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.

Obscure Fiction

Eléonor d’Yvrée (1687) by Catherine Bernard | Forgotten Fiction

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « eleonor d'yvree »Today, I created my first book entry on Goodreads. Eléonor d’Yvrée (1687) by Catherine Bernard was a highly-acclaimed novel in the seventeenth century, but I seem to be the only person on Goodreads who has read it.

Catherine Bernard wrote during the latter half of the century and was clearly influenced by Madame de La Fayette. But unlike La Fayette, Bernard was also a playwright. She was related to and trained by big names in the literary world, most notably Bernard de Fontenelle, who tried to take credit for Eléonor d’Yvrée. History likes to forget and downplay female accomplishments.

In Eléonor d’Yvrée, our eponymous heroine is raised by the countess of Tuscanelle because her father was defeated in a war against the English king. In shame, the marquis d’Yvrée abandoned his children and retired to a monastery. We only encounter the marquis once in the novel. From the monastery, he orders Eléonor to accept her brother’s caretaker’s marriage proposal!

Unfortunately, Eléonor is in love with the count of Misnie. The count’s mother goes to great lengths to prevent her son from marrying Eléonor because she thinks that Eléonor is beneath her son in status. The plot thickens when Mathilde, the countess of Tuscanelle’s daughter, realizes that she’s also in love with the count of Misnie. So, Eléonor and Mathilde are both in love with the same person, but only Mathilde is allowed to marry the count. The duchess of Misnie convinces the countess of Tuscanelle that Mathilde and the count of Misnie would make a great pair, and Eléonor remains hopelessly betrothed to the count of Rethelois (her brother’s guardian).

Mathilde tries to take charge of her destiny. She tells the count of Misnie that Eléonor has been unfaithful; she has willingly chosen someone else over him. Mathilde knows that she has lied about her friend, but she wants to destroy the passion between Eléonor and the count.

Eléonor, on the other hand, feels that it is her duty to marry the count of Rethelois. She has no choice but to obey her father’s wishes. When Mathilde admits to her selfishness, Eléonor encourages Mathilde to marry the count of Misnie. Indeed, she gives Mathilde to the count. The count, however, doesn’t love Mathilde back. He is devoted to Eléonor.

Eléonor may not be able to escape her duties, but Eléonor tries to be a master of her destiny. When she encourages her rival to marry her lover, she acts against her inclinations. She actively consents to a marriage that will make her miserable, but this act is one of freedom.

Mathilde also tries to be a master of her destiny, but in a different way. She lies to the count of Misnie about Eléonor’s character. For a moment, it seems like Mathilde will win. She is, after all, betrothed to the count. But the love isn’t mutual. There is no victory in marrying a person who doesn’t love you back. Eléonor is the strongest of the pair because she puts her friend’s interests above her own. Mathilde, on the other hand, tries to lie and cheat her way to love.

Eléonor begs the count of Misnie to stop seeing her. She no longer wants to be in contact with the count. The count attends Eléonor’s wedding, but Eléonor refuses to acknowledge his presence. The count of Misnie blames Mathilde for everything. “Are you pleased? Eléonor has married the count of Rethelois, you are now avenged.”

Mathilde catches a fever and dies during the night.

The End.

French Classics List

French Classics Book List for 2014-2015

My blog places a particular emphasis on both English and French literary classics. Because I enjoy French literature (and love the French language), I would like to introduce you all to it. I have a list of 20 French classics that I plan to read in the next two years (2014 and 2015). These works are all available in translation, and most can be downloaded on Kindle for free . Personally, I will be reading the novels and plays in French. Some of these works I will be rereading, and some of them you may have already read in English.

And yes, I really do want to read Jules Verne. That’s why I have 4 of his books listed 🙂

Without further ado, here is the list:

  1. Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) – Honoré de Balzac
  2. Cyrano de Bergerac  – Edmond Rostand
  3. Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) – Alain-Fournier
  4. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  5. Vingt Mile Lieues Sous Les Mers (20000 Leagues Under the Sea) – Jules Verne
  6. Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – Victor Hugo
  7. Eugénie Grandet – Honoré de Balzac
  8. Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) – Stendhal
  9. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (A Middle-Class Gentleman) – Molière
  10. Bonjour Tristesse – Françoise Sagan
  11. Don Juan – Molière
  12. La Princesse de Clèves (The Princesse de Clèves) – Madame de Lafayette
  13. Tristan et Iseult (The Romance of Tristan and Iseult) – Joseph Bédier
  14. Phèdre – Jean Racine
  15. Voyage au Centre de la Terre (Voyage to the Center of the Earth) – Jules Verne
  16. De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) – Jules Verne
  17. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  18. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – Marcel Proust
  19. Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) – Alexandre Dumas
  20. Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingts Jours (Around the World in 80 Days) – Jules Verne