“I bend, and do not break”
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 “Élégie aux 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.”The Oak and the Reed (Photo credit: oldbookillustrations.com)
The Moral of “The Oak and the Reed”
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 trompeur trompé”). 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 Rabbinic Talmud 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.)(Photo credit: Gutenberg (EBook #25357] Percy J. Billinghurst)
Moreover, this moral, “[h]e who bends does not break,” could be associated with a French seventeenth-century ideal, that of l’honnête homme. “L’honnête homme” or the concept of “honnêteté” was first described in Baldassare Castiglione‘s Il Cortegiano (1528), The Book of the Courtier, but Castiglione’s courtier underwent changes in Paris salons and in the works of the Chevalier de Méré, Nicolas Faret and Guez de Balzac.
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.
- La Fontaine’s “Le Chêne et le Roseau”
- Vaux-le-Vicomte: Fouquet’s Rise and Fall
- Il Cortegiano or “l’honnête homme”
- A Few Words on “sprezzatura”
- 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.
Recent studiesPatrick 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)
La Fontaine’s Fables1. A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine, Percy J. Billinghurst http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25357/25357-h/25357-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25357/25357-h/25357-h.htm#Page_60 [EBook #25357] 2. The Fables of La Fontaine, Elizur Wright, J. W. M. Gibbs, 1882  http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8ffab10h.htm [EBook #7241] 3. The Fables of La Fontaine, Walter Thornbury, Gustave Doré http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50316/50316-h/50316-h.htm [EBook #50316] 4. Fables in Rhyme for Little Folks, From the French of La Fontaine John Rae & W.T. (William Trowbridge) Larned http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24108/24108-h/24108-h.htm
Æsop’s Fables1. V. S. Vernon Jones, (tr) G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Rackham (ill) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339-h.htm#030-2 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339-h.htm#THE_OAK_AND_THE_REEDS [EBook #11339] 2. George Fyler Townsend, translator http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21/21-h/21-h.htm#link2H_4_0210 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21/21-h/21-h.htm#link2H_4_0128 (The Oak and the Reeds) [EBook #21] 3. Harrison Weir, John Tenniel and Ernest Griset, illustrators http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18732/18732-h/18732-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18732/18732-h/18732-h.htm (The Oak and the Reeds) [EBook #18732] 4. Milo Winter (illustrator) The Æsop for Children http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19994/19994-h/19994-h.htm [EBook #19994] 5. The Baldwin Project: The Tree and the Reeds http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=baldwin&book=fables&story=tree The Reed and the Oak Tree Maëlle Doliveux WordPress