When the pit bull and the bear came to meet,
They circled round and round with narrowed eyes:
They snarled at each other, and bared sharp teeth,
They fought, slashed and clawed in a heat.
They looked quite ferocious, and though it sounds perverse
No airstrip or trade talks did they rehearse.
The only thing they wanted, truth be told,
Were the rights to the next Miss Universe.
A little mouse watched the show from a vine
And shuddered in fear at their girth.
“What’s the matter with you?” his pals asked with a scold,
“Why don’t you cheer our dog with all the guys?”
“Beware, my brothers,” the little mouse moaned,
“This fight can only end badly.
You may think it’s a just a rumble,
Or something on TV,
But both of them are quick to agree:
They will send us mice in gladly
If a new war begins,
For the love of a beauty queen.”
Well, that dire prognostication
Was luckily mistaken,
Things went back to normal.
Nothing much has changed for us mice.
But in Bear’s splendid city, there’s lots going on:
New rules come and gone those of yore.
For those who learn their lessons, there are pockets full of kopeks!
For those who do not, there is something too:
Stalag Eleven in old Leningrad,
Or a nice little gulag from before!
Now Trumpiski Tower looms o’er the Volga’s banks
And proudly wears a big red star,
The once-great Donald’s rising up the ranks:
He’ll soon be Bear’s first foreign commissar!
Come back next Friday for Fable 4: “The Old Lion”!
The Pit Bull who would be President builds on the work of French poet Jean de LaFontaine, Fables (1668-1694)
This section provides the English translations by Elizur Wright, Jr. (1841)
and the original French texts
The Two Bulls and a Frog
Two bulls engaged in shocking battle,
Both for a certain heifer’s sake,
And lordship over certain cattle,
A frog began to groan and quake.
“But what is this to you?”
Inquired another of the croaking crew.
“Why sister, don’t you see
The end of this will be,
That one of these big brutes will yield,
And then be exiled from the field?
No more permitted on the grass to feed,
He’ll forage through our marsh, on rush and reed;
And while he eats or chews the cud,
Will trample on us in the mud.
Alas! To think how frogs must suffer
By means of this proud lady heifer!”
This fear was not without good sense.
One bull was beat, and much to their expense;
For, quick retreating to their reedy bower,
He trod on twenty of them in an hour.
Of little folks it oft has been the fate
To suffer for the follies of the great.
Les deux taureaux et une grenouille
Deux taureaux combattaient à qui posséderait
Une génisse avec l’empire.
Une grenouille en soupirait.
« Qu’avez-vous ? se mit à lui dire
Quelqu’un du peuple croassant.
–Et ne voyez-vous pas, dit-elle,
Que la fin de cette querelle
Sera l’exil de l’un ; que l’autre, le chassant,
Le fera renoncer aux campagnes fleuries ?
Il ne régnera plus sur l’herbe des prairies,
Viendra dans nos marais régner sur les roseaux,
Et, nous foulant aux pieds jusques au fond des eaux,
Tantôt l’une, et puis l’autre, il faudra qu’on pâtisse
Du combat qu’a causé madame la génisse. »
Cette crainte était de bon sens.
L’un des taureaux en leur demeure
S’alla cacher à leurs dépens :
Il en écrasait vingt par heure.
Hélas ! on voit que de tout temps
Les petits ont pâti des sottises des grands.
Jean de LaFontaine, Fables, II, 4
Editor’s note to The Pit Bull who would be President: Five fables for 2016
The fables which inspired this series were published in Paris between 1668 and 1694 by a middle-aged courtier observing the rise of Louis XIV (1638-1715). Louis XIV, otherwise known as the Sun King, took the throne at age 23 in 1661. Already at age ten, the prince had witnessed how restless and threatening social life could be, when the great old families of France, from whom he and his mother, Regent Anne of Austria expected support, turned on them in violent warfare over the leadership of the country. As a young boy, then, Louis lived through a long bloody civil war (known as La Fronde), which lasted until he was fifteen. So it needs no psychoanalyst to explain why the young king was determined to rule absolutely. His goal was to dominate the great old families of the land and make France the pre-eminent country of Europe. To do so, he waged four major wars abroad, and at home, invented an elaborate set of expensive rituals by which he made people win his favor and remain under his sight and thumb at Versailles castle.
Jean de LaFontaine was seventeen years older than the king. As a member of the nobility, he spent his life among the rich and powerful aristocrats at the court and eventually became a member of the prestigious Académie française. In his Fables, he casts a jaded eye on the things people would do to get ahead in this new system. The first edition was dedicated to the dauphin (king-to-be) and published just seven years after Louis XIV took on the mantle of the kingdom. LaFontaine pokes fun at some high-ranking dignitaries such as the king’s minister of finance, Colbert (depicted as a weasel who gets too fat), but he never directly criticizes the king. It was too dangerous.
For inspiration, LaFontaine drew on sources from many times and places: readers will hear echoes of the most famous fabulist, the Greek slave-become-freeman Aesop, as well as the Indian stories of Bidpaï, the ribald voice of Gargantua’s creator, Rabelais, the philosophical resignation of Montaigne, and the wry wit of historian Plutarch. But one emotion runs throughout the Fables and is unique to LaFontaine: inquietude, a sense of restless anxiety or lingering dread. This makes it good fit for the current mood in the United States!
Like a wily ventriloquist, LaFontaine mimics, with what must have been hilarious accuracy, the speech tics and bluster of people such as a woebegone peasant in combat with a petty, vengeful god, and a distracted milkmaid who loses all her milk after jumping for joy over thoughts of future wealth. One character peeks out frequently: the pessimistic frog or mouse who never gets what he wants. Frogs and mice stand in for the people, the victims, the eternal underdogs of history.
Capturing the humanity behind these rather cruel lessons required listening carefully to the exquisite tone of the originals, and then trying to mimic them in American voices that you might hear on a city street or on TV.
Although carefully circumspect in things kingly, LaFontaine did not avoid controversy. His sarcasm wields a sledgehammer in “The Cock and the Pearl,” and many more. Indeed it was the heavy-handed ridicule of certain fables that inspired my take on the Democrats and Republicans currently leading our country and battling over the presidency. The bitter critique lodged against the rich and mighty of “The Jay in the Feathers of a Peacock,” “Two Bulls and a Frog,” and “The Frog that Wished to be as big as the Ox,” made an easy justification for my treatment of American politicians in this ugliest of election seasons.
Where LaFontaine hid behind animal likenesses, I dare hint at the characters’ identities. I can do this because, while LaFontaine wrote and published his work under the reign of an absolute monarch, I am a citizen of a democracy. Free speech reigns liberal here. And so I will name names. The people satirized here include, in order of appearance, include:
Fable One, “The Pup from Indiana”: the Republican candidate for vice president Mike Pence
Fable Two: “The Weasel who wanted to be an Elephant”: Senator Ted Cruz
Fable Three: “The Pit Bull, the Bear and a Mouse”: the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and the American people
Fable Four: “The Old Lion”: President Barack Obama
Fable Five: “The Poodle and the Pit Bull”: the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, and the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump
In imagining these fables, I gravitated toward the harshest satires of LaFontaine. I took the story of two bulls who ferociously butt heads over a heifer and accidentally slaughter the frogs living underfoot, for instance, and transformed it into a story of two virile heads of state battling it out for Miss Universe, while a worried mouse anticipates the worst.
The goal for me, as for my illustrious predecessor, is to allow readers a glimpse into the wisdom of the poor and the vanity of the great, as well as to cast a gently mocking smile on those foibles that make us distinctly human. There is a certain tempo running under the words that communicates like a drum; I recommend reading out loud, for maximum fun. May humanity beat barbarism.
And may love for our fellows
Drive away the hateful things
Dividing us today.