The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

IV. The Fox and the Wolf

In the previous three Fables, Henryson has been re-telling complete and recognisable tales. This one is different; although he has taken situations from various existing fables, he has re-cast them to his own ends, and, with certain additions, has created what is really an original work.

In two printed editions of his poems, published about seventy years after his death, (his work was done before printing arrived in Scotland) a very long title is provided for this Fable; The tale of how this foresaid Tod made his confession to Frier Wolf Waitskaith. This title touches on the main theme, the sacrament of Confession; and Henryson amusingly shows how it could be, and was, abused both by penitent and confessor. The penitent, our Fox, mocks another sacrament, Baptism; and in this matter of sacraments, and with the introduction of a Friar, it can be seen that religion is playing a larger part in this Fable than in the foregoing three.

And, in Henryson's day, religion played a larger part in the life of Scotland's people than it does today; all his contemporary readers would be quite familiar with the situations, the characters, -and Henryson's implications. They would have a quiet smile at his casting of the Wolf as a Friar, for the Friars were not popular with the parish priests. Some religious Orders lived apart from the daily world, but the Friars made the daily world their business; their task was to bring the Gospel anew to the people. Friars were often intelligent and educated men, and attractive and powerful preachers. Their open-air sermons could empty a church, depriving the parish clergy of income from collections, fees, etc., and they were notorious for their easy confessions and light punishments by way of atonement. Simply, they undersold the parish clerics; hence the unpopularity -and the chance for a bit of teasing by Henryson. And perhaps something slightly stronger than teasing; note, in stanza 10, how the Fox equates Friar Wolf's appearance with holiness.

This Fable is, in fact, a comedy, with satire not very far away. In the order of presentation of the thirteen Fables, we see here the Fox and the Wolf appearing together for the first time; Henryson's comedy partnership. When they appear together, amusement is the order of the day.

TheTaill how this foirsaid Tod, maid his confessioun to Frier Volf Vaitskaith

Leif we this vedow glaid, I yow assure,
Off Chantecleir, mair blyith than I can tell .......

1. We leave this widow happy as can be,
Since Chanticleer was back home, safe and sound;
Now follow we the Fox, and let us see
Just how he prospered, and the fate he found.
He could not work, or even be seen around
by day. As long 's the sun was in the sky,
Among the gorse, quite still, he had to lie.

2. At last, the solemn goddess of the night
Summoned Phoebus the sun to take his rest;
And Hesperus, the evening star so bright,
Displayed his brilliant visage in the west.
Lowrence then thought that all was for the best;
The time had come to set about his work;
Hopeful was he, because it was now dark.

3. Out of the thorns, upon a knoll he went,
So he could see the starry heavens all clear,
And all the planets in the firmament,
And how each one was moving in its sphere;
It was no idle whim which took him there.
He had some learning, though a rogue at last,
And set about his horoscope to cast.

4. He saw that Saturn was in Capricorn,
Jupiter well placed in Sagittarius;
And how Mars was upon the Ram's head borne,
With Venus in the Crab, a sign right serious;
Leo held Phoebus, and the Moon Aquarius,
While Mercury, the god of Eloquence,
Within the Virgin made his residence.

5. Of Almanack, or such, he had no need;
He had been taught, and gained experience;
The movements of the heavens he well could read,
What constellation, and what influence
Would strike the Earth, in good or evil sense.
Quoth he, "Although I never went to college,
God bless the man that gave me a' this knowledge.

6. My future and my fate I weel can see;
My likely doom now clear to me is kend;
Gey sair is going to be my destiny,
Unless my way o' living I can mend.
Death's the reward o' sin, and shameful end.
Weel, I must find me a confessor holy,
To shrive me of my sins and earthly folly.

7. Alas," quoth he, "we thieves must cursed be.
Each day we have to hide, and lurk, and lour;
Hunted and chased we are continually,
Forever stealing, and forever poor;
A life o' fear and shame we must endure.
They call us "Gallows-bird!", cry, "Whau've ye wranged!"
And, for oor labours, at the last, we're hanged."

8. Accusing thus his cankered conscience,
Till daylight came, and he could better see,
He saw approaching, not that far from thence,
A worthy Doctor of Divinity,
Friar Wolf Workharm, of great piety
And prayer and sermon; just out of the cloister,
Telling his beads, saying his Paternoster.

9. Going to the Wolf, this untrustworthy Tod
Took off his hood, and fell upon his knee
"Welcome, my spiritual father under God!"
With many a beck and bow, the Wolf to please.
"Ha!" said the Wolf, "Why these civilities?
Put on your hood; I'll take it not amiss."
"Father," said Lowrence,"I have cause for this;

10. Ye are the light, ye are the only way
To guide sic simple folk as me to grace;
Your bare feet, and your habit plain and gray,
Your cheeks so lean, your pale and pious face
Show to the world your perfect holiness;
Blessed is he, that once at least in life,
Comes upon you, his misdeeds for to shrive.."

11. "Ah, simple Lowrence," quoth the Wolf, and smiled,
"I'm glad to see that thou art penitent."
"Sir, I'll recount of many a robbery wild,
That causes me right sairly to repent;
So bide ye, father, hear my full intent.
I pray ye noo, permit me to lay bare
My conscience, that is troubling me so sair."

12. "Well," said the Wolf, "get down upon thy knee."
Lowrence then knelt, with many a pious sigh;
The Wolf began with "Benedicite!"
When I heard this, I drew a little by;
It's not allowed to overhear or spy,
Or of confessions anything to tell;
But I must say, the Wolf began quite well.

13. "In thy heart art thou sorry and contrite
For thy trespass?" " No, sir, not me.
On hens so sweet is set my appetite,
And lambs are aye so tasty when they're wee;
For to repent, the only thing I see
Is that I'm sorry I have slain so few!"
"Well," said the Wolf,"that's just too bad for you.

14. Since thou can not repent thy wickedness.
Wilt thou forbear it in futuritie?"
"If I forbear, how shall I live, alas,
Without a trade to earn myself a fee?
I have to steal, wherever I may be.
To work or beg is far below my pride,
For aye in gentry's state I would reside."

15. "Well," said the Wolf, "that's two great points you lack
Which should make for a genuine confession.
Of the third point, on this you can't go back,
Wilt thou take punishment for thy transgression?"
"Aw, sir, just take a look at my complexion,
Sickly and weak, my constitution tender,
Take a good look, am I no' pale and slender?

16. Yet, a' the same, I would, if it was light,
Short, and adjusted to my tenderness,
Take punishment, and thole it as I might,
To put my simple soul in state of grace."
"Until next Easter, then, eat thou no flesh,
To tame thy mortal constitution,
So I can give thee full remission."

17. "I'm a' for that, if ye will give me leave,
Sausage to eat, or sip a wee drap blood;
Trotters or tripe, or haggis, to receive,
For I must have some flesh intae my food."
"If it's as bad as that, I think I could;
But only twice a week, in fearful need."
"God shield ye, sir, ye are a saint indeed!"

18. This said, the Friar Wolf on his way went.
The Fox, right hungry, headed for the shore;
To catch himself some fish was his intent.
But when he saw the waves, and heard them roar,
He stood aghast ; he'd ne'er seen this before,
And said, "I'd be much better off at hame,
Than be a fisher, in the Devil's name.

19. Oot o' this sand I'd need to scrape my dinner,
For I have neither net, nor bait, nor boat!"
He moaned away a while in suchlike manner,
Thinking his chance of dining was remote;
Then, in fields close by, he spied a flock of goat.
This cheered him up; behind a bush he hid;
And from that flock he grabbed a fat wee kid.

20. Then down the beach into the sea he ran,
Holding the wee beast by its hornies twain;
Right merrily he dipped the creature in,
Once, twice, three times, and all the while kept sayin,
"Gan doon, sir kid, come up, sir salmon again!"
Till it was dead. He took it to the shore,
And ate it up, till he could eat no more.

21. His feast of new-made salmon being done
For a safe place to hide he made his quest;
Amid the gorse, to lie and take the sun,
To warm his well-filled belly he thought best.
Pleased with himself, he said when at his rest,
"This belly just needs noo, to set it aff,
A weel-fledged arrow!" and he gave a laugh.

22. He did not know the keeper of the flock,
Wild that his fattest kid was snatched away,
Was stalking through the gorse, arrow on nock,
Until at last he saw where Lowrence lay;
He bent his bow, and pulled the feathers gray
Back to his ear;, then, swifter than the wind,
Fast to the ground our Lowrence he has pinned.

23. "Aw!" cried the Fox. "Come on, I was just jokin!
I'm done for noo, and lost is a' my gain!
It would seem that, if playfu' word is spoken
These days, in earnest it is ta'en!"
The goatherd picked him up, and for his pain,
And for the kid, and other violence,
Took off his skin, and so got recompense.

24. The sudden death, and most unholy end
Of this false Fox, with no contrition,
Is but a warning for us all to mend,
For fear of ending in the same condition;
Many there are who go to make confession,
With no repentance for their sins so great,
Because they find their earthly life so sweet.

25. By use and wont, there are those who are quite
Submerged in carnal sensualitie;
They may feel, for a minute, all contrite,
But cannot feel it long - nor from sin flee.
Long use has this unhappy property
In man and beast alike : that they must do
What they, for too long, are accustomed to.

26. Beware, good folk, and fear the sudden shot,
Against which there is little resistance;
Attention pay; ne'er let it be forgot;
Against death nobody can make defence;
Live not with sin, keep pure your own conscience;
Do willing penance here, and you shall wend,
After your death, to bliss without an end.

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