The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

VIII. The Lion and the Mouse




This Fable has to be read carefully. It seems to be a typical Henrysonian re-casting of an old and well-known tale, told in a slightly unusual way, but full of traditional literary' "treatments: the summer's day, the delightful place, the dream. But, when we come to the Moral, we find that it is much more than that.

There are several connexions between this Fable and the previous one, The Preaching of The Swallow, and the most obvious of these is that a net features in both. This net is an ideal model of Henryson's symbolism, methods and intentions . Compare the net in the Preiching with the net in this Fable; who made each net, and for what purpose? And, above all, who was caught? Answering this last question will explain why Henryson tells this tale in a form quite different from that which he uses in all the other Fables.

It is the Lion who lands in the net here; and, in Henryson's Scotland, the Lion, quite specifically, symbolised the King. This Fable is a critical comment on the government of Scotland. That such comment was justified is easy to prove, such proof being available in every account of the reign of the king under whom Henryson lived the most of his active life, James III. Not that King James was tyrranous or predatory; Henryson rings the dramatic changes in his employment of animal/human characteristics, and we must consider the context of each Fable. For instance, when the butler and the cat appear in Fable II, the mice are suddenly 100% mice, with comic effect. But in this Fable, the theme of the ancient original is so close to his purpose that, in the fable itself, he has needed to achieve little more than a lively translation; his particular theme is clarified in the Moral.

It is obvious, in the Moral, that a warning is being issued, which could be interpreted, by certain ranks of society, as a threat. Now, one does not criticise one's rulers in such a fashion without running risks. This is the reason for the construction of this Fable, unique among the others, where it is Aesop himself, and not Henryson, who tells the story and explains the significance in the Moral - and all under the cover of a dream. Henryson was distancing himself from his comments as far as he possibly could.

While it is not too difficult to infer, from the Moral, that the idea of a lower-orders rebellion has been brought into mind, it is interesting to note that such a rebellion, a Peasant's Revolt, never occurred in Scotland - as it did in England, France, and Germany.




Vocabulary :shaw = a wood, generally a small one; (Stz. 4.)




The Taill of the Lyoun and the Mous

In middis of Iune, that ioly sweit seasoun
Quhen that fair Phebus with h"'s bemis bricht........

1. In glorious June, of summer months the pride
When the sun, Phoebus, with his beams so bright,
Field, hill, and dale has warmed and dried,
Blessing the countryside with his sweet light,
One morning fair, after a restful night,
I rose from sleep, and, in a cheerful mood,
Went forth to wander in a nearby wood.

2. Rare was the scent of blossoms round me spread;
Rare was the song of merle and mavis sweet;
Wondrous the mayflower's bloom above my head;
Herbs and soft grasses bent beneath my feet.
For every sense, the pleasure was complete;
The birds in harmony, the odours rare,
The weather mild; a day beyond compare.

3. Roses so red adorned each twig and branch;
Primrose and violet all around me lay,
And everything my pleasure would enhance.
The wee birds piped their songs so blithe and gay;
The bluebells covered every bank and brae;
Among the herbs, the flowers, the birdie's cry,
Which was to have the victory?

4. To guard myself, then, from the sun's full heat,
Within the shadow of a hawthorn green
I laid me down among those flowers so sweet;
And when I'd crossed myself, and closed my een,
I fell asleep. And after I had been
Some time in slumber, in a dream I saw
A fair and gracious man come through the shaw.

5. His gown of satin fine was white as milk;
His tunic was with purple velvet lined;
His hood was scarlet, edged with costly silk,
And, to his girdle, hung straight down behind;
His bonnet small was of the ancient kind;
His beard was white, his een were bright and grey,
His hair in curls down on his shoulders lay

6. A long swan-quill was stuck behind his ear;
A roll of paper in his hand he bore,
With ink-horn, penknife, all the writer's gear.
A gentleman he was, I could be sure,
For, at his waist, a silken purse he wore;
Tall in his stature, noble in his face,
Approaching with a slow and steady pace. '

7. "Bless you, my son," said he, and there's no doubt
That, of all greetings, there is none so fair;
With reverence, I returned him his salute
With "Welcome, father, please ye, join me here;
Be not displeased, good master, if I speir
As to your birth, your way of life, your name,
Why ye are here, and where ye dwell at hame."

8. "My son," said he,"I am of gentle breeding;
Rome is my place of birth, in Italy;
Writing I learned in that fair town, and reading,
And Civil Law I studied every day;
And now my dwelling is in Heaven, for aye.
My name is Aesop; and my writings, my life's work,
Familiar are to every learned clerk."

9. "O master Aesop! Ye of greatest note!
Most welcome, heaven knows, ye are to me!
Are ye not he that all these Fables wrote,
Which, in effect, although they fiction be,
Are full of prudence and morality?"
"My son," he said,"I am that very man."
My cup of happiness gey near o'er-ran.

10. "My dearest master," said I,"are ye able
- and I ask this of your great charity -
To let me hear at least one other Fable,
Concluding with a good morality?"
Shaking his head, he said "My son, let be.
What is the use of any made-up Tale,
When holy preaching cannot now prevail?

11. For nowadays it seems that few or none
Have for the Word of God a right affection.
The ear is stopped, the heart is hard as stone,
Sin is now widespread, free from all correction;
To power, wealth, carnal joy, is man's direction;
So cankered is this world, both far and wide,
It seems my tales could little help provide."

12. "Yet, master Aesop, at the very least,
- your grace and honour I would ever save -
Within the image of some brutal beast,
One moral fable ye might let me have?
Who knows, but that I shall in it perceive
A truth, that in the future might prevail?"
" That's so," quoth he, and then began a tale.

13. A hunting Lion, tired after a run,
To recreate his strength, and take a rest
And bathe his breast and belly in the sun,
Lay down beside a tree in the forest.
Then came a troop of mice out of their nest,
Nimble and lively, practising a dance;
Upon the Lion they capered, more than once.

14. He lay so still, the mice were not afraid;
But, to and fro, upon him held a race;
Some swung upon the long hair in his head,
Others climbed up, and then slid down, his face;
Full of high jinks, they danced away a space,
Until this noble Lion woke at last,
And in his paw he gripped the chief mouse fast.

15. She gave a shriek, and all the rest, aghast,
Ran for their lives, and hid themselves elsewhere.
She that was caught then thought her life was lost,
Mourning her lot, that ever she'd come there.
"Alas," she said,"now that I'm taken fair,
I see, that for offence to this Beast Royal,
For life or death I'll have to stand on trial!"

16. Then spoke the Lion to that sorry Mouse,
"Ye base-born wretch, ye vile and worthless thing!
To be so upstart and presumptuous,
As over me to dance and play and sing?
Do ye not know that I am Lord and King
Over all beasts?" " Yes," said the Mouse, "I know,
But thought no harm, in that you lay so low.

17. Lord, I beseech your gracious Royalty;
Hear what I say, and take it with good sense;
Consider now my simple poverty;
Compare it with your high magnificence,
And see that what's done by pure negligence,
And not through malice, still far less by treason,
Deserves your mercy; surely this is reason!

18. Well-fed were we, and thought we were well-off
In all the things that to us mice pertain;
A fine day had us dance and play and laugh,
Enjoying life the only way we ken;
And you, good sir, so still and quiet had lain,
That, by my soul! we thought that you were dead,
Or else we'd never danced upon your head!"

19. "That's no excuse!" The Lion said again.
"And never should it stand against my law;
For here's the case; if I'd by chance been slain,
My skin stripped off, and then stuffed full of straw,
And then ye found this dummy lying low;
Just since it was the image true of me,
Ye should have dropped, in fear, upon your knee!

20. For your trespass you can make no defence,
My noble person thus to reprehend;
To make an error, your own negligence,
As an excuse, ye can no way pretend.
Therefore ye must endure a shameful end
By death, as is for treason held right mete,
And to the gallows be dragged by your feet!

21. "Aw, mercy, lord, your noble grace I cry,
Since King of every beast you have been crowned;
Let mildness rule; O, let your wrath pass by,
And have your thoughts to mercy turn around!
I grant your honour has received a wound,
And the strict law demands that I must dee,
Unless your Royal mercy sets me free.

22. Let pity, mercy, in all judges be
Taken as arbiters in every case.
With mercy gone, justice is cruelty;
Upon this fact, our moral laws we base;
When rigour sits as Judge on every case,
Who will maintain the equity of Law?
Unless there's mercy, few - or nane at a'.

23. The victor's battle-honours, as we ken,
At all times on the loser's strength depend;
And when opponents bear themselves like men,
More glory to the victor then they lend.
What praise or glory at the battle's end
Awaits the man who conquered has another
That couldnae fight, and who's been beat nae bother?

24. To slay outright a thousand of my kind,
To your repute small credit would be done.
In such a deed, little renown you'd find;
Between our powers, comparison there's none;
You'd lose all fame, especially if one
Wee Mouse you'd slay, who only made defence
By seeking mercy from your Excellence.

25. Besides, your Majesty would take no good
- since every day you dine on finest fare -
Your Royal lips to dirty with my blood,
Meat which a Royal stomach could not bear;
Mice make unwholesome food, eat though you dare,
Especially to those of Lion kind,
Who every day on venison have dined.

26. My life is little worth, my death is less;
But maybe, if I live, the chance I'll get
To help your Highness, if you meet distress;
It has been seen that many a poor man yet
Has helped a lord, in higher station set,
Who captive was, about to meet his end;
Misfortune might the same fate to you send!"

27. The Lion listened, and then ceased to rage;
The Mouse's reasoning had him fairly daunted;
He let his mercy, then, his wrath assuage,
And to the Mouse a pardon free he granted,
Opening his paw; no more he raved and ranted.
The happy Mouse, now freed from all her fear,
With hands upraised, cried"God keep you in care!"

28. When she was gone, the Lion went to hunt.
Beasts such as he must live upon their prey;
He slew both tame and wild, as was his wont,
And through the countryside made great affray,
Until at last the people found a way
To make this cruel Lion pay his debt;
For, of strong hemp, they made a mighty net.

29. Across a forest glade, where he would run,
They hung this net, with ropes from tree to tree;
Then set a line of beaters, boy and man,
Blowing on horns, with mastiffs running free;
The Lion heard, and through the glade did flee
Into the net, well tangled head and foot;
For all his strength, he just could not get out.

30. He thrashed around, with wild and hideous roar,
This way and that, hoping some slack to get,
But all in vain. It happened that the more
He writhed and plunged, the tighter drew the net;
These ropes so strong had cunningly been set.
His strength exhausted, he fell weak and faint,
Then, lying still, he made this sad complaint:

31. "O hobbled Lion, stretched out here so low,
Where now is proof of thy magnificence?
Of thee, at one time, all beasts stood in awe,
Afraid to gaze upon thy excellence!
Without one hope of succour or defence,
I must lie here, bound in strong rope, alas!
Till I be slain; so must it come to pass.

32. There is no power that can my wrong avenge;
Where is the creature that can comfort me?
Who can come here, my freedom to arrange?
From this confinement, who can set me free?"
Now, while he made this lamentable plea,
The little Mouse, by chance, was passing by,
And stopped to hear the Lion's sorry cry.

33. Then suddenly it came into her mind
This was the Lion that had given her grace.
She thought "Now I'd be false, cruel, unkind,
If I did not repay his gentleness
In freeing me." With that, off she did race
Back to her fellow mice, giving a shout:
"Come help, come help!" They all came tumbling out.

34. "Look," said the Mouse,"this Lion is the one
That showed me mercy, set me free again;
Now he is bound fast here, as in prison,
Breaking his heart with mourning, and in pain
Unless we help, he'll lie here till he's slain.
Come on, and help to pay a good turn back,
And free him quick!" In truth, they were not slack;

35. No need of knives, their teeth were sharp enough;
To see them work was something of a wonder;
How they did set about these ropes so tough;
Before, behind, some on the top, some under,
Biting the meshes of the net asunder,
Letting him rise; and so he did with speed,
Thanking them all for their most gracious deed.

36. Now is the Lion saved at the last hour,
Cut free, and given back his liberty
By tiny beasts that have but little power,
And all because he showed some charity.
Then I said,"Master, is there now morality
Within this Fable?" "Aye," said he," right good."
"I pray you, master, that ye would conclude."

MORAL

37. As I intend, this Lion of great power
May represent a prince, or yet a king;
Some potentate, or even an emperor,
Who should take pains in justly governing
His people; but who, not labouring
To guide and rule the land, and order keep,
Spends all his time in pleasure, sloth, and sleep.

38. This forest fair, so mild and full of ease,
With song of bird, and scent of flowers so fair,
Stands for the world, and what it does to please.
Unsafe it is, for it's aye mixed with care;
Look at the rose; when winter comes on sair
It fades; the world likewise, and so deceives
Him who in earth's promises believes.

39. The little mice are but the common folk,
Careless, unwise, when there is none to guide;
And when they see their rulers make a joke
Of justice such as rulers should provide,
They will not aye in loyalty abide,
But go their own ways, having no respect
For governors whose rule has no effect.

40. So, through this tale, ye Lords of any sense,
Learn to take mercy's power into your heart;
Prepare to treat with grace a sore offence;
In judgement, let some pity play a part.
It's often seen that men of common sort
For good or evil have repaid a debt,
Depending on their treatment by the great.

41. Who knows how soon some lord of great renown,
Surrounded by great wealth in his pleasance,
May be disdained, and brought full swiftly down
By Dame Fortune, who of all variance
Is mistress aye; and aye she leads the dance
With such as those; by her they are deceived,
Struck down by danger they have not perceived.

42. These country folk, that knotted well their net,
To have the Lion for his wrongs atone,
Bided their time, their recompense to get;
Their wrongs are chiselled into hardest stone.
Much could I say which I must leave alone;
But King and Lord should know well what I mean,
For, all too often, signs of this are seen.

43. When this was done, Aesop said,"My dear child,
Persuade our churchmen constantly to pray
That treason from this country be exiled,
That justice reign, and that our great lords may
Keep true faith with their King by night and day."
Then with these words he vanished, and I woke,
And, through the wood, my homeward journey took.


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