La Fontaine’s Fables include some of the most famous poems—perhaps the most famous poems—in the French language. Two such poems are the opening pieces in book 1, “La Cigale et la fourmi” (“The Cicada and the Ant,” often translated as “The Grasshopper and the Ant”) and “Le Corbeau et le renard” (“The Crow and the Fox”). The fame of these poems is due primarily to the fact that they have been learned by heart and recited in class by millions of schoolchildren in France and the French-speaking world. They have been fundamental to the teaching of French to children and to developing an appreciation of literature because of their formal beauty, and they also instill in children the practical morality that they illustrate.
In “The Cicada and the Ant,” for example, the cicada comes to the ant begging for food because she spent all summer long singing instead of preparing for winter. This fable clearly teaches children the importance of planning for the long term, an essential life skill. If it were as simple as that, however, La Fontaine would be regarded as a fine didactic poet, and nothing more. Even in this very first poem, however, something emerges that undermines, and even contradicts, the healthy “moral” implied by the cicada’s unhappy fate. Quite simply, what are readers to make of the ant? Instead of agreeing to share her food with her “friend,” the cicada, she dismisses her without a thought: “So you were singing, were you? Isn’t that nice! Well then, now you can dance.”
Is this the sort of altruistic behavior one wants to encourage in children? Certainly not according to Christian morality, which promotes charity, forgiveness toward others for their sins, and empathy for their misfortunes. Furthermore, the ant is not only un-Christian in her attitude, she expresses her feelings in a cutting, witty manner. Readers therefore have examples of two recurring themes of La Fontaine’s poetry: Success in life goes to those who look after themselves and know how to bend others to their will; and those who are able to manipulate language in an effective, witty manner, regardless of the negative consequences, are to be admired. Finally, it is clear that La Fontaine would have identified with the cicada: His entire career was spent asking rich people to support his artistic endeavors.
The second poem contains a similar “antimorality” hidden under the surface. A hungry fox sees a crow holding a piece of cheese in his beak. He flatters the bird by first saying how beautiful his feathers are, although everyone knows that crows’ feathers are not impressive. The fox then says that if he could sing like the crow, he would most certainly be “the phoenix of the denizens of this forest.” Even though crows cannot sing, the proud bird opens his...
(The entire section is 1156 words.)