Be Nice to Mice

Colin Burrow

  • ‘The Testament of Cresseid’ and ‘Seven Fables’ by Robert Henryson, translated by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 183 pp, £12.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 24928 2

Robert Henryson is the most likeable late medieval author after Chaucer. He wrote with a directness, a lightly carried learning and a lack of sentimentality hard to match anywhere in the British Isles at any date. A late and sadly unreliable anecdote conveys something of his style. Francis Kynaston reported in the early 17th century that when Henryson was dying of diarrhoea (probably around 1500) a cunning woman told him to go and circle a rowan tree chanting ‘whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this flux from me.’ Henryson is reported to have complained that it was too cold for a dying man to go frolicking around outside and suggested instead that he dance round the table in his room singing ‘oaken board, oaken board, gar me shit a hard turd.’ It is said that he died 15 minutes later.

The humour and earthiness conveyed by that anecdote are easy to find in Henryson’s verse. So is the desire to outmanoeuvre his audience. Henryson can capture the way a mouse speaks (or ‘peeps’), and does a fine line in guileful foxes who trick and rip off wolves. His beast fables tilt line by line and phrase by phrase between human and animal aspects with a knowingness that keeps a continual smile on his readers’ lips. But he is not just a writer who can do beasts or bring the neighbourhood witch down to earth. He could write sober allegories and staid descriptions of classical gods, as well as brief and racy paraphrases of Aristotle which explain how we think or remember – in itself a skill to be wondered at. Much of the pleasure in reading him comes from the juxtaposition of these elements and the way Henryson keeps us continually recalibrating the relationship between them. He can move suddenly, without any evident transition or unease, from low style to high style, and from highly judgmental writing to a manner so sympathetic it seems incompatible with condemnation. Then he can switch straight back again.

Almost nothing is known about his life, except that he was probably a schoolmaster and perhaps also a lawyer in Dunfermline, which in the late 15th century was a bustling, cultivated lowland town with a thriving abbey. The small-time rip-off artists who traded there feed into Henryson’s fables about persuasive foxes, artful toads, socially aspirant mice and domineering wolves, all of which speak like people, and many of which, in the way of fables, have human hands and animal feet. There may also be signs of the hard life of a schoolmaster in his distinctly clerkly writing. His extended versions of Aesopian fables (which were standard schoolroom texts, used in Latin lessons) conclude with morals which suggest a teacher diligently reminding his charges not just to relish the sugar but to swallow the pill as well. Long days spent in the classroom may also account for his repeated concern with the failure of audiences to heed the voice of instruction.

In the best and longest of the Moral Fables, ‘The Preaching of the Swallow’, the prudent swallow warns her fellow birds that they must destroy the seed planted by a fowler before it grows into flax which could be used to make nets with which to catch them in the winter. The birds ignore her. Come winter they are duly trapped, knocked out and ‘stoppit in his bag’. The moral of the tale states that the fowler ‘is the feind’, the insouciant birds are wretches who scrape around for temporal goods, while the swallow is a neglected preacher. There is a trace of the teacher’s revenge in that moral (‘ignore me at your peril’), but it also shows Henryson’s complex relationship with his audience. His moral lessons seem designed to catch out the inattentive or the self-contented just when they think they have worked out how things stand. The fables seem homely, and their morals easy to find (don’t forget to be nice to mice, even if you’re a lion); but repeatedly the moralitas snaps into a different register in order to suggest a whole new scale of judgment, one in which a simple fowler could be the devil himself. People or beasts who think they have found the moral significance of their own stories almost always come a cropper: in the first of the fables an unfortunate cockerel finds a precious ‘jasp’ (semi-precious stone), and moralises to the effect that riches are not for the likes of me. The moralitas then declares that the jasp represents ‘perfite prudence’, and the cockerel is the fool who spurns wisdom. A gentle lulling of the reader into a simple tale, then an abrupt or even cruel jolt into a different way of interpreting events – that is at the heart of Henryson’s unsettling charm.

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