The Complete Fables of La Fontaine
Translated by Craig Hill, Illustrations by Edward Sorel
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"La Fontaine’s fables offer moral perspective on the dark side of human nature."
Do fables written for children teach them moral values? Did Aesop, a Greek slave in sixth century BC, give human voices to animals and plants as a way entertain and teach children? Not the Aesop fables transformed and re-interpreted by La Fontaine in the 17th century says Craig Hill in his book, “The Complete Fables of La Fontaine,” a new translation in verse.
Hill suggests these fables are “no more a work for children than are George Orwell’s Animal Farm or William Blake’s Song of Innocence.” La Fontaine’s fables offer moral perspective on the dark side of human nature.
Hill’s translation of all of La Fontaine’s twelve books from French to English, over three hundred fables, began when Hill, a poet at the time, discovered among his grandmother’s possessions her attempt to translate a French edition of La Fontaine’s fables. It was “an “irresistible challenge,” remarks Hill, one that took him fifty years to complete. Equally difficult was Hill’s determination to maintain La Fontaine’s original schemes of rhyme and meter whenever possible. Hill wanted the fables to sound French.
The collection includes an array of fables, many which most believed impart important lessons for all ages. But Louis XIV’s treacherous and unjust regime in the 17th century dominates the collection.
La Fontaine considered the king a “threatening presence” and a “merciless despoiler of beautiful things.” With satire and wit, he targets corruption and incompetent politicians, poverty and endless wars such as in the fable “The Wolves and the Sheep”. The moral is that war is cruel and unjust. But what can be the sense, “Of peace with an enemy whom one can never trust”? For children, in “Clay Pots and Iron Pots” we learn that not all things or people share the same strength. The author pokes fun at the king who, flattered by early fables, failed to read the rest.
This translation was a monumental task. As readers we are fortunate to have access to this marvelous literary collection of timeless fables that draw on strongest human emotions. Read aloud, the poetic voice is musical. La Fontaine describes his fables as having two parts, the body and the soul, and his writings touch both.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla