Robert Henryson ‘The Cock and the Fox’ the end.

The third hen wife picks up the subject of the worthless husband and says she believes what happened to him was God’s just punishment for his pride and lechery. Now, it seems to me a bit inconsistent, as just a moment ago another wife was accusing him of lacking potency. But I guess when people gang up together against somebody, they don’t pay much attention to consistency. The cock’s owner awakes from her swoon and sets her dogs on the fox – the Scottish widow seems to have much more of them than the English one. The fox sees he’s being pursued and in danger of getting caught. The cock advises him “Why don’t you tell him that I am your best friend and I swear I won’t move?” This is a bit less believable than in Chaucer’s version, even though in either case, the fact that the cunning fox listens to the advice of his victim strains credibility. Anyway, the story ends pretty much like in Chaucer: when the fox opens his maw, the cock flies to the nearest branch and even when the fox promises to be his servant for a year for free, he is not fooled the second time.

The story ends with Moralitas, in which the author explains his allegory: the cock stands for pride, which is one of the cardinal sins and brought about the fall of Lucifer, while the fox stands for flattery and false friends, who should be avoided at all costs. The fable overall is shorter and less elaborate than Chaucer’s version – Henryson doesn’t play with the mock-heroic style, nor is he as interested in displaying his learning, although in Chaucer’s case it may be attributed to the fact that the narrator of his story is a priest and so he may be a bit pedantic. It’s interesting to see how the moral goes in subtly different directions: in Chaucer’s case it is along the lines “lo, how mighty have fallen”, which really means nothing to an average non-mighty reader. Henryson’s moralizing seems to me to be more applicable to a more general readership.


Robert Henryson ‘The Cock and the Fox’ ctd.

The fox continues his flattery, but says “However, you’re not the man (the cock?) your father was, because when he crowed, he would close his eyes and turn three times around”. The cock tries to repeat this feat and sure enough, he is immediately seized by the fox. His wives Pertok, Sprutok and Coppok start yelling and lamenting. When they see the fox is gone for good, Pertok kicks off officially the widow phase. “Who is going to take care of us, who is going to be our clock, who is going to break the bread for us, and most importantly, who is going to be our lover?”. Sprutok says “Cut it off, sister wife and get ready for the life of a merry widow. Chauntecleer was often angry and jealous and frankly, not that good in bed.”. Pertok then indeed stops her lamenting because she was motivated only by lust, not love. Pertok then answer “indeed, a twelve men like him wouldn’t suffice for us. I promise you to find within a week a guy who better satisfies our appetites.” I think I’ll switch to “man” instead of cock, because chickens are here very antropomorphized, to the extent that the crying Pertok is described as “ryvand hir hair, upon his breist can beit” (tearing her hair, upon her breast did beat).

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.