Telling tales & fables

I’ve dipped into my 1937 copy of Great Short Stories of The World again, for my monthly post, and like Little Jack Horner, may have pulled out a plum. Allow me to share my visit to seventeenth century France, via Jean de La Fontaine’s fable, The Four Friends.

A little research on La Fontaine suggests he’s not been widely translated.

The references I found to his writing all describe it as poetic. The version provided for Great Short Stories of The World is by one of the editors: Barrett H Clark. He seems to have opted for economy, rather than poetry. I’ve had a quick search for other translations on the web, and only found simple retellings, often with sections blanked out so that it can be used for teaching grammar.

Which leads me to wonder if I’ve misunderstood Clark’s decision to use archaic words, and turns of phrase. I’d assumed that he was attempting to create a sense of antiquity, by including ‘disport‘, ‘whereupon‘, and ‘bewailing‘. Perhaps after all, he was trying to charm his readers.

The trouble was, I didn’t like his style. When the rat, ‘addressed‘ his friends, and in reply, ‘Up spoke the tortoise‘, it felt like an assumed voice, created purely for the sake of telling a story.

Tricks like these remind me that one of the first difficulties, when writing about the distant past, is choosing the voice of the narration. If the story is to retain it’s relevance to seventeenth century France, then maybe it does need to create a sense of period. But I’ve just flicked back one hundred and seventy one pages to find a contemporary of La Fontaine’s. Daniel Defoe’s 1706 story, True Revelation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal was published in Britain, so has no need of translation.

There are a lot of words in Defoe’s story that could be considered difficult for the modern reader, mostly because our use of them has shifted. He uses ‘rare‘ where we might say unusual/unexpected/strange, or extra-ordinary; ‘relation’, here, means telling, or revelation. They work, and are understandable, because on the whole, Defoe’s narrator has a straightforward manner of telling. His story opens:

This thing is so rare in all its circumstances, and on so good authority, that my reading and conversation have not given me anything like it. It is fit to gratify the most ingenious and serious inquirer. Mrs Bargrave is the person to whom Mrs Veal appeared after her death…

Clark’s first sentence is:

A rat, a raven, a tortoise, and a gazelle were once upon a time the greatest friends imaginable.

He has slotted what might be considered (by some) a traditional opening for this story into the middle of his first sentence. I’ve had a quick scan of the internet, and can’t find ‘once upon a time‘ in the original. So, call me pedantic, but I’m viewing this as a retelling, rather than a translation.

Having got my quibbles out of the way, let me say that I like this fable. It’s a short, and simple tale of friendship.

“Pierre Chenu after Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Le corbeau, la gazelle, la tortue et le rat (The Crow, the Gazelle, the Tortoise, andthe Rat), published 1759, hand-colored etching, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George W. Ware, 1975.81.8”

According to the Great Short Stories of The World, La Fontaine’s telling presents “a picture of human life and French society.” I now know that he, Racine, Boileau and Molière, formed an important quartet, meeting regularly at the Rue du Vieux Colombier. So this may be a symbolic representation of their connection. But, like any great story, it tells us other, more universal things.

This happy friendship first began in a home which was unknown to any human being. However, there is no place safe from humankind, be it in the densest wood, under the deepest river, or on the highest peaks where eagles perch.

In few hundred words, this fable presents a test, examines characters, explores consequences and forces me to think about my place in the world. I may be adding nuances and ideas to it that La Fontaine never imagined, but I’m reading and thinking about it two hundred and sixty-one years after it was first published, and not as a historical oddity, but something relevant to my experiences.

40 thoughts on “Telling tales & fables

  1. Something just clicked in my head as I read your post, Cath. I recognised Jean de la Fontaine’s name, then I saw the illustration and the word, ‘corbeau’, and then a remembered. I learned the poem, ‘Le Corbeau at le Renard’ at school… and I can still recite (most of it) in French! Well I never, not bad for 40 plus years!

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  2. Wonderfully explored Cath! You’ve piqued my interest so I’m left wondering if there’s a simple version of this French fable online? Your musings take me back to a huge book of fables I treasured as a child. I hope you are having a wonderful Easter. Love & light, Deborah.

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  3. Thanks for reminding me of Jean de la Fontaine. I found the story you mention in an edition of his complete Fables, with both French and German texts and illustrations by Grandville. Love the way the friends save each other, each in their own way, with their own skill.
    … Und wem bebuehrt der Preis? Dem Herzen, ging’s nach mir …

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    • I’m definitely getting the feeling that I missed out, in my childhood!
      The way this one ends is beautiful. As you say, it’s all in the stress on individual strengths being applied for the good of the others…

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  4. We had to study some La Fontaine for A Level French, and I even now remember the first few lines of The Lion and the Gnat:

    Va-t-en, chétif Insecte, excrément de la terre!
    C’est en ces mots que le Lion
    Parlait un jour au Moucheron.”

    The puny Gnat bests the Lion, who’s driven mad by the biting insect. The Gnat, all cockahoop after his victory, swaggers off, only to land in a spider’s web. The moral being, I suppose, Don’t get above yourself (not a lesson most politicians care to learn).

    Would I revisit La Fontaine now in the original or even a translation? Possibly, if there there was wit involved, but I often think I’m not the sort of person who hasn’t already taken on board the purpose of fables — to encourage one to live a less blameworthy life.

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    • Your last point is interesting, Chris. I wonder if that’s why I have the impression that these days fables are aimed at children, rather than adults…

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      • Because (a) talking animals, and (b) morals — morality and teaching tales being for kids because adults have somehow ‘got real’ and know that you have to play the game, which means cheating and lying are okay? ☹️

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  5. The tale sounds like one I’d enjoy, Cath, but then I love “archaic” language as long as it doesn’t require deciphering. Knowing a bit about the author and his setting only makes it more interesting. A lovely share.

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  6. I do like la Fontaine, even if his Esop-like fables are full of the French fervor of Enlightenment 😉 I was lucky enough to have all his fables translated to Polish, with all those fabulous illustrations 😊

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  7. A very interesting piece that left me curious to read this story and others from that book. I especially enjoyed the comparison with Defoe, who’s work has certainly stood the test of time. I am writing a story at the moment that is set in a historical period and you have made me think carefully about my choice of narrative voice, so thank you for that! 😀

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  8. Lovely and thoughtful Cath and your last line is absolutely right, all the classics and fables we’re reading now, hundreds of years after publication are still at their heart relevant today.

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  9. What a fantastic, thought provoking ending, Cath. I enjoy reading fables, I believe one needs to be thoroughly clear, focused, happy and well read to write fables, one who, maybe, has lived the life of a discerning traveller (travelling via stories is also counted). 🙂 So happy after reading your post, thank you so much.

    (p.s – I was busy writing exams thus, took so long to reply. Hee hee!)

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    • Lovely to have you join in, Jagriti. I hope the exams went well, and weren’t too stressful. I’ll happily take your ‘travelling via stories’ as my option, much the most comfortable physical journey, to my way of thinking. I look forward to hearing more of your fascinating journeys. 🙂

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      • It was a bit stressful, but I tried my best, let us see now. 🙂
        “Travelling via stories” is, in many ways, my favourite option as well.
        I will keep sharing and keep reading your blog too, simply because I love it.
        Take care! Regards to Ray!
        XOXO

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