The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

XII. The Wolf and the Lamb

In this savage little Fable, Henryson paints a picture of unacceptable behaviour: greed, aggression, bullying, murder; then, in the Moral, he relates such behaviour to contemporay social conditions. He has done exactly the same in the immediately preceding Fable, The Wolf and the Wether. (Note that both these Fables have the same number of stanzas, 23; in Numerology, this is a number signifying various sorts of unpleasantness.) This is no coincidence, nor of random positioning by Henryson. Throughout the Fables, he guides and controls the reader's emotions and intellectual responses from topic to topic, illustrating problems, and offering solutions, in matters both personal and national; all, of course, in the terms of Late-Mediaeval beliefs and social organisation.

Full analysis of the Fables plan is beyond the scope of these brief introductions, but there are points to note in this Fable which indicate the nature of that plan. First, the Fox has gone; the "lightness" has gone, and we are on to serious matters, in the run-up to the final Fable. Next, the action here, although it features the same types of characters, a wolf and a sheep, as in the previous Fable, is much more vicious. Then the Moral contains the most scathing criticism to be found, in all the Fables, of social conditions, which are very accurately portrayed. The reader is in a sombre mood at the end, prepared for the final Fable. Note that Henryson does not take sides in the narrative Fable itself, with a balance of seemingly uncontestable Scriptural arguments - from the aggressor. And consider the Wolf's sneering final remark, in stanza 12; this is how the world stands. ( Any difference in the 20th century?) It is in the Moral that Henryson makes his own position clear.

Vocabulary : leear = liar (Stz.4.)
waur = worse (5.)
cottars = cottagers; the lowest-income group of feudal tenants (14.)

The Taill of the wolf, and the Lamb.

Ane cruell volff, richt rauenous, and fell,
Vpon ane time past to ane reveir.......

1. A savage Wolf, full ravenous and cruel,
Went to the riverside, as I did hear;
Climbed down the bank to reach a quiet pool
To slake his thirst in running water clear,
When, by pure chance, a harmless Lamb came near.
Of the Wolf's presence he was unaware;
To quench his thirst as well was all his care.

2. So they both drank, in differing frames of mind;
The Wolf was ever set on wickedness;
The gentle Lamb had not one thought unkind,
And, from the river, in another place,
Down from the Wolf he drank in quietness,
For it seemed safe. He never feared for ill;
But the Wolf saw, and moved in for the kill.

3. Baring his teeth, with baleful angry look,
Saying to the Lamb," Ye feeble, worthless thing,
How dare ye be so bold as foul this brook
Where I should drink, with all your slavering?
To hang and draw ye now were a good thing,
Since ye presume, with filthy lips and vile,
To stir up mud, and all this water spoil."

4. The simple Lamb, near overcome with fear,
Fell to his knees, and said "Sir, by your leave,
It's not for me to say ye are a leear,
But, by my soul, I truly do believe
Ye cannae prove that ye have cause to grieve;
Your charge is false, I'm sure ye must admit,
For there is not a bit of truth in it.

5. The facts of Nature will by cause defend,
Facts which ye ken weel by experience;
All heavy things must, by their weight, descend,
Unless they're checked by some strong resistence;
So water aye runs downhill, each man kens,
And never up. I drank beneath ye far;
Therefore, frae me, your drink was nane the waur.

6. As for my lips; since I am just a lamb,
Nothing they've touched that could be called contagious;
Only the milk I suckled from my dam,
So pure and sweet; to call that vile's outrageous!"
"Ach," said the Wolf,"these arguments courageous
Run in your blood; your father did the same
With me in dispute - and escaped all blame.

7. He got off, leaving me angry, swearin',
That, in a year, if I could use my head,
Revenged I'd be, on him or on his bairn,
Since I had lost to him by legal plead;
And noo I have the chance. Ye're mine indeed!"
"Sir, it's not right, that, for the father's guilt,
The blood of blameless offspring should be spilt!

8. In Holy Scripture ye can clearly read
God's words, which blest Ezekiel did write:
A man must bear what follows from his deed;
Pains for his sins, reward when he does right;
For his trespass, why hold his bairn in spite?
Whoever harmed you, let him thole the pain."
"Ach!" said the Wolf, ye're at your games again!

9. See here; if that the father me offends,
Of his descendants I shall cherish none!
I'll take good care his offspring make amends,
Unto the twentieth generation,
As said in Exodus. A strong poison
Your father made, into my drink to pour."
"Untrue!" the Lamb said,"And, sir, here is more:

10. The Law lays down, as ye weel understand,
That no man should, for theft or violence,
Seek to revenge himself with his own hand
Without a court of law and evidence.
Offenders have the right to make defence,
And lawfully before a judge appear,
So he can both sides of a dispute hear.

11. Go to a proper court, and I'll appear
Before our Lion, noble King and wise;
And, by this hand, I promise ye right here,
I'll thole the verdict of a true assize;
We'll bide by law, for justice it supplies.
So ye must now a lawful summons make
For a true trial; then, I'll judgement take..

12. "Bah!" quoth the Wolf,"would you intrude reason
Where might and violence should ever be?
The Law itself would name that plea treason,
Which pity placed along with cruelty,
So ye're a traitor. That's it; ye must dee
For that, and likewise for your father's deed!"
With that, the Wolf then gripped him by the head.

13. The helpless lamb could do no more than bleat;
The Wolf struck off his head without delay;
Then drank his blood, and of his flesh did eat
Till he was full; then onwards took his way.
Now, of this murder foul, what can we say?
Was greater grief or pity ever kend,
To see this guiltless lamb meet such an end?


14. The poor folk, then, this Lamb may signify,
Like cottars, pedlars, and such labouring men;
Their life is half a purgatory aye,
Even with honest work, as we well ken.
The Wolf stands for extortioners, who then
Oppress such poor folk, as we often see,
By violence, or by guile and subtlety.

15. There are three Wolves which in this world now reign:
The first are those perverters of the Law,
Who, by their weasel words, their powers maintain,
And swear it's nothing but the truth on show;
But, for a bribe, the poor they'll overthrow,
Suppressing right, helping the wrong succeed;
Hell's fire awaits all such when they are dead.

16. O man of law, abandon subtlety,
Your crafty words, your plots so intricate;
Remember God, in His divinity,
Sees through the falsehoods you use in debate.
For gear or gold, for high or rich estate,
For causes false, make you no more defence;
Let justice reign; obey your conscience.

17. The second breed of Wolves so ravenous,
Are mighty men who need no more to gain,
But are so greedy and so covetous,
That, for small debt, they'll tenants press with pain,
Driving them out into the wind and rain
To beg their bread. To some, it seems fair game
To dispossess them, and their farm to claim.

18. Man without mercy, what is in your thought?
Worse than a Wolf! can ye not understand
Ye have enough? That tenant he has nought
But hens and cow upon a scrap of land;
And, in God's name, how can you take in hand,
You that's so rich, and never suffers harm,
To rob that poor man of his wee bit farm?

19. The third Wolf is a lord by heritage,
Who seems to think that God gave him his land,
Who sets his tenants into one village,
Getting the ground-rent from them in his hand;
When half the term is gone, he takes a stand,
Vexing them sore with quarrels, so they fain
Would flit, or have to pay ground-rent again .

20. Their horse or mare they must lend to the laird,
To pull a cart, or drag for him his wood;
Even their wives and bairns are not spared,
To toil and sweat,for neither wage nor food;
So often driven in this servitude,
That scarcely can they profit from their farm,
But live on dry bread, or cold kail made warm.

21. Have you no pity, if a tenant sweat
Just for your good? And have ye yet no shame
To think that he'll have nothing much to eat,
Nor will his family, when they win hame?
For what they suffer, you must take the blame.
I think it must put Heaven in a rage,
To see men work for neither food nor wage.

22. O ye great lords, that riches have, and rent,
Are ye not wolves, thus to devour the poor?
Mind, there are none so cruel or violent,
However strong, that can for aye endure.
Think on your end; of this ye can be sure,
That, by oppression, you will suffer pain,
As if, with your own hand, the poor ye'd slain.

23. God save the Lamb, who is an innocent,
From greedy Wolves, and suchlike murderers;
God grant that all these men of ill intent
Judgement receive, as proven wrongdoers;
Lord, we do humbly beseech Thee, hear our prayers
To save our King, and give him strength of hand
To banish all such Wolves from this our land.

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