Morall fabillis of esope the phrygian the Overview Robert

Henryson (ca. 1485) Robert Henryson's collection of beast fables is generally considered the finest medieval example of the genre and was widely read in late-medieval Scotland. However, no editions of the work survive from Henryson's lifetime. In fact, all texts date from at least 75 years after his death, so determining the date and order of composition of the 13 fables, their accompanying morals (see allegory), and the Prologue is a difficult task. Some work has been done to assign priority based on source study, but fables were such a popular genre in the Middle Ages that it is nearly impossible to determine source relationships with the precision necessary to date individual fables. In the most general terms, Henryson's sources fall into two categories: the Aesop tradition and the Old French Reynard literature. Aesop's fables were a staple of medieval pedagogy, and if Henryson had not been exposed to them in oral recitations, he certainly would have been familiar with them in his role as schoolmaster. The tales of Reynard the fox, on the other hand, were generally considered strictly entertainment. By adapting them for didactic purposes and providing each with an allegorical interpretation, Henryson made an original contribution to the beast fable genre.

Within the text itself, this didactic emphasis appears in the very first lines as Henryson stresses that fables, despite their status as fictions, are useful in teaching moral lessons. He conveys this point through several

MORALL FABILLIS OF ESOPE THE PHRYGIAN, THE 279

traditional figures for reading as a morally edifying activity. First, he compares the diligent reader who can glean "ane morall sweit sentence" (one pleasant, instructive moral; l. 11) from a fable to a gardener laboring to grow flowers and corn. Second, he invokes the common metaphor of the text as a nut waiting to be cracked to reveal the kernel of meaning within. Finally, he justifies the pleasure one obtains from reading fables by reminding his readers that a bow that is always bent soon becomes warped and useless. Like the proverbial bow, readers need relaxation, and fables can provide it, while not losing sight of their moral teaching. These repeated meditations on the fable as a genre suggest that along with moral instruction, Henryson uses the collection to explore the subject of poetics.

The fables of Morall Fabillis are themselves quite diverse in their register, encompassing both the comic and the tragic, the realistic and the fanciful. In their diversity, Henryson's fables have been compared to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and there is a note of a typically Chaucerian humor at the expense of the animals' pretensions. This connection between the two works is reinforced by Henryson's condensed retelling of the same fable that is recounted in "The Nun's Priest's Tale." However, because of the limitations of the fable genre, none of the animals in any of the fables reaches the level of detailed characterization of the Canterbury pilgrims.

In a similar vein, the narrator of the Morall Fabillis is not nearly as clearly defined a character as the narrator of The Canterbury Tales, but he is a presence throughout the text, describing how he learned certain fables by eavesdropping on the animals, or even, in the case of "The Lion and the Mouse," meeting Aesop and asking the master to teach him. Critics have focused on the narrator's developing character as key to understanding the didactic strategy behind the tales. Some have argued that as the fables progress, the narrator (and by extension the reader) learns different lessons. This line of reasoning, however, is complicated by the lack of agreement among the witnesses as to the correct order of the fables. only three fables, "The Cock and the Fox," "The Fox and the Wolf," and "The Trial of the Fox," demonstrate explicit internal links. Beyond these three, the narrative thread linking individual fables is quite thin, a situation that has led some critics to posit that the tales of the Morall Fabillis should be read less as a unified collection that as a series of independent poems.

The issue that has most engaged critics is the degree to which the fables are connected to their morals. To a modern reader, these allegorical explanations often seem quite farfetched, suggesting that the moral is a vestigial appendage that can be ignored. Perhaps the most startling example of this apparent gap between fable and moral comes in the first fable, "The Cock and the Jasp." The fable recounts the story of a cock who, while scratching for food, comes across a jasp (a jasper, a semiprecious stone) and ignores the jewel since, he sensibly points out, he cannot eat it, and therefore, it is of no use to him. The moral roundly condemns the cock for ignoring the stone since, the narrator explains, the jewel represents wisdom and in rejecting it in favor of worms and snails, the cock represents those humans who reject the spiritual in favor of more immediate pleasures. The idea that the cock is simply trying to survive is not even broached. other fables suggest a similar disconnect between the story and its explanation, although perhaps not to this degree. Critics have approached this problem in several ways. one strategy treats the perceived distance between fable and interpretation as part of the author's didactic strategy; that is, in making the path between fable and meaning somewhat convoluted, Henryson forces his readers to examine their own reasoning on these moral issues. A second strategy maintains that for a medieval audience, there would be no disconnect between fable and morals, arguing that such allegorical interpretations were a common feature of both scholastic discourse and fraternal sermons and thus would have been familiar to the educated and uneducated alike.

The most promising recent readings of the Morall Fabillis focus on this last approach and place the text in a larger cultural context. In doing so, these critics seem to be returning to an older mode of criticism that also examined the text in its historical context. However, where the older criticism mined the poems for biographical or political allusions, current contextual readings recognize that the allegorical method Hen-ryson employs in the Morall Fabillis precludes drawing

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