While one may be tempted by tradition to think of Jean de La Fontaine’s The Fables as children’s stories, such a notion does a disservice to La Fontaine’s elegant poetry and down-to-earth, sometimes bitter philosophy and view of life. A point to keep in mind in reading The Fables is that they were written over a period of more than twenty-five years. The first six books of fables were published in 1668, five more books appeared in 1673-1679, and the twelfth and final book was published in 1694. As such, The Fables reflect the changes in point of view of a writer who matured and perhaps mellowed as he wrote and published his fable-poems.
To a certain degree, La Fontaine’s ideas also reflect social and political problems and philosophical styles in France during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). Many of the early fables seem to comment on specific injustices of Louis XIV’s regime, especially as they affected the common people, while the fables from La Fontaine’s later years mainly express a spiritual withdrawal that resembles stoicism in certain respects.
As the literary heir of ancient fabulists such as Aesop, Bidpai, and Phaedrus, La Fontaine makes use of a form that was familiar to his readers. Most of his fables feature a story and a moral, the latter often separated from the text of the tale. La Fontaine’s verse form varies; he uses eight-syllable lines as a basic structure, but he often exploits the dignified twelve-syllable Alexandrine form, the verse form identified with seventeenth century French tragedy, when he wishes to express exceptional drama and seriousness.
As for the fables’ casts of characters, most of the fables present, as usual, familiar characters from the animal kingdom. “I use animals to teach men,” says La Fontaine in the poem that serves as a preface to The Fables. Some of the fables do, however, feature humans of various social classes and nationalities. In the case of his animal characters, La Fontaine often endows certain creatures with what would be considered traditionally symbolic traits. His lion, therefore, is always a character that represents royalty and the caprice of absolute power; La Fontaine’s wolf is always vicious and violent; the lamb is weak and timid; the fox is clever and insinuating, and so on.
Usually, also, the first fable of each book is especially important because it sets the tone for the fables that follow in that book; similarly, the last fable of each book often sums up or punctuates the themes of the entire book. Indeed, many of the most famous and familiar fables are to be found in book 1. “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” which opens book 1 and serves as a passageway to all the fables, is typical of La Fontaine’s style. This short fable expresses a peasant or bourgeois wisdom, a practicality that may strike some modern readers as cruel. There are only two characters in this poem, the grasshopper and the ant of the fable’s title. The first of these is carefree, a poet or a singer who wastes her time singing in the summer when she should prepare for the winter to come. As fall approaches, seeing that she will be short of supplies, the grasshopper beseeches her neighbor, the ant, for a loan. The ant, however, is quite unsympathetic, dismissing the grasshopper’s airy appeal with curtness. Similarly, the last fable in book 1, “The Oak and the Reed,” tells yet another tale of the downfall of the proud and complacent. In this case, the mighty oak tree who mocks the weakness of the reed at the fable’s beginning is laid low by a storm at the story’s end. The moral of this story is that it is not always best to be strong and rigid; sometimes, being able to bend with prevailing winds is an asset.
“The Fox and the Crow,” the second fable in book 1, presents a wily fox who outwits a vain crow. The following fable, “The Frog Who Would Be an Ox,” pokes fun at those who want to be something they are not. In this poem, La Fontaine adds a moral that applies what the fable teaches to the world of seventeenth century humans, pointing out that all bourgeois want to be great nobles (in an era when the titles of hereditary nobility could be bought by affluent middle-class people), all petty princes want to have their own ambassadors, and all minor noblemen want to have their own servants. A bit later, “The Wolf and the Dog” suggests that a life of freedom is much better than the life at court, which requires the sacrifice of one’s dignity. “The Wolf and the Lamb” illustrates the lesson that force gets...
(The entire section is 1888 words.)