While Jean de La Fontaine's Fables are reliably read by every French child in school, in the United States these sly moralistic poems are more likely to be encountered in translations that favor simplicity and sentimentality over sophistication and an accurate rendering of La Fontaine's language. This is par for the course, as so many of the most popular and influential works of European writers of fairy tales, fables, and myths are rendered saccharine through translations that excise anything disturbing or ambiguous. The tendency is exacerbated when these tales are adapted as films.
Yet, as a result, it is far easier for adults to dismiss the work of writers such as La Fontaine, Perrault, Basile, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlo Collodi, and even Rudyard Kipling (especially his Just So Stories) as childish and morally simplistic because we are so used to reading watered-down versions of their stories. Thus, Gordon Pirie's translations of La Fontaine's Fables, available through the Hesperus Press, are a welcome gift and a reminder that La Fontaine was one of the most urbane and sophisticated writers of his day.
What surprised me most about these brief fables, beyond their technical sophistication as poetry, was how ambiguous and sometimes pragmatic almost to the point of cynicism the morals are. The two most famous stories are probably "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" and "The Hare and the Tortoise" and their morals are indeed fairly straightforward, but they are exceptions to the general rule. What is not straightforward is the gleefully sardonic tone in which these morals are told and the way in which they are complicated by that tone. In the first, the conflict is less between the luxuries of the town and the simplicity of the country than it is between a manner of life that is decadent and dangerous and one that is coarse but entirely safe: "But when I eat, I eat in peace,/And never have to bolt or flee./A treat that panic interrupts/Is not a treat at all, for me." The choice for the mice is not between a bad way of life and a good
way, but between gourmet meals accompanied by mortal danger or bland
food eaten in relative calm. The usual moral that one would glean from the average picture book adaptation does not emphasize the mortal danger in which the town mouse lives, perhaps because it's deemed too scary, but the animals of La Fontaine's fabular world are not warm and fuzzy. They kill and eat what they kill and often use deception to obtain what they want, including other sentient animals that become food.
Many of the fables address politics directly and aim their morals at the reader as a member of the body politic, or even at national leaders. In "The Frogs who asked for a King," the frogs grow sick of their democratic system and beg Jupiter to send them a king. He complies, dropping from the heavens a log of wood, but the frogs again complain, asking for a king "who does something!" Jupiter, thoroughly annoyed, sends them a crane to be their king and the crane promptly massacres the frogs. When the frogs complain a third time, Jupiter replies, "As for the crane, your present king,/Just make the best of him, for fear/I send you one still more severe!" This a remarkable poem, all the more so because the fables were published between 1668 and 1694 and were dedicated to French royalty, including the Dauphin and Louis XIV's mistress Madame de Montespan. The poem, if anything, has gained in relevance as democracy has become the governmental model of choice for many of the most powerful nations. In the twenty-first century, we have witnessed the crumbling of weak democracies into dictatorships that rival the most decadent absolutist monarchies in terms of state control and pursued brutality with far greater zeal. Certainly it behooves us, especially in this election year, to remember the unhappy end of the discontented frogs.
Another astonishing political fable is "The Gardener and the Squire," in which a gardener begs help from the squire to kill the hare that is daily vandalizing his carefully tended vegetable patch. The squire arrives, all enthusiasm, with hounds and horses and a huge appetite. The crowd eats all of the gardener's food, while the squire makes love to the gardener's pretty daughter, and in the end the trampling of horses, dogs, and men destroy the garden entirely while the hare makes his escape through the enormous hole in the hedge left by the squire and his halloo-ing horde. La Fontaine addresses himself to the princes of small countries, warning: "Don't ask kings and emperors/To take an interest in your wars./Believe me, you'll be sorry,/The day they set foot on your territory." There is nothing child-like in this fable that, when it begins, is so reminiscent of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It's not meant for childish consumption and it too, like "The Frogs who asked for a King," is eerily relevant in an age in which proxy wars and jockeying foreign powers tear apart the Middle East and violence still simmers beneath the surface in the Balkans.
La Fontaine is remarkably sophisticated and forward-thinking when it comes to social ills as well. In the elegant "The Animals Struck by the Plague," the beasts come together in council and decide that "to appease the sacred ire,/And thus obtain a general cure,/He who is most to blame must take the onus/Of guilt upon himself, and suffer for the rest." The carnivores confess that they have eaten sheep and men and other animals, but argue that "it was a privilege/For them to end up in [their] jaws" and thus they cannot take the blame for the plague. Pirie's translation, one of his best, cleverly equates these powerful carnivores with the aristocratic classes they represent by calling them "animals who carried swords" - in La Fontaine, the beasts are listed, ending with "des autres puissances," that is the other powerful ones, which is less pithy. In the end, an ass confesses to have eaten a few mouthfuls of grace from another's field and he is judged the source of heavenly anger. The moral thus is one we neglect to remember today: "The judgment of a court of law/Is rarely lenient to the poor."
The fact that these fables continue to warn us against the same political and social ills, from which democracy supposedly should have rescued us, speaks to a tendency that in literary circles has evolved into a sort of allergy to anything deemed moralistic. Moralizing, we are led to believe, is conservative hand-wringing, a means of oppression and censorship, it's boring and closed-minded and unimaginative, it's reactionary and stifling and retrogressive. Utter nonsense, as becomes clear to anyone who reads La Fontaine, for stories with morals do not automatically lack complexity and they do not automatically push us to reinstate traditional mores. La Fontaine, in the seventeenth century, wittily damned corrupt courts of law for treating the poor by a different standard than the rich, and he did so in age in which class was discussed in educated circles as racially based, therefore justifying rigid class boundaries that benefited the wealthy and titled to the extreme detriment of everyone else. Social and political change requires taking moral stances and woe betide us if we fail to listen to those who teach us to view our society critically and, yes, morally.