Thanks to Craig Hill, French-less readers of La Fontaine’s classic fables now have a version worthy of the original. Hill matches wits with the Frenchman’s clever rhymes and recreates his varied meters in verses that sound crisp and contemporary, yet lose none of their historical context. La Fontaine’s moral tales of gods, men, and beasts go beyond their origins in Aesop and Phaedrus. For one thing, he gives his animals voices, and the result is certainly no peaceable kingdom but a world of sneaky foxes, clever ants, lying frogs, and proud lions. His humans fare no better: the drunks and charlatans, the scoundrels and flatterers all get their comeuppance. La Fontaine (1621-95) spares no one in his satiric view. Affairs of state figure prominently in fables on the delusions of empire; the limits of party loyalties; the need to know your enemies; and the obligations of royalty — after all, “a crown fits very few,” as an antic monkey learns. Readers will recognize some of Aesop’s chestnuts: the tortoise and the hare, the hen that laid golden eggs, and the sun and the north wind. But even here La Fontaine adds his sneaky comments on contemporary France in the age of Louis XIV. A fable, the poet tells us, contains “hidden truths,” not “naked morals,” and while La Fontaine’s cynical verses affirm the timeless virtues — thrift, honesty, hard work — his tales thrive on the foibles of the lazy, the lying, and the spendthrift. Hill’s slangy verses add some contemporary notes of their own — a “Social Register” here, a “Bronx cheer” there. But he follows with La Fontaine the Horatian poetic ideal — to instruct and delight. And along the way, Hill gives us in this translation of all 12 books, a Fables for our time.
About the Author
Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.