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Making mention of Aesop: Henryson's fable of the two mice.


Translation occurs not only between languages, but also between states and species. Animal fables are sites of this kind of translation as they amalgamate human and animal worlds, shifting their characters between animal and human identities in ways designed to make the reader reflect upon human quirks and morals. Henryson's rendition of the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse demonstrates the variety of translation available to an expert fabulist, but his dexterity with the form leaves him with a problem to resolve as he must return to the strictly human world for his moral.

There is one kind of translation to which we are all well accustomed: the one we perform when we read animal fables. In even their simplest form these fables enable, or may require, us to move with ease between the human and non-human worlds, accommodating elements that we know to be physically impossible or suspect to be inappropriate to the animals concerned. It is a two-way process as we transpose motives and reactions from the human world into the animal, and create contexts in which animal reactions and observed behaviour can be represented and moralized in human terms. Sometimes those contexts are familiar, as when mice run from cats or people; sometimes they are invented, as when one mouse berates the other for getting above herself and forgetting the old ways and customs of their parents. In either case the fable itself is a composite space partaking of both the animal and the human world without privileging either. This lack of preference is fundamental to the way fables work. Were it possible to dismiss the animal world as inferior, the moral of the fable would have no bite; yet if human values have no relevance in the world of the fable, the moral has no application. So characters within a fable find themselves translated out of their usual particular realm into a composite world, to which, as is the way with all translations, they bring some elements of their original habitat. Supposedly distinct realms are thus shown to be interwoven, and among the threads may be elements from previous versions of the fables as well as those that come directly from, to take the case under discussion here, the world of mice or that of humans. This concept of the fable as a conflated realm which results from translating mice into humans and humans into mice builds on Denton Fox's description of Henryson's fabular world as dependant on the rhetorical device of the figura. (1) Recently Malcolm Pittock has further suggested that animal fables can be read in terms of a scale with human at one end and animal at the other. (2) Characters within a fable do not have to remain fixed at one point on this scale; they may move to and fro between the two poles. Such movement may result from an author's decision, conscious or unconscious, or from observable effects of the language itself, such as the immediate context of a phrase or an extra-textual association. The extent to which the animals are fully realized as members of their particular species thus alters from story to story, from version to version, and even within the space of a particular telling of a story. The particular fable I shall discuss here is the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, as it is found in Robert Henryson's Moral Fables, probably written in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Pittock's scheme works well as a way of tracking the stages of translation from mouse to human and back that the protagonists undergo, but its underlying image of a straight line is challenged by the more complex conflation of human and animal world at work within the fable.

The genre of animal fable has itself been subjected to redefinition over the years. Denton Fox comments in his 1981 edition of Henryson: 'Since Aesopic fables are now thought to belong to an unimportant and almost sub-literary genre, or to be a species of children's literature, it is worth remembering that they formerly had a much higher reputation.' (3) Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, the 'unimportant and almost sub-literary genre' of animal fable is beginning to achieve new respect (due in part to the advent of ecocriticism and the separate rising interest in fable generally) and children's literature is gaining ground as a genre worthy of critical attention. None the less, Fox's reminder of the important place occupied by Aesop's Fables in the Middle Ages remains pertinent, especially as Tim Machan has shown that Henryson was attempting more than a feat of simple translation from one language to another when he embarked on his version of Aesop. Rather, he was proving that, just as English was in a position to be taken seriously as a literary language, so he, Henryson, could bid to be considered as an author--that is, someone who creates a text which demands considered engagement from its audience. (4) For Henryson much of that engagement must be in moral and religious terms, and in that he was reflecting the grounds on which Aesop had been included in the canon of medieval auctores, namely that his stories conveyed explicit teaching and so could not be dismissed as simple fictions. (5) Henryson makes this the ground for his translation in the Prologue to the Fables, where he states:</p> <pre> And als the caus quhy thay first began Wes to reprief the of this misleuing, O man, be figure of ane vther thing. (ll. 5-8) </pre> <p>Significantly, however, this is the second defence he offers; the first is that the terms in which the fables are expressed are worthy of respect in themselves: 'Thair polite termes of sweit rhetore | Richt plesand ar vnto the eir of man' (ll. 3-4). We are thus encouraged to judge the fables that follow not solely in terms of how well they convey their moral lessons and admonish us to reform our ways, but also according to how well they work as literature, and both these considerations take precedence over the kind of simple linguistic accuracy that is often assumed to be the primary aim of translation. (6)

Henryson shows himself to be a deft and literary translator as he begins his tale with an allusion to Aesop which is a literary sleight of hand: 'Esope, myne authour, makis mentioun | Of twa myis, and thay wer sisteris deir' (ll. 163-64). Aesop, or rather Gualterus Anglicus (Walter the Englishman, whose Latin version of the Fables, possibly dated 1175, is likely to have been one of Henryson's immediate sources here), (7) does indeed mention two mice, but he does not mention that they were sisters. In fact he makes no mention of a relationship of any kind between them, and his opening lines offer no reason why the mice encounter each other at all. In this Walter is in keeping with the fable genre, which dispenses with the need for any context for its tales, being perfectly content with the kind of 'once there was' opening that precludes further question. So Walter's first line is simply 'Rusticus urbanum Murem Mus suscipit aede' ('a country mouse took a town mouse into its home'), (8) and while the provision of food is expanded on over the next five lines, no explanation forwhy the country mouse opened his home to the town mouse is forthcoming, although we may note that by line 6 they are companions (socius) and friends (amicus amico) in line 7. The phrase 'suscipit aede' could imply that a specific invitation was issued, but it could also mean that the town mouse was simply found in need of shelter, which is the motive offered by Marie de France in her late twelfth-century version of this story. (9) Walter's choice of 'aede' here subtly blends the human and animal worlds as its primary meaning of human house echoes 'urbanum', although this one clearly belongs to a 'mus'. In contrast, Horace offers us mice who are old friends, accustomed to playing host and guest to each other ('veterem vetus hospes amicum'), a relationship that fits well with the scene at the end of this satire (ii. 6), where he pictures a gathering of friends at his Sabine farm, but which makes us almost immediately transpose these mice into men, only to have to translate them back again in the next few lines as vetch, oats, and, fetchingly, a raisin brought carefully by mouth are mentioned as part of the country fare.

Henryson's opening thus shows him selecting from among the available options before going on to expand upon his sources, as he particularizes his mice, making the eldest the townie, dwelling in a prosperous 'borous toun' (l. 3).Henryson is not the only one to make the mice sisters; they appear as such in several contemporary versions, some of which Henryson may have known. Thus, in John of Bromyard's Summa praedicantium and in the French renditions of the fable in the Isopets (probably available to Henryson) the mice are referred to as sisters, a fact which David West suggests may have arisen from 'souris' being a feminine noun in French, (10) although it is worth noting that Marie's mice are female, but there is no mention of their being siblings. According to Powell, the Isopets use 'suer' but 'in these versions [it] is only a mode of address and does not indicate a blood-relationship, or if it does no important point is made of it' (p. 117). So although Henryson may not have invented the notion of the mice being sisters, he is distinctive in his use of that detail. Drawing attention to them as siblings inclines us to regard these two in the same way as we would two human sisters, with all the range of similarity, difference, affection, and rivalry that relationship offers. Of course, the word 'sister' does not necessarily denote human beings; it can be used of animals and indeed of inanimate objects (as in 'sister ship'), but regardless of where it is used, its purpose is to suggest an emotional relationship modelled on that assumed to exist between human and female siblings. For West, at least, the change from male to female is not for the better: 'gone are the urbanity, the philosophy, the literary play, the wit of male conversation'; instead we are presented with 'a comedy of manners, of feminine manners' (p. 80), which, it is implied, is inferior. Henryson is here being compared with Horace, and without wishing to detract in any way from Horace's masterly telling of the tale, I suggest that Henryson's version is no less subtle or literary.

To begin with, whether through constraint of verse, or humorous observation, Henryson's decision to introduce them as 'sisteris deir' is subtly telling. While we must allow that 'deir' is an easier word to rhyme than 'sisteris' we must also acknowledge that the tone of this phrase is very different from the more straightforward 'deir sisteris'. Placing 'deir' after 'sisteris' admits a moment's hesitation and introduces a hint of discord or at least rivalry between these sibling mice, as if the word itself is an afterthought. Initially we may read the phrase as describing an uncomplicated affection between the two, which explains why the town mouse sets out in winter to see how her sister is getting along. However, as the story develops indications of discord accumulate. This is not a simple tale of one mouse who happens to live in the town visiting another who lives in the country, but of an older sister who has made good in the big city, while her younger sibling remains in the family home, keeping the old ways. Once we have learnt this, the term 'sisteris deir' inevitably carries a degree of irony redolent more of sibling rivalry and gloating than simple affection. The process begins in the stanzas that introduce the first visit from town to country, where a marked contrast is created between the two sisters not only in terms of lifestyle but also in how far they are regarded as mice.

After a verse telling us how the rural mouse 'Had hunger, sauld, and tholit grit distres' (l. 170) in the winter, while her elder sister goes freely 'Amang the cheis and meill, in ark and kist' (l. 175), come the lines that offer the motive for the town mouse's visit to the country:</p> <pre> And tyme quhen scho wes full and vnfute-sair,

Scho tuke in mynd hir sister vpon land, And langit for to heir of hir weilfair, To se quhat lyfe scho led vnder the wand. Bairfute allone, with pykestaf in hir hand, As pure pylgryme, scho passit owt off town To seik hir sister, baith oure daill and down. (ll. 176-82) </pre> <p>It is hard to resist the conclusion that contemplation of her own ease as she sits back well-fed and comfortable in the midst of winter occasions a self-aware and somewhat self-satisfied speculation about her sister's state. The fact that she embarks upon her trip to her sister as a 'pure pilgryme' suggests that she expects to find some form of Horatian rural retreat, where the living is simple through choice rather than compulsion, and from which she can return to town life suitably refreshed. Douglas Gray offers a more cynical interpretation, suggesting that 'the manner of this native's return is not motivated so much by the search for holiness as by the expectation of finding a disagreeable poverty' (p. 77). Regardless of how genuine we think the elder mouse's motives, it is clear that the standard of living she encounters is more penitential than she expected and comes as rather a shock, indicating that not only has she become a typical city-dweller in her romanticizing of rural life, but she has forgotten the reality of her childhood, an implication Henryson develops later.

The readiness with which we discuss this mouse's views and motivation is an indication of how skilfully Henryson has placed his town mouse firmly within the human realm. It is a placing we accept as easily as we accept the description of a mouse setting forth with a walking stick. It is not that we do not notice that this requires a mouse to walk on hind legs, simply that our knowledge of fables and their anthropomorphic habit renders this image unsurprising: so much so that the use of 'hand' rather than 'paw' in line 180 goes unremarked. However, 'hand' does more than simply reinforce the anthropomorphism of the mouse. It also draws attention to the fact that a mouse's paws are very like hands, and the front ones are used in much the same way when it comes to grasping and eating. It is a mark of how far we are expecting these animals to act and be equipped like humans that the details that draw comment are the ones that remind us of the animal nature of our protagonists, rather than the ones that are quintessentially human. Consequently the moments when our animal protagonists are at their most animal stand out, and so we are more likely to smile at the wit of mentioning that the town mouse sets out barefoot than at the idea of her taking a stick. The former catches us out in our habit of making all protagonists pseudo-humans (how else but barefoot would a mouse travel?), while the latter panders to it. Both allow us and the mice to slip effortlessly across the human/animal divide without really giving it any attention and certainly without any sense of being disconcerted. While that reinforces Pittock's argument for a sliding scale rather than the common notion of an absolute barrier, (11) it also demonstrates that the wider context is an amalgam of human and animal and may indeed begin to challenge the notion that the two realms can be distinguished in any meaningful manner.

What is particularly subtle about Henryson's text is that the two mice are not anthropomorphized to the same degree. Sisters they may be, but the same they most certainly are not, and Henryson uses the distinction in terms that lead Malcolm Pittock to praise him for grasping 'what is not grasped so clearly by others' (p. 169), (12) viz. that two distinct species of mice inhabit this story. The town mouse is a house mouse (Mus musculus), while the country mouse is a field or wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus--which may account for Marie's country mouse living in a forest), and although, pace Pittock, there is some evidence that each species occasionally strays into the other's habitat, they tend not to stay there long, being better adapted and doubtless more comfortable in their customary surroundings. Pittock sees this difference as being marked mainly towards the end of the fable, when both mice are in the town and are harried by the cat, who catches, plays with, and then loses the country mouse. His point is that a field mouse would be disoriented in a house without its familiar refuges or anything that resembled them, while the house mouse realistically escapes more easily by darting into her mouse-hole. This is clearly the case, but Henryson actually marks the distinction between the species right from the start of the fable as the town mouse is moved consistently towards the human realm, while the country mouse more frequently inhabits the animal world. Thus although the second mouse lives 'As owt-lawis dois' (l. 168), this is merely like an outlaw, which does not require the mouse to be human. The Asloan manuscript, whose reading for line 168 'levit on hir waith' is taken by Fox here, moves the mouse into the human realm by suggesting she hunts or poaches: 'waith' being game got illegally. This is less subtle than the alternative reading found in other versions of the text, (13) which allows the mouse to remain entirely animal here by rendering 'hir' as 'thair', thus referring the poaching to the outlaws of the simile rather than the country mouse herself. In contrast to this rural and now slightly morally suspect mouse, her urban sister 'Was gild brother and made ane fre burges' (l. 172, emphasis added), and at this point explicitly human. Even the ambiguity of scale reflects the difference, as Henryson exploits the flexibility of his terms to literary as well as satirical effect. The town mouse, who has apparently reached the unusual but not unheard-of status of being a female guild member, is a freeman of the town with access to town stores of cheese and grain. As she moves from ark to chest it is hard to .x her as either entirely human, a privileged citizen taking her pick, or thoroughly rodent, a mouse literally in amongst the food. Either way she is a corrupting presence, (14) although to regard her as such is necessarily to judge her in human rather than mouse terms.

As the fable progresses it becomes clear that the urban mouse actively seeks anthropomorphosis while being at some pains to draw a distinction between herself and her sister, using human versus animal terms. The idea of a linear scale that privileges human over animal would suit this character, whose move up the social scale is mirrored by Henryson in her move towards the human pole in his text. The caustic terms in which she finally rejects the food so willingly offered by her country sister is not only dismissive, but seeks to relegate both food and sister to the evidently inferior animal realm: 'Sister, this victuall and Jour royall feist | May weill suce for sic ane rurall beist' (ll. 244-45). Her words cleverly invert the usual application of the phrase 'a feast .t for a king' while also distancing herself once and for all from those who enjoy such fare. The word 'sister' conveys the scorn reserved for a blood relation who is letting the side down, although, tellingly, it is the food rather than the setting that is the literally defining factor in this fable: what you eat rather than where you eat it. The town mouse makes no objection to her sister's home, and although she calls it a 'hole' (l. 246), this does not seem to be a derogatory term, perhaps because she herself has a 'hole' in the town house (l. 297). The obvious objection is that the 'royall feist' provided by her sister with such hospitable care is mere 'victuall' to urban eyes; but the telling word is not 'rurall', as we might expect, but 'beist'. It is that which marks this town mouse's felt distinction between herself and her sister, a distinction and hierarchy Henryson also observes. For those who have read the Prologue to the Moral Fables 'beist' carries a particular significance, as Henryson's assertion of the moral value of fables hinges on this word and its connotations. His first use of the term is benign enough as he observes that in Aesop's fables 'brutal beistis spak and vnderstude And to gude purpois dispute and argow' (ll. 44-45). Here the negative associations of 'brutal' are quashed by the good purpose of their discussions, which indicate that the animals are regarded as rising above their habitual station. It is a different matter when humans are seen to stoop to the animal world. There the degenerate man 'in brutal beist is transformate' (l. 56) and the full force of the negative possibilities of 'brutal' are felt. This shows that Henryson's view of the relative value of human and animal is at variance with the more equitable amalgamation of animal and human inherent in the fable genre, but the point to remember is that his criticism is attracted not by the animals or the people per se, but by those who fail to live according to the best their species offers. One cannot object to a mouse acting like a mouse, but if the mouse in question is actually representing a human, the result is an uneasy tension within the text, which occasionally surfaces, often to comic effect. The scene of the town mouse dismissing her sister's provisions is a case in point, and her use of the unambiguously derisory term 'beist' makes us suddenly aware of the tension between our concepts of human and animal that lies at the heart of all animal fables. Despite the opprobrium with which the word has been loaded by Henryson's Prologue, we are all too aware of the disagreeable snobbishness that informs the elder mouse's use of the word here, and are left unsure as to where the moral value of the fable rests. This is the first time in this fable that the division between human and animal worlds has been so marked. Up to this point, just under halfway through the fable, the only animal word used of the sisters has been 'mouse', a term whose specific animal reference we have been encouraged to overlook by the prevailing human context and often collocation of the word, the use of 'owtlawis' and 'waith' being cases in point. Even when we seem to be most fully in the animal world, Henryson has introduced a term that has shifted us back to the human one. Thus the thoroughly animal 'peip' that the town mouse calls for from her sister in line 187 as she travels through the countryside seeking her out is speedily counteracted by 'kinnisman' in line 188. Likewise the country mouse's home may be hidden under a stone embedded in the ground (l. 199), but we arrive at it via the words 'chalmer' (chamber, l. 196) and 'wane' (house, l. 197) and its lack of .re or candles is accounted for in the purely human terms of petty thieves, 'pykeris', not liking light (l. 203). Here that word 'pykeris' echoes the 'pykestaf' with which the town mouse sets out, thus offering a radical redefinition of the guise she takes on for her journey: there may be little to choose between false pilgrims and pilferers.

Despite the town mouse's strong identification with the human sphere, we must resist the easy parallelism that would assume that if the town mouse overtly prefers the human realm, the country mouse must champion that of the animal. Her preference may well be for country living, yet her terms can also be human. Her frosty response to her sister's first rejection of her simple fare shows that she is just as capable of moving into the human linguistic sphere as her more privileged sister:</p>

<pre> 'Madame,' quod scho, '3e be the mair to blame. My mother sayde, efter that we wer borne, That I and Je lay baith within ane wame; I keip the ryte and custome off my dame, And off my syre, levand in pouertie, For landis haue we nane in properite.' (ll. 212-17) </pre> <p>Her reproof reveals not only hurt hospitality, but also criticism of one who has forgotten their roots. Those roots are not the bushes and briars of the first stanza, nor even the mouse-hole in which the exchange takes place, but the rights and customs which implicitly render their parents human. The over-dignified 'Madame' signals affront, showing her ability to adopt human airs when she sees .t, while the rest evokes the lives of tenant farmers, vulnerable to sudden eviction, more than the actual life of a field mouse. It seems that it is her sister's urban projection that places the country mouse's life out in the open, 'vnder the wand' (l. 179), and in retrospect we may even detect that urban condescension coming through the narrative at the end of the first stanza, with its implication that a country mouse's life is that of an outlaw. With neat literary wit, Henryson provides some of the elements of the Horatian retreat the town mouse may have set out to find in the form of the speech her sister gives expounding the virtues of simple country ways. We are left to reflect that the town mouse may not find a highfalutin standard of living in this rural retreat, but she certainly gets the high-.own sentiments.

Yet while it is possible to discuss the sisters' characters in terms that show how far they occupy the human sphere of reference, Henryson does not abandon the animal realm entirely. The effect of the younger sister's assertion of the mice's blood relationship has set up a tension between two contradictory claims. One, based on this siblinghood, asserts that the two mice must be the same species. The other, based on the precise observations within the tale, insists that they are in fact distinct. Throughout the fable the two main characters shuttle between these two claims in ways that suggest that the human and animal realms conflate as often as they conflict, undermining the notion of a strictly linear scale. The town mouse's words here are a case in point. Having raised the possibility of a purely animal identity with the word 'beist', the fable capitalizes on it and the town mouse herself compromises her human aspect when she enumerates the dangers of which she is not afraid: cat, fall (a form of mousetrap), and trap. The shift continues in the detail of the journey from country to town. The two mice now 'creip' under cover (l. 254), where before the elder simply walked (l. 183), and they travel by night, a detail not mentioned in the earlier trip, if indeed such caution was observed. Where before we were encouraged to visualize a highly anthropomorphic town mouse walking on hind legs and sporting a walking stick, now, in a mirroring tactic, Henryson seems at pains to remind us that these two are mice, running through coarse grass--'rankest gers and corne Vnder cowert' (ll. 253-54, emphasis added). By ensuring we do not lose sight of these two as mice, Henryson achieves a greater comic effect when they next seem at their most human, imitating lords carousing in the town-house pantry. Again food is crucial to the effect. The list begins with a foodstuff that is most typically associated with mice, cheese, and although they progress to the more fully human repast of meat and fish, they eschew wine in favour of water (ll. 272-73). In addition there are repeated mentions of grains (ll. 266, 282), cakes (l. 282), and bread (l. 285), which are all equally suited to human or mouse repasts and serve to keep the two worlds blended until the introduction of the quintessential mouse treat of candle (l. 286). That last is a tellingly comic detail whose humour works only if we are aware of the way these two figures are conflating the human and animal worlds, which makes it ironic that the one element that reveals their truly mousey nature is a product of the human world alone. This act of comic appropriation marks the contrast with the peas and nuts of the country (which may equally well be gathered from hedgerows or from cultivated land) and also lends weight to the versions of Henryson's text that reserve the mention of candles as food until this point in the fable. The disputed point is in line 206, where some versions read 'nuttis and candill, in steid off spyce', rather than the 'nuttis and peis' preferred by Fox and others. Both Gray (p. 78) and Powell (p. 219) make critical points based on candles appearing in both the country and urban diet, but it seems to me that the literary impact is stronger if the candle appears only when the human and mouse foodstuffs are being conflated. When we are in the country mouse's hole we are almost entirely in the animal realm of this fable, and so it makes sense that all the food on offer should be straightforwardly part of a mouse's diet, without need for human agency. If we are alert to the moral import of the fable, we may wish to regard the diversity of dishes consumed in the town pantry as being unnatural for mice, but here we should recall Pittock's point about the two distinct species. House mice thrive on this kind of mixed diet, including the candle; the field mouse's more restricted menu reflects not so much high-minded selection as simple availability.

At this point a term used by the elder sister once again seeks to relegate the younger not only to the country but to the animal regions. She marks the distinction between their current 'chalmer' and her sister's 'sarie nest' (l. 277). The jibe resides, of course, in 'nest' rather than 'sorry', although the implication is that a nest cannot be other than sorry. However, while 'nest' clearly reveals her desire to distance herself from her animal origins, it is 'chalmer' that sounds a significant note, for in this instance the word is not being imported from its human associations to be applied to a mouse's den (as was the case in line 196) but is referring precisely to the human room they currently occupy. Yet this chamber is not the equivalent of her sister's nest, for it is not actually hers. However meagre an abode a nest may be, it is at least the rightful home of a field mouse, whereas the house mouse has no claim at all on the well-stocked larder she rifles, as is soon revealed when first the butler and then the cat send her scurrying for her hole and with it, her fully animal identity. As with the previous instance when the town mouse tried to relegate her sister to the animal world while securing her own place in the human one, the text militates against her. Yet before jumping to too clear-cut a conclusion, we must remember that this is a house mouse and while her hole in the skirting is the equivalent of the field mouse's nest, it is at least arguable that the rooms of the house are as much her natural habitat as the fields are for her country relation. Thus we are forced to admit that the town mouse's desire to be distinct from her sister wins the day as she retains her hold on her human aspects to the end. Because we never see inside her hole, we are left with the impression of her inhabiting the whole pantry, even though Henryson's narrative actually leaves her out of sight, safe in her hole while her sister is batted about by the cat. In contrast the country mouse is finally secured within her animal identity, as she returns to a home which is now a warm den (l. 358) fully stocked with beans, rye, and wheat (l. 361) as well as nuts and peas and her apparently customary peace and quiet.

Henryson's mice thus slip between varying degrees of anthropomorphism as the tale as a whole seeks to resolve the tension set up by the contrary claims that these mice are both sisters and yet different species. It is tempting to say that it is the country mouse who comes off best, and certainly that is the conclusion Henryson's moral expects us to draw, as it links the ostensible sentiments of Horace's satire with Solomon's saying that one cannot do better than to be happy and live honestly. Classical and biblical views are united to endorse the virtues of country living, and simultaneously the status quo of the hierarchies within human society and also between species. The mice that do best, it seems, are the ones who are content to remain in the animal realm, eating peas in the country, not the ones who get above themselves by entering the human realms anthropomorphically as well as geographically. Yet there is one line that troubles this straightforward conclusion: 'The cat cummis and to the mous hes ee' (l. 384). According to the plot of this fable, cats are a danger only in the town, but equally, they are a danger only to mice and at the end of the tale the only complete mouse is the one in the country. We are thus left with a somewhat ambivalent feeling, one that is reflected and then deflected in

Henryson's moralitas.

Rather than immediately and unequivocally endorsing humble country life for its piety and purity, this moral begins by admonishing us that all earthly joys are mixed with woe, just as, neatly, the moral of a fable is mingled with its entertaining fiction:</p> <pre> As fitchis myngit ar with nobill seid, Swa intermellit is aduersitie

With eirdlie ioy, swa that na state is frie Without trubill or sum vexatioun. (ll. 367-70) </pre> <p>The 'seid' picks up the general conceit of the moral as good seed hidden in the sweet fruit of the fable, which Henryson renders in his Prologue as a nut in its kernel; but it is particularly appropriate to this fable, whose action was triggered by disgust at a diet of seeds, nuts, and suchlike. More surprisingly, these lines remind us too of the cold and vexation the country mouse was suffering at the outset, overriding the cosier state in which we left her, and this seems to reflect the ambivalence of tone at the end of the fable proper. Given that the moral judgement of the tale endorses the joys of a poor but honest life over a more luxurious one based on dubious means, we might expect the final image of the country mouse to be unambiguously positive; but it is only when the image of the hunting cat is again introduced that we are given the sense of a secure moral ending. It seems that the last effort of the tale is to ensure that animals and humans are returned to their appropriate spheres of existence, no longer inhabiting the conflated space created by the fabulist's world. To clinch the point, the final stanza introduces that most definitively human comfort, a .re, and with it the mention of a friend (l. 388).We have returned from our sojourn in a place where mice and humans mix and are reminded that such things are mere .reside tales, told for our edification as well as entertainment.

(1) Denton Fox, 'Henryson's Fables', English Literary History, 29 (1962), 341-48 (p. 341).

(2) See Malcolm Pittock, 'Animals as People--People as Animals: The Beast Story with Special Reference to Henryson's The Two Mice and The Preaching of the Swallow', in Language and the Subject, ed. by Karl Simms, Critical Studies, 9 (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 163-72.

(3) The Poems of Robert Henryson, ed. by Denton Fox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) p. xli. All quotations from Henryson will be taken from this edition and cited by line number.

(4) See Tim Machan, Textual Criticism and Middle English Texts (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1994), pp. 126-31.

(5) Fox gives a useful summary of the status of Aesop with reference to Henryson in his introduction, pp. xlii-xliii. A succinct description of what it took to be a medieval authority may be found in Alastair Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (1984), 2nd edn (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1988), pp. 10-15. For Aesop as an auctor see Minnis, p. 161, and Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. By Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1953), pp. 49-50.

(6) Walter Benjamin regards such literal translations as bad. His more complex notion demands respect for an essential meaning of the original and also asserts that the act of translation elevates the original from its originary status and language into another, distinct text, which is nevertheless a true version. His privileging of meaning over word is analogous to the medieval privileging of res over verba. In each case it is possible to see how Aesopic fables, with their evident meaning, lend themselves well to a translator's art. See Walter Benjamin, 'The Task of the Translator', in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana, 1973), pp. 69-82.

(7) Fox provides a useful summary of the complicated tradition of Aesop in the Middle Ages on pages xliv-xlvii of his introduction. Further details concerning this fable in particular are to be found in his notes, p. 201. A fuller consideration of Henryson's sources for this tale, including the point that Horace should be considered a direct source, is to be found in Marianne Powell, Fabula docet: Studies in the Background and Interpretation of Henryson's 'Morall Fabillis' (Odense: Odense University Press, 1983), pp. 116-20. For a longer consideration of fables and their role as medieval cultural referents, see Douglas Gray, Robert Henryson, Medieval and Renaissance Authors (Leiden: Brill, 1979), pp. 31-69.

(8) Quotations from Walter's version of the fable are taken from Julia Bastin and Pierre Ruelle, Recueil general des Isopets, 4 vols (Paris: Societe des anciens textes francais, 1929-99), ii, ed. by Julia Bastin (1930), 15-16. Translations are my own. I am indebted to Niall Rudd for his help with the interpretation of Walter's text.

(9) Marie's town mouse sets out in search of amusement and gets lost in a wood at nightfall, upon which she imposes herself on a country mouse's home and provisions. Both French text and translation are available in Mary Lou Martin, The Fables of Marie de France: An English Translation (Birmingham, AL: Summa, 1984), pp. 50-53.

(10) See David West, 'Of Mice and Men', in Quality and Pleasure in Latin Poetry, ed. by Tony Woodman and David West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp. 67-80.

(11) Readers interested in the notion of the supposed barrier between humans and other animal species in literature are referred to Erica Fudge's excellent Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

(12) Pittock regards Henryson as the most masterly of the tellers of this particular fable.

(13) See Fox (ed.), p. 10 and pp. l-lxxv, for discussion of the witnesses to the text of the Fables.

(14) Most of the social aspects the fable, including the various factors that combine to create the town mouse, are discussed by Powell, pp. 124-27.


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Author:Rudd, Gillian
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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