A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine by Jean La Fontaine (1621-1695) was illustrated by Percy J Billinghurst (1871-1933) in 1900. Fontaine’s 239 fables are a composite blend of Western and Eastern stories adapted into French free verse. The likes of Aesop, Babrius and Phaedrus are all referenced, as are Bidpai, Avienus, Horace, Rabelais, Clément Marot, Mathurin Régnier, Bonaventure des Périers. Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso and Machiavelli’s comedies. You get the idea. If you’d written a fable and made a name for yourself doing so, Fontaine was on it.
Produced in several volumes between 1668 to 1694, Fontaine’s fables were intended for adults but, given the anthropomorphic animals and first-edition pictures of them by François Chauveau, the poems became a mainstay of childhood reading. Before World War 2, and possibly since, French children would learn the little moralistic tales by heart and enjoy illustrations by the hymned J.J. Grandville.
Not that Fontaine discouraged the young ‘uns from reading his magnum opus, having dedicated the first edition to “Monseigneur” Louis, le Grand Dauphin, the six-year-old son of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France and his queen consort Maria Theresa of Spain. Tell the rich and revered how inspirational and bright their progeny are and watch the adulation and cash roll in.
French toffs loved it. “La Fontaine’s Fables”, wrote posho French writer Madame de Sévigné, “are like a basket of strawberries. You begin by selecting the largest and best, but, little by little, you eat first one, then another, till at last the basket is empty”.
Billinghurst’s wonderful illustrations hit the mark. His expressive animals are rich in character.
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