The Heifer, the Goat, and the Sheep, in Company With the Lion illustrates the absolute power of the feudal lord (the lion) over the peasantry (the goat and sheep). This fable may be referring to the division of taxes and possessions, or it may be a direct reference to the hunting rights of feudal lords. The feudal lord (lion) declares that a stag killed by the goat is his, by the right of the strong.
Again, as the bravest, the third must be mine.
To touch but the fourth whoso makes a sign,
I'll choke him to death
In the space of a breath!" (Shapiro, p. 9).
This attitude represents the attitudes of the wealthy towards the peasantry. They would rather see them dead than share even a small portion of their wealth with them. This fable is where the phrase "a lions' share" originates (Shapiro, p. 9). A similar version to this story can be found in the Greek version of Aesop's fables, once again bringing into question the intention of Lafontaine in his writing.
Messages to the Poor and Purpose in Writing
Lafontaine was not of lower class upbringing and was highly educated. He was not of the upper class, that he loved to taunt with satire, but of slightly lower class. He was not poor, but was born into the lower end of the upper class (Shapiro, p. xvii). His concern for those less fortunate than himself is apparent in his advice to them. He often addresses the poor, which is of interest, because many of the poor were illiterate. Education was a privilege of the wealthy. Lafontaine may have been attempting to derive sympathy for the poor through telling the wealthy of their plight. However, Lafontaine left few clues other than those found in his work.
One example of this type of moral is found in the Grasshopper and the Ant (Shapiro, p. xxxviii). There are many fables that are similar in content to this one. This is the story of a grasshopper who played all summer and then had nothing to eat in the winter. The ant had been working all summer and had ample stores for the winter. The grasshopper offers to pay the ant double for a morsel, but the ant will not let the hungry grasshopper have the benefits of its hard work. The moral of the story is to work and save in good times for the bad. This is also a message to the wealthy that money cannot buy them everything and they need to understand the power of the poor, especially when it comes to controlling commodities.
Lafontaine renders several of Aesop's fables almost verbatim from the original. The Grasshopper and the Ant is one example. The Raven and the Fox is another example (Shapiro, p. xxxiii). Many different versions of this story exist, some using different animals to make the point. Regardless of the animal characters used in these classic tales, the moral of the story remains the same. In many of the classic tales, Lafontaine appears to have done nothing more than to translate them into the French language.
Through an exploration of the collection of Lafontaine work, we can find two different types of Aesops' fables. We can find examples that appear to be a retelling of the classics. Lafontaine versions are similar to other translations with very little embellishment. In other cases, Lafontaine version appears to have been altered to reflect French society. A prime example of this is the tale of the Two Mules. We can also find examples of Lafontaine Fables that do not appear in the original Aesop's Fables. These appear to be original works that used Aesop's Fables as inspiration.
At the beginning of this research, we mentioned that some feel Lafontaine could be accused of plagiarism. From a modern standpoint, this may be true in that Lafontaine did not come out and directly cite his source. However, in his time, these tales were classic, largely passed on through the oral tradition. When one considers this question in historical context, it appears that Lafontaine was simply acting as a transcriptionist or translator of the original tales.
If one only examines one of Lafontaine fables, it would be easy to draw an incorrect conclusion. If one takes his work as a whole, it becomes apparent that Lafontaine had different purposes in writing at different times. Sometimes Lafontaine was acting as a translator, at other times, his work took on a satirical style meant to entertain a particular audience. It is from what appear to be Lafontaine original works that we gain the greatest insight into French society. Lafontaine sympathy of the poor and amusement with the ability of the wealthy class to cause themselves harm through their arrogance was apparent, when one looks at the body of Lafontaine work as a whole.
Unlike other writers whose work has a consistent style and theme throughout, one must take a different approach to an analysis of Lafontaine work. For instance, it is easy to examine only one poem and discuss the metaphorical portrayal of French Society. However, only when one takes a holistic approach to Lafontaine work does one begin to see the message that he was trying to send to the audience. Patterns begin to emerge in his work as a whole, as well as within individual pieces. Examining Lafontaine work holistically allows the researcher to place it within the proper context of 17th century French Literature.
Comparison and Contrast
Applying the holistic approach to Lafontaine Fables allows one to recognize a central theme, not only in the individual pieces, but in the Lafontaine philosophy. The story of the Horse Who Sought Revenge on the Stag (Shapiro, p. 94-95) is the story of how the horse's blind rage and raw emotions led him to make a decision that would later imprison him. The horse used the human to murder the stag, which resulted in a small emotional reward for the horse, but the satisfaction was short-lived as the horse discovered that it would be doomed to a life of servitude.
The theme of servitude vs. freedom can also be found in the story of the Wolf and the Scrawny Dog (Shapiro, p. 246-247). In this story, the scrawny dog is offered a life where he would never be hungry again, but in exchange would have to work for the human. The scrawny dog chose the life of freedom and famine, over a life of servitude and wealth. Through these stories, one can gain a sense of the value that Lafontaine places on freedom. These stories illustrate the importance of being able to rule one's own destiny, rather than being at the mercy of another. These stories compare the life of the poor, but free, to the life of the wealthy, but enslaved.
Lafontaine, often includes stories where the upper class is the victim of their own greed, as in the story of the Hen that Laid the Golden Eggs and the Two Mules. In the story about the greedy wealthy person who destroyed his hen, the comparison is implied. Had a more humble person been the owner of the hen, the riches would have continued into the future. In the story of the Two Mules the use of comparison and contrast is the key technique used to convey the meaning of the story. The Story of the City Rat and the Country Rat (Shapiro, p. 12-13) makes as almost identical comparison. In these stories, Lafontaine not only sympathizes with the poor, but claims that they are the lucky ones. They have their own freedom and no one will have the desire to deprive them of their material goods.
In one respect, Lafontaine paints a picture of the poor as the lucky ones. He paints the wealthy class as the unfortunate ones who must constantly struggle so that they do not become greedy and be the master of their own demise. The poor are free from this burden, with needs and wants that are simple. In another respect, the poor are victims of the wealthy. Lafontaine paints the upper class of French society as the villains of the fables. The wealthy are painted as greedy, uncaring, and steal from the poor without regard to their plight. The poor are portrayed as either the victims or the fortunate ones. The poor in Lafontaine fables are honest, hard-working, forgiving, and free to do as they please.
Lafontaine paints a clear picture of French Society and its class structure during the second half of the 17th century. Each of the fables, whether they are translation of Aesop, or Lafontaine own invention, give the reader a small vignette about some element of the world in which Lafontaine lived. Each story tells the reader, not only how they should live, but gives us a glimpse into the moral standing that actually existed in Lafontaine eyes. Through examining Lafontaine work as a whole, patterns emerge that…