Robert Henryson's "Morall Fabilles": Irony, Allegory, and Humanism in Late-Medieval Fables

Article excerpt

A fable is a narrative episode (resulting in a moral), in which animals usually appear with the mental faculties of human beings but with their own physical characteristics. At times, humans are present with or without animals. This type of literature was particularly developed among the Greeks. Many of the most ancient fables have continued to be popular, in unbroken line, till the present day, including in animal epics. The earliest known fabulist was Aesop, a slave from the Island of Sanios in the sixth century B.C., according to the testimony of Herodotus (II, 134). (The editors.)

Poems that present themselves as being self-interpreting offer a unique challenge: does the reader take a poem's allegory of its own narrative as the authoritative reading, or treat the moral's mechanism as a device that supports or strains against the rest of the poem as part of a literary aim? In our age works like Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound or Nabokov's Pale Fire deploy mock commentary for the sake of interrogating the critical enterprise, and that artistic strategy might prove beneficial when examining certain medieval works. Rita Copeland argues that scholastic commentary appended to classical works has the function of usurping textual authority "by reconstituting the argumentative structure of the text." While this claim holds true for Christian allegorizations of pagan narratives, one must ask whether such a principle holds equally true for works where the poet himself has written the commentary. Next, one should question whether it is the poem carrying the interpretive authority or whether that mechanism is but one piece of an integrated work of art, one piece of the puzzle the poet asks the reader to assemble.

This problem of relating narrative to allegory becomes especially sharp in Henryson's Morali Fabules, a collection of thirteen fables with accompanying morals adapted from a variety of sources in the 1480s. The work does not fall clearly into the circumstances Copeland treats. Although the poem ostensibly presents both a vernacular translation of a classical text and a scholastic-sounding commentary upon that fiction, the poet has really appropriated and usurped nothing. By Henryson's day, Aesop's fables had already been integrated into Christian humanism via centuries of scholastic commentary upon the work; Henryson and his readers would have been working with texts whose textual authority had long since been incorporated. Indeed, in the dream vision preceding "The Lion and the Mouse," Aesop himself appears to the narrator as a Roman Christian distraught at the lack of devotion in the world (1391-97). Moreover, Henryson does more than append commentary to the fables as found in his sources. He augments, ornaments, and elaborates the fables with original detail that sometimes supplies matter for commentary but often demonstrates tension. As George Clark notes,

As Henryson recreated them, his Aesopic stories outgrow the artistic and intellectual limitations of their traditional form; comparing one of Henryson's fables to its probable source, the difference seems essentially stylistic, but the development of the style produces narratives whose implications compel our attention and go beyond the explicit moralizations conventionally attached to Aesopic fables.

Furthermore, the moralitates following each tale, while in part stemming from the tradition of scholastic commentary on Aesop, likewise offer a number of innovations to that tradition. While these (usually) prose commentaries elaborate the short, pithy concluding morals one finds in classical versions of the fables, Henryson elaborates them even further, providing often lengthy verse moralities "overheillit with typis figurai . . . / Vnder thir fenyeit termis textuall" (587-89). As Arnold Clayton Henderson remarks, "Henryson's moralizations are just as freshly treated as his plots." Hence, while the Fabilles draw from the traditions of translation, fabulation, and scholastic commentary, the customary materials are so thoroughly rerendered that they escape the gravitational pull of those patterns, inviting us to consider the poem on its own terms. …


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