The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

XIII. The Puddock and the Mouse

In Fable I, The Cock and the Jasp, Henryson sets the tone of his philosophy in the Fables by referring to, and illustrating, a problem ; the opposition of physical body and intangible soul, "brute creation" versus human intellect. In this, he was only being a man of his times and profession, because this clash of interests formed the main concern of the Christian religion in the Middle Ages. After examining the effects of this opposition, in various ways, he returns to it in this concluding Fable.

This Fable above all will repay deep study, of the symbolism in particular. Henryson , in the Moral, makes the major symbolism clear; but that is not the whole story. For instance, we have to consider the Mouse's desire to reach the Promised Land, and exactly what that desire implies. Similarly, the Puddock's motivations call for some thought. And this brings us to the culmination: death, and Henryson's dealing with the fact of death - which, after all, is the only thing every human being can be sure of. Death, and the great question - what happens after death - plays a major part in nine of the thirteen Fables, and, in this one, he sums it all up. While his summation can only be that sanctioned by his Christian religion, and a not very cheerful summation it seems to be, we must never forget that any discussion of Death is really a discussion of Life; and, in the medium of fables, Henryson paints real life.

The Puddock and the Mouse is climactic. That being granted, and consideration being given to his symbolism, what are we to make of Robert Henryson, Christian, Churchman, teacher, when his Mouse, calling for a priest, is answered by a gled ? He cannot be accused of a lack of attention to detail. Notice that he has the Puddock swear by Jupiter, a pagan deity, (as does the Fox in Fable IX) making her oath worthless -but dramatically consistent - and the responsibility for the consequences then falls upon the Mouse, for allowing her fleshly desires to blind her to the need for prudence. ( On this particular issue, consult Fable VII. )

The concluding two stanzas of The Puddock and the Mouse demonstrate Henryson's dramatic consistency in his composition of the Fables. The second-last stanza is a serious, slightly frightening, admonition; but in the last stanza the "lightness" appears once more, - just the slightest of brush-strokes - with his informal advice to the reader, and his little dig at the Friars. And the very last lines consist of a short, simple, graceful little prayer.

Vocabulary :sclim = climb (2.)
blaeberries = bilberries (9.)

And the Puddock here is obviously a toad; Scots refer to both frogs and toads as a "puddock".

The Taill of the Paddok,and the Mous

Vpon ane time, as Esope culd report,
Ane lytill mous come till ane reuer side.......

1. Once on a time, as Aesop did report,
A little Mouse came to a riverside.
She could not wade, her legs they were so short;
She could not swim; she had no horse to ride;
So she was forced, upon the bank, to bide.
Then to and fro, beside that river deep
She ran, and cried with many a plaintive’ peep!"

2. "Help me, O help!" was aye her woeful cry,
"For love of God, to cross this water grim!"
A Puddock then, that in the stream did lie,
Put up her head, and on the bank did sclim;
Such beasts, by nature, aye can dive and swim.
With her hoarse voice she spoke: "Hallo, my dear,
Good morn to ye; what is't that brings ye here?"

3. The Mouse said, "Do ye see yon fields so fair,
Of oats so ripe, of barley, peas, and wheat?
Hungry am I, and fain would I be there,
But I'm prevented by this river great,
And on this side there's little more to eat
Than hard old nuts, or dried-up docken seed;
If I could cross, I'd have a feast indeed!

4. I have no boat; no ferryman is here;
And though there were, the toll I couldn't pay."
The Puddock said, "Cheer up, and have no fear;
I'll warrant ye will have your feast this day;
No need for boat, for I'll show ye a way
By which ye'll safely cross, ye might suppose,
And not wet even one whisker on your nose."

5. " It has me beat," returned the little Mouse,
"How ye can float without a boat or raft.
This river is so deep and dangerous,
That those who tried to wade it would be daft;
I'd like to know what faculty or craft
Is yours, that ye can cross this water wide."
The Puddock a smooth answer could provide.

6. "With my two feet all webbed and wide," she said,
Working like oars, I cross the stream at will,
So there ye are; I do not need to wade,
And to and fro I swim, and take no ill.
I cannot drown, because my open gill
Discharges any water that I swallow;
So in the river I can splash and wallow."

7. The Mouse then gazed upon her wrinkled face,
Her seamy cheeks, her lips both thick and wide,
Her heavy brows; perceived her voice so bass;
Her bandy legs, her coarse and roughcast hide.
She stepped well back, and to the Puddock cried,
"If I in physiognomy have skill,
Your face foretells of falsehood and of ill!

8. For scholars say that men's thoughts are inclined
To shape appearance true in every case;
The visage shows what's often in the mind,
The noble character, or else the base;
Evil intentions make an evil face!
So truly has the ancient proverb said,
"Distorted face is by distorted morals made!"

9. "Na," said the Toad,"that proverb isnae true.
Look, beauty can be over falsehood cast;
And blaeberries, though they be dull of hue,
Are sweet and good when primroses are past.
The face aye fails to match the mind at last;
I'll show ye, in Saint John, the very place
He says "Thou shalt not judge man by his face."

10. Though I am not so fair to gaze upon,
I've hurt ye none; so why should ye doubt me?
Were I as fair as handsome Absolon,
The beauty surely was not made by me;
This difference between our form and quality,
Is dealt by Nature to each rank and station;
This power she got from God at the Creation.

11. With some, the face can always show a smile,
With pleasant voice, and looks benevolent;
Below that, though, they're false and full of guile,
With stratagems all planned with ill intent."
The hungry Mouse said,"No more argument,
But tell me how I am to understand
How ye can get me to yon fruitful land."

12. "Ye ken," the Puddock said,"someone in need
For means to help themself will have to cast;
So find yourself a double-twisted threid,
And tie your legs to mine , with knots right fast;
I'll teach ye how to swim - be not aghast -
As well as I can." "As you?" said the Mouse,
I'm not so sure. Is this not perilous?

13. Could I be tied with cords, when now I'm free,
And call it help? in this I must take care,
For I might lose both life and liberty
If things go wrong. An oath, then, ye must swear,
That, over this wide river, ye will bear
Me safe and sound, to suffer nothing ill
From fraud or guile!" "Aye," said the Toad, "I will."

14. She looked aloft, and to the heavens did cry,
"O Jupiter, of Nature, god and king!
I swear a solemn oath to ye that I
This little Mouse shall ower the water bring!"
The oath then sworn, the Mouse, not suspecting
The evil this false Puddock had in mind,
Took doubled thread, and fast their legs did bind.

15. Then, foot to foot, they jumped into the stream;
But, mind to mind, it was quite different;
The Mouse was set on how to float and swim;
To drown the Mouse, the Puddock was intent.
Halfway across the river deep they went;
The Puddock then began to dive straight down,
For that was how she meant the Mouse to drown.

16. When she saw what was meant, the Mouse let cry:
" Traitor to God, and falsely sworn to me!
Ye swore a solemn oath just now that I
Safely across this stream should carried be!"
And when she saw she had to do or die,
She struggled hard, straining herself to swim,
Trying upon the Puddock's back to sclim.

17. She saw death near, so was in great distress,
Fighting to save her life with might and main.
The Mouse upward, the Puddock down did press;
Beneath the waves, then up on top again,
The hapless Mouse enduring fearful pain;
Her strength gave out, and all her struggling ceased,
And, at the last, she called out for a priest.

18. Watching all this, a Gled was perched nearby,
For, to the whole affair, he'd paid good heed;
And, with a swoop, ere Toad or Mouse could spy,
He, with his talons, neatly caught the threid,
And to the bank with both he flew with speed.
Pleased with his prize, he whistled and he blew;
Breaking the thread, the pair of them he slew.

19. This butcher then did gut them with his bill,
Pulling their skins off clean, though they were tight;
Though all their flesh would scarce his stomach fill,
Gleds have to clean up after every fight;
This sad affair was settled then , outright.
This Gled then ate them up, and off he flew;
Just ask of those that saw if this is true.


20. Brothers, if ye will some attention pay
To this our Fable, ye will clearly see
That, worse than any plague, there is the way
Foul mind is hid by words both fair and free;
Beware of those who over-friendly be;
Better to delve and drudge in the kailyaird,
Until the sweat runs down and blinds your ee,
Than with companion wicked to be paired.

21. Intentions wicked, under sweet pretence,
Have caused too many innocents to die;
Foolish it is , to give too much credence,
To those who speak so sweet and soft to thee;
A honeyed tongue, with heart of cruelty,
More than a dagger-thrust is to be feared;
Better to live in honest poverty,
Than with companion wicked to be paired.

22. I warn as well of careless negligence,
In risking being bound when you are free;
For, if you're bound, you can make no defence
To save yourself; gone is your liberty!
This simple counsel, brother, take from me;
Forget it not, it is both sure and sound:
Better to live on other's charity,
Than with companion wicked to be bound.

23. These points being made, now I'll go on to tell
How mankind to these beasts can well relate.
The Puddock, choosing in the flood to dwell,
Our body is, immersed in fleshly state
Amidst the world's dangers intricate;
Now high, now low, whiles rising up, whiles down;
Whiles cruising safe, whiles nearly like to drown.

24. Now sad, now blithe as blackbird on the spray.
Now free as air, now trammelled in distress;
Now hale and sound, now cold and in the clay;
Now poor as Job, now rolling in largesse;
Now garments gay, and now in rags you dress;
Now fat's a pig, now hungry as a hound;
Now high on Fortune's wheel, now cast on ground.

25. The little Mouse, fast to the Puddock tied,
The soul of man we see in every deed;
For from the body it can not divide,
Until death comes and cuts away the threid;
The soul, of drowning, aye should go in dread;
Carnal delights, when made the only goal,
Are Satan's snares, seeking to catch the soul.

26. The river is the world, flowing fast,
Rolling its waves of dangers and of woes,
And into it are soul and body cast,
And each sets out the other to oppose;
Upwards the soul, downwards the body goes,
The soul forever trying to dismiss
All worldly things, and so reach Heaven's bliss.

27. The Gled is Death, coming with sudden start,
As thief in night; and swiftly cuts the cord.
Therefore be vigilant, and aye alert
For little time our short life can afford
To do the right, and have it on record,
Against the day when Death shall strike us down;
And when, no man can tell; midnight or noon.

28. Adieu, friend, and if anybody speirs
About this Fable, since I now conclude,
Tell them I've left the rest o't with the Friars,
To make example or similitude.
Dear Christ, that died on Cross for mankind's good,
As Thou art Saviour of our life and soul,
Grant us to pass into the Heavenly Hall.

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