The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

IX. The Fox, the Wolf, and the Cadger




The serious tone of the Moral to the preceding Fable is soon lightened by this comedy. Henryson gives free rein to his Fox's talent for lying and swindling, and this time the Fox gets away with it. Now, the poem may seem to be pure comedy from start to finish, but it is more than that; it is a subtle comment on "mighty" men - who are addressed in the last line.

Irony pervades this Fable. For instance, compare what the Fox 'says", when being bullyragged by the Wolf, with how he actually lives. And the entire Fable is based on a supreme irony; two somewhat antisocial characters indulging in robbery with the purpose of observing the great festival of the Christian year, Lent. Precisely, the forty days of self-denial, when no flesh must be eaten. Fish, of course, does not count, and this is where the Nekhering comes in.

The first full published title of this Fable is, modernised, " The tale of how the Wolf got the Nekhering through the tricks of the Fox who beguiled the Cadger." A nekhering - nekherring in modern spelling - is, to quote the official definition, " The best herring in the box, barrel, or creel, placed on top of the rest to attract the attention of the buyer." The comedy really gets off the ground because the Wolf doesn't know what a nekhering is, while the Fox does. To Henryson's contemporaries, the situation would be quite clear; the Wolf, as a "mighty" man, would be above such matters as the terms used in low-life trading.

This Fable is intensely Scottish, in its characters, situation, allusions, and references. As a small example, when the Cadger swears by "Flanders' merchants", he is alluding to one of Scotland's staple exports, animal skins to the Low Countries. And behind the entire Fable lies 15th-century Scotland's association of wealth with herring, engendered by her booming herring-for-export industry, as well as her strong domestic interest.




Vocabulary :flewer = aroma (Stz. 12.) A Scots form of "flavour"; commonly used to identify the delicious odour of fresh herring.
claes = clothes (25.)
fower = four (25.)
caller = fresh (26) The "a" is sounded as in "hat".




The Taill of the wolf, that gat the Nekhering, throw the wrinkis of the Foxe, that begylit the Cadgear.

Qwhylum thair wynnit in ane wildernes,
As myne authour expreslie can declare.......

1. Once on a time there dwelt among the hills,
As Aesop our author truly does declare,
A mighty Wolf, who lived upon his kills
Of beasts of all kinds, and quite well did fare.
None were so big which he might choose to spare
If he were hungry, and they came his way;
In fury, he would spring on them, and slay.

2. One day, as on his hunting rounds he fared,
He met this Fox approaching in his way.
The Fox saw him; pretended he was feared;
And, with a bow, he bade the Wolf good-day;
"Welcome to me," quoth he,"my lord so gay."
' "Then, kneeling down, he took the Wolf by hand.
"Rise up, Lowrence, I give thee leave to stand;

3. Where hast thou been all this time from my sight?
I'll take thee on, thou shalt my steward be',
"For thou canst pilfer capons in the night,
And through the day thou canst gar fat hens dee.
"Sir," said the Fox, "that doesn't work with me,
For, lang before I close to them can win,
They hear me coming, and they turn and rin."

4. " Na," said the Wolf, "thou canst through bushes creep,
Low on the ground, and grip them by the head;
Or make a sudden pounce upon a sheep,
And with thy sharp teeth worry it quite dead."
"Sir," said the Fox,"ye ken my coat is red;
For that alone, nae beast will now abide me,
Though I played false, and even tried to hide me."

5. "Na," said the Wolf,"thou movest like a cat;
Quiet can thou creep to come to thine intent."
"Sir," said the Fox, ye ken it's not like that;
For half a mile and mair, they feel my scent,
And do not bide to have an argument.
And I'd think shame to creep around behind them,
Even though sleeping in a field I find them."

6. "Na," said the Wolf, " thou aye dost work upwind!
For every move they make, thou hast a wile!"
"Sir," said the Fox,"Ye could call that beast blind,
That could not see me by at least a mile,
So I can scarcely one of them beguile;
My ears so pointed, and my twa grey een,
Gar me be kend where I was never seen.

7. " Na," said the Wolf,"Lowrence, I hear thee lee!
Inventing problems, duties to refuse!
But all thy nonsense disnae bother me,
Although to beat about the bush ye choose;
Liars like you this argument will lose,
For here's advice - and by no means the worst -
Do what you're told! Nor wait until ye're forced!"

8 "Sir," said the Fox, "it is now Lent, ye see.
I cannae fish, for fear my toes get weet,
Even for a stickleback, though we may dee.
I have no other trade to win my meat;
But were it Easter, we could poultry eat,
And kids, and lambs, and capons could be had;
And then I would your steward be, right glad!"

9. The Wolf then lost his temper. "Shameless thing!
To answer me with argument like that!
To try to lead an old dog on a string,
Or would ye draw a straw before a cat?"
"Sir," said the Fox, " I wasn't meaning that;
For if I were, ye would be justified
To have me flung in prison, chained and tied!

10. That man is just a fool in every way,
Who with his master would start reasoning;
I only tried to see what ye would say;
God kens, my mind was on some other thing.
I'll carry out your every ordering,
In wind or weather, be it night or day."
"Fine," said the Wolf,"I hear well what ye say,

11. But yet I'll have ye swear an oath right true,
That ye'll be loyal to me, all this year."
"Sir," said the Fox, "Ye've hurt my feelings noo,
Since that ye think ye've mastered me by fear.
Though there's no need, I hereby solemn swear,
By Jupiter, and peril of my head,
That I'll be true to you until I'm dead."

12. With that a Cadger, with his horse and creels,
Singing and happy, passed where they did lie;
The Fox the flewer of fresh herring feels,
And to the Wolf he whispers quietly,
"Sir, yon are herring he is carrying by;
We should take thought, giving our minds a cast
On how to get some for this forty-day-long Fast.

13. Since I'm your steward now, I must procure
Supplies. Ye have no cash, I ken right weel.
We'll just waste time by asking from yon boor;
He'll not give us one herring from his creel,
Although before him we would humbly kneel.
But hold you on; I think I see a way
To get some fish - without the need to pay."

14. There's one thing, though, if herring we'd obtain;
You'll have to work as weel, as ye shall see.
The man that will not try, or take some pain
To help himself, is just not worth a flea.
I mean to work as busy as a bee;
Wait you a while, and then come on behind,
To gather herring; plenty you will find."

15. With that, he took a detour far around,
And lay down in the middle of the lane;
Right straight and stiff, he stretched out on the ground,
Without a movement; death he meant to feign;
And, turning up the whites of both his een,
He hung his tongue far out between his teeth;
With feet in air, he seemed quite dead, in faith.

16. The Cadger saw the Fox, and laughed in glee,
Blessing his luck; and to himself did say,
At the next stop I'll have ye skinned, ye'll see;
Your pelt will mittens make for a cauld day!"
He capered round the Fox, as still it lay;
Up on his toes, he kicked and flung and pranced;
As if he heard a piper play, he danced.

17. " Here lies the Devil, then, dead in a dyke!
Sic thing I never saw this seven year!
I doubt ye've had a cast-out with some tyke
And lost, to lie like this, nae mair to steer!
Sir Fox, to me ye are right welcome here!
For lifting hens, or for some siclike deed,
A goodwife's curse has landed on your heid!

18. Nor shall no merchant, though he offer treasure
Of any kind, purchase your pelt from me;
I shall make mittens from it, to my pleasure,
To keep my hands richt warm, whaure'er I be,
Though Flander's merchants all get drowned at sea!"
He took the Fox and gripped him by the heels,
And swung him up to lie upon the creels.

19. To lead his horse, he turned himself about.
The wily Fox good note of this has ta'en;
And, with his teeth, he pulls the staples out,
And lifts the lids; the herring, ane by ane,
Out of the creels he flings with might and main.
The Wolf came on, and gathered them with speed;
The happy Cadger sang "The Devil's deid!"

20. To ford a burn, the Cadger then looked back;
With that, the Fox jumped down and ran away;
The Cadger would have fetched the Fox a crack,
But was too late; the Fox had won the day.
Then did the Cadger yell and bawl and bray
" Come back, and thou a Nekhering shall get,
That's worth my horse, and a'thing on it set!"

21. "Aye," said the Fox,"and damn me if we meet!
I heard what you intended for my skin!
Ye thought, with my red fur, your hands to heat?
Hang you, your horse, your creels, and all your kin!
I'll bet, of herring I have hardly left a fin;
Ye'll need to sell what's left at some great price
To get a profit from your merchandise!"

22. The Cadger shook with anger where he stood.
"It serves me right,"he said. "I missed that tyke
Since I had nothing in my hand so good
As stick or stane which I could use to strike!"
With that, he clambered ower a forest dyke,
Cursing himself in rage for all his folly,
And cut himself a heavy staff of holly.

23. Back went the Fox to where the Wolf lay hid,
And found him loading herring in a sack.
"Was that not," said the Fox, "good work I did?
An able man should never really lack,
And hardy heart is never ta'en aback."
Then said the Wolf, "Ye are a servant bold,
Clever as weel, when all the truth is told.

24. But what was that I heard that Cadger shout,
Shaking his fist ? By Jove, he made some squeal!"
"Sir," said the Fox, "of that there is nae doubt;
He said the Nekhering was in the creel."
"D'ye ken that herring?" "Aye, I ken it weel;
Its weight near broke my teeth; sir, just about
Three times, I swear, I gey near had it out.

25. Noo, truly, sir, if we could get that fish,
It would be food for us these forty days."
"God hang me," said the Wolf,"now how I wish
I had been there! I would give my best claes,
To see if, with my strength, I could it raise!"
"Sir," said the Fox, "at least three times or fower
I wished ye there; that fish was past my power.

26. It is a side of salmon, as it were,
And caller, glistening like a partridge ee;
It is worth all the herring we have here;
In fact, worth this lot multiplied by three."
"What," said the Wolf, "advice would ye give me?"
"Sir," said the Fox," just do exactly as I say,
And this prize fish ye'll safely bear away.

27. First, ye must take a detour far around,
And lie down in the middle of the lane;
Stretching yourself straight out upon the ground,
Lying quite still, for death ye have to feign,
And make sure that you close fast baith your een;
Hang out your tongue a handsbreadth from your head;
Feet up in air, and then ye'll seem quite dead.

28. If ye hear anything, just have nae fear;
Just you keep wondrous still, the way ye're laid;
And keep your een closed, dinnae twitch an ear;
Move not one muscle, body, foot, or head;
Then will the Cadger think that ye are dead,
And with great glee he'll grip ye by the heels
As he did me, and fling ye on the creels.

29. "As I do thrive," the Wolf said, "I believe
That Cadger carl my weight could hardly bear."
"Nae worries," said the Fox, "ye'll get a heave
Up on the creels. Just carry on from there;
And this thing I can truly tae ye swear;
If you that mighty herring can secure,
Till Easter comes, we need not labour more.

30. I'll bless ye with the words of sweet Saint John,
And sign ye with the cross from tap to tae.
I'll warrant ye that ye can carry on
In perfect safety; ye'll no' die today."
With that, the Wolf then went upon his way.
Right round the Cadger he a detour made,
And lay down in the road as he were dead.

31. Down on a stone, his head he gently laid,
Sticking his feet straight up into the air;
With tongue hung out a handsbreadth from his head,
And eyes tight closed, he did not move one hair.
About the Fox's tricks he did not care,
Although he knew him well; his mind was set
Upon this glorious Nekhering he'd get.

32. With that, the Cadger, furious of mind,
Came riding on his horse, the load now light,
Aye thinking on this Fox he'd left behind,
Plotting revenge on him with all his might;
Then, round a bend, the Wolf came into sight,
All stiff and still in middle of the track.
Swiftly the man slid off his horse's back.

33. Softly he said "I have been swindled once,
And if I'm swindled twice, De'il tak us baith!
The evil now shall licht upon your bones
That's due yon Fox, I tell ye in good faith!"
He raised his staff; the Wolf lay quiet beneath;
Then brought it down with might on the Wolf's head!
Half stunned, the Wolf now feared for death indeed.

34. Three clouts he caught, ere he his feet could find;
He was a strong beast, though, and got away.
Scarce could he see, with blood he was near blind;
He was not sure if it were night or day.
The Fox was watching this, not far away,
And laughed out loud, especially to see
The Wolf aye stumbling, falling to his knee.

35. He that with just enough is not content,
But wants the lot, the lot he risks to lose.
The Wolf was done for, as the Fox had meant.
"Now," said the Fox,"These herring's for my use!"
Did e'er you see such steward of a house,
Playing such tricks, making his master grieve?
With all the fish, then, Lowrence took his leave.

36. The Wolf had thought that he was surely dead,
And scarcely with his life away he'd won,
Since by the staff sore broken was his head.
The Fox, that tricked both master and the man,
Returned with plenty to his own wee den.
The Cadger lost the herring from his creels;
The Wolf had his blood dripping off his heels.

MORAL

37. This tale is mingled with morality,
That I shall show you clearly, if I can;
The Fox may to the world likened be,
The mighty Wolf unto a greedy man;
The Cadger stands for Death, from whom no one
Who lives on earth can hide away or flee;
No bird or beast on land, or fish in sea.

38. The world, you see, is steward to the man,
And to his end he has him pay no heed,
But goads him to win all the wealth he can.
The Nekhering is like the gold so red,
That made the Wolf in danger lay his head.
Desire for wealth lays waste our towns and land
By cruel war; this you must understand.

39. And as the Fox, with falsehood and with guile,
Made the Wolf think he had a slave for ever,
So the vainglory of this world awhile
Seems to mankind that it will fail them never;
Just see how often it will quickly sever
Itself from those who fill the sack;
Then Death comes on, to take them all aback.

40. The gleam of gold makes many men so blind
Or dazzled, that they nothing else can see;
They're unaware he Cadger comes behind,
To lay them low, however high they be;
Insight removed by great prosperity.
Ye mighty men, I counsel ye, take heed
Of the Nekhering's tale, which here ye read.


Back to Contents