Robert Henryson ‘The Cock and the Fox’

Robert Henryson is probably the best-known of the poets who were called in older handbooks “Scottish Chaucerians”. Now critics try to avoid this term, because I guess it makes them look like paltry imitators and seems to imply that Scottish literature is just a pale reflection of its smarter southern neighbour. But while you should be (I think) a bit ashamed of writing fan-fics for such crap as Twilight (even if the said fan-fics bring you gazillions), there is no shame in writing fan-fics inspired by the genius that Chaucer was. Incidentally, we know next to nothing about Henryson, apart from the fact that he may have been the headmaster of the grammar school in Dunfermline and there are no reports of him ever becoming immensely rich. He wrote, among others, something which looks like an intensely grimy and gloomy sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, in which Criseyde ends up as an STD-infected prostitute in the Greek camp. The piece selected for the NAEL is fortunately a bit more cheery, as it is an animal fable, based on the same story as Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”. Incidentally, animal fables were the standard school fare, so Henryson’s interest in them, as a teacher, is quite understandable.

I will try to do my best not to repeat myself and focus on the differences between Chaucer’s and Henryson’s version. First of all, instead of Chaucer’s couplets Henryson writes the story in the elegant seven-line stanza known as “rhyme royal”, used also by Chaucer. The editors do their best to convince the readers that linguistically, Henryson’s Scots is not that much more difficult that Chaucer’s English. It’s true, which is not to say it’s a piece of cake, but with footnotes you can manage. The editors point out that some of Henryson’s forms are already closer to modern English than Chaucer’s, e.g. the use of “-s” ending in the 3rd person singular verbs instead of “-th”. I am an ignorant when it comes to historical grammar, so I wonder whether it’s a particular feature of the Scottish dialect or it’s just something that happened in the language spoken all over Great Britain a century after Chaucer.

Henryson leaves out all the disputes between Chauntecleer and his wife about the nature of dreams (which is a VAST IMPROVEMENT, in my opinion) and cuts to the chase, with the fox trying to befriend the cock. The fox in this version is called Lawrence, not Reynard, and he starts by appealing not so much to the cock’s vanity, but to filial love. “Your father was my best friend, he often sent me scraps from the farm when I was hungry and he practically died in my arms”, he says. The last one I can actually believe.

I can’t refrain from mentioning that the name of the editor of the collection from which the NAEL version comes is Denton Fox.

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