The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Power of Fable

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XVI

THE POWER OF FABLE

(Book VIII.—No. 4)

     

In the old, vain, and fickle city of Athens, an orator[1], seeing how the light-hearted citizens were blind to certain dangers which threatened the state, presented himself before the tribune, and there sought, by the very tyranny of his forceful eloquence, to move the heart of the republic towards a sense of the common welfare.

But the people neither heard nor heeded. Then the orator had recourse to more urgent arguments and stronger metaphors, potent enough to touch hearts of stone. He spoke in thunders that might have raised the dead; but his words were carried away on the wind. The beast of many heads[2] did not deign to hear the launching of these thunderbolts. It was engrossed in something quite different. A fight between two urchins was what the crowd found so engaging; not the orator's warnings.

What then did the speaker do? He tried another plan. "Ceres," he began, "made a voyage one day with an eel and a swallow. After a time the three travellers were stopped by a river. This the eel got over by swimming and the swallow by flying——"

"Well! what about Ceres? What did she do?" cried the crowd with one voice.

"She did what she did!" retorted the speaker in anger. "But first she raged against you. What! Does it take a child's story to open your ears, you who should be eager for any news of the peril that menaces; you, the only state in Greece that takes no heed? You ask what Ceres did. Why do you not ask what Philip[3] does?"

At this reproach the assembly was stirred. A mere fable brought them open-eared to all the orator would say.


We are all Athenians in this respect. I myself am, even as I point this moral. I should take the utmost pleasure now in hearing "The Ass's Skin"[4] told to me. The world is old, they say: so it is; but, nevertheless, it is as greedy of amusement as a child.

  1. Elizur Wright explains that the orator was Demades.
  2. Horace spoke of the Roman people as a beast with many heads.
  3. Philip of Macedon, who was at war against the Greeks.
  4. An old French nursery tale.