The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

V. The Trial of the Fox




This is the longest of the Fables. Much of its length can be attributed to Henryson's emphasis, conveyed in various ways, of the status and power of the Late-Mediaeval Scottish king. Nor is this a once-off dramatic ingredient in one Fable; it is part of the construction of the Fables as a united whole. Henryson has good reason to emphasise the importance of his King, for, in several of the Fables to follow, he has comments to make on the obligations of kingship.

The poem contains an accurate account of the nature, proceedings, and function of a Scottish Parliament of Henryson's time. He makes his Parliament a Parliament of Beasts; this beast-parliament was a popular literary feature in the Middle Ages, and Henryson's long list of actual and mythical creatures is following literary tradition - and bringing more of his actors, and his chorus, on stage. Only the King could summon a Parliament, whenever and wherever he chose; and mediaeval kings moved about a lot. Parliaments were summoned for two major purposes - the temptation is to say for two purposes only : the raising of money for governmental business, and the administration or enforcement of the law. Parliament was the highest court of justice in the land, and that is the function of Parliament in this Fable.

All this emphasis on King and Parliament is by no means the sole purpose of the poem; Henryson is using it to contrast with, and therefore highlight, the character of the Fox. He employs dramatic contrast frequently throughout the Fables; his sudden reversals of fortune - a feature of real life - are common, and seen here in the fate of the Fox; visual contrast as well, seen here in stanza 7, when we have a doubtlessly-magnificent Royal Herald appearing just after we have left the skinned carcass of a predatory and scavenging animal floating in the black water of a flooded peat-hag.

In stanza 37, the Fox's not-very-kind jest at the Wolf's expense is based on the wearing of the red academic cap being restricted to those who have been awarded a Doctorate.




Vocabulary: jennet = the offspring of a stallion and an ass (15.)
hirplin = limpling (16.)
bowranbane = nobody knows what this is ( 17.)
lerion = as bowranbane (17.)
speir = ask (28.)




The Taill of the Sone and Air of the foirsaid Foxe, callit Father wer; Alswa the Parliament of fourfuttit Beistis, haldin be the Lyoun.

This foirsaid foxe that deit for his misdeed
Had not ane barne wes gottin richteouslie .......

1. This foresaid Fox, that died for his misdeed,
Had not one bairn was gotten righteously
That to his goods could legally succeed;
Except a son, conceived in harlotry,
When money had changed hands right greedily;
"Worse-than-his-father" he was called by name,
And as a poultry thief achieved great fame.

2. It follows well by reason natural,
And plain-seen facts on which we can depend,
From bad comes worse, from worse comes worst of all;
From wicked fathers, wicked sons descend;
This bastard Fox to evil would aye tend.
His breeding led him aye to lie and steal;
Father and grandfather did the same as weel.

3. As his kind do, he sought his food by scent,
So, by the smell, he found his father dead,
Naked, new-slain, with skinner's knife all rent.
He knelt beside him, lifted up his head,
Thanked the good Lord for all this luck, and said,
"Since I'm your heir, noo I'll take on full weel
The lands where ye've been used to rob and steal."

4. Covetousness unkind and venomous!
The son was glad he found his father dead
- by sudden shot for his deeds odious -;
Now he could all the plunder claim instead;
No qualms about the kind of life he'd lead,
To lie and cheat, to rob and thieve and slay;
No thoughts about his end e'er came his way.

5. And yet he has some filial piety.
Up on his back his father's corpse he'll raise;
"Noo find I weel this proverb true," he says,
"Aye rins the fox as lang's one foot he has!"
Then to a flooded peat-hag takes his ways,
Flinging the corpse in water dark and deep,
Leaving his father in the Devil's keep.

6. O foolish man, plunged deep in worldliness!
To win deceptive wealth in gold and rent;
To live your life in care and heaviness
Just for an heir, who, after you are went
Receiving wealth, abandons all intent
To pray, or masses sing, for your salvation;
For all he cares, you're headed for damnation.

7. Taking his ease, this Fox lay in a brake.
Sudden, he heard a mighty bugle blaw,
Seeming to make the very ground to shake;
So up he jumped, gazing around, and saw
A Unicorn come trotting up a law,
With horn in hand; a lawyer's brief he bore;
This was a Royal Herald, to be sure.

8. Up on the crest, where he could look about,
This Unicorn then set himself on high;
.Took a deep breath, then, with a mighty shout,
"Oyez, Oyez!" he clearly thrice did cry.
With that, the beasts in field and wood nearby,
Curious to know what all this noise might mean,
Somewhat alarmed, they gathered on the green.

9. Out of his brief, this Herald parchment took;
To read what lay therein he did intend.
Commanding silence, solemnly he spoke;
"We, noble Lion, King of Beasts, do send
' Greeting to God, Beginning aye and End;
And to all brutal beasts irrational,
As they our subjects are, both great and small;

10. My majesty and high magnificence
Gives you to know that it is my intent
With Royal grace, and seemly diligence,
To hold, tomorrow here, a Parliament.
Strictly therefore, I give you commandment
That you appear before my tribunal;
Absence shall mean that punishments befall."

11. The morrow comes. The sun, with warming beams,
The wreaths of morning mist has driven away;
Green is the grass, and through it winks and gleams
The dainty flowers, in colours bright and gay,
Sending their scent from every sprig and spray;
While the small birds, so sweet to hear and see,
Loudly did sing from hedge and bush and tree.

12. Three Leopards came, the Royal Court to set,
And many a fine thing to that field they bear,
To have all ready, ere the beasts are met;
An open, gilded tent they pitched, in where
A golden throne was set, with jewels rare,
And on that throne a Lion then sat down,
In Royal robes, with sceptre, sword, and crown.

13. All beasts that go on foot upon the ground,
Obedient to the orders they had heard,
Making their way from all the country round,
Before their King, the Lion, they appeared.
And what this Fox did see - he was afeared -
I'll now recount, each beast of every kind,
As far as I can truly bring to mind.

14. The Minotaur, a monster marvellous;
Bellerophon, that beast of high degree;
The werewolf, and the swift steed Pegasus,
That gets his power from strength of sorcery;
The lynx; the tiger full of tyrrany;
The elephant, with stately pace and slow;
The clumsy camel, and the dainty roe.

15. Leopards were there, as I have said before;
The antelope and eland moved with speed;
The glossy panther, and the shaggy boar,
The reindeer leapt through river, pond, and reed;
The frisky jennet, and the gentle steed;
The ass, the mule, the horse of every kind,
The buck, the doe, he antlered hart, the hind.

16. The bull, the elk, the bison, and the bear;
The wildman, wildcat, and the wolverine;
The prickled hedgehog, and the hirplin hare,
Monkey and ape, and jaggy porcupine;
The cheerful goat, the silly sheep, the swine;
The beaver, buffalo, and stripe-faced brock,
The polecat and the ferret forth did flock.

17. The greyhound gay, the bloodhound swift did leap;
With all the breeds of dog so different;
The raking rat; the dormouse, half asleep;
The stoat beside the wily weasel went;
The ermine, whose fur has paid many a rent;
And marten, rabbit, squirrel scampered on,
With bowranbane and little lerion.

18. The wee mole by the marmoset was led,
Because by nature she is short of sight;
Thus did they all come out as they were bid;
The mouse, the tiny shrew, with all their might
Tried upon little legs to scale the height;
With other kinds of beasts I do not know,
Before their lord the Lion bowing low.

19. Silent they were; they all just stood and stared.
The Lion gazed on them from where he sat,
Then swift he rose, and at them all he glared;
With that, the beasts with one accord fell flat,
In fear of death, we can be sure of that;
But then he spoke, in words both mild and sweet:
"Be not afraid, but rise up to your feet!

20. I'll have you know that mercy goes with might;
None shall I harm, that to me are prostrate;
But hard I'll treat, and sorely will I smite,
All those who would belittle royal state!
I rend, I tear, all who would make debate
About my might or my magnificence;
Let none pretend to pride in my presence.

21. My royal power, and majesty so great,
I mingle with my mercy every day;
I can the humblest raise to high estate,
And make him master o'er you - this I may!
And if the dromedary cause affray,
Or elephant; or if their strength they'd use,
I'd crush them both, as if they were a mouse.

22. For twenty miles around from where I am,
The kid shall safely trot his dam beside;
Lowrence the fox shall look not at the lamb;
No ravening beast shall either hunt or ride."
They all sat down when this decree was cried.
The Justice then did open court declare,
To call the suits, and check that all were there.

23. The Panther then rose up in all his pride,
To check the court, and make a true assay.
Then Tod Lowrence looked for a place to hide;
Got to his feet, and fine would run away;
Tearing his hair, his clothes in disarray,
Shaking with dread, our Fox was heard to say
"Alas this hour, alas this doleful day!

24. It's come to me, this concourse that I see,
Is meant to be a proper court all right!
It's called to catch such characters as me!
O, I'll be hanged if I come to their sight,
And I'll be hunted if I take to flight!
To bide or run will make nae difference;
I'm for it noo; for me there's nae defence!"

25. But suddenly he saw there was a way,
Through falsehood how he might himself defend;
He pulled his hood down, just to show one eye,
And almost to the ground his head did bend.
Hirplin he went, so he might not be kend;
And, in the hope he might avoid arrest,
He played at hide-and-seek from beast to beast.

26. O, soul defiled, and sense of right struck dead!
Before a king arrayed in righteousness!
Black is your name, and bowed for aye your head!
No hope for you, for you there is no grace;
Your every move, the look upon your face,
Any defence would swiftly clear away,
If you be seen in the clear light of day.

27. And if you're held for theft, or even worse wrang,
Like fraud or murder, it is then we'll say
Justice is done, Lowrence, if ye should hang;
The evil done will thus be swept away.
Just see this Fox, how he has gone astray;
From falsehood foul do all his woes proceed;
Falsehood aye leads to sin and shameful deed.

28. The people were now ranged before their King,
Of him they were no longer so affeared;
He asked that they some evidence should bring
That all was well; and solemnly he speired
If there was any beast had not appeared.
With that, to him they all did truly swear,
And could say "Nane, except a grey brood mare."

29. "Go, send a messenger at once unto that mare!"
The court then cried, "My Lord, who shall it be?"
"Lowrence, come out! I see ye hiding there!"
"Aw, sir, have mercy, I have jist wan ee,
My leg is hurt; I'm hirplin as ye see;
The Wolf should gang, for he has been to college,
He is the one with a' the clerkly knowledge."

30. Angry, the king said "Go, ye wretches baith!"
With that, they saw they'd better not stay there,
So off they set, through wood and field and heath,
And, at her morning's meal, they found the mare.
"Noo," said the Fox, "Madam, ye must appear
Before the King, for ye are contumax."
"Lowrence," said she, "Let be your courtly knacks."

31. "Mistress," quoth he, "ye must come to the court;
The Lion has commanded so indeed."
"Sir Tod, here is an answer sweet and short:
A licence have I, which I'll let you read."
"Nae scholar me," said he, "I think ye'll need
The Wolf, who is a Doctor and a clerk,
Experienced, and maister of this wark;

32. He is professional, and the right age;
Nane can with him in legal wark compare;
It's to him ye must show your privilege;
I shall stand by, and solemn witness bear."
"Where is this licence," said the Wolf, "come, where?"
" Under my hind hoof, sir, weel hid."
"Hold up that heel!" he said, and so she did.

33. Though he was stiff with pride, he then bent down,
To see her licence where he thought it lay.
With that, the mare then kicked him on the crown,
Sending his bonnet half-a-mile away,
And down he fell, without a word to say.
"Oh dear", said Lowrence,"Maister, ye've been caught!"
"His education," said she,"has been dearly bought!"

34. "Lowrence," she said," will ye look at the letter,
Seeing the Wolf nothing from it could win?"
"Na, by Saint Bride," quoth he,"I think it's better
To sleep in whole, raither than broken, skin!
I saw a paper ance, and wrote therein
There was advice that I'll no' put to scorning:
" A wise man frae another's hurts takes warning!"

35. With bloody head, and half devoid of sense,
The Wolf, helped by the Fox, retraced his way;
For this assault he hoped for recompense,
And straight before the king his case he'd lay.
"Sir," said the Fox, "sit down wheree'r ye may,
And frae your face I'll wash away the blood;
Take you a drink, for it will do ye good."

36. To look for water, then, this Tod was set;
A burn, a pond, even a ditch belike;
When, coming from the hill, by chance he met
A troop of lambs all dancing on a dyke.
This fraudful Fox, this tyrant, this false tyke,
Slaughtered the fattest of this helpless pack,
And ate his fill; then to the Wolf went back.

37. They drank together, then they took their road
Back to the King, and down they went on knee.
"Where is that mare," the Lion asked, "Sir Tod?"
And Lowrence said " My Lord, speir not at me;
This new-made Doctor of Divinity
With his red cap, can tell you weel enough!"
At that, the Lion and the court did laugh.

38. "Tell us what happened, Lowrence, let us hear."
"This clerkly Wolf," said he, "this man of age,
On your command, he bid the mare appear,
But then she said she had a privilege;
Come read, she said, so ye the truth can gauge.
And when he bent to read this licence weel,
She gave him that red bonnet with her heel."

39. The Lion said, "By that red cap I ken
That those who hear this tale will know it's true;
The greatest clerks are not the wisest men,
A man can smile to see his neighbour rue.
Now should the Wolf this damage case pursue?"
As this was argued, with some jokes and sport,
The mother of the lamb stood up in court.

40. Before the King, upon her knees she fell,
Crying, "My Lord, please you my plea to hear!
This traitor Tod, this very hound o' Hell,
Has killed and ate my only lamb so dear,
Against your law, within a mile o' here!
For love of God, noo let us have that law!"
With that, the Fox tried quietly to withdraw.

41. "Halt!" roared the King, "You wretch, now let us see
The truth of what this simple ewe has said!"
" Aw, my Lord King, saving your grace," quoth he,
I was but only meaning to have played
With him; he ran as though he were afraid,
I ken not why; he tumbled ower a dyke,
And broke his neck." " Ye lie!" cried she, "False tyke!

42. It's easy proved that ye did cause his death!
Look at his blood still smeared upon your snout!
His wool and flesh still stickin in your teeth!
The evidence is plain, and past all doubt!"
The Judge then ordered a full jury out,
Who found our Lowrence guilty, ane and a'
Of murder, and of breaking Royal law.

43. Then from his throne the Lion sentence gave,
To strip him bare, and then to hang him fast;
His soul with Absolution he might save,
And this, the Wolf gave to him at the last;
His life of theft and murder was now past.
The Ape forced him the ladder to ascend,
Then it was turned; and so he made his end.

MORAL

44. As miner in his furnace hot is able
Rich gold from lowly earth and stone to win,
Just so it is with many an ancient Fable;
Gold can be found, if we but seek therein.
Men of religion work this wealth to win,
And we can, for our good, this same work try
To seek the truth, in subtle poetry.

45. The Lion is the World, by likeliness,
To whom bows down both common man and king,
Hoping that from this world they'll get increase
Of the delights and pleasures of living;
Some seek for power, some go wealth-gathering,
And only gear and goods can make them glad;
To gain such things, some work as they were mad.

46. The Mare stands here for men of contemplation,
Who keep themselves outside such busyness;
As monks, and other men of real religion,
Who can find God within the wilderness,
Living apart from all man's greediness
In simple poverty; abandoning all pride,
Against the World their souls are fortified.

47. The Wolf to Sensuality I liken now,
When, like the beasts, we would from virtue turn,
And would the pleasures of this fleshly world pursue,
And after wealth, and after fame, to yearn;
Avoid such vanities, such trifles you must spurn,
Making your Reason put all to the test,
For your soul's sake; the only way, the best.

48. The Mare's hoof I would see as Death, indeed.
Wilt thou remember, man, that thou must die?
Of sensuality thou canst strike off the head,
And fleshly lust away from thee will fly
When thou beginst thy mind to mortify;
Solomon's saying, grace for thee can win:
"Think on thine end, thou wilt not gladly sin."

49. This Tod I liken to Temptation then,
Filling the mind with worldly thoughts and vain;
Devils do try the best religious men,
Whispering, "Come to the world again..."
But when they see the powers of lust lie slain,
And a Judge wielding punishment full sore,
They waste away, and tempt them nevermore.

50. O Mary mild, source of all mercy meek,
Kneel down before your Son celestial,
And for us sinners his sweet blessing seek,
To keep us safe from pain and perils all,
And help us win unto that Heavenly Hall,
In glory there to see the face of God;
And so I end my talking of the Tod.


Back to Contents