Jean de La Fontaine (July 8, 1621, Château-Thierry – April 13, 1695) was the most famous French fabulist and one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century.
The numerous works of La Fontaine fall into three traditional divisions: the Fables, the Contes and the miscellaneous works. Of these the first may be said to be known universally, the second to be known to all lovers of French literature, the third to be with a few exceptions practically forgotten. 18th-century illustration to La Fontaine's fable The Sculptor and the Statue of Jupiter by Charles-Nicolas Cochin
The Fables exhibit the versatility and fecundity of the author's talent more fully than any of his other work. La Fontaine had many predecessors in the fable, especially in the beast fable. The poet took inspiration from Aesop, Horace, Boccaccio and Ariosto and Tasso, Machiavelli's comedies and ancient Indian literature, such as the Panchatantra:
"This is the second book of fables that I present to the public... I must acknowledge that the greatest part is inspired from Pilpay, the Indian sage." ("Je dirai par reconnaissance que j’en dois la plus grande partie à Pilpay sage indien.") — Jean de La Fontaine, Avertissement to the Second Compilation of Fables (1678).
The first collection of 124 Fables Choisies had appeared March 31, 1668, wisely dedicated to "Monseigneur" Louis, le Grand Dauphin, the six-year-old son of Louis XIV of France and his Queen consort Maria Theresa of Spain. In this first issue, comprising what are now called the first six books, La Fontaine adhered to the path of his predecessors with some closeness; but in the later collections he allowed himself far more liberty, and it is in these parts that his genius is most fully manifested.
The boldness of the politics is as much to be considered as the ingenuity of the moralizing, as the intimate knowledge of human nature displayed in the substance of the narratives, or as the artistic mastery shown in their form. It has sometimes been objected that the view of human character which La Fontaine expresses is unduly dark, and resembles too much that of La Rochefoucauld, for whom the poet certainly had a profound admiration. It may only be said that satire (and La Fontaine is eminently a satirist) necessarily concerns itself with the darker rather than with the lighter shades.
Perhaps the best criticism ever passed upon La Fontaine's Fables is that of Silvestre de Sacy, to the effect that they supply delights to three different ages: the child rejoices in the freshness and vividness of the story, the eager student of literature in the consummate art with which it is told, the experienced man of the world in the subtle reflections on character and life which it conveys. Nor has any one, with the exception of a few paradoxers like Rousseau and a few sentimentalists like Lamartine, denied that the moral tone of the whole is as fresh and healthy as its literary interest is vivid. The book has therefore naturally become a standard French reader both at home and abroad. It is no small testimony to its merit that not even this use (or misuse) has interfered with its popularity.
La Fontaine's Fables provided a model for subsequent fabulists, including Poland's Ignacy Krasicki and Russia's Ivan Krylov.