Tales and novels of Jean de La Fontaine

The Author’s Preface to the First Volume of These Tales

I had resolved not to consent to the printing of these Tales, until after I had joined to them those of Boccaccio, which are those most to my taste; but several persons have advised me to produce at once what I have remaining of these trifles, in order to prevent from cooling the curiosity to see them, which is still in its first ardour. I gave way to this advice without much difficulty, and I have thought well to profit by the occasion. Not only is that permitted me, but it would be vanity on my part to despise such an advantage. It has sufficed me to wish that no one should be imposed upon in my favour, and to follow a road contrary to that of certain persons, who only make friends in order to gain voices in their favour by their means; creatures of the Cabal, very different from that Spaniard who prided himself on being the son of his own works. Although I may still be as much in want of these artifices as any other person, I cannot bring myself to resolve to employ them; however I shall accommodate myself if possible to the taste of the times, instructed as I am by my own experience, that there is nothing which is more necessary. Indeed one cannot say that all seasons are suitable for all classes of books. We have seen the Roundelays, the Metamorphoses, the Crambos, reign one after another. At present, these gallantries are out of date and nobody cares about them: so certain is it that what pleases at one time may not please at another! It only belongs to works of truly solid merit and sovereign beauty, to be well received by all minds and in all ages, without possessing any other passport than the sole merit with which they are filled. As mine are so far distant from such a high degree of perfection, prudence advises that I should keep them in my cabinet unless I choose well my own time for producing them. This is what I have done, or what I have tried to do in this edition, in which I have only added new Tales, because it seemed to me that people were prepared to take pleasure in them. There are some which I have extended, and others which I have abridged, only for the sake of diversifying them and making them less tedious. But I am occupying myself over matters about which perhaps people will take no notice, whilst I have reason to apprehend much more important objections. There are only two principal ones which can be made against me; the one that this book is licentious; the other that it does not sufficiently spare the fair sex. With regard to the first, I say boldly that the nature of what is understood as a tale decided that it should be so, it being an indispensable law according to Horace, or rather according to reason and common sense, that one must conform one’s self to the nature of the things about which one writes. Now, that I should be permitted to write about these as so many others have done and with success I do not believe it can be doubted; and people cannot condemn me for so doing, without also condemning Ariosto before me and the Ancients before Ariosto. It may be said that I should have done better to have suppressed certain details, or at least to have disguised them. Nothing was more easy, but it would have weakened the tale and taken away some of its charm: So much circumspection is only necessary in works which promise great discretion from the beginning, either by their subject or by the manner in which they are treated. I confess that it is necessary to keep within certain limits, and that the narrowest are the best; also it must be allowed me that to be too scrupulous would spoil all. He who would wish to reduce Boccaccio to the same modesty as Virgil, would assuredly produce nothing worth having, and would sin against the laws of propriety by setting himself the task to observe them. For in order that one may not make a mistake in matters of verse and prose, extreme modesty and propriety are two very different things. Cicero makes the latter consist in saying what is appropriate one should say, considering the place, the time, and the persons to whom one is speaking. This principle once admitted, it is not a fault of judgment to entertain the people of to-day with Tales which are a little broad. Neither do I sin in that against morality. If there is anything in our writings which is capable of making an impression on the mind, it is by no means the gaiety of these Tales; it passes off lightly; I should rather fear a tranquil melancholy, into which the most chaste and modest novels are very capable of plunging us, and which is a great preparation for love. As to the second objection, by which people reproach me that this book does wrong to womankind, they would be right if I were speaking seriously: but who does not see that this is all in jest, and consequently cannot injure? We must not be afraid on that account that marriages in the future will be less frequent, and husbands more on their guard. It may still be objected that these Tales are unfounded or that they have everywhere a foundation easy to destroy; in short that they are absurdities and have not the least tinge of probability. I reply in a few words that I have my authorities: and besides it is neither truth nor probability which makes the beauty and the charm of these Tales: it is only the manner of telling them. These are the principal points on which I have thought it necessary to defend myself. I abandon the rest to the censors; the more so as it would be an infinite undertaking to pretend to reply to all. Criticism never stops short nor ever wants for subjects on which to exercise itself: even if those I am able to foresee were taken from it, it would soon have discovered others.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/la_fontaine/jean_de/tales/preface1.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38