The Oak and the Reed
The Oak and the Reed is one of Aesop's Fables and is numbered 70 in the Perry Index. It appears in many versions: in some it is with many reeds that the oak converses and in a late rewritten version it disputes with a willow.
The story and its interpretation
There are early Greek versions of this fable and a 5th-century Latin version by Avianus. They deal with the contrasting behaviour of the oak, which trusts in its strength to withstand the storm and is blown over, and the reed that 'bends with the wind' and so survives. Most early sources see it as a parable about pride and humility, providing advice on how to survive in turbulent times. This in turn gave rise to various proverbs such as 'Better bend than break' and 'A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall', the earliest occurrence of which is in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (II.1387-9). It so happens that there is an overlap here with the old Chinese proverb 'A tree that is unbending is easily broken'. The saying originally occurred in the religious classic, the Tao Te Ching, with the commentary that 'The hard and strong will fall, the soft and weak will overcome'.
A variant Greek version of the fable substituted an olive tree for the oak. The tree taunts the reed for its frailty and yielding to every wind but the reed does not answer back. The wisdom of its behaviour becomes apparent when the tree is snapped in the buffeting of a storm. Similar advice, evidence that the fable was then current among Jews, is given in the Talmud (Tanis 20b), where the saying 'Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar' is attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar. Although the fable with an oak has prevailed over the one with an olive, a group of 16th century fabulists preferred the latter version. They include the French author Gilles Corrozet (1547) and two Italians, Gabriele Faerno (1564) and Giovanni Maria Verdizotti. In Heinrich Steinhowel's 1479 edition of the fables a fir tree (tanne, Latin abies in bilingual editions) is the protagonist. This suggests that the fable has become confused with that of The Fir and the Bramble, in which another tree that trusts in its superior qualities is bested. However, that too appears independently in Steinhowel's collection as "The Thornbush and the Fir" (Der Dornbusch und die Tanne). Ultimately all these versions refer back to the ancient genre of Near Eastern dispute poems which also included the tamarisk and the palm as disputants, and the poplar and the laurel.
When the fable figured in 16th century emblem books, more emphasis was put on the moral lesson to be learned, to which the story acted as a mere appendage. Thus Hadrianus Junius tells the fable in a four-line Latin poem and follows it with a lengthy commentary, part of which reads: 'By contrast we see the reed obstinately holding out against the power of cloudy storms, and overcoming the onrush of the skies, its salvation lying in no other protection than a modicum of patience. It is just the same in the case of a just and balanced spirit, which cares not for invincible strength and defeats malice and other evils by patient endurance, and achieves great riches by the acquisition of undying glory - whereas boldness more often than not has its downfall.' Geoffrey Whitney borrowed Hadrianus' illustration for his own Choice of Emblemes (1586), devoting one stanza of his poem to the fable and the second to its lesson:
- When Envie, Hate, Contempte, and Slaunder, rage:
- Which are the stormes and tempestes of this life;
- With patience then, wee must the combat wage,
- And not with force resist their deadlie strife:
- But suffer still, and then wee shall, in fine,
- Our foes subdue, when they with shame shall pine.
Interpretations of the fable began to change after the more nuanced retelling in La Fontaine's Fables, Le chêne et le roseau (I.22). Here the oak has compassion on the reed's fragility and offers it protection, to which the reed politely replies that it has its own strategy for survival, 'I bend and do not break'. This is then put to the test when a storm breaks and brings the oak's 'head that was neighbour to the sky' on a level with the roots 'that touched the empire of the dead'. Written in the autocratic time of Louis XIV of France, this was so successfully achieved that it appeared to teach the value of humility at the same time as suggesting that rulers may not be as powerful as they think themselves. So current did that sly interpretation become that Achille Etna Michallon's later painting of "The Oak and the Reed" (Fitzwilliam Museum, 1816) could easily be seen as a reference to the recent fall of the Emperor Napoleon I.
In democratic times, the conduct of the reed came to be seen as cowardly and self-serving and the fable began to be rewritten from this point of view. In Robert Dodsley's collection of 1761 it appears as "The Oak and the Willow", in which the willow challenges the oak to a trial of strength in withstanding a storm. The oak puts up a heroic fight and, after it falls, condemns the willow's conduct as mean and cowardly. An 1802 American rhymed version of this draws the political conclusion even more strongly. Set 'within the commonwealth of trees', it presents the two trees as sharing in its government. When a storm 'threatens the constitution of the state', the willow cringes acquiescently while the oak goes down fighting, but will not acknowledge the willow as the ultimate victor.
- I am an Oak, tho' fall'n indeed!
- Thou still a vile and skulking weed,
- Rais'd by no merit of thine own,
- But by the blast that laid me prone.
- Say, if thou canst, what plant or tree,
- Except a sycophant like thee,
- Devoted to intrigue and strife,
- Who'd e'er prefer a dastard's life,
- Preserv'd by guile and crafty saws,
- To falling in a GLORIOUS CAUSE?
Much the same point was made in Jean Anouilh's reinterpretation of the story in 1962. There the oak asks the reed if it doesn't find La Fontaine's fable morally detestable. The reed's answer is that the limited concerns of 'we little folk' will see them better through testing times than taking the moral high ground. When once again the oak falls in the storm, the reed jeeringly asks if he had not foreseen the outcome correctly. The tree's answer to the reed's envious hatred is simply, 'But I am still an oak'.
Since this is one of the rare fables without human or animal characters, the subject has been a gift to artists and illustrators. From the earliest printed editions, the makers of woodcuts have taken pleasure in contrasting diagonals with the verticals and horizontals of the picture space, as well as the textures of the pliable reed and the sturdy tree trunk. Among 16th century emblem-makers there was even a prescription for how the scene should be presented. According to Hadrianus Junius (1565), ‘The way the picture should be drawn is straightforward: in it, one of the winds is blowing with puffed-out cheeks, breaking up the huge trees in its way, pulling them up, uprooting them and flinging them around; but a patch of reeds survives unscathed.’ Other contemporary examples of this approach are in Bernard Salomon (1554) and Hieronymus Osius (1564).
Some variations depend on the version of the fable that is being recorded. In the version by Samuel Croxall (1732), which was widely followed, the uprooted oak is floating downstream and enquires of a reed how it has survived the storm. In George Fyler Townsend's new translation (1867), the oak has fallen across a stream and asks the same question of the reeds there.
With the growing interest in landscape art, many French artists availed themselves of the fable's dramatic possibilities, including the illustrator Gustave Doré, who made two different woodcuts of a peasant struggling through stormy landscapes and another of a horseman unseated by the falling oak. Achille Michallon's landscape of 1816 (of which there is also a black-and-white print) is said to be inspired by the style of Jacob Ruisdael, but it also has aspects of the dramatic landscapes of French Romanticism. Later examples of this include treatments of the fable by Guillaume Alphonse Harang (1814-1884) and François Ignace Bonhommé (1809-1893), both dating from 1837. Jules Coignet's picturesque treatment in the Musée Jean de La Fontaine, also dating from the second quarter of the 19th century, is a study of different textures of light as it falls on the windswept reeds and the foliage of the fallen oak. This is dramatised even further in the Japanese woodcut version of the fable by Kajita Hanko, published at the end of the century in the Choix de Fables de La Fontaine, Illustrée par un Groupe des Meilleurs Artistes de Tokio (1894), which has an olive rather than an oak as subject. Contrasting light effects are equally the subject of Henri Harpignies's sombrely coloured drawing in the Musée Jean de La Fontaine and of the watercolour painted by Gustave Moreau about 1880.
The turn of the century saw a statue of the subject by Henri Coutheillas exhibited in Paris. It is now in the Jardin d'Orsay in Limoges and contrasts a swaying female nude with the grizzled giant clutching a broken branch in his hand who is tumbling at her feet. During the 20th century there were a number of prints made by prominent artists. They include Marc Chagall's etching from his La Fontaine series (1952), Roland Oudot's coloured woodcut (1961) and Salvador Dalí's coloured print of 1974.
In the 19th century, the singer Pauline Viardot set La Fontaine's fable for piano and soprano and was accompanied by Frédéric Chopin in the concert they shared in 1842. In the 20th century the fashion was for slang versions. One of the first appeared among the seven published in 1945 by Bernard Gelval which afterwards became part of the sung repertoire of the actor Yves Deniaud. It was followed in 1947 by the second volume of 15 fables célèbres racontées en argot (famous fables in slang) by 'Marcus', in which Le Chêne et le Roseau was included. While this keeps fairly closely to La Fontaine's text, Pierre Perret's 1990 rap version is a looser adaptation of the fable into a series of quatrains with a refrain in between. The mighty oak 'stacked like the Himalayas' talks down to the reed in its marsh where 'up there the winds whizz and down 'ere's rheumatiz' (En haut t'as le mistral en bas les rhumatismes) but his pity is rejected and the fate soon to overtake him foretold. Cartoons were eventually made of these versions and released on DVD under the title The Geometric Fables; "The oak and the reed" appeared in volume 3 of the series (Les Chiffres, 1991).
In 1965 a poetic version by Peter Westmore was included as the last piece in Edward Hughes' Songs from Aesop's Fables for children's voices and piano. Two groups from Quebec have made use of the fable more recently. The deathcore band Despised Icon recorded their version on the album Consumed by your Poison in 2002. The grunted lyrics parallel La Fontaine's narrative: the reed rejects the protection offered by the oak for its own pliable behaviour. After the storm 'The one who thought himself so strong now among the dead belongs' (Celui qui se croyait si fort réside maintenant parmi les morts). There is also a folk-rock adaptation by Les Cowboys Fringants recorded on their 2008 album L’Expédition. The lyrics emphasise how holding to one's point of view isolates individuals but seem to recommend the reed's strategy for survival in the words of the refrain that one must 'fall to rise again' (tomber pour se relever) repeatedly. Another musical interpretation of the fable is Michael Galasso's incidental music for the segment based on the fable in Robert Wilson's production of Les Fables de La Fontaine for the Comédie-Française (2004).
There has also been a hip hop dance version of the fable in France choreographed for three dancers by Mourad Merzouki in 2002. The piece was included in Annie Sellem’s composite project Les Fables à La Fontaine but has also been performed separately.
- Emanuel Strauss, Concise Dictionary of European Proverbs (London 1998) #622
- Tao Te Ching section 76, translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, London 1972; available online
- Les Fables d'Esope Phrygien, mises en Ryme Francoise, Fable 81
- Centum Fabulae, fable 50
- Cento favole morali (1570), p.87
- Jean Bottéro, "La tenson et la reféxion sur les choses en Mésopotamie, pp. 7-22
- Emblemata (1565) Emblem 43
- Page 220
- An English translation at Gutenberg
- An online version, pp.82-3
- The Port Folio, Philadelphia 1802, Vol2, p.103; an online version is here
- A selection is available on Louisa Gibbs' Flickr site
- Emblemata (1565) Emblem 43
- Les Fables d'Esope Phrygien Fable 81
- Fable 50 p.106
- Aesop's Fables, Fable 127
- Available online
- Cat'zarts site
- Cat'zarts site
- See this online
- In the Musée Gustave Moreau
- This can be read online
- The words are online
- Available on YouTube
- The words are online
- Available on YouTube
- The words are online
- There are online excerpts on Vimeo and here
15th-20th century book illustrations online