This motif goes back to the Panchatantra and does not always feature the same cast, i.e. a Cat and a Fox. In Æsop, the Cat’s only trick is usually entitled The Fox and the Cat, but in La Fontaine the title is The Cat and the Fox, Le Chat et le Renard. We therefore have a reverse image, which is appropriate since the Cat, not the Fox, manages to get out of harm’s way.
Æsop’s The Fox and the CatA Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.” “I have only one,” said the Cat; “but I can generally manage with that.” Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs. “This is my plan,” said the Cat. “What are you going to do?” The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said: “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.” (translated by G. F. Townsend)
Gutenberg’s The Æsop for Children: The Cat and the FoxOnce a Cat and a Fox were traveling together. As they went along, picking up provisions on the way—a stray mouse here, a fat chicken there—they began an argument to while away the time between bites. And, as usually happens when comrades argue, the talk began to get personal. “You think you are extremely clever, don’t you?” said the Fox. “Do you pretend to know more than I? Why, I know a whole sackful of tricks!” “Well,” retorted the Cat, “I admit I know one trick only, but that one, let me tell you, is worth a thousand of yours!” Just then, close by, they heard a hunter’s horn and the yelping of a pack of hounds. In an instant the Cat was up a tree, hiding among the leaves. “This is my trick,” he called to the Fox. “Now let me see what yours are worth.” But the Fox had so many plans for escape he could not decide which one to try first. He dodged here and there with the hounds at his heels. He doubled on his tracks, he ran at top speed, he entered a dozen burrows,—but all in vain. The hounds caught him, and soon put an end to the boaster and all his tricks. Common sense is always worth more than cunning. (Gutenberg’s The Cat and the Fox)
La Fontaine’s The Cat and the Fox or Le Chat et le Renard
For a selection of Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) fables, including The Cat and the Fox, click on Gutenberg’s EBook #24108. If you are looking for La Fontaine’s Le Chat et le Renard, in French, click on the title.
Townsend’s and Gutenberg’s Æsop’s fables are slightly different from one another. G. F. Townsend’s Æsopic cat is a female. As for Gutenberg and La Fontaine’s cat, it is a male and, although the fox is trapped by the dogs, in Gutenberg’s The Cat and the Fox and in La Fontaine’s Le Chat et le Renard, the fox is not killed by huntsmen. There are no hunters in and La Fontaine’s “The Cat and the Fox.” In La Fontaine, the dogs strangle their prey.
However banal this fable may seem, it has been considered an instance of analysis paralysis (see the Blue Inkwell, “Are you the Fox or the Cat?” and The Fox and the Cat, Analysis Paralysis, Rob Clarke‘s post). However, in my earlier readings of this fable, it did not occur to me that the Fox was paralysed by his own potential for survival. I simply reflected that cats were fortunate to have claws that allowed them to climb trees and that our Fox had done the best he could without claws.
In Wikipedia’s entry on The Cat and the Fox, I read that there is a proverb attributed to ancient Greek poet Archilochus according to which “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” which presupposes that our cat may have been a hedgehog. I also read that the Panchatantra (Book 5) illustrates the dangers of being too clever. Two clever fish, Satabuddhi (hundred-wit) and Sahasrabuddhi (thousand-wit), are told by a frog, named Ekabuddhi (single-wit), not to worry if the fishermen who have visited and plan to return do come back. He, Ekabuddhi (single-wit), will protect them. But Ekabuddhi escapes as quickly as he can, and when the fishermen return, the clever fish are caught. (See The Fish That Were Too Clever.)
Kalila wa Dimna has a related story. Three fish, wise, clever and stupid, hear fishermen. The wise fish flees. The clever fish “plays dead” (AT 56) and the stupid fish is caught by the fishermen. Writing in the thirteenth century, Persian writer Rūmī used this story in Book IV of his Masnavi. In Rūmī’s opinion, one who does not have “perfect wisdom” had better play dead.
In the much earlier Sanskrit Mahabharata or Mahābhārata, a swan rescues a crow who knows a hundred and one ways of getting himself out of trouble. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two Sanskrit epics (Indian and Nepalese). The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata. (See The Crow and the Swan.)(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Wikipedia’s entry goes on to list the various animals who, in Eastern and Western Europe, have the “cat’s only trick” that makes them defeat a boastful fox or other animal. According to the author of the Wikipedia entry, La Fontaine finishes his fable with a practical moral. “Too many expedients may spoil the business.” (« Le trop d’expédients peut gâter une affaire. »)
It is true that having too many options may slow a person down; making a decision is difficult.
However, it would seem that we do not have a level playing field. The Cat has claws, and claws are what an animal needs to climb a tree. As for the Fox, however clever he may be, he does not have claws. There is not much the Fox can do except enter a foxhole. We can compare three fish, but a cat is a cat and a fox is a fox. We are dealing with different animals and different abilities.
So The Cat and the Fox is probably, first and foremost, about limitations. Both the Cat and the Fox have limitations, but it so happens that, in this particular fable, claws are needed. Therefore circumstances favor the Cat rather than the Fox.
Moreover, the Fox makes a terrible mistake. He boasts about his cunning tricks. Fables are comic texts where the deceiver is deceived. Had the Fox not boasted, he and the cat may not have been attacked by a pack of dogs.
_________________________WordPress The Cat and the Fox Wenceslaus Hollar (13 July 1607 – 25 March 1677)