LearnFrenchwith Us!

Start Learning!

French Language Blog

The Fables of Jean de La Fontaine Posted by on Oct 9, 2017 in History, Literature

You’ve probably heard of Aesop’s fables before, but have you heard of La Fountain’s? These fables are famous to many French schoolchildren and are still enjoyed to this day.

La Fontaine’s fables (given the title Les Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de La Fontaine; “The Chosen Fables, Put Into Verse by Mr. de La Fontaine”) first appeared in 1668 and were dedicated to the six-year-old dauphin Louis, son of Louis XIV of France. More volumes were published over the next twenty-five years, eventually forming a collection of 239 fables divided into twelve volumes.

La Fontaine drew his inspiration from fables from around the world, including the Latin author Phaedrus and the Indian collection of fables known as Bidpai. The fables range from a length of several verses to many pages and feature a moral lesson learned at the end of the tale, which is often humorous.

One of my favorite fables from La Fontaine’s collection is L’astrologue qui se laisse tomber dans un puits, or “The Astrologer who Fell into a Well.” This fable is based on an ancient Greek joke about the philosopher Thales of Miletus. You can read it, along with the English translation, below.

L’astrologue qui se laisse tomber dans un puits

Un Astrologue un jour se laissa choir
        Au fond d’un puits. On lui dit : Pauvre bête,
        Tandis qu’à peine à tes pieds tu peux voir,
        Penses-tu lire au-dessus de ta tête (1)?

To an astrologer who fell
Plump to the bottom of a well,
‘Poor blockhead!’ cried a passer-by,
‘To not see your feet, and read the sky?’

Cette aventure en soi, sans aller plus avant,
Peut servir de leçon à la plupart des hommes.
Parmi ce que de gens sur la terre nous sommes,
            Il en est peu qui fort souvent
            Ne se plaisent d’entendre dire
Qu’au Livre du Destin les mortels peuvent lire.
Mais ce Livre qu’Homère et les siens ont chanté,
Qu’est-ce, que le hasard parmi l’Antiquité,
            Et parmi nous la Providence ?
        Or du hasard il n’est point de science (2) :
            S’il en était, on aurait tort
De l’appeler hasard, ni fortune, ni sort,
            Toutes choses très incertaines.
            Quant aux volontés souveraines
De celui qui fait tout, et rien qu’avec dessein,
Qui les sait, que lui seul ? Comment lire en son sein ?
Aurait-il imprimé sur le front des étoiles
Ce que la nuit des temps enferme dans ses voiles ?
A quelle utilité ? Pour exercer l’esprit
De ceux qui de la sphère et du globe ont écrit ?
Pour nous faire éviter des maux inévitables ?
Nous rendre dans les biens de plaisir incapables ?
Et causant du dégoût pour ces biens prévenus (3),
Les convertir en maux devant (4) qu’ils soient venus ?
C’est erreur, ou plutôt c’est crime de le croire.
Le firmament se meut ; les astres font leur cours,
            Le soleil nous luit tous les jours,
Tous les jours sa clarté succède à l’ombre noire,
Sans que nous en puissions autre chose inférer
Que la nécessité de luire et d’éclairer,
D’amener les saisons, de mûrir les semences,
De verser sur les corps certaines influences.
Du reste, en quoi répond au sort toujours divers
Ce train toujours égal dont marche l’univers ?
            Charlatans, faiseurs d’horoscope,
        Quittez les Cours des Princes de l’Europe ;
Emmenez avec vous les souffleurs tout d’un temps.
Vous ne méritez pas plus de foi que ces gens.
Je m’emporte un peu trop ; revenons à l’histoire
De ce Spéculateur (5) qui fut contraint de boire.
Outre la vanité de son art mensonger,
C’est l’image de ceux qui bâillent (6) aux chimères
            Cependant qu’ils sont en danger,
            Soit pour eux, soit pour leurs affaires.

This upshot of a story will suffice
To give a useful hint to most;
For few there are in this our world so wise
As not to trust in star or ghost,
Or cherish secretly the creed
That men the book of destiny may read.
This book, by Homer and his pupils sung,
What is it, in plain common sense,
But what was chance those ancient folks among,
And with ourselves, God’s providence?
Now chance doth bid defiance
To every thing like science;
‘Twere wrong, if not,
To call it hazard, fortune, lot–
Things palpably uncertain.
But from the purposes divine,
The deep of infinite design,
Who boasts to lift the curtain?
Whom but himself doth God allow
To read his bosom thoughts? and how
Would he imprint upon the stars sublime
The shrouded secrets of the night of time?
And all for what? To exercise the wit
Of those who on astrology have writ?
To help us shun inevitable ills?
To poison for us even pleasure’s rills?
The choicest blessings to destroy,
Exhausting, ere they come, their joy?
Such faith is worse than error–’tis a crime.
The sky-host moves and marks the course of time;
The sun sheds on our nicely-measured days
The glory of his night-dispelling rays;
And all from this we can divine
Is, that they need to rise and shine,–
To roll the seasons, ripen fruits,
And cheer the hearts of men and brutes.
How tallies this revolving universe
With human things, eternally diverse?
Ye horoscopers, waning quacks,
Please turn on Europe’s courts your backs,
And, taking on your travelling lists
The bellows-blowing alchemists,
Budge off together to the land of mists.
But I’ve digress’d. Return we now, bethinking
Of our poor star-man, whom we left a drinking.
Besides the folly of his lying trade,
This man the type may well be made
Of those who at chimeras stare
When they should mind the things that are.

Have you ever read La Fontaine’s fables? If so, which are your favorite fables?

Want to hear more? Sign up for one of our newsletters!

For more language learning advice, free resources, and information about how we can help you reach your language goals, select the most relevant newsletter(s) for you and sign up below.

Tags: , , ,
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author:Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at http://www.imaginistwriter.com. A la prochaine!