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The Dog and Its Reflection,  Arthur Rackham, illustration

The Dog and Its Reflection,
Arthur Rackham, illustrator (Gutenberg [EB #11339]

“The Dog that dropped the Substance for the Shadow” is an Æsopic fables. It is #133 in the Perry Index where it is entitled “The Dog and Its Image,” or “The Dog and Its Reflection.” We can trace it back to Phædrus and Babrius who committed to paper fables Æsop had told. Phædrus wrote in Latin and Babrius, in Greek. Later fabulists, European or Western, drew their subject matter from these two sources.

There also existed an Eastern tradition of the same fables. According to the foreword, or avertissement, of a seventeenth-century French translation of Les Fables de Pilpay, Æsop, if there ever was an Æsop, seems to have lived in Greece, but was from the Levant.

les Grecs ont suivi les Orientaux; Je dis ‘suivi,’ puisque les Grecs confessent eux-mêmes qu’ils ont appris cette sorte d’érudition d’Esope, qui estoit Levantin.

“[T]he Greeks followed the Orientals; I say ‘follow,’ because the Greek themselves confess that they acquired this sort of knowledge [cette sorte d’érudition] from Æsop, who was from the Levant (Levantin). (See Les Fables de Pilpay philosophe indien, ou la conduite des roys, the Avertissement, p. 10 approximately). It is an online Google book. Pilpay is the story-teller in Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra.

According to one source, L’Astrée, a lenghty seventeenth-century pastoral novel, written by Honoré d’Urfé‘s (11 February 1568 – 1 June 1625), contains the following sentence: « Ce ne sont, dit Hylas, que les esprits peu sages qui courent après l’ombre du bien, et laissent le bien même. » (Hylas said that only silly minds run after the shadow of a possession leaving behind the possession itself). (See lafontainet.net.)

When Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) chose to rewrite an Æsopic fable, he often used a translation into Latin by Névelet, Mythologia Æsopica Isaaci Nicolai Neveleti, Francfort, 1610. (See lafontaine.net.)

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 3630, Folio 81r The Medieval Bestiary

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 3630, Folio 81r 
The Medieval Bestiary [i]

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 112v

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 112v, The Medieval Bestiary

Sources: East and West

West: Phædrus & Babrius
East: The Panchatantra (India), Kalīlah wa Dimna (various)

Given that this post features La Fontaine’s fable, I used the Musée de La Fontaine‘s
translation. However, Æsop ‘s version of this fable is told in the Project Gutenberg’s [EB #11339] (V. S. Vernon Jones, trans., G. K. Chesterton, intro, and Arthur Rackham, ill.).

In all likelihood, Vernon Jones used Phædrus (Latin) or Babrius (Greek) as his source. He may also have used another re-teller’s translation of Phædrus and Babrius, the Western tradition.

However, Æsop also told fables belonging to a parallel Oriental tradition. “The Dog that dropped the Substance for the Shadow” was retold in Arabic by Persian Muslim scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa’. His translation is entitled Kalīlah wa Dimna and dates back to 750 CE. Ibn al-Muqaffa’ used Borzōē‘s or Borzūya‘s Pahlavi‘s translation of the Sanskrit Panchatantra, 3rd century BCE, by Vishnu Sharma. (See Panchatantra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.) The Panchatantra is an online publication. (See Internet Archives.)

The Oral vs the Learned Tradition: literacy

It is therefore possible, perhaps probable, that Æsop, a story-teller whose fables were transmitted to Western Europe, used fables originating in an Eastern and “learned” tradition. The Eastern tradition may have been a “learned” tradition, i.e. written down fables, but the fables, animal fables, were told to people who may not have been able to read or write. Literacy is a key factor in the transmission of fables or tales. It would be my opinion that La Fontaine’s source, Névelet or Neveleti, used Phædrus or Phædrus
retold by other fabulists who may have borrowed elements from Babrius.

A “Learned” Eastern Tradition

In other words, Æsop’s fables were probably transmitted to Western fabulists by Phædus and Babrius, but there is an eastern tradition, a parallel. When La Fontaine wrote his second collection (recueil) of fables, published in 1678, he had read G. Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières ou la conduite des roys (1644) (The Book of Lights or the Conduct of Kings). This book contains Pilpay’s fables. (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia.)

“A New Persian version from the 12th century became known as Kalīleh o Demneh  and this was the basis of Kashefi’s 15th century Anvār-e Soheylī (Persian: The Lights of Canopus). The book in different form is also known as The Fables of Bidpaï (or Pilpai, in various European languages) or The Morall Philosophie of Doni (English, 1570).” (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia)

Our fable is number 17 in La Fontaine’s sixth book of fables, published in 1668 (VI.17). It was written before La Fontaine read Le Livre des lumières, 1644, the fables of Bidpaï.

The Fables of Pilpay or Bidpaï

Le Livre des lumières = Fables de Pilpay
Hitopadesha: the conduct of kings
Æsop was from the Levant

Le Livre des lumières is a Google Book. By following the link Livre des lumières, one can see that the stories of Pilpay or Bidpaï, the story-teller in the Panchatantra or Pañcatantra (3rd BCE, perhaps earlier) are also used to teach a prince the conduct of kings. “The Panchatantra is a niti-shastra, or textbook of the niti. The word niti means roughly ‘the wise conduct of life’.” (The Panchatantra, Translator’s Introduction, p. 5).

The Panchatantra inspired a separate Hitopadesha, fables used to prepare a prince for his royal duties. As its title indicates, directions on the conduct of kings are included in the online Les Fables de Pilpay philosophe indien, ou la conduite des roys

La Fontaine’s fable reads as follows:

The Dog that dropped the Substance for the Shadow

This world is full of shadow-chasers,
Most easily deceived.
Should I enumerate these racers,
I should not be believed.
I send them all to Aesop’s dog,
Which, crossing water on a log,
Espied the meat he bore, below;
To seize its image, let it go;
Plunged in; to reach the shore was glad,
With neither what he hoped, nor what he’d had.

« Le Chien qui lâche sa proie pour l’ombre » 

Chacun se trompe ici-bas.
On voit courir après l’ombre
Tant de fous, qu’on n’en sait pas
La plupart du temps le nombre.
Au Chien dont parle Ésope il faut les renvoyer.
Ce Chien, voyant sa proie en l’eau représentée,
La quitta pour l’image, et pensa se noyer ;
La rivière devint tout d’un coup agitée.
À toute peine il regagna les bords,
Et n’eut ni l’ombre ni le corps.

Æsop’s “The Dog and the Shadow”

A Dog was crossing a plank bridge over a stream with a piece of meat in his mouth, when he happened to see his own reflection in the water. He thought it was another dog with a piece of meat twice as big; so he let go his own, and flew at the other dog to get the larger piece. But, of course, all that happened was that he got neither; for one was only a shadow, and the other was carried away by the current. [EB #11339]

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 18r The Medieval Bestiary

I have not found “The Dog and its Reflection,” in Les Fables de Pilpay, but Bidpaï wrote a similar story entitled “The Fox and a Piece of Meat.” However, “The Dog and its Reflection” is included in the Arabic Kalīlah wa Dimna.

“The Dog and its Reflection” was incorporated in the 12th-century Aberdeen Bestiary, an illuminated manuscript. (See The Medieval Bestiary, scroll down to Æsop’s Fables.)

In Britain, John Lydgate told this story in his Isopes Fabules. His moral was that “Who all coveteth, oft he loseth all.” The fable is also part of Geoffrey Whitney‘s (c. 1548 – c. 1601) Choice of Emblemes.[ii] Whitney’s moral is “to make use of moderate possessions,”
Mediocribus utere partis. This story was told by several fabulists in many countries. (See The Dog and Its Reflection, Wikipedia.)

In La Fontaine’s “Le Chien qui lâche sa proie pour l’ombre,” the moral precedes the example (it usually follows the fable) and seems to differ from the moral provided by other fabulists. La Fontaine warns that one should not be deceived by appearances, a common moral in seventeenth-century France. However, La Fontaine ends his fable by writing that the dog reached the shore “[w]ith neither what he hoped, nor what he’d had.”


We tell the same stories, east and west, but terrorists in the Levant are killing innocent American journalists. I still hope for a diplomatic resolution to the current conflict. Further bloodshed is not necessary. President Obama is a man of peace, so I am confident that he will do what has to be done.

The oak tree is felled by a terrible wind, but the reed bends and survives.

However, that man who beheaded James Foley and Steven Sotloff in cold blood is a criminal.


Sources and Resources

[i] David BadkeThe Medieval Bestiary, Web
[ii] Whitney’s Choice of Emblemes, 39 (online: Choice of Emblemes (Google book)
Henry Purcell: Ground in C Minor; Hanneke van Proosdij, harpsichord – YouTube 
© Micheline Walker
10 September 2014