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.
Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 1215: The Man, the Boy and the Donkey
Æsop‘s The miller, his son and the donkey, Perry Index 721 (English)
[eBook #25433], page 23
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).
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A father and his son want to take a donkey to market and sell it. They tie the donkey’s feet together and run a rod underneath the tied feet. This is their way of carrying their merchandise.
(Please click on the images to enlarge them.)
The miller, his son and the donkey, by Milo Winter (7 August 1888 – 1956)
(Photo credit: The Æsop for Children, Gutenberg EBook
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.”
The Moral or the Morals
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.”
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)
La Fontaine’s Poetics
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 quote Jürgen 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.
Le Meunier, son fils, et l’âne and The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey
© Micheline Walker
21 March 2012
Jean de La Fontaine,
par Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659 – 1743)