La Fontaine, Jean de

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

La Fontaine, Jean de

La Fontaine, Jean de (1621-1695) French fabulist

A worldly, lighthearted poet of the early years of the French Empire, Jean de La Fontaine revived the satiric intent, finesse, and clever badinage of the classic FABLE. A native of Chateau-Thierry in Champagne, a wine-growing region of west-central France, he completed his education in Paris, dabbled at law, and read Homer and the works of the Roman essayist Cicero, the playwright Terence, the poets Horace and OVID, and the epic poet VIRGIL. After an extended youth of gaming, womanizing, and indulgence in a fashionable wardrobe, in 1647, he inherited his father's position as royal inspector of waterways and forests and also made an unhappy arranged marriage. With plenty of time free from his official duties, he devoted himself to writing ballets, operas, dramas, salon trifles, and epigrammatic poetry. He was subsidized by Nicholas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances, but his insouciant lifestyle vanished with Fouquet's arrest and imprisonment for embezzlement.

In his late 30s, La Fontaine chose WISDOM LITERATURE as his metier. Unlike the later German writers Gotthard Ephraim Lessing and JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, who valued the genre as a source of self-improvement and perfecting flaws, La Fontaine used the illustrative tale to improve public decorum and propriety. In company with Nicolas Boileau, Moliere, Jean Racine, and Madame de Sevigne, La Fontaine refined his technique and devoted himself to the fable, which he collected in Fables choisies (Selected Fables, 1668, 1678). Around 1672, he sold his official position, and for the rest of his life, La Fontaine depended on the generosity of patrons. He was elected to the French Academy in 1684.

Advice to Power

Schooled in AESOP'S style in the fables of Phaedrus published about A.D. 31 and drawing on the PANCHATANTRA (ca. 200 B.C.) and medieval tales, La Fontaine wrote dramatic nuggets based on models from Greece, Rome, Turkey, India, Britain, and the Islamic Empire as well as on bucolic French scenarios featuring dairymaids, cobblers, and shepherds. He dedicated his first book of fables to six- year-old Prince Louis, the Grand Dauphin, who was growing up in the royal court of Louis XIV, the self-indulgent Sun King. In “Education,” La Fontaine warns, “Oft falls the son below his sire's estate; / Through want of care all things degenerate” (La Fontaine 1860, 117). The moral suggests that the fabulist considered his stories as words to the wise, especially to a future monarch.

In sophisticated French bearing an audacity similar to the Russian fabulist IVAN ANDREYEVICH KRYLOV, La Fontaine prodded the bastions of power in “The Man and the Flea,” “The Dog That Carried His Master's Dinner,” and “The Rat and the Oyster.” With “The Bear and the Amateur Gardener,” the moralist reminds the maker of alliances that false friends are more dangerous than enemies. A parallel, “The Funeral of the Lioness,” states that the flatterer can easily amuse royalty: “No matter what you may have done, / Nor yet

how high its wrath may run, / —The Bait is swallowed—object won” (91). In “The Lion's Court,” the narrative advises the fawner on majesty of the value of plain speaking: “To gain the smile / Of kings, one must hold the middle place / 'Twixt blunt rebuke and fulsome praise / And sometimes use, with easy grace, / The language of the Norman race” (4). One of La Fontaine's most stirring “minidramas,” “The League of Rats,” derides the platitudes of would-be chivalric heroes facing a feline stalker named Raminagrab (Grimalkin in some versions). In “The Heron,” La Fontaine abases the esthete for constantly expecting the best for himself. The stinger at the end proclaims, “Ye featherless people of the human race / —List to another tale as true, / And you'll hear the lesson brought home to you” (17).

Key to an appreciation of La Fontaine is his rejection of the didactic conclusion. He preferred compact scenarios and a subtle compassion. “The Rat Retired from the World” mocks state religions for cloistering the clergy from the horrors of international war. “The Dairywoman and the Pot of Milk” scolds monarchs for disbelieving that they can fall to the powers of “simple Jack” (32), a meditation on the Jacquerie that rebelled against King John II the Good of France at Poitiers in 1358. La Fontaine expresses pity for peasants in “The Hare and the Frogs,” a meditation on lowly creatures who live in constant fear of larger, more aggressive beasts. In “The Animals Sick of the Plague,” he denounces Renard the Fox's scapegoating of the ass, a bald, scabrous, scruffy beast hanged for eating grass. The moral frets, “Thus human courts acquit the strong, / And doom the weak, as therefore wrong” (10).

As a hint to crowned heads, La Fontaine composed “The Power of Fable,” which warns the hypothetical emperor to listen to the wisdom of common folk. The fabulist's work influenced the writings of Krylov, a storyteller who teased a similarly decadent regime in Russia more than a century later. The Senegalese folklorist BIRAGO DIOP created his own version of La Fontaine's style by translating Wolof tales into French.


Hobbs, Anne Stevenson, ed. Fables. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.

La Fontaine, Jean de. Fables of La Fontaine. Translated by Elizur Wright. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860.

Shields, David S. Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.