this title, we will see tales related to AT 1215.
According to Wikipedia, La Fontaine was also influenced by Poggio Bracciolini,[iii] called Poggio (11 February 1380 – 30 October 1459), who included the story in his Facetiæ (1450). It is the opening poem of Giovanni Maria Verdizotti‘s Cento favole morali (1570) (One Hundred Moral Tales). However, “[t]he oldest documented occurrence of the actual story is in the work of the historian, geographer and poet Ibn Said (1213-1286), born and educated in Al-Andalus[,]” in Islamic Iberia, now Spain and Portugal. The story is also told in the Forty Vezirs, translated from Arabic into Turkish by Sheykh Zada. It is one of the stories told in the Arab world’s Goha.
The story was also written in the 17th century by Ottoman Turkish Nasreddin, who, according to Wikipedia, “dealt in concepts that have a certain timelessness” (Wikipedia). His advice to his son (son fils) is:
“If you ever should come into the possession of a donkey, never trim its tail in the presence of other people. Some will say that you have cut off too much, and others that you have cut off too little. If you want to please everyone, in the end your donkey will have no tail at all.” (Nasreddin Hodja)
The miller, his son and the donkey is an old story. In all likelihood, it dates back to Æsop, if there ever lived a Æsop. If so he was a reteller. In the case of La Fontaine’s Le Meunier, son fils et l’âne, we know his immediate sources: Racan and Gabriele Faerno.
In my earlier post, I point to a moral underlying the moral. The people who give advice to the miller and his son are judgmental. But the fable could also be linked to analysis paralysis. We often need to seek advice, professional advice in particularly, but we can’t let others stifle our inner voices. I believe that instinct is often one’s best guide. When in doubt, abstain! (Dans le doute, abstiens-toi.)
I will close by noting, first, that The miller, his son and the donkey is an example of shared wisdom: the Greeks, Islamic Iberia, the Arab world, Ottoman Turks and various European cultures. Second, tales we call “folktales” have a wide range of listeners, readers and writers. Not only are stories delightful, but they also override rank and constitute a testimonial to pluralism.
This fable is very old and everybody knows it. But fables have a way of never going out of fashion. Moreover, I am using La Fontaine’s rewriting of this fable, which updates it considerably. It is now a seventeenth-century masterpiece.
La Fontaine’s immediate predecessor was Honoré de Racan, seigneur de Bueil, (February 1589 – 21 January 1670), a disciple of François de Malherbe (1555 – October 16, 1628), a critic, a poet, and a translator who all but dictated the rules of classical poetics. La Fontaine’s rendition of this fable was dedicated to his dearest friend, Monsieur de Maucroix (1619 – 1708).
On their way to market, the father and his son meet a man who makes fun of them and calls them: ânes, which is this case means “asses.” So the donkey is set on its four legs and the son rides on it. The donkey protests “en son patois” (in his dialect).
They then come across three merchants who give themselves the right to tell the son that his father should be riding on the back of the donkey, the father being older. So the father starts riding on the back of the donkey while the son walks.
A little later, they meet three girls who tell the father that he looks like a bishop (un évêque) and is acting like a calf (un veau: an idiot).
Tandis que ce nigaud [idiot], comme un évêque assis,
Fait le veau sur son âne, et pense être bien sage.
The miller, his son and the donkey, by Ferdinand Hodler (14 March 1853 – 19 May 1918)
A third group
The father’s first reaction is to tell the girls to go their own way, but he starts second-guessing his answer and sits his son on the donkey. No sooner is the son comfortably seated, that a third group exclaim that both the son and the father are crazy (fous). Can’t they see that they are killing the poor donkey?
So they let the donkey lead the parade and, once again, find a critic who calls the donkey, the son and his father “trois ânes,” or three asses, at which point the father says that whether he is blamed (blâmer) or praised (louer), he will do as he pleases: à ma “tête.”
Usually, this fable is given the following moral: one cannot please everyone. But I suspect there is a moral underneath this first moral. The moral beneath the first moral would be that they are encountering judgmental individuals. The people they encounter do not even ask for an explanation before they start throwing stones.
Can’t please everyone
Walter Crane‘s (1845 – 1915) composite illustration of all the events in the tale for the limerick retelling of the fables, Baby’s Own Aesop, an 1887 children’s edition of Æsop’s Fables or fables credited to Æsop (620 – 560 BCE). Doubt lingers as to whether or not there ever lived a Æsop. There is, however a Æsopic corpus. In this image, our fable is entitled “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey.”
As I have mentioned in other blogs, usually La Fontaine lets animals talk, which is obliqueness,’ or dire-sans-dire, at its best. Given that this fable is the first of tome 1, book III, it is part of La Fontaine’s “poetics.” The first fable of each book includes comments on the writing of fables. This time, animals are not the ones who talk; the fable uses human beings, which makes it a lybistic fable, a fable featuring humans. However, before the ancient story is told, La Fontaine quotes Malherbe who says: “What, please everyone!” Contenter tout le monde!). Furthermore, Malherbe, not La Fontaine, is the one who tells the story. Malherbe was an authority.
Persons who have read earlier blogs know that there are ways of telling without telling or dire-sans-dire (to say without saying). “Le Meunier, son fils, et l’âne” is an example of dire-sans-dire. It is a discours oblique or, to quoteJürgen Grimm, a discours enveloppé, or wrapped up.
Moreover, those who have read my blog on “The Oak Tree and the Reed,” also know that there may be more than one moral to a fable. There may be an implicit moral underneath an ‘explicit’ moral. Good readers can grasp the moral underlying the moral, and my readers are good readers.
[i]François Chauveau (10 May 1613, Paris – 3 February 1676, Paris). Chauveau was the first artist to illustrate La Fontaine’s Fables. La Fontaine called on him to illustrate his first book of Fables, published in 1668.
Under the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Sun-King, Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) published twelve books of fables. The first book was published in 1668; the second, in 1678; and a collection, in the 1690s, shortly before La Fontaine’s death.
Fables, as you know, date back to Antiquity. Let us mention, first, Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra (Pañcatantra [Five Principles]), 3rd century BCE or much earlier times: 1200 BCE. Its Arabic version, entitled Kalīla wa Dimnah (750 CE), was written by Persian scholarIbn al-Muqaffa. For most most of us, however, fables are Æsop’s Fables (c. 620-564 BCE) and they belong to an oral tradition. Æsop, if there ever lived an Æsop, was probably a freed slave from Samos, Greece.
Fables are usually looked upon as children’s literature because most feature animal protagonists. Some fables may be intended for children, but others encompass the wordly-wisdom a prince should acquire. Moreover, fables may feature plants or human beings speaking with animals. The latter are called libystic fables.
When reading “Le Chêne et le Roseau,” one may be reminded of Virgil’s Georgics (1st century BCE), but this fable is mostly a La Fontaine fable. As mentioned above, it was published in 1668 and is the last fable (number XXII) of La Fontaine’s first book of Fables. La Fontaine published a second book of Fables in 1678-1679, and a third book, in 1694 or somewhat earlier.
In “Le Chêne et le Roseau,” the Oak tree boasts to the Reed that he is strong and could protect the humble Reed from powerful winds. The Reed’s response is that “he bends” in the wind, “and does not break:” “Je plie, et ne romps pas.” As the two, the Oak tree and the Reed, are conversing, a devastating wind fells the Oak tree. As for the Reed, he is whipped back and forth by this ferocious wind, but survives.
Fables are lessons presented in Horatian (Horace, 1st century BCE) fashion:“Prodesse et delectareˮ (To Delight and to Instruct, or plaire et instruire). So, a lesson or lessons can be drawn from “The Oak and the Reed,” (La Fontaine [I.22])lessons for the prince.
Usually, my students would respond that the oak tree is punished for boasting, which is a correct answer. Destiny being fickle and life, fragile, one should not boast.
I would then remind them of the Roseau ’s statement: “Je plie, et ne romps pas.ˮ Not all of them could grasp readily that La Fontaine’s fable contained another lesson, one that could be useful for the prince or the man at court.
The lesson is simple. If one is flexible, chances are one might survive and perhaps blossom in the ruthless halls of the power.[i]It could be that nothing has changed, that one must still accept compromises or otherwise be totally ineffective and unhappy in any office to which he or she is elected, or has chosen.
Ideally, the prince acts according to a set of principles. He knows, for instance, that he must serve his people, so he listens. He also knows how to serve his people. But, rigidity is an extreme that precludes listening and militates against both reasoned and reasonable leadership.