Monika's French Journal

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Les Obsèques de la Lionne

"Les Obsèques de la Lionne" is a satire of the court, using animals as characters instead of people. It is permissible to use animals in a text that criticizes the court. The use of animals makes the story fall clearly into the realm of fiction: the story could be based on real events, but since the characters are animals the story is obviously a fantasy. When using animals in a story, there is no need for names. One says "le Lion," or "le Cerf," or simply "le Monarque." Because there are no proper names, each animal is just a general role; there is no specific person invoked who could take offense at the story. The use of animals also makes the fable timeless. If a satire used people, there would have to be descriptive details that would set the satire in a specific place and time (such as we see in La Princesse de Clèves), which could be offensive to some people. It is safer for Jean de La Fontaine to use animals as his characters because the claim of fiction is made obvious, so people are less likely to be offended by his story.

The king in La Fontaine's story is portrayed as being very stupid, as are the members of the court. La Fontaine portrays le Lion as being an ineffectual and irresponsible king. He is willing to give up some of his power by letting his officers rank the nobles, he changes his mind after hearing le Cerf's pleasant lies about his wife being happy in her afterlife, and his anger goes unnoticed by le Cerf. The message at the end of La Fontaine's story is that kings are easily fooled if one tells them what they want to hear. La Fontaine shows kings as being very weak.

The king seems to take very little responsibility on himself, choosing to give some of his power to his Prévôts. His wife has died, so he informs his people, and then cries, letting his officers handle the funeral: "Il fit avertir sa Province / Que les obsèques se feraient / Un tel jour, en tel lieu ; ses Prévôts y seraient / Pour régler la cérémonie, / Et pour placer la compagnie." It seems significant that the Prévôts are the ones who decide where the nobility will sit during the funeral. The seating at events has great meaning for the nobility; where one is seated is a reflection of rank and favor with the king. If the king leaves the seating arrangements to his Prévôts, he is giving them the power to give favor to some of the nobles. The king's opinion becomes less important when he allows his Prévôts to assign seats to the nobles.

The king is outraged when one of his courtiers tells him that the Cerf was smiling instead of crying, so le Lion orders the wolves to kill le Cerf: "Nous n'appliquerons point sur tes membres profanes / Nos sacrés ongles ; venez Loups, / Vengez la Reine, immolez tous / Ce traître à ses augustes mânes." The king says that he does not want to soil his hands by touching the deer himself, so he orders the wolves to kill the deer for him. It should be an act of power to have things done by someone else, but the king seems impotent because his order is not carried out. The king changes his mind after he hears the deer speak about his wife, la Lionne, being in heaven. Rather than being torn apart, le Cerf is rewarded for his speech: "Le Cerf eut un présent, bien loin d'être puni." The king's order was not carried through, he changed his mind. Le Lion appears weak because he is easily swayed by le Cerf's lies.

La Fontaine seems to mock the king's anger- he describes it as being terrible, but le Cerf does not recognize it because he hasn't read Solomon: "La colère du Roi, comme dit Salomon, / Est terrible, et surtout celle du roi Lion: / Mais ce Cerf n'avait pas accoutumé de lire." La Fontaine is being ironic in saying that the anger of all kings is great, especially this king's anger, but then saying that le Cerf did not notice le Lion's anger. La Fontaine's irony shows how little respect and power a king can have.

The end of La Fontaine's fable shows how weak and easily manipulated kings can be: "Amusez les Rois par des songes, / Flattez-les, payez-les d'agréables mensonges, / Quelque indignation dont leur coeur soit rempli, / Ils goberont l'appât, vous serez leur ami." It is hard to know exactly what La Fontaine implies. By saying that they will swallow the bait, is La Fontaine suggesting that kings are conscious of the fact that people manipulate them. Do some kings knowingly allow themselves to be swayed by lies and flattery? Is La Fontaine being sarcastic when he says that one will be the king's friend by doing these things? Perhaps kings need to be happy in order to be good rulers, and so if lies make them happy, then one is being their friend by lying? Le Lion in the story is grieving the whole time; so perhaps le Lion's weakness is due to his grief, and le Cerf is helping le Lion to be a good king again by lying to him and making him happy. Since it is not clear if le Lion was a good king before his wife died we cannot know if La Fontaine intends this interpretation or not.

La Fontaine's fable is very clever. In such a short poem he shows us many ways that kings can be irresponsible. They can neglect their duties by having others take over, they can change their mind when they hear lies, and their anger can be impotent. La Fontaine's fable shows an ineffectual ruler. One could read the end of the fable as forgiving: if kings are unhappy they are not good rulers, so flatterers and liars are their friends because they make kings happier and therefore better able to rule. This seems an unlikely interpretation, though. La Fontaine most likely intends his command to be a friend to kings by lying to them to be seen as ironic. La Fontaine does not seem to portray kings as very responsible or effectual, but rather as petty and stupid.

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