The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

III. The Cock and the Fox - Introduction

This another very old Fable, and there is no doubt that Henryson has borrowed heavily from Chaucer's version, The Nun's Priest's Tale. It is no mere copy, however. While he has retained the basic moral, he has added material of his own, noticeably in the discussion held by three of the Cock's seven wives, and from which the Cock emerges with anything but credit. (One is tempted to speculate on their reaction when their lord and master rejoined them.) Typically, Henryson is concise, telling the story in fewer than one-third of the words Chaucer uses. And, again typically, he includes accurate little details; an example here occurring in Stanza 16, line 3: "With his sweet bill, he'd break for us our bread...".

Attention is being drawn to this example because very few people nowadays have the opportunity of seeing a free-ranging cockerel in action, whose immediate reaction on finding food is to call his hens to it, breaking up large items for them if needs be.

This is the first Fable in which Henryson's Fox appears, so it would be as well to point out that we will meet him again under two other names, both Scots : his nickname "Lowrence" and the common appellation "tod". "Tod" is still in use in rural Scotland.

Reference is made, in Stanza 12, to the Seven Deadly Sins. In decreasing order of deadliness, these are : Pride, Envy, Avarice, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lechery. Pride appears again in the Moral, with a reference to the great Christian legend of the Fall, the archangel Lucifer's rebellion in, and eventual rejection from, Heaven.

Vocabulary : lees = lies (Stz. 5)
birk = birch ( 8)
kaim = comb ( 9)
een = eyes

The Taill of Schir Chantecleir and the Foxe

Thocht brutall beistis be irrationall,
That is to say, wantand discretioun.......

1. Though all brute beasts are called irrational,
Having no powers of judgement of their own,
Yet each one of these species natural
Has gifts belonging to itself alone;
The slashing boar, swift wolf, and strong lion,
The crafty fox, famous for tricks and sleight;
The dog, to keep the house and bark at night.

2. So different are they in their properties,
Hidden from us in number infinite,
So many are these great diversities
That I can't list them all, try as I might;
Therefore the best that I can do is write
About one case I came across last year,
Between a Fox and gentle Chanticleer.

3. There was this widow had a holding small;
She spun fine thread to earn herself some pence;
Of income she had nothing else at all,
Except she had a tiny flock of hens,
And, to support them and provide defence,
A handsome cockerel, whose first duty lay
In crowing loudly, to bring in the day.

4. Now, quite close to this widow's house there lay
A brake of thorns, and dense and dark it was;
And there a cunning Fox would lie each day,
Thinking his evil thoughts, as his kind does;
For to the widow he was dangerous,
By stealing poultry; to her sore regret,
Revenge on him in no way could she get.

5. One morn this Fox, ere larks began to sing,
Right hungrily up to the house did creep,
When Chanticleer, as at each day's dawning
Hopped from his roost, his daily tryst to keep.
Lowrence saw this, and thought both long and deep,
Upon the traps, the plans, the snares, the lees,
He could contrive, this cockerel to seize.

6. With face displaying nothing but good cheer,
Down on his knees he went, and humbly said,
"Good morn, my maister, gentle Chanticleer."
With that, the Cock a great leap backward made.
"Sir, by my soul, ye neednae be afraid,
Or yet frae me to start, or loup away;
To be your servant I am here the day.

7. I'd be at blame, if I did not serve you,
As I have done with your progenitor;
Your faither oft has filled my stomach fou,
Sending me meat frae midden to the moor;
And, at his end, I tried his ills to cure,
With medicines weel suited to his case;
The dear man died,at last, in my embrace."

8. "Kent ye my faither?" said the Cock, and laughed.
"Aye, my fair son; indeed, I held his head,
When, 'neath a springtime birk with green leaves saft,
He died. I sang the Dirge when he was dead.
Between us, why should then a feud be made?
Whom should you trust but me, your servitor,
That to your faither did sic great honour?

9. And when I see the colours in your tail,
Your breast, your beak, your heckle and your kaim,
Sir, by my soul, and by the Holy Grail,
My hert fills up, it seems I am at hame.
Flatlings I'd crawl, to serve you just the same,
In frost and snaw, in weather cauld and weet,
To lay my grey hairs underneath your feet."

10. This treacherous Fox would still dissimulate
By making with the Cock a friendly jest :
" Ye are, it seems, a bit degenerate,
Compared with what your faither could dae best;
At virtuous crawin he could beat the rest;
He could up on his tiptaes stand, and craw;
This is nae lee; I stood beside and saw."

11. With that, the Cock rose up upon his taes,
Cast up his beak, and sang with all his might.
Quoth the Fox then, "Weel done! You have my praise!
You are your faither's son and heir all right!
But of his talents yet you lack one sleight."
The Cock said "What was that? "He could, nae doubt,
Craw with his een closed, turning thrice about."

12. Our Chanticleer, fair swollen up with pride,
That Pride, of all the Seven Sins the crown,
Hoping the Fox would yet more praise provide,
Closed both his eyes, and strutted up and down,
And set himself to waken up the town;
But right away, before he sang one note,
The Fox sprang up and gripped him by the throat!

13. Then to the woods with him he ran away;
Safe would he be there, that he did not doubt.
Pertok and all her sister hens let cry;
The widow heard, and, curious, came out;
Seeing the case, she screamed and gave a shout:
" Help! Murder! Robbery!" Raised she such a din,
"Oor Chanticleer is lost! Oor woes begin!"

14. As if deranged, with many a yell and cry,
She beat her breast, and then she tore her hair;
Then, turning pale as in an ecstasy,
She swooned and fell, quite overcome with care.
At that, the simple hens did stand and stare;
And, while the widow lay in senseless swoon,
Three of them held a disputatioun.

15. "Alas," sighed Pertok, all set for mourning,
While copious tears adown her red cheeks fell,
"That was oor sweethert and oor true darling,
Oor nightingale as weel's oor toon-clock's bell!
Oor watchman keen, for us to warn and tell,
When Goddess Dawn, with silken headdress gray,
Would show her face between the night and day!

16. Wha shall oor wooer be? Wha shall us lead?
When we are sad, wha shall unto us sing?
With his sweet bill, he'd break for oor bread;
In all the world, was there a kinder thing?
In fleshly love he aye was maist pleasing,
- At least ye ken that he aye tried his best -
Noo he is gone, wha is to guard my nest?"

17. Quoth Sprutok then, "Come on, give up that sorrow.
Ye're off your head, sic howls for him to raise.
We'll be all right, I'll bet ye, by tomorrow;
The proverb says "As guid love comes as gaes";
Noo I'll put on my very best new claes,
And spruce myself to suit this month o' May
Singing the sang "Was widow ne'er so gay!"

18. Crabbit he was, and kept us aye in awe;
And he was just too prone to jealousy;
At bedroom jinks, Pertok, full weel ye know,
He was near past it, somewhat cauld and dry.
Since he's awa' noo, sister, this say I:
Smile through your tears, for when all's done and said,
Life's for the living; dead must bide with dead."

19. Pertok replied - she'd feigned her love before,
She more in lust than love sought her delight -
"Sister, ye ken o' such as him a score
Would hardly do to slake oor appetite.
I swear noo by this hand, a promise right,
Within a week, - though shameful I should feel-
I'll find a hero that can tread us weel."

20. Then, like a curate, Coppock spoke right serious:
"Yon was a vengeance sent straight down from Heaven!
He was so randy and so lecherous,
He could not be content with just us seven!
But righteous God, holding the balance even,
Strikes true and hard, and He will not relent,
Against adulterers who'll not repent!

21. Blinded with pride he was, enjoying sin,
And never thought upon God's grace or wrath;
But took his chance to pounce, and then to run.
His sins have led him down the flowery path
To shameful end, and to a grisly death;
Therefore, it is the very hand of God,
That's caused him to be taken by this Tod."

22. When this was said, the widow, from her swoon,
Got on her feet, and to her collies cried:
"Hey! bark ye, Berry! Bell! Batty and Broon!
After that Tod, rin hard! Come on, you, Nuttieclyde!
Nae hangin back! Get on! Seek far and wide!
Rescue my noble Cock before he's slain,
Or dinnae think to come near me again!"

23. Belly to earth, they set out from the yard;
Such speed they made, it seemed they gey near flew;
Through bush and briar, for nothing were they feared,
Until at last Sir Lowrence came in view.
And when he saw this deadly, doggy crew
Hard on his trail, this wish came to his mind:
"God send this prey and I my safe hole find!"

24. Then spoke the Cock, by Angel Good inspired:
"Take my advice, and this I'll guarantee;
Hungry ye are, and by great effort tired;
Your strength's near done, ye can nae longer flee;
Quick, turn around, and say that you and me
Have made a pact o' freendship for a year,
Then will they stop, I'll bet ye, and no' steer."

25. This traitor Tod - no falser could you find -
Although chock-full of tricks his ends to gain,
Fell at the last for one of the same kind,
For blackguards aye get caught out, as we ken;
And opened greedy mouth to speak, and then
The Cock straightway flew up into a tree!
Well, do you think the Fox then laughed? Not he!

26. That was him beaten, all his labour lost.
He tried again, saying "Sir Chanticleer,
Come doon to me, and at to you nae cost,
I'll be your servant all this coming year!"
" Haw! Liar, thief, and killer, have nae fear!
My bloody hackles prove your broken faith
Has parted things for aye atween us baith!

27. To close my een was daft!" then said the Cock.
"Because I did, I nearly lost my head!"
"The mair fool me," the Fox said,"when I spoke,
Thinking an honest promise had been made!"
"Away, ye rogue, God keep me frae your trade!"
With that, no more to say; the Cock flew right
Back to the widow's house, to her delight.


28. It can be seen that this is but a fable,
A tale of common creatures that we ken.
Yet there are serious things we're able
To find beneath the words, and knowledge gain;
Likening our Cock, our Chanticleer so vain,
To these proud folk who strut and preen and crow
About their breeding - when they've nothing else to show.

29. O, puffed-up Pride, you are right poisonous!
Who takes you on, cannot avoid a fall;
Founded on naught but self vainglorious.
Never forget these spirits infernal,
Cast down defeated from the Heavenly Hall
To hell's grim regions, evermore to bide
Because they sought to rebel in their Pride.

30. This sly and treacherous Fox we can compare
To flatterers, who with pleasant words and sweet
Hide their intents; it's for themselves they care,
And with false praise, they set out to beguile;
But humble minds can see that they are vile.
Great danger lies, this we must understand,
In offering flatterers a friendly hand.

31. These pleasing praises from a wicked mind,
Sweeter than honey, first they well may seem;
But if they're swallowed, it is then you'll find
Wormwood and gall; a nightmare, not a dream.
And now, to make summation of my theme:
Flattery and Pride are sins, and aye will be;
Deadly they are, and from them we must flee.

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