The Raven, the Gazelle, the Tortoise and the Rat

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Le Corbeau, la Gazelle, la Tortue et le Rat

TheRaven, the Gazelle, the Tortoise and the Rat (French: Le Corbeau, la Gazelle, la Tortue et le Rat) is the 15th fable in the twelfth book of the collection of fables Fables Choisies, Mises En Vers by Jean de La Fontaine.[1]

La Fontaine in many cases elevated what were really didactic fables to pure lyricism by incorporating personal feelings into them. A sober and moving evocation of a loving friendship is his homage to his patron Marguerite de la Sablière in his animal fable “La Corbeau, la Gazelle, la Tortue et le Rat”. In his works he never names de la Sablière directly, but gives her the name of the goddess Iris.[2] He addresses his long-time friend and follower as someone to love as himself, an exemplary friend whose friendship is not marred by love or ambition, since she had no interest in the loveless world of kings. By this tender tribute he expresses the respect, love, and gratitude he felt for his benefactress, in whose house he lived chiefly from 1672 or 1673 until her death in 1693.[3]

…as a favor to you, I’ve made my plan..
of a fable here made known to thee,
the value of friendship such evidence
puts us down that if I wasn’t mistaken,
will brighten your spirit a little.
… It’s a human being, ready to surrender..
for his friend – ah, their number is small.
Four animals who lived in faithful friendship,
may be an example to the people here.

The actual fable is about four different kinds of animals who were bound together in an unusual friendship and lived together: a rat (named Mesh Eater), a tortoise (named Hunchback House), a raven, and a gazelle. Once, when the reckless gazelle does not return home from his pleasure walk, the three other friends are worried. The rat and the raven search for her and are able to free her from a hunter’s net. The tortoise, who was supposed to stay at home because she is much too slow, also sets out to help her friend, contrary to the agreement. However, she only arrives at the scene when the three other friends have already taken refuge and the returning hunter notices the empty trap. The angry hunter catches the turtle and wants to take it away as a replacement for the lost prey. The raven observes and reports from the air the capture of the tortoise. The gazelle then emerges from its hiding place and poses with a limp, causing the hunter to throw down his sack with the tortoise, believing he can now easily catch the supposedly injured gazelle. During the diversion, the rat gnaws a hole in the hunter’s backpack so that the turtle can be freed.

La Fontaine concludes that each helper is equally important as long as he acts, but then allows his personal feeling towards the addressee to enter into the morality:[4]

The prize is in the heart, if I had my way
Friendship, where can it not soar!
The other feeling, love – mindrer Ehr’
it seems to me worthy; yet I never tire,
to celebrate them and defeat them.
Alas, to my heart she can bring no peace!
You prefer friendship – from now on puts
…in their service my song, whatever it may be…
My master was Cupid; with another dare
and its fame throughout the world
i will wear as well as yours.

Individual references

  1. Jean de La Fontaine:Fables Choisies, Mises En Vers.P.105, accessed February 2, 2020 (French).
  2. Jürgen Grimm, Susanne Hartwig: French Literary History. J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart 2014, ISBN 978-3-476-02420-6, p. 182, doi:10.1007/978-3-476-00733-9 [ [accessed 29 February 2020]].
  3. Calder, Andrew: The Fables of La Fontaine: wisdom brought down to earth. Droz, Genève 2001, ISBN 2-600-00464-5, p. 176.
  4. Ernst Dohm (translator):Lafontaine’s fables.P. 336, accessed February 2, 2020.