Enda O’Doherty writes:
UPON ANE TYME, as Esope culd report
Ane lytill mous come to ane rever-syde:
Scho micht not waid, hir schankis wer sa schort;
Scho culd not swym; scho had no hors to ryde;
Off verray force behovit hir to byde;
And to and fra beside that revir deip
Scho ran, cryand with mony pietuous peip.
The code here can surely be cracked by most readers, with just a little effort. This is the first stanza of Robert Henryson’s fable “The Toad and the Mouse”, written in Early Scots about 1380. Henryson, a graduate of Glasgow University and later probably a teacher in Dunfermline, was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer: indeed he and the younger William Dunbar are commonly known as the Scottish Chaucerians.
If you find the text difficult, here is Seamus Heaney’s translation (from The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables, published by Faber in 2009):
UPON A TIME, as Aesop makes report,
A little mouse came to a riverside.
She couldn’t wade, her mouse-shanks were so short,
She couldn’t swim, she had no horse to ride,
So willy-nilly there she had to bide
And to and fro beside that river deep
She ran and cried with many a piteous peep.
This certainly makes the meaning clear to a modern reader, but it is rare that translation constitutes an improvement (it would seldom claim to); is “mouse-shanks”, imposed by the metre, better than simply “shankis”? And is “shanks” even a widely understood word any more? Surely, were you tell a young person that you had arrived at her home not by car but on shanks’ mare she would just treat you to one of those stares. What serves best with a parallel text publication like Heaney’s Henryson (and as usual Faber have made the book a fine artefact) is to continually glance from left-hand page to right-hand but to try to eventually settle on the left (the original) when the meaning of the words has settled in your mind. It can also help, I find, to try to read it to yourself in a Scottish accent, a gentle Bill Paterson or Richard Wilson, not a histrionic Billy Connolly.
The fable of the mouse and the toad is found in many forms, though in almost all cases, including Henryson’s probable immediate source, it is not a toad but a frog, an eloquent frog (rana loquax). By making one of his protagonists a creature renowned, and even feared, for its perceived ugliness, Henryson is able to complicate the moral message and also, for a time, lead us up the garden path.
A hungry mouse arrives at a river, on the other side of which there is a rich field of “ryip aitis, off barley, peis, and quheit” (ripe oats, of barley, peas and wheat). Her cries of distress at being prevented from enjoying this bounty are heard by a toad, who offers to ferry her across the river on his back, but the offer is rejected, for the mouse suspects the toad’s motives:
The mous beheld unto her fronsit face,
Her runkillit cheikis, and hir lippis syde,
Hir hingand browis, and hir voce sa hace,
Hir loggerand leggis, and hir harsky hyde.
Scho ran abak, and on the paddok cryde:
‘Gif I can ony skill of phisnomy,
Thow hes sumpart of falset and invy …’
Again, we can translate this, and indeed we may have to, since it poses more problems than the first verse, but if we just collapse into the comfort of the translation and do not return to the original text we will lose the splendid “fronsit face”, “runkillit cheikis”, “loggerand leggis” and “harsky hyde”.
The mouse gazed up into her furrowed face,
Her wrinkled cheeks, her ridged lips like a lid
Hasped shut on her hoarse voice, her hanging brows,
Her lanky, wobbly legs and wattled hide.
Then, taken aback, she faced the toad and cried,
‘If I know any physiognomy,
The signs on you are of untruth and envy …’
The mouse is not unusual in her revulsion against ugliness and her accompanying supposition that what is ugly must also be evil. But the toad is something of a philosopher and challenges this commonplace wisdom, for is it not well known to be the case that a person can be fair of face and sweet of tongue yet inwardly “full of desait”?
The mouse, at any rate, is prevailed upon to trust the toad, who indeed makes an oath to Jupiter pledging his honest intent. So solicitous is he for his passenger’s safety he even advises the use of a safety harness (“Thairfoir go tak ane doubill twynit threid / And bind thy leg to myne with knottis fast”). Alas, it is all fakery, for half-way across the river, he pushes the poor mouse under the water with the intention of drowning her. At this point however a greater agency intervenes when a kite swoops down and snatches up both of them, bound together, out of the water and over to the riverbank, where he quickly makes a meal of them.
So what is the moral of this tale? For the purpose of a fable is to have a moral, “hailsum and gude to mannis sustenence”, and certainly it is no harm for us to have our morality wrapped up in a pleasant tale, as indeed Jesus taught the people through his parables, for “clerkis sayis, it is richt profitabill / Amangis ernist to ming ane merie sport, / To light the spret and gar the tyme be schort.”
Henryson’s moralitas operates on both the moral/psychological plane and on the allegorical. And while the modern mind may accept the former it tends to rebel against the schematic and, it may often seem, rather arbitrary nature of much medieval allegorical interpretation.
Grit folie is to gif over-sone credence
To all that speiks fairlie unto the;
Ane silkin toung, ane hart of crueltie,
Smytis more sore than ony schot of arrow;
Well fair enough, don’t trust the appearance of things, or of people. But haven’t we been here before, with the toad’s warning that a fair outside my hide a heart full of “desait”? So also, it now seems, may a foul outside. So, the moral, rather bleakly, must be to trust no one.
On the allegorical level, the toad is natural man in the world (“Now dolorus, now blyth as bird on breir; / Now in fredome, now wardit in distres”); the mouse is the soul, bound to man by a thread until that thread is cut by death; the water is the world, across which the soul’s only desire is to be borne across into heaven; and the kite, of course, is death “that cummis suddandlie / As dois ane theif …”. We may – or may not, I suppose – regard these interpretations as imposed upon a text which could do very well without them, but this was, on the whole, how the medieval mind operated (though perhaps not always Chaucer’s). As Seamus Heaney puts it in his fine introduction:
… these tales of tricky and innocent beasts and birds were part of the common oral culture of Europe, a store of folk wisdom as pervasive and unifying at vernacular level as the doctrines and visions of Christianity were in the higher realms of scholastic culture.
Not that Henryson was indifferent to those higher registers of thought and discourse. The structure of his understanding was determined by the medieval world picture of human life situated on a plane between animal and angel, human beings a dual compound of soul and body, caught between heavenly aspiring intellect and down-dragging carnal appetite. If he was a schoolteacher, he was also a school man [that is a theologian]. If he was professionally aware of the classics, he was equally and perhaps even anxiously aware of the confessional.
In fact, much of the charm and strength of the fables comes from the way Henryson’s hospitable imagination seems to enjoy open access to both the educated lingua franca and the subcultural codes of his late medieval world …
… this easy passage between the oral and the learned culture, between the rhetoric of the clerks and the rascality of the beasts, establishes his world as a credible hierarchical place of social order and seasonal cycles, a world where custom and ceremony can never rule out criminality and deception or a judicious style occlude actual injustice …
The genre demanded the application of a formal ‘moralitas’ yet the requirement also suited something strict and disciplined in Henryson’s temperament, so there is integrity in the procedure rather than a mere tagging on of sententiae. But the richest moments in the fables are those when the natural world or the human predicament calls forth Henryson’s rapture or his realism …
Illustration: An early seventeenth century illustration from the Swiss painter and engraver Christoph Murer. An earlier version of this post was published in 2013.