The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

X. The Fox, the Wolf, and the Farmer

The fun is kept going. Again, Henryson has extracted themes from existing tales, and used them in his own way and for his own purposes. His moral is clearly stated; it is to expose, and comment on, one of the ways in which the powerful oppress the powerless : by the manipulation of law, the emphasis on the letter rather than the spirit. It would seem that he had another purpose, whatever angle this poem is approached from: to raise a laugh. These two intentions are so interwoven that it is not easy to decide which is the more important, as the story moves so smoothly from the Farmer's initial plight to the farcical climax in the well. Note that the Fox instigates everything - and gets away with it.

Oxen were still being used as draught animals in Scotland into the early years of the 20th century. Certainly, this was in a few isolated districts, but in Henryson's time they were the only draught animals used for field work. In ploughing, two men were needed; one to hold the plough, the other to control the ox-team, which consisted of at least four beasts. The team was controlled by the use of a goad, hence "gadsman", and the regular equipment included a small spade , for cleaning sticky earth off the mould-board of the plough, and which the exasperated Farmer hurls at the oxen. Henryson had obviously witnessed such incidents.

Vocabulary :'schadow "= reflection (Title)
stots = steers; neutered male oxen (Stz.1.)
lowsed = finished work; lit.'unloosed." ( 4.)
syne = then (5.)
kebbuck = a cheese; in Scotland, at that time, inevitably white, and usually round.(18.)
stane = the stone weight; the Scottish stone was about 6 kilograms.(18.)
neep = turnip (19)
lave = remainder (25.)

The Taill of the Foxe, that begylit the wolf, in the schadow of the Mone

In elderis days, as Esope can declare,
Thair wes ane husband quhilk had ane plewch to steir.......

1. In times gone by, as Aesop tells us fairly,
This Farmer would, himself, his own plough steer,
And aye his habit was to rise quite early.
It chanced then, at the ploughing time one year,
At break of day he set out with good cheer
To start his ploughing, his gadsman and he,
Yoking his stots with "Benedicite".

2. The gadsman cried "Hi noo!" with all his might,
"Haud gaen, my doves!" then prodded them gey sair.
The oxen were half-broken, young, and light;
Not pulling straight, they wandered here and there;
The Farmer then went madder than a hare;
Cursing, he flung his plough-spade and big stanes;
"The Wolf," he yelled,"is gaun to get you anes!"

3. But yet the Wolf was nearer than he kend.
Down out of sight, both he and Lowrence lay
In a dense thicket at the furrow's end;
They heard the threat, and this made Lowrence say,
"To take that man would easy be today!"
"Aye," said the Wolf,"I swear noo by this hand,
Yon Farmer's word, as he were King, shall stand!"

4. The oxen settled down fine at the last;
Then after they were lowsed, for it was late,
The Farmer homewards with his plough-team passed
Where the Wolf lay, who rose with lurching gait
To stop them all, so he could hold debate;
Aghast, the Farmer, fearing an attack,
Began at once to turn his oxen back.

5. "Where," said the Wolf, "D'ye think ye're going with these?
I challenge ye, for nane of them are thine!"
The man, now in a state of great unease,
Gathered his wits, and quietly answered syne,
"Sir, by my soul, these oxen are all mine;
I do not see why you should make this claim;
I owe ye nothing;, noo, let me get hame."

6. "Carl," said the Wolf, ye promised them to me
When, early on, ye started on yon brae;
Now, is there anything than gift more free?
This hanging back drives gratitude away.
To freely give a penny's better play
Than to be made by force to give a shilling;
There's no gift there, from those that are not willing."

7. "Look," said the carl, " a man may speak in grief,
And when calmed down, take back what he has said.
I say I'll steal. Does that make me a thief?
Too bad if men keep every promise made;
Was written word before ye ever laid,
Or do ye have a witness ye can show?
Don't bother me! Away and try the law!"

8. "Carl," said the Wolf," just take an upright lord,
Who's never put to shame, or needs reproved;
Then everyone can trust his spoken word.
The man's a wretch that is not true and loved.
Your argument is false, as can be proved,
For it is said in proverb,"Without Law,
All other virtues go like frost in thaw.

9. "Sir," said the Farmer, " here's another thing;
A wise man is not caught by half a tale;
I can say, then gainsay, - I'm not a king.
Where is your witness to this daftlike deal?"
"Ha!" said the Wolf, "Now this is where ye fail!
Lowrence!" he cried, "Come from behind that tree,
And truly tell what ye did hear and see!"

10. Lowrence came lurking, for he never liked the light,
And solemnly beside them took his place;
The man was fair dumbfoundered at the sight.
"Lowrence," the Wolf said,"ye can clear this case,
So we can have the truth in a short space.
I summon ye as witness true to be;
What heard ye that this carl promised me?"

11. "Sir, " said the Tod, "my way I cannot see
To settle here and now this argument;
But would the pair of ye submit to me,
To bide forever by my fair judgement?
To please the both of ye is my intent."
"Weel," said the Wolf, "that's good enough for me."
The man said,"Me as weel, whate'er it be."

12. So both of them their sworn case would lodge,
The pleas and cases legal and complete.
Said Lowrence, "I am aye a friendly judge,
And ye must swear to stand by my decreit,
Whether or not ye think it sour or sweet."
The Wolf upraised his foot, the man his hand,
And on the Fox's tale they swore to stand.

13. The Fox then took the Farmer to one side,
And said, "My friend, ye're in some trouble here;
That Wolf will no' remit ye one ox-hide;
But I think I can help ye, never fear,
And I would like to keep my conscience clear.
Don't seek the verdict by your own defence,
Which, win or lose, will run to great expense.

14. Do ye not see how bribes can get men through,
And gifts can make a bumpy road quite even?
Some times a hen can save a man his coo;
All arenae holy that hold up their hands to Heaven!
"Sir," said the man, "ye shall have six or seven
Of all the fattest hens within my flock;
Pick them yersel', as lang's ye leave the cock."

15. "I am a real Judge noo!" said Lowrence, with a laugh.
No bribe can keep me seeing wrong from right!
I can snatch hens and capons weel enough,
For God himsel' will go to sleep at night;
Sic small things do not come within His sight.
These hens," quoth he, "will make your case secure;
No man with empty hands can falcons lure".

16. That bargain made, the Farmer took his leave.
The Wolf was waiting; to him the Fox went,
And gently plucked him by his hairy sleeve,
Saying, "Is all this really your intent?
I'm thinking noo it was a joke ye meant."
"Ach," growled the Wolf, "Lowrence, what's this ye're sayin?
Ye heard what that man said; he wasnae prayin."

17. "That carl," said Lowrence, "spoke when he was wild.
Is that the reason ye his cattle crave?"
The Fox was speaking now in jest, and smiled;
"Sir, by the Cross, I think ye do but rave;
Devil a bit of oxtail shall ye have!
Would I have such a thing on my conscience,
As do an innocent such great offence?

18. But I have had a word with him, and we
Have on a goodly bargain made our stand;
If you quit all your claim, and set him free,
A kebbuck ye shall have into your hand,
A cheese above all others in this land;
For it is summer cheese, both fresh and fair;
He says it weighs a stane, or maybe mair."

19. "Weel," said the Wolf, I see what I've to do;
That, for a kebbuck, I've to set him free?"
"Aye, said the Fox, and mind what ye swore to,
That ye would counsel take from nane but me;
And, if ye took this case to its extremity,
What ye would get's not worth a withered neep.
Sir, ye must own I have a soul to keep."

20. "Weel," said the Wolf, "it goes against my will,
That, for a kebbuck, yon man should be quit."
"Sir," said the Fox, "ye need not take it ill,
For it was you yourself that started it."
" All right," the Wolf said,"These stots I remit;
But I must see this kebbuck o' great price."
"Fine," said the Fox, " he told me where it lies."

21. Then side by side they set out ower the hill;
The Farmer to his home has made his way ,
Relieved indeed that he'd escaped such ill;
He stood on guard, though, until the next day.
And now, to Fox and Wolf return we may;
Across the moors and fields these rogues did fare
For long enough; until midnight or mair.

22. Lowrence was aye rehearsing, in his head,
The tricks with which he could the Wolf beguile;
Of summer cheese a promise he had made.
Then finally he hit upon a wile,
The very thought of which caused him to smile.
The Wolf said, "Lowrence, I begin to think ye're blind;
We've looked all night, and nothing can we find."

23. "Sir," said the Fox, "hang on, we're almost there.
Contain yourself, and ye shall see it soon."
Now, he had seen a manor house quite near;
Cloudless the sky, and quite full was the moon.
A well was there, with doubled rope hung down
With buckets two, which on each end did hang;
As one came up, the other down would gang.

24. The moon's reflection shone down in the well.
"Sir," said the Fox, "have I not served ye weel?
Look, and ye'll see that kebbuck for yersel',
White as a neep, as round's a royal seal.
It's hidden there so nae man could it steal.
Believe you me, that kebbuck ye see there
Would make a royal gift beyond compare."

25. "Weel," said the Wolf, "if I could only have
That kebbuck up beside me, ye will see
That I will quit he carl o' all the lave;
I think his dirty stots not worth a flea;
That cheese is better meat for men like me.
Lowrence," he said, "get in that bucket noo,
And I will hold the other till ye're through."

26. Down went the Fox, still acting out the play;
His weight then made the other bucket rise.
" Nae use!" he called up, "it's too big for me;
Hardly a nail is left upon my taes!
Ye'll need to lend a hand to lift this cheese!
Jump in that empty bucket, come doon here,
And both of us will manage it, nae fear."

27. The Wolf right eagerly into the bucket hopped;
His great weight made the other bucket rise;
The Fox shot up as down the Wolf was dropped.
The Wolf cried to the Fox in great surprise,
"I'm going doon, why do ye upward rise?"
"Sir," said the Fox, " this is your Dame Fortune;
As ane comes up, she hurls anither doon!"

28. The Wolf then hit the bottom with a splash;
The Fox ran off, leaving the Wolf to yell,
In water cold, up to his waist awash;
I do not know who pulled him from that well.
Here ends the story; there's no more to tell,
But now I seek a good morality,
Which we can use, though this a Fable be.


29. This Wolf I liken to a wicked man
Who does the poor oppress in every place;
Despoiling them in every way he can
By twisting law, and suchlike wickedness;
I call the Fox the Fiend into this case,
Urging his prey into unrighteous ways,
So he can claim them when they end their days.

30. The Farmer may be called an upright man,
Whom the Fiend tries in danger's path to lead;
To catch his soul forever is his plan.
The hens are penance done for foolish deed;
From penance done, no evil can proceed.
On wicked men, evil rebounds again
Right often; and upon them falls the pain.

31. The hills and woods, where the Wolf rules by strength,
Are worldly wealth, which men aye try to get;
Those who depend on them are tricked at length;
Wealth is the lure which baits the Devil's net,
Which he at all times for mankind has set.
Who finds himself ensnared, as in this case,
Will find escape too hard, without God's grace.

32. The kebbuck here can stand as covetice,
Which easily into our thoughts can creep;
Beware the lure of that unholy vice,
Like a reflection, an illusion cheap,
Into the bucket causing men to leap,
Rushing them downwards to the pains of Hell;
God keep all Christians from that grisly well!

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