Have you ever noticed that French people have this background knowledge that you simply don’t, no matter your level of French or how much vocabulary you know? It’s the same with any language!
Different cultures have different common experiences and stories that outsiders can only learn by being exposed to them!
Let’s dive in!
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Les Fables de la Fontaine (La Fontaine’s Fables) are part of the common bedrock of French culture everyone knows about. That’s a good way for you to hack your way into conversations!
You’ll find a complete chapter about Les Fables de la Fontaine in Exercise Your French, a special course about French culture and everyday life, with my own commentary, a lot more content, and different tests according to your level.
Jean de La Fontaine collected fables from many sources, including many Aesop’s fables, and reworked them to create something completely new, using his talents: a mastery of the language, and a keen eye for human nature.
These fables were published around 1670, in the century of Louis the XIVth, the Sun King. They’re considered a classic of French literature. As such, they’ve been printed and reprinted–and illustrated with talent, by the famous Gustave Doré for instance.
My favorite edition, though, come from les éditions Taillandier (first published in 1906). They have very cute illustrations by Benjamin Rabier. (You can find them on the link above, or online, or even better, at your local bookstore.)
You can also simply , in French, but beware: they’re in an old-fashioned style of French, so they might be quite difficult to understand.
To explain the allegorical value of his fables, La Fontaine once said: “Je me sers d’animaux pour instruire les hommes” (= “I’m using animals, to teach people.”).
A famous French theater actor had quite recently a huge success reading these fables on stage: (for advanced learners only, as he speaks very fast.)
To be honest, most of these fables are now completely unknown. There are just too many of them!
However, nowadays, all school children are required to learn at least a few of the most famous ones. Such as the ones below.
1. Le Corbeau et le Renard
Le Corbeau et le Renard (= The Crow and the Fox) is one of the most famous fables. Really, every French person knows this fable, often by heart!
Synopsis: A crow has a cheese in his mouth. A sly fox comes by, flatters him into singing. The cheese falls, and the fox grabs it.
(Spoiler alert, by the way.)
La Fontaine’s fables usually end (or start) with une morale, the moral of the story.
Here, the moral comes from the fox’s mouth:
“Mon bon monsieur, apprenez que tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute.”
“Be advised that all flatterers live at the expense of those who listen to them.”
Une morale, “la morale de l’histoire” : the moral of the story.
La morale : morality.
Le moral : the morale (of a group, an army…).
Colloquial expression in everyday French:
J’ai le moral dans les chaussettes = “My morale is down in my socks” / I’m feeling sad and discouraged.
La Fontaine’s morals still have a huge cultural impact on French language.
2. Le Lièvre et la Tortue
Le lièvre et la tortue (= The rabbit and the turtle) is another very famous fable.
Especially for its moral:
Rien ne sert de courir, il faut partir à point.
“There’s no use being fast, one needs to start at the right time.”
(Or: “Slow and steady wins the race.”)
This relates to our next story:
3. Le Lion et le Rat
Le Lion et le Rat (= “The Lion and the Rat”) is a famous fable that I hold dear: my class staged it as a schoolplay when I was 10!
Its moral is:
Patience et longueur de temps font plus que force ni que rage.
“Patience and time can do more than brute force and rage.”
4. La Grenouille qui se veut faire aussi grosse que le Bœuf
“La Grenouille qui se veut faire aussi grosse que le Bœuf” ( = “The frog who wants to make itself as big as the ox.”)
The title is an older, outdated way to say “La grenouille qui veut se faire aussi grosse que le bœuf”
(notice the difference: “se veut faire” is outdated, “veut se faire” is modern)
Synopsis: A frog is envious of the stronger, bigger ox. She tries to inflate to get just as big, but she ends up imploding instead.
5. Le Loup et l’Agneau
Le Loup et l’Agneau (= The Wolf and the Lamb) is an ironic, cynical story.
A wolf finds a little lamb drinking water in the river. The wolf uses several bad excuses to feel angry at the lamb, and then eats him.
Such as: Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère. (= “If it wasn’t your fault, it was probably your brother’s anyway.”)
Of course, the moral of this story is an ironic warning:
La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure.
(= “The reasons of the strong are always the best one,” or simply put: “Might makes right.”)
It’s a critique of absolute power, and the distortions of justice, that we’ll find again in our next and final fable.
6. Les Animaux malades de la peste
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste (= “The Animals Sick of the Plague”) has a very special place in French language.
It starts with… a plague, among the animals. As La Fontaine writes,
“Ils ne mourraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés.”
“They didn’t all die, but they all contracted it.”
The animals then gather to find a solution–or rather, someone to blame. The mighty lion confesses his own sins of eating other animals (and a shepherd or two), but no one really wants to blame him. The sly fox then makes an accusation against the donkey. The donkey offers a weak rebuttal, and the other animals all agree to punish him.
It’s a fable about the corruption of justice, especially when it’s leveled against powerful people, or acceptable target. It’s a kangaroo trial, basically.
That’s why its ironic moral is very often quoted by French newspapers when they cover an injustice:
“Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable, les jugements de la cour vous rendront blanc ou noir.”
“According to whether you’re powerful or weak, the court’s judgments will see you as white or black.”
We also find in this fable the expression:
Crier haro sur le baudet = “To claim the donkey’s guilty.”
“Haro” used to be a shout to designate your aggressor, so that people could coordinate and take care of him. A mix of “Help!” and “Attack!” that’s not used anymore.
Le baudet was (and still is, though it’s outdated) a colloquial term for “donkey.”
“Crier haro sur le baudet” means something like “piling on a designated, acceptable target” / “declaring that someone’s a target and coordinate their punishment, even if it’s not totally legitimate.”
Les Animaux Malades de la Peste is a deeply political tale. Current newspapers will often refer to it obliquely: they won’t tell you where it comes from, since you’re supposed to know already.
And that’s why you might want to learn about these fables: if you don’t, you’ll read cultural references without knowing they’re cultural references. You won’t understand why it’s there, and you’ll lose out on a part of French culture.
(This also applies to many more part of French culture as well, of course.)
Bonus : Le Rat et l’Huître
Le Rat et l’Huître = The Rat and the Oyster
It’s a fable that nobody knows about, except its moral:
Tel est pris qui croyait prendre !
Literally: “The one who wanted to catch, gets caught.”
Or simply: “The tables are turned!”
It’s a famous proverb that we use in everyday French… But I didn’t know it came from une fable de La Fontaine!
Even French people underestimate the impact of les fables on French culture, I guess. 🙂
To go the extra mile, you could learn about this topic (and many more) in depth in our special course.
For instance, La Cigale et la Fourmi (= “The Cicada and the Ant”) is very famous as well, most people almost know it by heart. But I couldn’t make it fit in this short-ish video. 🙂
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Et toi ?
Do you know any of those “Fables de la Fontaine” ?
Maybe “une morale” ? Did you study one fable in high school?…