Poems, Reflections

La Fontaine’s “The Wolf and the Lamb” (Le Loup et L’Agneau)

I’ve been having a hell of a time finding something to blog about. But a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that I have never discussed my favorite La Fontaine fable “The Wolf and the Lamb” on my blog. Although “The Crow and the Fox” is the most famous French fable, “The Wolf and the Lamb” is my favorite because it gets at a disturbing social dynamic.

I am including both the original poem and an English translation.

                         Le Loup et L’Agneau
La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure :
Nous l’allons montrer tout à l’heure.
Un Agneau se désaltérait
Dans le courant d’une onde pure.
Un Loup survient à jeun qui cherchait aventure,
Et que la faim en ces lieux attirait.
Qui te rend si hardi de troubler mon breuvage ?
Dit cet animal plein de rage :
Tu seras châtié de ta témérité.
— Sire, répond l’Agneau, que votre Majesté
Ne se mette pas en colère ;
Mais plutôt qu’elle considère
Que je me vas désaltérant
Dans le courant,
Plus de vingt pas au-dessous d’Elle,
Et que par conséquent, en aucune façon,
Je ne puis troubler sa boisson.
— Tu la troubles, reprit cette bête cruelle,
Et je sais que de moi tu médis l’an passé.
— Comment l’aurais-je fait si je n’étais pas né ?
Reprit l’Agneau, je tette encor ma mère.
— Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère.
— Je n’en ai point.
— C’est donc quelqu’un des tiens :
Car vous ne m’épargnez guère,
Vous, vos bergers, et vos chiens.
On me l’a dit : il faut que je me venge.
Là-dessus, au fond des forêts
Le Loup l’emporte, et puis le mange,
Sans autre forme de procès.

                         The Wolf and the Lamb
The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best:
We now show how this is true.
A lamb was quenching its thirst
In the water of a pure stream.
A fasting wolf came by, looking for something;
He was attracted by hunger to this place.
—What makes you so bold as to meddle with my drinking?
Said this animal, very angry.
You will be punished for your boldness.
—Sir, answered the lamb, let Your Majesty
Not put himself into a rage;
But rather, let him consider
That I am taking a drink of water
In the stream
More than twenty steps below him;
And that, consequently, in no way,
Am I troubling his supply.
—You do trouble it, answered the cruel beast.
And I know you said bad things of me last year.
—How could I do that when I wasn’t born,
Answered the lamb; I am still at my mother’s breast.
—If it wasn’t you, then it was your brother.
—I haven’t a brother.—It was then someone close to you;
For you have no sympathy for me,
You, your shepherds and your dogs.
I have been told of this.I have to make things even.
Saying this, into the woods
The wolf carries the lamb, and then eats him
Without any other why or wherefore.
-Trans. Eli Siegel

Admittedly, this is a pretty pessimistic fable. But which Aesop or La Fontaine fable isn’t? French fables do not teach children how the world should be but how it really is. Consequently, children are forced to confront the injustices of the world from a young age.

In most La Fontaine fables, the first line is the moral. The first line of Le Loup et L’Agneau is “La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure”. A literal translation is “The reason of the strongest [person] is always the best.” The fable beneath tells the story of a wolf who chastises a lamb for troubling his water supply. Never mind that the lamb has done absolutely nothing to deserve the wolf’s wrath. The two animals are so far from each other that the lamb is not at all in the way. Nevertheless, the wolf claims that he is.

The wolf’s complaint is far from reasonable. The lamb was already at the stream before the wolf arrived. When the lamb defends himself, the wolf’s accusations become even more ludicrous. He claims that the lamb insulted him the previous year, even though the lamb hadn’t even been born.

So why is the wolf’s reason (ie. the reason of the strongest) the best? It’s certainly not the best because it is the most logical. It’s the best because the wolf has the power to get what he wants. The lamb, on the other hand, lacks the power to escape from the wolf; nothing he might say can prevent him from being eaten.

Thus, the reason of the strongest is the best because the strongest always wins. The irony of the moral points to an unpleasant social reality. Those with the power to get what they want, will.

Many scholars believe that La Fontaine’s moral was an allusion to the case of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance under Louis XIV. Fouquet was an ambitious administrator and an extravagant spender. He built himself the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which eventually became the model for Louis XIV’s Versailles. Indeed, King Louis was so afraid that a subordinate might become a Richelieu-type premier ministre that he imprisoned Fouquet and confiscated his castle. Fouquet ended his days in prison.

Fouquet may have been one of the wealthiest men in King Louis XIV’s court, but his wealth could not save him. Nor could the reasoning of his friends and acquaintances. Of course, calling Fouquet a lamb is more than a little disingenuous. He certainly acquired his wealth through unjust means. Nevertheless, the moral of the fable holds true: “The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best” (trans. Eli Siegel).

People who get away with saying and doing the most ludicrous things are those who have the most power in our society.

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