La Fontaine's Fables

(This column was first published in the April 3, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    There is a spelling bee length word that is anathema to some nature writers. The word is anthropomorphism.

    Like so many of those big words, it at first appears that we can puzzle out its meaning through breaking it down. Let's try that. Anthropo,the part that few of us would know, derives from the Greek anthropos meaning human being. Morphis a little easier. Morph means form. The only somewhat less esoteric word metamorphism means many forms. It applies, for example, to butterflies that live part of their lives as caterpillars. Finally, an ismis a distinctive doctrine or theory, like socialism. Put those words together and you seem to have a doctrine having to do with the form of human beings.

    Almost. My American Heritage Dictionary tells me that anthropomorphism is "the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena."

    In the early years of the 20th century there was a great flap over this kind of thing and even a president became involved. The nature writer John Burroughs and President Teddy Roosevelt criticized Ernest Thompson Seton for humanizing animals by, among other things, having them think like us.

    I agree with the critics of anthropomorphism that we can be seriously misled in our understanding of animals by assuming that they think or act like us. To assume, for example, that the raccoon washing its food with its dainty little forepaws has somehow achieved good manners is to head off more serious thinking about that unusual behavior.

    But there is a mirror image of this kind of assignment that I believe is right on the mark. It gives us insight into our own behavior to look at that of animals and was achieved by Aesop, by the brothers Grimm, and best of all by Jean de La Fontaine.

    Believing that those fables might be more fun for me now than they were when I was a child, I turned to the James Michie translation of La Fontaine's Selected Fables. I was right. They are wonderful and I highly recommend them to you.

    They are familiar stories: the crow and the fox, the city mouse and the country mouse, the hare and the tortoise. But La Fontaine gives them each a delightful poetic twist.

    The worker ant, approached by the importunate grasshopper at the end of its summer of song and play, responds to the beggar: "Singing, did you say? I'm delighted to hear it. Now you can dance!" After being frightened by the cat, the poor country mouse tells his city mouse friend as he leaves for his rural hovel, "To hell with pleasure that fear corrupts!" And the turtle cannot resist gloating over his victory: "How much farther behind do you think you'd be If you had a house to carry like me!"

    But there are other charms to these poems as well. In "The Cat, the Weasel and the Young Rabbit," the cat is described in a series of one to three word lines as:

a Jesuitical,
Sleek and fat,
Lawyer of a cat....

My neighbors own that very cat.

    And the morals are just as good. The rooster who tells the threatening fox that dogs are coming laughs "for the pleasure is twice as sweet When you cheat a cheat." The fox who cannot reach the grapes, reconciles his failure: "Wasn't he wise to say they were unripe Rather than whine and gripe?"

    We can indeed learn from the animals, especially when they are described by a master craftsman.-- Gerry Rising