Fables in Rhyme for Little Folks, Adapted from the French of La Fontaine.Written by, W.T. LarnedIllustrated by, John Rae.
All Little Americans
With the Hope That
They May Become Better Acquainted
Our Friends, the French
To all little Americans with the hope that they may become better acquainted with our friends, the French.
La Fontaine composed the most entertaining Fables ever written in any language, and made them a model of literary perfection; yet our translators and compilers have somehow neglected him. His Fables are lyric poetry of a high order, and this alone has doubtless been a barrier to a better acquaintance with his work when transferred to our own tongue. Done into prose, the Fables are no longer La Fontaine, but take their place with the many respectable, dull translations which English readers try to admire because they are classics — though the soul that made them such has been separated from the dead body.
It has seemed to me that while the full enjoyment of La Fontaine must always be reserved for those who can read him in French, it might be possible at least to convey something of his originality and blithe spirit through the medium of light verse. In making the attempt I am fully aware of my temerity, and the criticism it will invite. To excuse the one and to meet the other I have taken refuge in the term “adaptation” — even though the word applies only in part to my paraphrases. Some of the Fables in this book are translations in a true sense, and keep closely to the text. From others I have erased such political, mythological and literary allusions (in which La Fontaine abounds) as are either obsolete or unintelligible to a child.
But my chief literary sin — if sin it be — is twofold. In the first place I have departed wholly from the metrical arrangements of the originals — substituting therefore a variety of forms in line and stanza that more accord with the modern and American ear. In the second place I have had the hardihood — as in “The Lion and The Gnat” — to modify the elegance of the original with phrases more appropriate to our contemporary beasts. Animal talk, I feel sure, has lost something of its stateliness since the days when our French author overheard it. The Owl is no less pedantic perhaps, but the Lion certainly has declined in majesty — along with our human kings.
For these offenses, La Fontaine — who forgave everyone — is bound to forgive me. The most good-humored Frenchman, he could condone all faults but dullness. That offense against French fundamental principles invariably put him to sleep — whether the bore who button-holed him was a savant of the Sorbonne or just an ordinary ass.
One thing more. This little collection from his 240 Fables is meant, first of all, for children. In assembling it no Fable was admitted that has not been approved by generations of the young and old. No apologue addressed to the mature intelligence alone, or framed to fit the society of his day, is here included.
Many books which men have agreed to call classics are seldom taken down from the shelves. It is otherwise with La Fontaine. His Fables were eagerly read by the great men and women of his time, and are still read and enjoyed all the world over.
The causes of this lasting popularity are not obscure. From the earliest period — whether in India, Greece, Arabia or Rome — the Fable has pleased and instructed mankind. It told important truths, easily perceived, in an entertaining way; and often said more in a few words than could be said through any other kind of writing. Now, no one person is the author of the Fables we know so well. Aesop did not write the Fables bearing his name. There is even reason to believe that Aesop is himself a Fable. At any rate, the things ascribed to him are the work of many hands, and have undergone many changes. These old stories of animals began to be written so long ago, and the history of them is so vague and confusing, that only in recent years have scholars at last been able to trace them, and to fix their authorship.
The significant thing to keep in mind is that, for twentieth century readers, the best Fables are not merely the best ones ever written, but the best ones re-written. In other words, the Fable was for centuries an old story in a rough state, and the writers who have made it most interesting are the writers who told it over again in a manner that makes it Art. A Greek named Babrius, of whom almost nothing is known, is remembered because he collected and versified some of the so-called Fables of Aesop. A Roman slave named Phaedrus also put these Fables into Latin verse; and his work to-day is a text book in our colleges.
Among modern writers, it was reserved for La Fontaine to take these ancient themes and make them his own — just as Moliére, “taking his own wherever he found it,” borrowed freely from the classics for his greatest plays; just as Shakespeare re-formed forgotten tales with the glow and splendor of surpassing genius, so La Fontaine turned to India, Greece, Italy, and furnishing the old Fables and facetious tales, refreshed them with his originality. Some of them were his own inventions, but for the most part they were “Aesop” and Phaedrus, made over by poetic art and vivified with a wit and humor characteristically French.
But if La Fontaine’s fame endures, it is not alone that he was the greatest lyric poet of a great literary period. Apart from the wit and fancy of his creations — apart from the philosophy, wisdom, and knowledge of human nature that so delighted Moliére, Boileau and Racine — his Fables disclose the goodness and simplicity of one who lived much with Nature, and cared nothing for the false splendors of the court. Living most of his life in the country, the woods, and streams and fields had been a constant source of inspiration. He saw animals through the eyes of a naturalist and poet; and when he came to make them talk, the little fishes “talked like little fishes — not like whales”. With Shakespeare’s banished Frenchman in the Forest of Arden, he
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
An anecdote often told of him aptly illustrates his habit of mind. He was late in coming to a fashionable dinner, and his excuse was this: “I hope you will pardon me,” he said. “I was detained at the funeral of an ant, and I could not come until the ceremony was over.”
This was not a pleasantry, but the truth. He had been watching an ant-hill, and was so absorbed in observing a dead ant carried off by the living colonists for burial that he had forgotten his engagement.
The first six volumes of the Fables — published in 1668, when he was 47, and in Paris — were an immediate and brilliant success, at a time when French genius was in full flower. But the literary men of that golden age got their pecuniary reward not from the public, but from patrons. Later in life, when La Fontaine at last was graciously recognized by the grand monarch, he appeared before the royal presence to receive his due. Even then, with his usual absentmindedness, he forgot to bring the book he was to present, and left behind him in the carriage the purse of gold the King bestowed upon him.