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Fables 101: La Fontaine


Fables 101 articles are centered on the history and literary interpretations of famous fables. Although widely popular, these stories have various explanations on the literary, cultural, historical, and political levels, which remain unknown to the shallow reader. Due to their appearance in numerous literary works, this series will delve deeper into the fables’ literary connotations and will interpret their feature in several contexts. These analyses will broaden the reader’s perspective on fables and will provide an additional layer of meaning to these stories that have long been taken for granted.

Fables 101 series is mainly divided into five articles, as follows:

Fables 101: Uncovering the History of the Fable

Fables 101: Aesop

Fables 101: La Fontaine The Model Fabulist

• Fables 101: Sharma’s Moral Guide The Panchatantra

• Fables 101: Modern Relevance and Use of the Fable

La Fontaine: The Model Fabulist

When one mentions the genre of the fable, the first author that comes to mind is Jean de la Fontaine, a 17th-century classicist who is renowned for his collections of animalistic fables which were first taught at schools in France, and later on, found their way across the globe. Although he is not one of the genre's founders, La Fontaine remains an icon whose works almost disowned Aesop’s authority, the Greek slave who wrote fables during the 4th century BC. He reinvented the Greek fable, previously discussed in the latest article in this series, and gave it an additional poetic layer that veils the didactic aspect of the story. The use of creative poetic elements and easy diction simplifies fables, making them more accessible and understandable for the common reader, leading to their fame and perpetual use within modern educational curricula. Thus, La Fontaine became an innovator who greatly impacted the genre’s characteristics and audience through his works.

Figure 1: Francois Seraphin Delpech. J. de la Fontaine. (1798)

First of all, La Fontaine’s reinterpretation of Aesop’s fables presents several differences in style, content, and tone from the originals. La Fontaine wrote a collection of 250 fables divided into 12 books. What started as mere translations of the Aesopian fables was later stylistically transformed to include a simpler diction and a more poetic shape. According to poet and literary critic Hollander, (2010):

The great transformation was wrought by Jean de la Fontaine in the seventeenth century, who made the language of his fabulous creatures the material for his own remarkable poetic skill: controlling tone, using a highly original rhythm and pacing of both line length and rhyme placement, and deploying a kind of wit that often seems to be implicitly acknowledging that these creatures couldn’t speak except in remarkable verse like this (p. xxvii).

Thus, this poetic aspect of La Fontaine’s fables creates a paradox; the poetic elements, in addition to the animal characters, create a fictional mood to the story, whereas the setting and didactic tones give it a realistic aspect. Literature Professor Birberick (2020) claims that: “the fable resides at the intersection between the natural and the supernatural, between the real and the imaginary, between mimesis and the fantastic” (p. 4). Therefore, La Fontaine’s fables differ in style as they are more poetic and fictional, whereas Aesop’s are more formal, straightforward, and educational. Moreover, in terms of tone, Aesop’s is purely didactic as he ends his fables with an explicit lesson, whereas La Fontaine’s tone is rather imaginative, persuasive, and ever-so-slightly implicitly educational.

Figure 2: Bibliothèque National de France. Fables de la Fontaine. (1875)

In terms of content, Aesop’s diversity in characters is annihilated by La Fontaine’s exclusive use of animals in his works. The animalistic fable is characteristic of La Fontaine’s stories and gained popularity to the extent that the presence of animals within the fable was standardized and became part of the definition of the genre. In time, his fables also influenced contemporary writers such as George Orwell, who wrote the modern fable Animal Farm (1945). La Fontaine and Orwell include political and social criticism in their works as they create animals with stereotypical human behaviors. Kleinová (2012) states that “although Orwell’s Animal Farm is not a typical demonstration of the fable as its main idea criticizes political events, both stories concentrate on negative features and values of people, and their misbehavior is depicted by the performance of animals” (p. 2). La Fontaine utilized his fables in order to address political issues and criticize the society he lived in, denouncing the higher social classes especially. Researcher and analyst Neveu (2017) highlights that “La Fontaine subtly criticizes human nature and contemporary society in French aristocratic circles” (pp. 23-24). Additionally, La Fontaine and Orwell's works contain implicit morals that the readers have to deduce by themselves. For example, one of the main morals communicated in Orwell's Animal Farm is the interrelation between power and corruption, which is represented through the character of Napoleon the pig who becomes more and more corrupted as he ascends the power ladder. Thus, there is striking similarity when it comes to the use of animals for criticizing purposes. However, it is crucial to mention that Orwell is not an exclusive fabulist but also writes in his other popular works about different academic topics such as censorship, freedom and propaganda.

Figure 3: Shai-san. Illustration Jean de la Fontaine. (2022)

Continuing, Jean de la Fontaine addresses his audience in a specific manner that allows him to create a special bond between them and himself. For example, in The Fox and the Stork, La Fontaine directly mentions his reader, saying: "Tricksters, it's for you I write" (v.18). Lyons (1975) pinpoints that: “[La Fontaine] clearly attempts to create a specifically literary consciousness of the fable's existence as language and as form, to keep the reader in a state of constant awareness that the text remains a text, and even to make the act and moment of creation of the work the true focus of the reader's attention“ (p. 59). Therefore, La Fontaine tries to instigate a sort of initiative in his audience as he includes an indirect call to action to drive the reader to actively change society. For example, in Les Souris et le chat-huant (1678), the narrator insists on the realistic aspect of the story, claiming that it has actually happened as he situates it in history: “Je le maintiens prodige, et tel que d'une fable Il a l'air et les traits, encore que véritable” (La Fontaine, v.11). This roughly translates to "I maintain it prodigy, and as of a fable, Its looks and features are true." Moreover, La Fontaine has a tendency of considering the reader a witness or 'témoin' to the actions of the fable. This further involves the audience and prompts them to act upon the lessons they acquired.

Figure 4: Heinrich Leutemann. Reynard The Fox. (1873)

It is significant to mention again that La Fontaine’s fables are still relevant nowadays and are taught at schools all over the world, especially in France. Neveu (2017) comments that “Through this personification, the Fables gain a didactic value, leading to their incorporation into the French primary and secondary educational system as early as the 18th century, and up to the present” (p. 24). This is primarily due to the fabulist’s simple and clear diction, as well as his didactic tone and entertaining humanized characters. For example, in The Grasshopper and the Ant, the narrator introduces the plot using a straightforward sentence structure: "A Grasshopper gay/ Sang the summer away, / And found herself poor/ By the winter's first roar" (v. 1-4). Also, parents often use fables to indirectly communicate social norms, rules, and lessons.

La Fontaine's fables influenced numerous authors from all over the world, including the russian fabulist Ivan Knylov, the Ukrainian author Leonid Hlibov, and Antonín Jaroslav Puchmayer, the Czech writer, to mention a few. Thus, many academics and authors were struck by La Fontaine's genius and followed his footsteps, making him a legend with an immense literary legacy that still inspire the modern writer.

To summarize, Jean de la Fontaine revolutionized the fable genre using Aesop’s works as a foundation upon which he built masterpieces of his own. While the avid reader could easily locate the similarities between the two fabulists, their writings differ in terms of style, content, and tone, in addition to the distinct relationship established between La Fontaine and his audience. La Fontaine uses his works and the format of the fable in order to influence the reader and drive them to initiate change on an individual, communal, and social level. Moreover, he stands out because of his select use of animalistic fables, which allowed them to be easily included in school curricula both in the past and present, thus providing a tool to help enhance children’s critical thinking and analytical skills. Finally, Jean de la Fontaine left behind a legacy of perpetual works giving credit to Aesop, the founder of the genre, and using a unique poetic style infused with social and political criticism.

Bibliographical References

Birberick, A. L. (2020). Jean de La Fontaine's Fables: Poetizing and Problematizing a Genre. A Companion to World Literature, 1-10.

Hollander, J. (2010). The complete fables of Jean de la Fontaine. University of Illinois Press.

Kleinová, D.(2012).The uses of the fable in medieval and modern. English literature.

La Fontaine, J.D. (1979). The Grasshopper and the Ant. Oxford University Press.

La Fontaine, J. D., & Sewal, R. (1967). The Fox And The Stork And Other La Fontaine Fables.

La Fontaine, J. D., & Villeneuve, M. (2010). Les Fables de La Fontaine: Tome 2.

Lyons, J. D. (1975). Author and Reader in the Fables. The French Review, 49(1), 59-67.

Neveu, A. (2017). How Paratexts Influence the Reader’s Experience of English Translations of La Fontaine’s Fables. New Voices in Translation Studies, (16).

Visual Sources

Biblioteque National de France (1875), Fables de la Fontaine [Illustration], Gallica.

Francois Seraphin Delpech (1798), J. de la Fontaine [Illustration], Common Wikimedia.

Heinrich Leutemann (1873), Reynard The Fox [Illustration], Princeton.

Shai-san (2022), Illustration Jean de la Fontaine [Digital Illustration], Art Station.

Author Photo

Elsa Abdallah

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