Le Corbeau et le Renard: A Cheesy Fable

the crow and the fox
Illustration for Le Corbeau et le Renard by Jean de La Fontaine

One of the most valuable things I learned as an undergraduate was in Ms. Gatonal’s introductory French class. I’ll return in a bit to that valuable thing, but first let me provide a little background.

I don’t recall much about Ms. Gatonal other than that she seemed ancient to me at the time and that she drove a 1950’s era Citron. On my morning commute on the uphill stretch leading to the Chaffee Jr. College campus I would often see her putting along on the far right side of the road, coaxing her little car up the grade while everyone was passing her.

1950’s Citron

I had signed up for her class to fulfill my social sciences language requirement. If you have read my earlier blog about my “proficiency” in Spanish, it should come as no surprise that learning foreign languages was not, and still is not, one of my strong suits.

I selected French because my Belgium-born father spoke fluent French. I had hoped I would have some advantage just by association. Because my mom was not a French speaker, the only time I ever got to hear my dad’s French was on our visits to Uncle Charlie, my father’s French Basque brother-in-law. I can recall being bored stiff as a child while my uncle and dad yakked away with my not understanding a word.

But I must have absorbed something. Ms. Gatonal thought that I was pretty good at pronunciation even though I struggled with the grammar and remembering what word meant what. I don’t recall my grade, but I passed.

Now for the valuable thing I learned from her. She gave us the assignment to select an essay or poem to present to the class in French from memory.  I decided on the poem Le Corbeau et le Renard by Jean de La Fontaine which is based on one of Aesop’s Fables

To this day I can recite parts of that poem verbatim.

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché,
Lui tint à peu près ce langage :
«Hé ! bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau !
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le Phénix des hôtes de ces bois.»

A ces mots le Corbeau ne se sent pas de joie ;
Et pour montrer sa belle voix,
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.
Le Renard s’en saisit, et dit : «Mon bon Monsieur,
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute :
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.»
Le Corbeau, honteux et confus,
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.

Master Crow perched on a tree,
Was holding a cheese in his beak.
Master Fox attracted by the smell
Said something like this:
“Well, Hello Mister Crow!
How pretty you are! How beautiful you seem to me!
I’m not lying, if your voice
Is like your plumage,
You are the phoenix of all the inhabitants of these woods.”

At these words, the Crow is overjoyed.
And in order to show off his beautiful voice,
He opens his beak wide, lets his prey fall
The Fox grabs it, and says: “My good man,
Learn that every flatterer
Lives at the expense of the one who listens to him.
This lesson, without doubt, is well worth a cheese.”
The Crow, ashamed and embarrassed,
Swore, but a little late, that he would not be taken again.

You must be wondering why I would consider memorizing a French fable about a fox conning a crow into dropping its cheese to be so valuable. It all had to do with impressing girls. What could be more savoir faire than mummering:

Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau!
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le Phénix des hôtes de ces bois.»

Of course, the savoir faire effect hinged on the assumption that my dates didn’t realize that I was actually saying something to the effect that if their voices were like their feathers they would be the phoenix of all the inhabitants of the woods.

I last played my French savoir faire card over 53 years ago.  Ann reminded me that it was on our first date while I was taking her on a tour of my home town of Chino in my not-so-cool 1951 Ford. Although she refuses to admit it, I would wager that my suave mastery of French was one of the reasons I won her over.

Le reste appartient à l’histoire (the rest is history),

Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau! It must have worked!

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