Reading Mindfully: Jean de La Fontaine’s “The Oak and the Reed”

Reading Mindfully: Jean de La Fontaine’s “The Oak and the Reed”

Image: Claude Monet, The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau, 1865, [Public Domain] via

Each month, we pause for a moment to read mindfully, using literature to think about our perceptions and reactions to the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. We hope you might share and discuss them with others – or send us your thoughts.

The Oak and the Reed

Percy J. Billinghurst, illustrator, A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine, 1899, [Public domain] via Project Gutenberg

Jean de La Fontaine published “The Oak and the Reed” in the first of his twelve books of fables. Published in 1688, the fable is adapted from Aesop’s Fables and is written in poetic meter and rhyme in French. La Fontaine’s adaptation is not unique: the tale has been retold in Greek, Latin, Italian and English and has even been interpreted in statue and song.

As you read “The Oak and the Reed,” consider these questions:

  • When is it better to be strong and when is it better to be flexible?
  • The oak and the reed may represent any number of things – people, ideas, social structures, even work hierarchies. What do the oak and the reed, and their philosophies, represent to you?
  • This fable has been told for thousands of years. Why do you think this story is so inspiring, across cultures and generations?

The Oak and the Reed
by Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Eli Siegel

The oak one day says to the reed:
—You have a good right to blame the nature of things:
A wren for you is a heavy thing to bear.
The slightest wind which is likely
To wrinkle the face of the water
Compels you to bow your head—
While my brow, like Mount Caucasus,
Not satisfied with catching the rays of the sun,
Resists the effort of the tempest.

Continue reading “The Oak and the Reed” or listen to it in the original French.

Learn More About Our Programs or Read More on The Notebook:

Reading Mindfully: Wendell Berry’s Poetry
Creativity and Social Skills: What Machines Can’t Do
“Learning to Respect One Another’s Point of View”: A Books@Work Participant Interview

Capria Jaussen

Capria Jaussen

Capria Jaussen is the Director of Operations of Books@Work.

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.