The story concerns a competition between the North Wind and the Sun to decide which is the stronger of the two. The challenge was to make a passing traveler remove his cloak. However hard the North Wind blew, the traveler only wrapped his cloak tighter to keep warm, but when the Sun shone, the traveler was overcome with heat and soon took his cloak off.
The fable was well known in Ancient Greece; Athenaeus records that Hieronymus of Rhodes, in his Historical Notes, quoted an epigram of Sophocles against Euripides that parodied the story of Helios and Boreas. It related how Sophocles had his cloak stolen by a boy to whom he had made love. Euripides joked that he had had that boy too, and it did not cost him anything. Sophocles’ reply satirises the adulteries of Euripides: “It was the Sun, and not a boy, whose heat stripped me naked; as for you, Euripides, when you were kissing someone else’s wife the North Wind screwed you. You are unwise, you who sow in another’s field, to accuse Eros of being a snatch-thief.”
The Latin version of the fable first appeared centuries later in Avianus, as De Vento et Sole(Of the wind and the sun, Fable 4); early versions in English and Johann Gottfried Herder‘s poetic version in German (Wind und Sonne) also gave it as such. It was only in mid-Victorian times that the title “The North Wind and the Sun” began to be used. In fact, the Avianus poem refers to the characters as Boreas and Phoebus, the divinities of the north wind and the sun, and it was under the title Phébus et Boréethat it appeared in La Fontaine’s Fables.
Gilles Corrozet, who had compiled a fable collection in French verse earlier than La Fontaine, twice featured the contest between the sun and the wind in his emblem books. In Hecatomgraphie (1540), the first of these, the story is told in a quatrain, accompanied by a woodcut in which a man holds close a fur cloak under the wintry blast while on the other side he strips naked beneath the sun’s rays. It is titled with the moral “More by gentleness than strength” (Plus par doulceur que par force).The same illustration was used to accompany another poem in Corrozet’s later Emblemes(1543), which counsels taking enjoyment and being careful as necessity demands, wisely adapting oneself to circumstances in the same way as one dresses differently for winter than for summer.
Victorian versions of the fable give the moral as “Persuasion is better than force”, but it had been put in different ways at other times. In the Barlow edition of 1667, Aphra Behn taught the Stoic lesson that there should be moderation in everything: “In every passion moderation choose, For all extremes do bad effects produce”. In the 18th century, Herder came to the theological conclusion that, while superior force leaves us cold, the warmth of Christ’s love dispels it, and Walter Crane’s limerick version of 1887 gives a psychological interpretation, “True strength is not bluster”. But for Guy Wetmore Carryl in his humorous rewriting of the fable, “The Impetuous Breeze and the Diplomatic Sun”, tact is the lesson to be learned. There the competition is between the man and the wind; the sun only demonstrates the right way of achieving one’s end.
While most examples draw a moral lesson, La Fontaine’s “Mildness more than violence achieves” (Fables VI.3) hints at the political application that was present also in Avianus’ conclusion: “They cannot win who start with threats”. There is evidence that this reading has had an explicit influence on the diplomacy of modern times: in South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, for instance, or Japanese relations with the military regime in Myanmar.