The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

XI. The Wolf and the Wether

Nowadays, wether is the term applied to a neutered male sheep. In Henryson's time, it could also apply to an entire male sheep : a ram. Not that this is important in this poem, but, for those readers who are familiar with the temperamental differences between wethers and rams, it might go some way to accounting for the aggressiveness of Henryson's Wether. (Or, as it is spelled in the original, Wedder; the dd/th sounds are interchangeable, especially in Scots - e.g. smithy/smiddy.)

What is important in this Fable is the theme: the dangers involved in breaking social barriers. Nor is this merely a general finger-wagging from a late-mediaeval point of view. It is a specific social/political comment from Henryson on developments and events in his own time, in the reign of James III; briefly, James offended the aristocracy by favouring and promoting talented commoners. The aristocracy reacted by lynching these commoners.

The higher up the social scale, the greater the power, so the Wolf can easily destroy the Wether. Henryson's Wolf here is no longer the the victim of the Fox's confidence tricks, but is simply a powerful predator. Note that Henryson does not take sides in this Wolf/Wether clash; he is not making a case for or against any social group; an objectivity which serves to highlight his theme.

Vocabulary :sleekit = sly, devious (St. 1)
hogg = a sheep in its first year, after weaning. (5.)
ahint = behind (14.)
gowk = cuckoo; April fool's trick. (16)
gart = forced to, compelled to.(17)

The Taill of the wolf, and the wedder.

Qwhylum thair wes, as Esope can report,
Ane scheipheird duelland be ane forrest neir.......

1. Once on a time, as Aesop does report,
There was a shepherd poor, a humble wight,
Who kept a hound, that gave him great support
By watching ower his flock by day and night;
Both wolf and wildcat he could put to flight.
No sleekit Fox, or any other beast,
But he would slay, or drive them off at least.

2. It happened then -for everyone must die -
The hound, with sudden illness, dropped down dead.
God knows, the shepherd made a mournful cry,
Bewailing the sad life he'd have to lead.
"Alas," he said, "there is no way indeed
To save the silly beasties that I keep;
For now the Wolf will worry all my sheep."

3. It would have made your heart right sore to see
The lamentation that this simple shepherd made.
" Noo that my darling's dead and gone, " quoth he,
"Begging my bread will have to be my trade;
With staff and bowl a sorry life I'll lead;
For wolf and wildcat, that were kept from here,
Will pounce upon my flock, to rend and tear."

4. With that, a Wether on his feet did start.
"Maister," said he,"Your grief is quite in vain;
Ye neednae, for this setback, break your heart,
Or, for a dead dog, give yoursel' such pain;
Bring his corpse here, and take the skin off clean;
Sew it on me, and take care that it's neat,
On head and neck, body and tail and feet.

5. Then will the Wolf believe that I am he,
And, at the sight of me, will soon retreat;
The care of all the flock will rest with me,
And I will guard them weel, early and late.
When comes the wolf, be sure I will not wait
To chase him just as hard as did the dog;
I'll warrant that ye will not lose one hogg."

6. "This is good news," the shepherd said, and laughed.
"Your counsel is right crafty, sure, and sound;
Who says a sheep is stupid, must be daft."
With that, he took the skin clean off the hound,
And on the Wether he has stitched it round.
The Wether was fair proud of his new coat
And for the Wolves he did not care one jot.

7. Completely, then, he took up the dog's post.
All through the night he watched, taking no sleep;
With the result that not one beast was lost,
So keen was he a proper guard to keep.
Within a mile, Tod Lowrence could not creep;
For, if he did, the Wedder chased him hard,
And for his life made him have some regard.

8. So never was there wildcat, wolf, or fox
Could show themselves where he would range about,
But he would chase them to their woods and rocks;
The vermin thought their lives stood aye in doubt,
For big the Wether was, both strong and stout.
These would-be robbers held him in great dread;
Outside the forest, scared to show a head.

9. It happened, though, one hungry Wolf did slide
Among the sheep all lying on a lea;
"I must have one," he said, "whate'er betide,
At any risk; or else I starve and dee."
With that, he gripped a lamb was fat and wee.
The flock rose up, and scattered all aghast;
But, right away, the Wether came on fast.

10. Never did deerhound start so swift from hand,
When he's been slipped at hunting of the roe,
As did the Wether speed over the land
Launching a fierce attack upon his foe;
It seemed that he would soon the Wolf lay low;
For clouds of dust, he hardly could be seen,
Crying "Sir Wolf, Sir Wolf! Ye'll soon be ta'en!"

11. With that, the fleeing Wolf increased his pace.
Frightened he was; but night was drawing near,
He thought he had a chance to win this race,
Although the Wether pressed hard in his rear,
Aye threatening death. So, driven on by fear,
He crashed through thickets, splashed through fen and bog;
Too well he knew the duties of a dog!

12. He dropped the lamb; it was too great a load,
And so more quickly sped through dub and mire.
"That," called the Wether,"does ye little good!
It's no' the lamb, but you, that I desire!
I'll have ye yet, for noo I see ye tire!"
The Wolf ran harder, kicking up small stanes;
No use; the Wether still upon him gains.

13. And so it fell, the Wether came so near,
That the Wolf, wild with terror, messed himsel';
He left the fields and went for bush and briar,
Hoping to find and hide in some quiet dell,
So to escape this very hound of Hell;
The Wether followed him both out and in,
- until a bramble bush ripped off his skin!

14. The Wolf heard this, and took a glance ahint;
He saw the Wether wrestling with the briar,
And realised a dead dog had been skinned.
"Aye, aye!" quoth he,"so ye would play theliar!
A hound ye were, and noo as white's a friar?
I ran too far, for noo I see the case;
Believe you me, ye will regret this race!

15. And just why did ye set out me to catch?"
With that, he gripped the Wether by a horn.
"For a' your tricks, at last ye've met your match,
Suppose ye put me, for a year, to scorn!
And just for why have ye this dog's skin worn?"
Š▓Maister, the Wether said,"to jest with you;
Upon my soul, I swear that this is true!"

16. Then said the Wolf," Is this a gowk I see?
I'm fair upset, my nerves they are a' shattered.
And here's the proof; just you come back with me,"
And pulled him back to where the trail was spattered.
" D'ye really think that all this hasnae mattered?
To hunt your master in a chase so wild,
That he, in fear, has all the ground defiled?

17. Thrice, by my soul, ye had me mess mysel'!
Upon my thighs the evidence is seen!
Three times, for fear, ye gart me raise a smell!
A sheep did that? Sorry, a dog I mean!
Your teeth are far too short to be so keen.
God bless the bush that tore off your disguise,
Or else I fell dead beat, never to rise."

18. "Sir," said the Wether, "out to hunt I set,
But harm to you I swear I never meant;
Who runs away will aye a follower get,
In play or earnest, and this is weel kent.
If ye show grace to me, it's my intent
To ask my many friends to bless your bones;
Cannot a servant trick his master once?

19. "Often," the Wolf said, "I've been in a scrape,
But never have I felt such deadly fear
As ye gave me with what ye call a jape!
I fouled mysel' three times when ye drew near!
This game ye played is going to cost ye dear!"
With that, he Wether by the throat he seizes,
Kills him outright, and tears him into pieces.


20. Aesop, our poet, author of this tale,
Aye as a serious parable has it meant;
The shrewd and careful reader cannot fail
To find a moral, Aesop's main intent;
His story shows us pictures excellent,
Through beast's behaviour, of man's wilful ways
Which serve him ill, as in these present days.

21. Here you will see that riches of attire
Will lead base folk presumptuous to be;
To think that they than other men are higher
When they wear clothes that flatter their degree;
Pride makes them think from humble state they're free,
Behaving as though they were lords by birth,
Till - truth will out - they're brought straight back to earth.

22. And others will their given powers exceed
If they do work, and find that it is praised;
They try to be a lord themselves in deed,
Forgetting how theirselves and lords are raised,
And that their rank is on appearance based.
That man is wise who bids his son take care,
And of the slippery servant's bench beware.

23. And so I counsel men of every state
To know themselves, and what they should let be;
Not to indulge in matters of great state,
Though clothed they are as those of high degree.
From confrontations, servants should keep free,
Nor climb so high that they fall of the ladder,
But keep in mind this tale of Wolf and Wedder.

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