The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

II. The Two Mice; the Tale of the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse

In re-telling this ancient Fable, Henryson follows Aesop's advice on bringing lightness into "heavy work" (Stanza 4 of the Prolog.); for this is a comedy. It certainly has its message, a message which bears thinking about today, for it contains an argument about the benefits of country life compared with the benefits of town life. It is interesting to note that this town versus country confrontation existed over 2,000 years ago.

However, there is more immediate interest here in Henryson's setting of the conflict in his contemporary Scotland. We get to see the contents of a well-stocked Scottish larder of the 1400s, this larder being the property of a Burgess. Scottish towns were run by the Trade Guilds and the Burgesses, and, once one was elected to Guild or Burgess membership’ - "by the Guildsmen or Burgesses themselves - one was in a very profitable position indeed; sometimes free from all manner of rates, customs dues, etc., always participant in a rewarding monopoly. Our Town Mouse is a Burgess.

And when we consider the position of mice in the history of our literature, from over 2,000 years ago to the present, (Tom and Jerry ?) we can see the opportunity for a smile or two. In this Fable, Henryson has taken the opportunity.

Fasting (stanzas 13 & 23) and fast days were, for everyone, a regular part of religious observance; either as a part of a festival - e.g. the forty days preceding Lent - or in emergencies such as a prolongued drought or an outbreak of plague.

Vocabulary: bide = stay, dwell. (Stz.2)
thole = endure. (2.)
cry = call out. ( 4.)
gret = wept. ( 5.) In Scots, to greet = to weep.
chowed = chewed ( 9.)
brose = oatmeal scalded with boiling water. ( 11.)

The Taill of the Vponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous

Esop, myne authour, makis mentioun
Of twa myis, and thay wer sisteris deir .....

1. My author, Aesop, had a tale set down
About two mice, that they were sisters dear;
The elder one, well-off, lived in a town,
The younger in the countryside, quite near,
Just by herself, dodging through bush and briar,
Whiles among corn, doing a little thieving,
As outlaws do; and thus she made her living.

2. This rural mouse, when came the wintertide,
Had to thole hunger, cold, and, whiles, distress;
The other one, that in the town did bide,
Was in the Guild, and made a free Burgess;
No rates to pay, no taxes, more or less,
But freedom had to go where'ere she please,
Into folk's larders, sampling the meal and cheese

3. Once, having dined upon some viands rare,
Her country sister's lot came to her mind,
Making her wonder just how she did fare,
And what delights a country girl could find.
So, dressing plain, like one of pilgrim kind,
She left the town barefoot, with staff in hand,
To seek her sister, up and down the land.

4. Through wild and lonely places did she trudge,
O'er moss and moor, through forest, bush, and briar,
Stumbling on furrows, calling at each hedge,
"Come out to me, my own sweet sister dear,
Just you cry ’peep!"" This did her sister hear,
And knew the voice remembered well from home,
Her sister's voice so loved; and out did come.

5. The heartfelt cheer, Lord God! if you had seen
Arising when these sisters two were met;
Which lasted long enough the pair between,
For whiles they laughed, and whiles for joy they gret,
Their arms close about each other set;
So it went on until all glee was spent,
And, side by side, into the house they went.

6. It was a dwelling small, simple and plain,
Though warmly lined with grass and fern well laid;
A comfy hole under an earthfast stane,
A doorway tiny, neither high nor braid.
Into the parlour then their way they made;
No fire was there, nor candle burning bright,
Creatures like those two do not like the light.

7. When they got settled in, that happy pair,
The younger sister went into her press,
And brought out nuts and peas -she had nae mair -
Though plain this food, she took it not amiss;
The town mouse, though, cast up her head at this,
Saying, "My dear, is this what we've to eat?"
Her sister said, "What's wrang? This is fine meat."

8. "Heavens above! This stuff puts me to scorn!"
"Well," said the younger, "it's yourself to blame;
My mother said, soon after I was born,
That, since we're sisters, we are baith the same;
And I live in the same way as our dame,
And of our sire as weel - in poverty;
For money I have nane, nor property."

9. "Sorry, my dear, I'll have to pass this by.
Dishes like this for me are not allowed.
Only the finest foods - I do not lie -
Can pass my lips; I am a burgess proud;
Before I have these peas and nuts half-chowed
My stomach's empty and my teeth are broken;
For stuff like this I do not give a docken."

10. Her sister said, "A pity that's the case.
It's up to you. Sic things as ye see here,
Baith meat and drink, a fine enough wee place,
Are all for you, although ye bide a year,
And all the time ye'll have it with good cheer,
Making the diet that ye think so rude,
When served with friendship, tender, sweet, and good.

11. What pleasure is there in a goose weel-greased
That's laid before ye with a surly face?
A weel-bred heart's by far the better pleased
To see a smile, though brose be set in place.
And "just enough" is aye the better case
When goodwill is the server, cook, and host,
Than when ill-nature serves a dripping roast."

12. For all this well-meant try to cheer her up,
The Burgess mouse in no way changed her mood;
But, sour of face, just scowled into her cup,
And thought no better of her sister's food.
At last she spoke, not wishing to seem rude:
" Sister, this meal, and what you think a feast,
May well suffice for any rural beast.

13. Come you with me, and let us leave this hole,
And I will prove, as you yourself shall see,
My Fasting days are better than your Yule;
The scrapings of my plate, after my tea,
Are worth your annual budget, you'll agree.
My place is safe. I have no fear of cat,
Or poison." Off they set at that!

14. As mice must go, ready to flee or hide,
Skulking through grass and bush they made their way;
The elder one went foremost as a guide,
The younger close behind, lest she should stray.
They went by night, hiding themselves by day,
Until one morning, ere the birdies sang,
They reached the town, and blithely in did gang.

15. Because she knew the place, the Burgess mouse
Could choose where best the two could take their ease.
She led the way into a merchant's house,
Straight to the larder; there, no nuts or peas,
But shelves piled high with butter, bread, and cheese,
Fish, flesh, and fowl, fresh or preserved in salt,
With sacks of flour, and meal, and groats, and malt.

16. When they had had a rest, they thought to rise
And take a meal; they washed, and went to eat
They took their pick from puddings, cakes, and pies
Mutton and beef, prepared in slices great;
Of royal feast they made a counterfeit,
Except for this : they drank the water clear
Instead of wine; but yet they made good cheer.

17. To tease her sister, with a smile and glance,
The elder put a question to her guest:
If that she thought there was a difference
Between that larder and her rural nest.
"Aye, sister, but for how lang will this lest?"
"For ever and a day," the elder said.
" Aweel, if that's the case, ye've got it made."

18. For the last course, the elder one then set
A plate of new-made groats, a tasty treat,
With one of fresh-milled meal, and bannocks yet,
That scarce were cold after the girdle's heat;
With finest of the wheat bread for a sweet.
Then from the butler's box she went to steal
A candle white, to finish off the meal.

19. On went the feast, till they could eat nae mair,
And "This is the life!" they long and loud did cry.
But, all too often, after joy comes care,
And troubles can come with prosperity;
For, as they sat in all this jollity,
The butler came, with key-ring in his hand,
Opened the door, and them at dinner found.

20. They did not stop to wash, you might suppose,
But off they shot - and who could safety win?
The Burgess had a hole, and in she goes;
The younger knew no place she could hide in.
What would befall her now would be a sin;
Abandoned, lost, and lacking all direction,
She could expect no more than sheer destruction.

21. But, through God's will, the wee beast's luck held out;
The butler did not have the time to bide,
Neither to seek nor chase, to kick or clout;
But off he went, and left the door half wide.
His going-away the elder mouse has spied.
Out of her hole she popped, and gave a cry:
"Are you all right? Cry ’peep! "where'er you lie!"

22. The younger one lay flat out, deaf and dumb,
In that she'd thought she surely would be dead;
Her little heart was beating like a drum,
She shook as in a fever, foot and head.
Her sister saw, and to her side made speed;
Stricken with pity, she began to greet,
And comfort her with gentle words and sweet.

23. "Why lie you thus? Rise up, my sister dear;
Finish your feast, the danger now is past!"
The other spoke, still quivering with fear,
"I cannae eat, I am so sair aghast!
I'd rather stand a forty-day-long fast
With water cold, and nibble beans and peas,
Than feast amongst this fear and lack of ease."

24. Yet promise sweet made her calm down and rise.
Back to their feast they went, and down they sat;
But scarcely had they drunk, say once or twice,
When in the open door came Gib, the cat,
And said, "Hallo there!"Up they got at that;
The elder made her hole like lightning greased,
Gilbert the other by the back has seized.

25. From foot to foot he cast her, to and fro,
Whiles up, whiles down, whiles canny, whiles gey rough;
Whiles he would let her run below some straw,
Whiles he would wink, and play at blind-man's-buff,
And to that wretched mouse did harm enough
Until, by chance - or else the Lord did bless her -
She found a way to hide behind a dresser.

26. Then up in haste among the panelling,
She climbed so high that Gilbert could not get her;
And, with her small nails, desperate, did cling
Till he cleared off, then she felt so much better
That she came down, and right away did let her
Sister hear thus: "I'm safe, the Lord be thankit!
And from this minute ye can keep your banquet!

27. Your diets fine are flavoured all with fear!
Though good the roast, the gravy's bitter gall!
The bill for all that service is too dear,
In time to come as I shall aye recall!
I thank yon dresser and yon panelled wall
For saving me from yon wanchancy beast;
Almighty God keep me from such a feast!

28. For me, such style of life was never meant;
When I win home, I'll ne'er come back again!"
With that, she took her leave, and off she went,
Straight through the fields, and o'er the open plain.
Happy she was, away from fear and pain,
Dancing her way o'er hill and moor and dale;
How she fared afterwards, I cannot tell.

29. But I heard say, she got back to her den,
As warm as wool it was, and dry and neat;
Nothing was lacking there, both but and ben,
Of pea and nuts, of barley, rye, or wheat,
So at all times she had enough to eat,
In comfort, safety, peace, and quiet content,
And to her sister's feast no more she went.


30. Friends, you will find here, if you will take heed,
In this our Fable, good morality;
As thistles can be mixed with worthwhile seed,
So intermingled is adversity
With earthly joy, so that no one is free
Quite from all, trouble and vexation,
Especially for them that would climb high,
Not satisfied with small possession.

31. Blest be the simple life that's free from dread;
Blest be the meal held in humility;
Who has enough, of no more has he need,
Though it be little in its quantity.
Abundance great, and blind prosperity,
Too often make a bad conclusion,
Especially for them that would climb high,
Not satisfied with small possesion.

32. O greedy man, that thinks only to feed
Your stomach, for your god it seems to be;
Look to your soul, and to our tale take heed;
Aye comes the cat, and to the mouse has eye!
What will avail your feast and revelry,
If held in fear and tribulation?
The best life on this earth, and this for me,
Is merry heart with small possession.

33. Friends, your own fire, though it be but an ember,
Is warm enough, worth more than gold to ye;
Solomon said, if ye can but remember,
"Under the heavens, no better way I see,
Than to be blithe, and live in honesty."
Wherefore I make an end of Aesop's mission
To prove the finest joy of all degree
Is peace of heart with small possession.

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