Fables & Parables
When Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) published his first collection of fables, he drew his subject matter from Greek fabulist Æsop (c. 620 – 564 BCE). Interestingly, Æsop lived before Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE – c. CE/AD 30 / 33) and the prophet Mohammad (c. 570 CE – 8 June 632 CE). Yet, in the Préface to La Fontaine’s first collection of poems, 6 books, published in 1668, La Fontaine compared his fables to the parables of Jesus of Nazareth: “Truth has spoken to men in parables; and is the parable anything else than a fable? ”
And what I say is not altogether without foundation, since, if I may venture to speak of that which is most sacred in our eyes in the same breath with the errors of the ancients, we find that Truth has spoken to men in parables; and is the parable anything else than a fable? that is to say, a feigned example of some truth, which has by so much the more force and effect as it is the more common and familiar?
Ce que je dis n’est pas tout à fait sans fondement puisque, s’il m’est permis de mêler ce que nous avons de plus sacré parmi les erreurs du paganisme, nous voyons que la Vérité a parlé aux hommes par paraboles; et la parabole est-elle autre chose que l’apologue, c’est-à-dire un exemple fabuleux, et qui s’insinue avec d’autant plus de facilité et d’effet qu’il est plus commun et plus familier?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son does resemble a fable. Its narrative is “the more common and familiar.” However, despite a “more common and familiar,” exemplum, it tells the otherwise ineffable. How does one speak of love unconditional and forgiveness, which is at the core of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings? In The Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of two brothers asks to be given his half of his father’s estate. This son then leaves home, squanders his money foolishly, and is reduced to starvation when a famine occurs. He therefore returns to his father’s home, saying that he has sinned.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’
A lay, or secular, reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son does point to foolish and, therefore, relatively “common” human behaviour on the part of the prodigal son. From the very beginning of La Fontaine’s fable about the two pigeons, the pigeon who has fallen prey to wanderlust is called fool enough, “assez fou.”
Two doves once cherished for each other
The love that brother has for brother.
But one, of scenes domestic tiring,
To see the foreign world aspiring,
Was fool enough to undertake
A journey long, over land and lake.
The Two Doves
Deux Pigeons s’aimaient d’amour tendre.
L’un d’eux s’ennuyant au logis
Fut assez fou pour entreprendre
Un voyage en lointain pays.
Les Deux Pigeons
However, La Fontaine’s pigeon was merely tired of “scenes domestic,” which is not a sin. He suffers the consequences he was told he would suffer, except that the dreaded falcons are an eagle and that children are “pitiless” human beings who try to harm our traveler.
My heart forebodes the saddest lot
The falcons [faucons], nets Alas, it rains!
The Two Doves
Je ne songerai plus que rencontre funeste,
Que Faucons, que réseaux [nets]. Hélas, dirai-je, il pleut : …
Les Deux Pigeons
To a large extent, the moral of The Two Pigeons is embedded in the story or exemplum. Yet, early in his fable, La Fontaine inserts a proverb, a genre that does not require a narrative or exemplum. Proverbs are related to fables and parables, but they are short, as are maxims. La Rochefoucauld wrote maxims.
L’absence est le plus grand des maux :
Non pas pour vous, cruel. …
Les Deux Pigeons
This absence is the worst of ills;
Your heart may bear, but me it kills.
The Two Doves
Absence was a topic discussed in the French Salons of the first half of the 17th century, by Précieuses and Précieux. Précieuses discussed “questions of love,” chaste love mostly. Although La Fontaine’s poem is not a disquisition on absence, he inserts a proverb in the early verses of Les Deux Pigeons: “L’absence est le plus cruel des maux [pl. of mal].” This proverb, the word “absence” in particular, introduces romantic love, which constitutes a discourse between human beings, mainly, and doves. Jean de La Fontaine’s fable is not altogether about two pigeons. Anthromorphism characterizes only one part of the fable, its beginning. (See Romance, Wikipedia.)
La Fontaine’s motto (devise) was:
Ah, happy lovers, would you roam?
Pray, let it not be far from home.
To each the other ought to be
A world of beauty ever new;
In each the other ought to see
The whole of what is good and true.
The Two Doves
Amants, heureux amants, voulez-vous voyager ?
Que ce soit aux rives prochaines ;
Soyez-vous l’un à l’autre un monde toujours beau,
Toujours divers, toujours nouveau ;
Tenez-vous lieu de tout, comptez pour rien le reste [.]
Les Deux Pigeons
Moreover, although both our pigeons and the prodigal son have been fools, the prodigal son has sinned: “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:11-32), which suggests a gradation among exempla (pl.). When both pigeons are reunited, they rejoice, pigeons are pigeons, but the prodigal son confesses: “I have sinned” (Luke 15:11-32).
The Parable of the Prodigal Son features two sons, one of whom, the “good” brother, is rather miffed because his father celebrates his prodigal brother’s (the “bad” brother) return. The parable has three figures, one of whom, the father, is a wise and Christic figure, and tells the ineffable.
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
Given that one son is miffed, La Fontaine may have been inspired by the Biblical enemy brothers or Cain and Abel, sons born to Adam and Eve, one of whom, Cain, kills his brother, Abel. (See Cain and Abel, Sophocles’ Antigone, Jean Racine’s La Thébaïde, and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Wikipedia.) Were it not for a wise father, the prodigal son’s brother, or “good” son, may have harboured resentment. But La Fontaine’s fable’s dramatis personae consists of two, not three, figures: Les Deux Pigeons.
The Exemplum: Sermons
Fables and parables also describes sermons. The word exemplum is usually associated with the sermons of the Middle Ages. Jacques de Vitry (Jacobus de Vitriaco c. 1160/70 – 1 May 1240), a French canon regular who rose to prominence, wrote hundreds of exempla (pl.). In the English language, John Donne (22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) is the author of very fine sermons. But few preachers have empowered their words to the same extent as French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet.
The unexpected and suspicious death, perhaps poisoning, at the age of 26, of ‘Madame,’ Henriette d’Angleterre, 26 June 1644 – 30 June 1670, the wife of Louis XIV’s brother, called ‘Monsieur,’ was an exemplum few circumstances could equal.  In 17th-century France, the age of Louis XIV, an absolute monarch, the memento mori (remember that you have to die), nearly supplanted the carped diem (seize the day) of Horatian Odes I.XI.  How does one keep an absolute monarch humble? One approach is to remind him of his mortality, but indirectly. Louis XIV attended Madame‘s funeral and heard Bossuet’s Oraison funèbre. Bossuet also wrote the funeral oration of Louis III, Prince de Condé, 10 November 1668 – 4 March 1710, a “prince of the blood” (un prince du sang).  There is a king greater than Louis XIV. Coincidentally, or ineffably, Jean de La Fontaine ends Les Deux Pigeons suggesting that he may be too old to love:
Ai-je passé le temps d’aimer ?
Les Deux Pigeons
Is love, to me, with things that were?
The Two Doves
You may remember the vanitas, still lifes, created by artists who often used flowers to express the brevity of life. The Roman de la Rose is our best example. But who can forget François de Malherbe‘s  exquisite Consolation à M. Du Périer:
Contrary to Horace’s precept, to inform and to delight, or blending l’utile et l’agréable, sermons may not provide delight or pleasure, which Horace (Ars Poetica) teaches. It remains that wrapped in a story, a message is easier to convey, and to remember, than non-fiction. Gustave Doré has ‘illustrated’ the anthropomorphic nature of The Two Pigeons, (Gutenberg [EBook #50516])
La Fontaine: http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/meunfils.htm FR
La Fontaine: http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/nine1_2_3.htm EN
The Personal and the Pastoral
After “le reste” or “good and true,” La Fontaine speaks about himself and recalls a bergère, a shepherdess. Pastorals are a discourse on love. Salonniers and salonnières also compared themselves to shepherds and shepherdesses. The most famous bucolic or pastoral novel of 17th-century France is Honoré d’Urfé‘s L’Astrée, written in the first quarter of the 17th century and modelled on Guarini‘s Il Pastor Fido (1590). Having loved, La Fontaine writes:
J‘ai quelquefois aimé ! je n’aurais pas alors
Contre le Louvre et ses trésors,
Contre le firmament et sa voûte céleste,
Changé les bois, changé les lieux
Honorés par les pas, éclairés par les yeux
De l’aimable et jeune Bergère (shepherdess)
Pour qui, sous le fils de Cythère, (Kythira)
Je servis, engagé par mes premiers serments.
Les Deux Pigeons
Myself have loved; nor would I then,
For all the wealth of crowned men,
Or arch celestial, paved with gold,
The presence of those woods has sold,
And fields, and banks, and hillocks, which
Were by the joyful steps made rich,
And smiled beneath the charming eyes
Of her who made my heart a prize
To whom I pledged it, nothing loath,
And sealed the pledge with virgin oath.
The Two Doves
Pigeons, Doves and Turtledoves
- Dove, and the symbology of love
- Homing pigeons
The translator of La Fontaine’s Site officiel uses the word “dove,” not pigeon. Doves are colombes and tourtelles, turtledoves. In the symbology of love, one uses the word colombe. Doves, colombes and pigeons are columbidae, but they differ from one another. Therefore, the translator of the Musée de
France introduces love, romantic love, by using the word colombe, in the title of his translation. As
France introduces love, romantic love, by using the word colombe, in the title of his translation. As for Walter Thornbury [EBook #50316], he translated the French pigeons using the English pigeons. It is the same word in both languages. But it should be noted that we do not have homing doves, just homing pigeons. By using pigeons, Jean de La Fontaine suggests that his columbidae will return home. He describes the pigeon as a volatile (a bird, noun) FR and volatile (adjective) FR/EN.
There is a sense in which literature (non-fiction), speaking animals in particular, always tell, to a smaller or greater extent, that which cannot be told. Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are effective recourses, but the exemplum, and various displacements (modulations or transpositions) may also be used. In the context of our two pigeons, “L’absence est le pire des maux” seems too elevated a moral. But La Fontaine raises the curtain only to let it fall again.
Very few of his poems are specifically lyrical in character, and those few are not among his most typical. It is clear, however, that the power of La Fontaine’s lyricism depends on its displacement into the most surprising contexts.
- French, Malherbe (geudensherman.WordPress) FR
- Consolatio.com (01 February 2005)
- To Inform or Delight (29 March 2013)
- Courtly Love or Fin’Amor (7 March 2013)
- Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism (6 March 2017)
Apologies. I could not write this post as quickly as I intended. I am not well.
Love to everyone ♥
 Oraison funèbre d’Henriette-Anne d’Angleterre is a Wikisource publication FR
The Funeral Oration of Henrietta of England is a Wikisource publication EN (
 Gather Ye Roses by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1875, is a Wikisource publication
 On the Death of the Great Condé is a Wikisource publication (Robert Turnbull, transl.) EN
Oraison funèbre du très haut et très puissant prince Louis de Condé is a Wikisource publication FR
 French, Malherbe (geudensherman.WordPress) EN ♥
 Consolatio.com (01 February 2005) EN ♥
 Charles Rosen, “The Fabulous La Fontaine,” The New York Review of Books, 18 December 1997. ♥
Charles Aznavour sings Les Deux Pigeons
© Micheline Walker
12 June 2018
Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi is the fourth fable in book three of La Fontaine’s first volume of Fables (1668) (IX.2). His second volume, containing five books, was published in 1678. The twelfth book was published in 1694, shortly before his death. The same fable is also one of Æsop’s Fables, classified as number 44 in the Perry Index (the classification of Æsop’s Fables).
Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi tells the story of “silly and frightened” frogs who live in a democracy, but, tired of democracy, ask Jupiter for a monarch. Jupiter acquiesces. From the skies descends a peace-loving king who makes a huge noise as he lands. This king is often represented as a beam or log.
Frightened by the din, the frogs go into hiding, only to return slowly to look at the king. The peace-loving king is a beam, which is not very kingly. The frogs start jumping on the beam-king, which the king tolerates as Jupiter grumbles. The beam-king is a kindly monarch, but he does not move.
Dissatisfied, the people go back to Jupiter to ask for a king who moves. So Jupiter sends them a crane that starts eating them up. In Æsop’s telling of this fable, the crane is a stork.
Our silly frogs complain, and Jupiter tells them, first, that they should have kept their government (a democracy), second, that they should have been pleased to be sent a gentleman-king, the beam-king, and, third, to settle for the king they have for fear of encountering a worse one, La Fontaine’s celui-ci (this one) pointing to the voracious crane.
In Æsop, as noted above, the crane is a stork.
KING LOG & KING STORK
The Frogs prayed to Jove for a king:
“Not a log, but a livelier thing.”
Jove sent them a Stork,
Who did royal work,
For he gobbled them up, did their king.
DON’T HAVE KINGS
One of the morals of this fable is the eternal “Leave well enough alone,” but we are also reading a “beware-of-your-wishes-as-they-may-come-true” narrative. The moral of this fable is also a defense of the status quo, the state of affairs.
If all is well, a change is not necessary. If forewarned of possible dangers, a change may be dangerous. Knowing there are very real dangers, one does not jump into uncertainty. In a serious election, one cannot say “I’ll give him or her a chance.” Acting in such a manner reflects a somewhat flawed understanding of democracy. As I wrote above, La Fontaine calls the frogs who are not pleased with the good king log, a beam: “gent fort sotte et fort peureuse,” very silly and very frightened people.
We do not know the exact origin of this fable. Æsop retold fables told in the Near East, Middle East and India, including Buddhist tales. The most likely source is the Sanskrit Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma, written in the 3rd century BCE. The storyteller is Pilpay or Bidpai. Bidpai’s stories were translated by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa as Kalīlah wa Dimnah. Moreover, Æsopic fables translated into Latin, by Phædrus, or Greek, by Babrius, were retold several times after Phædrus and Babrius. There are modern references to the Frogs Who Desired a King or King Log & King Stork. Under The Frogs Who desired a King, Wikipedia quotes New Zealand author James K. Baxter who wrote:
A democratic people have elected
King Log, King Stork, King Log, King Stork again.
Because I like a wide and silent pond
I voted Log. That party was defeated.
Howrah Bridge and Other Poems, London, 1961
These words will be my conclusion.
- La Fontaine’s « Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi » (see Fables by La Fontaine, Pages)
- Anthromorphism and Zoomorphism (25 August 2013)
- other posts under revision
Sources and Resources
- La Fontaine’s Fables are Gutenberg’s [eBook #17941]
- Percy J. Billinghurst, ill. A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine is [EBook #25357]
- La Fontaine’s Fables Compiled & Walter Crane, 2nd Edition (2 September 2014)
- La Fontaine’s Fables Compiled & Walter Crane (25 September 2013)
Perry Index #44 (a complete classification)
- The Æsop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter, 1919, is Gutenberg’s [eBook #19994]
- Walter Crane, The Baby’s Own Æsop, 1887, is Gutenberg’s [eBook #25433]
- Vernon Jones, G. K. Chesterton & Arthur Rackham, ill. Æsop‘s Fables is Gutenberg’s [eBook #11339]
- Laura Gibbs’ Æsop Fables mythfolklore.net aesopica http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/crane/
Ladislas Starevich, 1922© Micheline Walker 12 November 2016 WordPress
“While the mighty quarrel, the humble pay the cost.”
I chose today’s subject matter, an Aesopian fable entitled “The Frogs and the Fighting Bulls,” because it brings to mind the plight of Syrians seeking refuge in a reticent Europe.
Four million Syrians have fled their country because their homes, if they are still standing, are not habitable and their government is no longer operative. Syria is a battlefield.
Where have the Mighty been? And will the Mighty now sit at a table and do their very best to fix the problem. I fear they may be politicians first and statesmen second, if ever they become statesmen, and “let the humble pay the cost.”
My kindest regards to all of you. ♥
The Perry Index of Aesopian Fables
In the Perry Index of Aesopian fables, “The Frog and the Fighting Bulls” is fable number 485 and is entitled: “The Frogs Dread the Battle of the Bulls.” Its source is Phaedrus (1st century CE) but I borrowed the text from An Argosy of Fables, 1921 (p. 130), selected by Frederic Taber Cooper (1864 – 1937) and illustrated by Paul Bransom (1885 – 1979). However, this post includes Jean de La Fontaine’s “Les Deux Taureaux et une Grenouille” and its English translation: “The Two Bulls and the Frog.”
You may remember that Phaedrus (1st century CE) is the Latin author who versified Aesop‘s fables, thereby removing them from an oral tradition. (See Oral-formulaic composition, Wikipedia). Babrius (2nd century CE) also took Aesopian fables away from oral literature but he wrote Aesop’s fables in the Greek language.
Subsequent writers of fables have used both Phaedrus and Babrius to publish Aesopian fables in Latin or Greek, or French, or English, or other languages. We are reading a translation of Phaedrus’ Latin collection, but Frederic Taber Cooper has not provided his readers with the name of a translator.
The Frogs and the Fighting Bulls
A FROG, sitting at the edge of a swamp, was watching a battle between two Bulls in an adjoining field. “Alas! what deadly danger threatens us,” he said. Another Frog, overhearing him, asked what he meant, when the Bulls were merely fighting to decide which should lead the herd, and the cattle passed their lives quite apart from the home of the Frogs. “It is true,” rejoined the first Frog, “that they are a different race and live apart from us. But whichever Bull is beaten and driven from his leadership in the woods will come to find some secret hiding place; and I fear that many of us will be trampled to pieces under his hard hoofs. That is why I say that their battle means death and destruction to us.”
When the mighty quarrel, the humble pay the cost.
(Phaedrus, Fables, Vol. I, No. 30.)
An Argosy of Fables, p. 100
Deux Taureaux combattaient à qui posséderait.
Une Génisse avec l’empire.
Une Grenouille en soupirait:
« Qu’avez-vous ? se mit à lui dire
Quelqu’un du peuple croassant.
Et ne voyez-vous pas, dit-elle,
Que la fin de cette querelle
Sera l’exil de l’un ; que l’autre, le chassant,
Le fera renoncer aux campagnes fleuries ?
Il ne régnera plus sur l’herbe des prairies,
Viendra dans nos marais régner sur les roseaux,
Et nous foulant aux pieds jusques au fond des eaux,
Tantôt l’une, et puis l’autre, il faudra qu’on pâtisse
Du combat qu’a causé Madame la Génisse. »
Cette crainte était de bon sens.
L’un des Taureaux en leur demeure
S’alla cacher à leurs dépens :
Il en écrasait vingt par heure.
Hélas! on voit que de tout temps
Les petits ont pâti des sottises des grands.
JEAN DE LA FONTAINE
Livre 2, fable 4
Two bulls engaged in shocking battle,
Both for a certain heifer’s sake,
And lordship over certain cattle,
A frog began to groan and quake.
“But what is this to you?”
Inquired another of the croaking crew.
“Why, sister, don’t you see,
The end of this will be,
That one of these big brutes will yield,
And then be exiled from the field?
No more permitted on the grass to feed,
He’ll forage through our marsh, on rush and reed;
And while he eats or chews the cud,
Will trample on us in the mud.
Alas! to think how frogs must suffer
By means of this proud lady heifer!”
This fear was not without good sense.
One bull was beat, and much to their expense;
For, quick retreating to their reedy bower,
He trod on twenty of them in an hour.
Of little folks it often has been the fate
To suffer for the follies of the great.
JEAN DE LA FONTAINE
Book 2, Fable 4
- “Belling the Cat:” more Bells (30 July 2015)
Sources and Resources
- Bestiaria Latina by Laura Gibbs (complete and authoritative)
- La Fontaine’s Fables
- Phaedrus is Gutenberg [EBook #25512]
 “Jean de La Fontaine”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 28 Sep. 2015
 “Aesop”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 27 Sep. 2015
 “Phaedrus”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 27 Sep. 2015
This is a brief note. I am working on The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (27 February 1807 – 24 March 1882), but every Sunday I share brunch with a friend. I was in the kitchen.
About Amerindian tales
I have read several Amerindian “fairy tales.” Shapeshifting is a recurrent motif or “constant” in Amerindian tales. Shapeshifting is often a trickster’s device, but also an attempt to discover the truth and to protect oneself. It is survival through deceit, such as playing dead.
There are numerous Creation myths. They are listed in Wikipedia.
Before Sequoya (1770 – 1840), the gifted Cherokee who created a syllabary, it is reported that Amerindians could not write. Once Sequoya invented his syllabary, literacy among the Cherokee surpassed the rate of literacy among the white. Sequoya, who may have been a Métis, developed 86 syllables, borrowing from several alphabets.
According to Wikipedia, in order to convince other Cherokees to use his syllabary, he wrote down what they were saying and called his daughter, to whom he had taught the Sequoya syllabary. She read her father’s text, and Cherokees recognized that it was what they had said.
Sequoya moved to Oklahoma and may have done so voluntarily. But Scots-Cherokee Chief John Ross left Georgia unwillingly. Yet he organized the removal, at least part of it. He bought 12 wagons, the same wagons as the ones used to carry the white west, but each of which carried a total of 1,000 persons. I do not understand the full logistics of the removal. Some Cherokees travelled by boat, but many also walked during part of the 2,200-mile journey (3,218 km). It was a true “trail of tears.” Reports vary, but it appears 6,000 Cherokees died on their way to Oklahoma, one of whom was Chief John Ross’ first wife.
According to James Mooney, 4,000 lives were lost. (See Myths of the Cherokees, Gutenberg [EBook #45634].) In all, the population was “16,542 Cherokees, 201 inter-married whites, and 1592 slaves (total: 18,335 people).” (See Cherokee Removal, Wikipedia.)
The Formulaic “A long time ago …”
Let me return to the Cherokee’s account of a deluge. It begins with the formulaic “A long time ago:”
(A long time ago a man had a dog, which began to go down to the river every day and look at the water and howl.) This formula tends to reinforce the fictional character of a story. It happened a long time ago and, if possible, elsewhere.
The formulaic “A long time ago… ” may be James Mooney’s wording. He is the person who took the tale away from an oral tradition to insert it in a learned, i.e. written, tradition. Yet it could be that storytellers have long used this kind of wording, if only to get attention.
“House [below] built in early 19th century by John McDonald, maternal grandfather of John Ross. Now called the ‘John Ross House,’ it was occupied by Ross’ daughter and her husband, Nicholas Scales. It is located in Rossville, Georgia.” (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)
John Ross House
© Micheline Walker
23 August 2015
"Pourquoi" tales and Mythologies, Cira 1838, Collecting Amerindian Folklore, David Vermette, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, James Money, Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, The Indian Removal Act, The Jesuit Relations, The Trail of Tears
In the beginning …
When discussing Joel Chandler Harris‘ tales of Uncle Remus, I noted that, by and large, these tales belonged to the Æsopic corpus and included Reynard the Fox, Roman de Renart‘s tail-fisher narrative. In the Aarne-Thompson classification index, first published by Finnish scholar Antti Aarne 1910, but revised by Stith Thompson in 1927 and 1961. It was refined by Hans-Jörg Uther in 2004 and the classification is now entitled the ATU classification index. Moreover, although Stith Thompson published a Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955-1958), the word “type” seems to have replaced the word “motif.” Motif might mean the smallest meaningful element in a tale (see Narrame, Wikipedia).
In the case of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, 1881, the collector was Joel Chandler Harris and the collection, Æsopic and, drawing on Reynard the Fox. Chandler Harris wrote in eye dialect, which is English in Uncle Remus, but English spelled as it was pronounced by black slaves (i.e. brother is ‘brer’).
If one looks down the table of contents in James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (Gutenberg [EBook #45634]), one quickly notices that Amerindians told etiological (or ætiological) tales, which is also the case in the Tales of Uncle Remus. There are many levels to ætiological tales. They range from Rudyard Kipling‘s Just So Stories for Little Children, “pourquoi” tales and “children’s literature,” to Mesopotamia‘s Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 2100 BCE .
An Inglorious Past
- Creation myths
- Trickster tales
- Myths and folklore
- The Indian Removal Act (1830)
- The Cherokee Indian Removal Act (1838)
The Myths of the Cherokee, published in 1902, is a collection of fables and tales that may be read by children, but they border on mythology, such as Greek Mythology, mythologie gréco-romaine FR, the Bible, and various sacred texts, the purpose of which is to explain how and why we humans came to inhabit planet Earth. In the area folklore, these are called creation myths. For instance, the story of the Cherokees includes the deluge (V.14; Mooney). James Mooney was an American ethnologist whose books were published by the US Bureau of American Ethnology.
Trickster tales are the most popular Amerindian tales, but we are looking at a wider selection. For instance, James Mooney gives an account of the plight of Amerindians in the United States. Between 1830 and 1838, Amerindians had to leave their hunting grounds one-third of the Mississippi and settle west of the Mississippi, in geographical areas often, if not always, chosen by the government. Good land was reserved for the white.
I doubt American officials could have removed Amerindians west of the Mississippi had it not been for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Financially, Louisiana was purchased at a low-cost to the United States’ government, yet at too high a cost to Amerindians living in the Southeast of the United States.
The Removal Act of 1830, passed into law under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, is an event we would now wish to erase from the pages of history, but it happened, just as Auschwitz happened. Andrew Jackson was a slave-owner and Amerindians were dark-skinned, the wrong “colour.” We still have white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Rifle Association, anti-tax extremism, and racism, i.e. the remains of an inglorious past.
For the Amerindians who were sent west, the Removal Act of 1830 was their “trail of tears.” One cannot take a people’s land away and give it to another people without causing considerable harm.
The Jesuit Relations
- Dissemination of folktales
- A case: George Bonga
- the Jesuits as folklorists: the Relations
I have suggested that deported Acadians may have told their stories to black slaves in Georgia US. They could not leave those boats that sailed down Britain’s Thirteen Colonies. It is an honest theory, but one-third of the current contiguous United States belonged to France and French-Canadian voyageurs grew to include African-Americans and Amerindians. George Bonga, who was of American African and Objiwe descent, was a voyageur and a fur trader. He was educated in Montreal. In other words, stories could circulate quite easily. (See David Vermette, RELATED ARTICLES.)
Stith Thompson (of the Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification index) has provided insightful information regarding the manner in which North-American folklore was collected. He writes that:
“[s]ome of the Jesuit Fathers in Canada, however, interested themselves greatly in listening to such stories. They were, of course, much concerned to learn exactly what kinds of error they must combat in their attempt to convert these simple folk. But their curiosity went far beyond this immediate need, and they recorded a number of stories merely because they were interesting.”
With the activities of the Jesuit Fathers, the collecting of American Indian began.”
During their forty-one year mission in New France, from 1632 to 1673, Jesuit missionaries sent their Relations to their superiors in France. The Jesuit Relations were a yearly and detailed report of the activities of missionaries and the daily life of the people of New France. Although converting Amerindians was the main role of Jesuit missionaries, they incorporated in their Relations stories told by Amerindians. The Relations may be read online, but the text may not be complete.
In fact, we could compare the work of the Jesuits with the Brothers Grimm travels in German-language lands, collecting a past for German-speaking Europeans. It was not long before composer Richard Wagner followed in their tracks providing a nascent Germany with operas that told its epic past. Der Ring des Nibelungen is an example. But the Jesuits also transferred an oral tradition into a learned (written) tradition.
The “Noble Savage”
Stith Thompson looks upon the Jesuits as folklorists. They recorded the “folklore” of Amerindians. However, we can also associate the Jesuit Relations with the growth of the notion of the Noble Savage. We have already linked this concept with John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672) and to the Baron de Lahontan‘s Adario. (See RELATED ARTICLES.)
It was difficult for certain Jesuits not to see in Amerindians a form of lay virtue, virtue not associated with a religion.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Stith Thompson writes that “[b]y far the best known of all American Indian creation myths is that made famous by Longfellow’s Hiawatha.” Hiawatha was a historical Iroquois” whose name was Manabozho. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft who wrote a six-volume study of American Indians in the 1850s (see Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Wikipedia), was an inspiration as well as a source to Longfellow (see Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Wikipedia). Longfellow’s sources were Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh, Black Hawk a Sauk leader and other Sauk and Fox Indians.
Kindest greetings to all of you. ♥
- Cira 1838 (WordPress), The Cherokee Indian Removal Act, 1838 (2013)
- David Vermette (The Red Cedar, WordPress), What’s My story: The Voyageur (19 September 2012)
- The Jesuit Relations: an invaluable legacy, revisited (22 May 2015)
- Chateaubriand’s Atala (24 April 2014)
- Missionaries and the Noble Savage: Père Marquette & Gabriel Sagard (17 November 2012)
- The Noble Savage: Lahontan’s Adario (26 October 2012)
- The Jesuit Relations: an invaluable legacy (erased mistakenly)
Sources and Resources
- Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: his Songs, his Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, 1881 [EBook #2306] EN, Eye dialect (here, spelled in English as it was pronounced by a black slave) EN
- Roman de Renart (Le), Wikisource (please click on the title) FR
- Reynard the Fox, Wikifur EN
- Aarne-Thompson classification index, Vol 1, Wikisource EN
- James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee Gutenberg [EBook #45634] EN
- The Jesuit Relations: http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/relations/relations_01.html EN
 Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 1955 ), p. 39.
 Stith Thompson, The Folktale (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: The University of California Press, 1977 ) p. 297-298.
 Op. cit., p. 307.
© Micheline Walker
16 August 2015
Fairy Tales and Fables: a Page
Yesterday, I had every intention of posting a short article on Anansi, a folktale character black slaves brought to the Americas. However, I thought I should first provide a list of posts on fables and fairy tales. It turned into a lengthy process because I had not kept a list of RELATED ARTICLES for most posts on fairy tales.
The page I posted yesterday is therefore incomplete. I will add a list of fables later. I kept a record of these posts, but must add the date on which each was published. I have a list of posts of fables, but each post needs a date. It seems that posts do not exist unless they are listed.
Childhood Favorites and Fairy Stories
However, I would like to invite you to take a peek at the Project Gutenberg’s EBook #19993. It is a collection of literary works for children and it includes poems, limericks, the words to songs, and fables and fairy tales originating from several countries.
The copyright was obtained in 1909, but the book was published in 1927 by the University Society of New York. By 1927, its editors had died. These are Hamilton Wright Mabie, Edward Everett Hale William Byron Forbus. William Byron Forbus died in 1927. All three editors are well-known authors, but we may have forgotten them. Today is the day we remember them.
In this collection, the art work is not always attributed to a specific illustrator, which is the fate of the image featured at the top of this post, that of Thumbelina. It’s a little gem. But the illustration contains initials: O. A.. The editors have indicated that “[m]any of the illustrations in this volume are reproduced by special permission of E. P. Dutton & Company, owners of the American rights.”
Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories is also an Internet Archive Publication. It can be accessed by clicking on its title. There are a few copies of this book online perhaps indicating its importance. Combined with An Argosy of Fables, this book is a lovely discovery.
The book is entitled:
Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories
I have not found a Volume 2.
Several authors are represented in this collection, including Shakespeare. However, I have chosen to end this short post using a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s a lullaby.
“SWEET AND LOW”
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me:
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother’s breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
With warm greetings to all of you. ♥
Childhood Favorites is told by LibriVox on YouTube.
An Argosy of Fables is a Wikisource as well as an Internet Archive publication (please click on Internet Archive), which tells the importance of Frederic Taber Cooper‘s 1921 gift to the world. Both editions contain Paul Bransom‘s lovely illustrations and it would be my opinion that when it was published, in 1921, Frederic Taber Cooper, its editor, was familiar with Finnist folklorist Antti Aarne‘s classification, first published in 1910, extended by Stith Thompson, in 1961, and further revised by Hans-Jörg Uther (2004). It is now entitled the Aarne-Thompson Classification System and constitutes an indispensable tool to folklorists. So is the Perry Index.
The Aarne-Thompson Classification System
The Aarne-Thompson Classification System differs from the Perry Index in that the Perry Index is a classification of Æsopic fables only. For instance, it contains Æsop’s “Fox and Crow,” but also includes La Fontaine’s “Le Renard et le Corbeau” as well as the ‘Æsopic’ “Mice in Council” and La Fontaine’s rendition, “Le Conseil tenu par les rats.”
As for the Aarne-Thompson Classification System, its scope is much wider. It is a compendium of tales that originate from various countries and are classified according to motifs, plots, and other elements. Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature is an online publication.
D. L. Ashliman has stated that:
“[t]he Aarne–Thompson system catalogues some 2500 basic plots from which, for countless generations, European and Near Eastern storytellers have built their tales.” (See Aarne-Thompson Classification System, Wikipedia.)
An Argosy of Fables
Similarly, although it is not a classification, An Argosy of Fables is a selection of fables from varied sources, hence my mostly confirmed opinion that Frederic Taber Cooper (1864 – 1937) knew Antti Aarne’s classification, first published in 1910.
According to Wikipedia, “Frederic Taber Cooper, Ph.D., was an American editor and writer, born in New York City, he was educated at Harvard University and Columbia University. He was an associate professor of Latin and Sanskrit at New York University (1895-1902).” (See Frederic Taber Cooper, Wikipedia.)
Dr Cooper also chose translators very carefully. On page [v] of the book, the publishers of An Argosy of Fables “acknowledge the courtesy of Mr. Basil H. Blackwell, publisher of “The Masterpieces of La Fontaine” in permitting the use of Paul Hookham‘s translation of twelve fables by La Fontaine.” It is an Internet Archive publication (see Sources and Resources).
A Cherokee Tail-Fisher Fable
While exploring the contents of an Argosy of Fables, I found an American Indian Fable (fable 469), a Cherokee fable, that could take its beginning in the 13th-century Roman de Renart or Reynard the Fox and its many variants. It would be classified as an AT type 2, Tail-Fisher narrative. In the Roman de Renart, Ysengrin the wolf is the victim of literature’s foremost trickster, Reynard the Fox. Renart tricks Ysengrin the wolf into attaching a bucket to its tail and hanging it down a hole in the ice. The ice hardens and his tail is accidentally chopped off by attackers trying to kill him. (See Le Roman de Renart, Wikisource, p. 55, 9.)
Our Cherokee fable is entitled “How the Bear lost its Tail.” A fox convinces a bear to hold a bucket with his tail down a hole in the ice. The ice hardens and he loses his tail. The rabbit meets the same sorry fate.
The AT 2 Tail-Fisher motif also has affinities with fables and other tales where an animal gets stuck in a hole, which is the case with The Fox with the Swollen Belly (Perry Index 24). Another example is the rape of the Roman de Renart‘s Dame Hersent, the wolf Ysengrin’s wife. She gets caught in the wall of her house and Renart takes advantage of her predicament (branche II).
It is decided at the Lion’s court that Renart should be tried and Bruin is sent to get him. However, having been told he will find honey inside the opening in a tree, he puts his nose down and when the wedges are removed, closing the opening, he loses the skin off his nose escaping. His love of honey also causes Winnie-the-Pooh to eat so much that he cannot leave a house the way he went in.
One could also suggest a degree of similarity between the Tail-Fisher, AT type 2, and both the Æsopic “Fox without a tail” and La Fontaine’s “Le Renart ayant la queue coupée” (V.5). These foxes have no tail, but there is no trickster plot. In the Perry Index, these are numbered 17, but they are not AT type 2 fables. In other words, the main link between the Roman de Renart and “How the Bear lost its Tail” is the tail-fisher episode, a plot found in a Norwegian tale.
Yet, “How the bear lost its tail” is also, and perhaps mainly, an etiological or pourquoi tale, related to “How Mr. Rabbit Lost His Fine Bushy Tail,” which is an episode included in The Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris. The title of our fable is “How the Bear lost its Tail.” In fact, the Tales of Uncle Remus also contain a “Why Brother Bear Has No Tail” (II.21, p. 199), from a motif from Le Roman de Renart or the European Reynard cycle.
Just how these stories crossed the Atlantic constitutes, of course, the larger mystery.
North-American lore features trickster tales, but the trickster is not the fox. In The Tales of Uncle Remus, it is the rabbit, but the coyote is a more important American trickster. In North America, however, if an animal loses a body part, how and why matter more than other questions.
But let us read the Cherokee fable.
“‘THE MORE IT HURTS, THE MORE FISH YOU WILL HAVE.'”
“How the Bear lost its Tail”
AT first all the Bears had long tails. One winter day the Bear met the Fox, who had a fine lot of Crawfish. Being hungry the Bear wanted some too: so he asked the Fox where and how he got his Crawfish. The Fox replied:
“Go and stick your tail down in the water and let it stay there until it pinches you. The more it hurts, the more fish you will have.”
This was what the Bear had in mind to do: so he proceeded down to the lake and made a hole through the ice. Sitting over it, he let his tail hang in the cold water. When it began to freeze, he felt a pain; but as he wanted to catch lots of fish, he did not stir until his tail was frozen fast in the ice. The Fox’s instructions were not forgotten: so he suddenly jumped up in the expectation of getting heaps of fish; but he merely broke his tail off near the body instead. And ever since the Bears have had short tails.
(Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney.)
Much of the above has been said in related posts. Moreover, I have already used the video embedded at the foot of this post. But An Argosy of Fables is rather new to me and delightful. I could not resist exploring it further.
My love to all of you. ♥
- It’s no skin off my nose (6 October 2014)
- Donkey-Skin: a Tale Labelled “Unnatural Love” (23 May 2013)
- More on the Tail-Fisher (1 May 2013)
- Another Type: The Tail-Fisher (29 April 2013)
- A Motif: Getting Stuck in a Hole (16 April 2013)
Internet Sources and Resources
- Stith Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books and local legends. (online)
- Joel Chandler Harris, Nights with Uncle Remus, Gutenberg [EBook #24430]
- Le Roman de Renart, Wikisource, p. 55, 9 (online) FR
- An Argosy of Fables, Wikisource (online)
- Paul Hookham‘s Masterpieces of La Fontaine is an Internet Archive publication (online)
 Once known as Stith Thompson’s Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books and local legends, an online publication.
 Joel Chandler Harris, The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983 ), p. 80.
© Micheline Walker
4 August 2015
John Edwin Noble (Photo credit: Bridgeman Images)
This post is a continuation of recent posts featuring bells. It also belongs to a series on Fables and other works featuring animals.
Sources and Classification
Aesop (620 and 560 BCE) was a Greek story teller who told Fables. It could be that he also wrote the fables he told, but these appear to have been transmitted orally from generation to generation. They therefore belong to an oral tradition as is the case with fairy tales. It has been claimed Aesop was a “Levantin,” i.e. from the Middle East, that he was a freed slave, that he was forced to jump to his death or pushed down a cliff, but the truth is that we do not know whether or not there ever lived an Aesop.
Aesop however is not the first Greek story teller to write fables. A “Goose with the Golden Eggs,”entitled “Une femme et une poule,” is attributed to Luqman (c. 1100 BCE).
Biographies of Aesop
- Maximus Planudes
- Jean de La Fontaine
Yet, not only do we have written collections of fables by Aesop, but biographies, hence the information given above. The main biography of Aesop is by Maximus Planudes (c. 1260 – c. 1305), a Greek monk and scholar who lived in Constantinople, the former Byzantium and current Istanbul (Turkey). Planudes was a compiler of the Greek Anthology, yet was also famed for his command of Latin and polished translations of Aesop’s Fables. Planudes published the first annotated collection of Aesop’s Fables.
La Fontaine also wrote a short biography of Aesop entitled La Vie d’Ésope, le Phrygien. It prefaces his first collection of fables, 6 books, published in 1668.
India and the Middle East
La Fontaine’s second collection shows the influence of fables originating in the Sanskrit Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma and versions of Abdullah Ibn Al-Muqaffa‘s Persian Kalīlah wa Dimnah, fables based on the Panchatantra. There are two more renditions of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, but all three are linked to one another and to the Panchatantra because the story-teller within the book is Pilpay, Bidpai, or Bidpaï.
- Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s Kalīlah wa Dimnah. Ibn Al-Muqaffa (died c. 756-759) was a Muslim Persian scholar;
- Kalīleh o Demneh (12th century CE; author not specified) Persian;
- Kashefi’s Anvār-e Soheylī, or “The Lights of Canopus” (15th century) Persian.
Had Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) read Gilbert Gaulmin‘s 1644 Livre des lumières before publishing his first volume of fables, we could suggest a direct oriental influence. I am writing “direct” because India and the Middle East are the birthplace of a substantial number of fables and, in particular, fables featuring animals. Gilbert Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières is probably rooted in Kashefi‘s “The Lights of Canopus.” Lumières means “lights.”
However, La Fontaine had not read Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières when he wrote his first volume of fables (6 of 12 books). “Le Conseil tenu par les rats” (“The Mice in Council”) is included in La Fontaine’s first of three recueils (collections) of fables, published in 1668, 1678, and shortly before 1695, the year he died.
An Oral and a Learned Tradition
- Phaedrus 1st century CE (Latin)
- Babrius 2nd century CE (Greek)
- Flavius Avianus 5th century CE (Latin)
In the absence of a text, Aesop’s Fables have been considered an example of the oral tradition, fables transmitted orally from generation to generation. It seems Aesop’s Fables did not enter a “learned” tradition until Latin author Phaedrus, who lived in the 1st century CE, published a book of fables attributed to Aesop (Gutenberg [EB #25512]). So did Greek author Babrius (Gabrias), in the second century CE. Babrius may have been a Levantin (from the Middle East).
Collections of fables by Aesop are based on the learned tradition inaugurated by Phaedrus and Babrius. But neither Phaedrus nor Babrius wrote a “Mice in Council.”
A third early translator of Aesop is Flavius Avianus (400 CE/5th century), the author-translator of 42 Aesopic fables. However, “The Mice in Council” is not included in Avianus’ translations.
- Avianus, (Avionnet, 5th century)
- Walter of England (12th century)
After some reflection, I looked for a copy of the Ysopet-Avionnet on the internet and found “The Mice in Council.” The Ysopet-Avionnet is a collection of fables that was used as a school text from the Middle Ages until the early part of the 20th century. It is an Internet Archive publication, p. 191, printed near the end of the book (please click on Internet Archive). In the Ysopet-Avionnet, “The Mice in Council” is entitled “Des Souris qui firent concile contre le chat”(“De muribus concilium facientibus contra catum”).
However, the Ysopet-Avionnet’s “The Mice in Council” or “Belling the Cat” seems to have come out of nowhere. Neither 5th-century Avianus nor 12th-century Anglo-Norman fabulist Walter of England, Gualterus Anglicus, wrote a “Mice in Council.” Yet, the fables published in the Ysopet-Avionnet are by Walter of England for the most part. Walter of England, who wrote in Anglo-Norman, is also known as the “anonymous Neveleti.” The Neveleti we know is Isaac Nicholas Névelet, the Swiss author of a 1610 Mythologia Aesopica, La Fontaine’s main source.
Consequently, although it was published in the Ysopet-Avionnet, 15th-century Italian fabulist Laurentius Abstemius’ is considered the first writer—i.e. the “learned” as opposed to the oral tradition—of “The Mice in Council.” His Hecatomythium was published in 1495, nearly three centuries after the publication of the Ysopet-Avionnet. (See French site shanaweb.net.)
An English Tradition
- William Caxton (translator, printer, diplomat) (1484)
- Sir Roger L‘Estrange‘s Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists (1692) (Abstemius’ Hecatomythium, 1495)
- Samuel Croxall (c.1690 – 1752), the author of The Fables of Aesop; with Instructive Applications. Aesop’s Fables 100 Cuts
Laurentius Abstemius‘ Hecatomythium (1495) is the source of Sir Roger L’Estrange‘s Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists (1692). A collection of fables by Aesop had been printed and possibly translated by famed English translator and printer William Caxton, in 1484, too early to include Abstemius’ “Mice in Council.” Caxton printed The fables of Aesop, as first printed by William Caxton, in 1484, with those of Avian, Alfonso and Poggio, now again edited and induced. A third English fabulist was Samuel Croxall (c. 1690 – 1752), the author of The Fables of Aesop; with Instructive Applications. Aesop’s Fables 100 Cuts. Croxall was an Anglican churchman. Moralizing would be his chief objective.
Ysopets and Romulus
- the 12th century
- Romulus>a Romulus
- Marie de France
The 12th century is a turning-point and a culmination. In fact, it has been called a Renaissance. Marie de France lived at the end of the 12th century and Walter of England published his fables a smidgen earlier but in the 12th century. In France, collections of fables by Aesop were by then called Ysopets or Isopets and became textbooks used in schools. An Ysopet could also be called a Romulus. As well, Reynard the Fox was born in 1148-1149 as Reinardus in the Ysengrimus, a beast epic not intended for children.
There may have been a fabulist named Romulus, who wrote Latin prose fables, but he is now considered a legendary figure. However a Romulus could be a collection of prose fables written in Latin and rooted in Phaedrus. (See Romulus, Wikipedia.) We have several and among these:
- The Romulus Ordinarius (Romulus Vulgaris), 83 tales known in a 9th-century text;
- The Romulus Roberti;
- The Romulus of Vienna;
- The Romulus of Nilant or (Romulus Nilantinus), 45 fables, published in 1709 by Johan Frederik Nilant (Jean-Frédéric Nilant).
- The Novus Aesopus was put together at the end of the twelfth century by Alexander Neckam
French author Marie de France used a Romulus as a source for her collection of 102 fables written in Anglo-Norman. (My copy has 103 fables.) Marie de France is a major author who will be discussed in a later post.
Belling the Cat
The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.
Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:
“I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”
All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:
“I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”
It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.
Prudence or foresight is the moral of nearly all Aesopic fables. One has to think. Prudence makes it unrealistic for a mouse to try to hang a bell down a cat’s neck. In La Fontaine’s fable, the solution to the rats’ main peril, being devoured by the cat, would cause a rat to be devoured, certain death and, therefore, the greater peril. No rat can bell a cat.
In An Argosy of Fables, the translator, Thomas James, has the mice applaud when it occurs to them that they need simply bell the cat. A mouse then gets up and asks the relevant question: Who will bell the cat?
In La Fontaine, we have what he calls a comedy: “[u]ne ample Comédie à cent [one hundred] actes divers.” (“Le bûcheron [the lumberjack] et Mercure” [1.V.1].) The cat is named after François Rabelais‘ Rodilardus (the Latin form of Rodilard [round and fat]). There is, moreover, a reference to the French court, which 1s to be expected from Jean de La Fontaine, whose patron had been Nicolas Fouquet. Courtiers waste time. They are mindless.
In English, the “who will Bell the Cat” is idiomatic. It has entered the English language and is now proverbial. Fables are the illustration of a proverb, but in our fable the illustration has returned to a proverb, which probably means that the illustration, or exemplum is very powerful.
The “Mice in Council” may be difficult to trace and is sometimes confused with “The Cat and the Mice.” However, it was included in the widely-read Ysopet-Avionnet, as well as Laurentius Abstemius’ Hecatomythium (1495). So it appears to date back to the 12th century and the 15th century, except that we do not know who wrote the 12th century “Mice in Council.”
“Belling the Cat” is Jean de La Fontaine’s Le Conseil tenu par les rats, Walter Crane left an image and it is incorporated in the Aesop for Children, exquisitely illustrated by Milo Winter [EBook #19994]. It is also featured in the An Argosy of Fables, 1921, a Wikisource publication where it is attributed to Abstemius. Laura Gibbs has classified it as Aesopic, which makes perfect sense since it is featured in the Aesop for Children, 1919. (See MythFolklore.net.)
It seems to me that Wikipedia’s view of the provenance of “Belling the Cat” is also very sensible.
“In the classificatory system established for the fables by B. E. Perry, it is numbered 613, which is reserved for Mediaeval attributions outside the Aesopic canon.”
Warm greetings to all of you. ♥
Sources and Resources
Nora Fry YouTube
The Aesop for Children, Project Gutenberg [EBook #19994] EN
Laura Gibbs, Latina Bestiaria EN
The Fables of Pilpay, Internet Archive EN
Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien; ou la Conduite des rois (Google Books) FR
The Fables of Phaedrus, Project Gutenberg [EBook #25512] EN
Robinson Ellis, The Fables of Phaedrus, Internet Archive EN
Ysopet-Avionnet, Internet Archive, p. 191 Latin FR
Aesop’s Fables by William Caxton, Internet Archive EN
Fables de Loqman le Sage, J. Derembourg, 1850 Internet Archive FR
 Stated in Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien; ou la Conduite des rois. (See Internet Archive FR.)
 La Fontaine’s main source was Swiss fabulist Neveleti’s who used Avianus. Névelet or the anonymous Neveleti, did not write a “Belling the Cat.”
 Frederic Taber Cooper (ed.) and Paul Bransom (illust.), An Argosy of Fables, a Representative Selection from the Fable Literature of every Age and Land (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers, 1921).
Aaron Copland plays “The Cat & the Mouse”
© Micheline Walker
29 July 2015
One particular collection of fables, the Ysopet-Avionnet, was used in the schools of medieval France and continued to be published for centuries (see “The Cock and the Pearl,” La Fontaine cont’d). The word “Ysopet,” was a diminutive for “a collection of fables by Ésope,” or Æsop. The term Ysopet, or Isopet, was first used to describe a collection of 102 fables by Marie de France (late 12th century), written in Anglo-Norman in octosyllabic couplets. As for the word Avionnet, it was derived from Avianus (c. 400 CE), the name of a Latin writer of fables whose fables belong to the Babrius (Greek) tradition and “identified as a pagan.” (See Avianus, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia). The goal of fabulists was the Horatian “to inform or delight.” Horace advocated a mixture of both: information and pleasure.
Beast Literature and ChristianityMedieval Bestiaries the Moral legendary or mythical animals St. Augustine
Bestiaries differ from fables in that they contain a Christian moral/ allegory, but like fables, they are a form of instruction. The fox is the devil, and the lamb, Christ, etc. However, Bestiaries closely resemble fables because both genres feature animals and are more or less a form of teaching. The presence of animals sets a distance between the reader and the teaching provided by a fable or a bestiary. The moral is instructive in both genres, but not directly. The animal functions as a buffer.
Moreover, as we have seen, the attributes of animals were defined by “universal popular consent.” Such was particularly the case with Medieval Bestiaries. Animals dwelling in fables and Bestiaires are neither zoological animals, nor humans in disguise. They are allegorical and most are zoomorphic, especially Christian Medieval Bestiaires. (See The Medieval Bestiary, David Badke, ed.)
Interestingly, Medieval Bestiaries feature a large number of legendary or mythical animals. The better-known are the Unicorn, the Dragon, the Griffin and the Phoenix, but Christian Medieval Bestiaries featured several other fantastical beasts, now mostly forgotten. It would be my opinion that Christianity had its prerogatives and that the relatively new Church needed several animals to exemplify human and sinful conduct.
Moreover, many Natural Historians were Christians. At any rate, the Bonnacon shown below was not exactly real and its manners were questionable.
“A beast like a bull, that uses its dung as a weapon.” (F 10r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)
St. Augustine and Truth
Allow me to quote Book 21, Chapter 5 of Augustine of Hippo‘s City of God. Augustine of Hippo was St. Augustine and he writes “[t]hat There are Many Things Which Reason Cannot Account For, and Which are Nevertheless True.” Augustine of Hippo published his City of God in 426 CE. (See City of God, Wikipedia.)
This kind of truth is what I have grown to describe as “poetical” truth (my term).
However, some Medieval Bestiaries were love Bestiaries and were therefore associated with courtly love and the very popular Roman de la Rose. The Roman de la Rose, authored by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1200 – c. 1240) and Jean the Meun(g) (c. 1240 – c. 1305), was allegorical:
“At various times in the poem, the “Rose” of the title is seen as the name of the lady, and as a symbol of female sexuality in general. Likewise, the other characters’ names function both as regular names and as abstractions illustrating the various factors that are involved in a love affair.” (See Roman de la Rose, Wikipedia.)
In my last post, I featured a lion belonging to a Bestiaire d’amour. It was breathing life into dead offspring. This is what a lady was to do to revive a man after lovemaking, or “petite mort.” Petite mort is an orgasm. The symbolism attached to Beasts dwelling in Love Bestiaries (Bestiaires d’amour) was, therefore, less Christian than the symbolism of animals inhabiting other Bestiaries. The most famous Love Bestiary is Richard de Fournival‘s (1201 – ?1260).
“‘le lyon [above] qui fait revivre ses lyonciaus’ – The lion revives its dead cubs. In the Bestiaire d’amour the man says that in the same way the woman can revive him from his love-death.” (fol. 18r) (Photo credit: BnF)
The courtly love traditional therefore incorporated animal lore, just as it included the lyrical poems of troubadours, trouvères, the Minnesingers, and lyric poets associated with movements such as trobadorismo or trovarismo. By the way, there were women troubadours: the Trobairitz.
Jan M. Ziolkowski writes that “beasts override genre.” He does so on page 1 of his Introduction to Talking Animals). Professor Ziolkowski is perfectly right. In Medieval Bestiaries, beasts were mostly the same from genre to genre: fables, Medieval Bestiaries and the satirical Roman de Renart. Beasts even override paganism and Christianity as well as the Old and the New Testaments. After all, Christmas replaced the pagan Roman Saturnalia. There had to be a feast on the day of the longest night.
To return to “beast literature” (Ziolkowski, p. 1), “The Dog and its Reflection” is included in the Æsopic corpus (Perry Index 133) and is also a fable told in Kalīlah wa Dimnah, and, according to one source, it is included in Le Livre des Lumières or Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien, ou la conduite des rois (a 1698 edition ), Æsop was a Levantin, i.e. from the Levant. With respect to fables, West meets East.
Kalīlah wa Dimnah is an Arabic rendition, by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa’, of the Sanskrit Panchatantra and Jean de La Fontaine, the author of Le Chien qui lâche sa proie pour l’ombre (1.VI.17), read fables by Pilpay. Yet, the Christian Medieval Bestiary tells that dogs leave the prey they have caught for a prey they may not catch. It may be a mere shadow.
When I was assigned a course on best literature, I divided my material in the following the following genres, roughly speaking:
- fables (Æsop and retellers),
- beast epics (Reynard the Fox and fabliaux),
- the Medieval Bestiaries (The Ashmole Bestiary, etc.),
- and Natural Histories (The Physiologus, etc.), yet to be listed.
However, I had to mention mythological beasts, lycanthropes, and also discussed children’s literature. Kenneth Grahame created a “reluctant dragon,” and the use of a toad as the protagonist of The Wind in the Willows made for an upside-down-world, a mundus inversus.
Moreover Æsop, who lived in Greece, was a “Levantin.” There is an Eastern tradition to Æsop’s fables even though, according to some sources, there never lived an Æsop. I was on sabbatical writing a book on Molière when I was assigned a course on Beast literature. I could not refuse to teach it. I therefore joined the International Reynard Society and gave a paper at the forthcoming meeting of the Society, in Hull, England.
A Dutch colleague steered me in the right direction, but the course nevertheless ended my career as a teacher. Would that I could have changed the course into animals in Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’Oye and Madame de Villeneuve’s La Belle et la Bête, but someone else was teaching a course on fairy tales. Beast literature includes fairy tales.
My kindest regards to all of you. ♥
- The Fox by Universal Popular Consent (25 September 2014)
- The Codex Manesse (20 September 2014)
- Dogs a Long Time Ago (12 September 2014)
- La Fontaine’s “The Dog that dropped the Substance for the Shadow” (10 September 2014)
- “The Cock and the Pearl” La Fontaine cont’d (11 October 2013)
- Le Roman de la Rose (8 March 2013)
Sources and Resources
- Bibliothèque nationale de France
- The Roman de la Rose is a Gutenberg project publication (EBook #16816) FR
- an Internet Archive publication FR
- a Medieval Skills publication: Roman de la Rose digitized EN ♥
- The Ysopet-Avionnet is an Internet Archive publication Latin FR
- Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien, ou la conduite des rois [FR]
- Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien, ou la conduite des rois [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5674720s] FR
 “Ysopet”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 sept. 2014
 Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 1.
 Ben Edwin Perry (1892–1968) catalogued Æsop’s fables.
E, Dame Jolie & Douce Dame Jolie
Love song 13th-14th century
Chanson d’amour du Moyen-Âge.