Choose one of the fabliaux and describe how the moral matches up to a story or film from the modern age. Provide references to the assigned readings and current story.

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vanertc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A major theme or moral presented in Jacques de Baisieux’s French fabliau, “The Tale of the Priest's Bladder,” can be summed up in the simple phrase, “Don’t trick a trickster.”  In many tales applying this theme, the trickster generally doesn’t set out to dupe anyone; rather, they are induced to entrap others who would hoodwink them.  And since our tricksters are generally intelligent people, the audience enjoys the situational irony set up against the entrapers. The trickster warning is classic in literature, from Baisieux’s early 14th century fabliau to Frank Darabont’s 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption.

In “The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder,” we are told up front that the dying priest “was filled with good sense.” Further evidence of his intelligence is shown in his lifelong hard work and sensible money management, so that he has amassed a fair amount of wealth.  We also see that he is a benevolent man, in that he willingly gives all his possessions to those who are deserving, setting everything up prior to his death to make all smooth and easy for them.  “To whom he wished his things to be given / He had public, not private, / Letters written and notarized.”  Even at Death’s door he appears sharp-witted.  Yet the two Jacobin friars, general acquaintances of his, quite underestimate both his intelligence and his benevolence.  Simply because they have availed themselves of his hospitality on several past occasions, and because they are also men of the Church, they feel entitled to a portion of his wealth.  It is clear, though, that they inherently know they are in the wrong, as Friar Louis says to his companion, “I shall prepare / My best snares” to manipulate the ailing priest out of twenty pounds—a good chunk of money in those days. Friar Louis uses the Scriptures in an attempt to guilt the priest into giving them money (and note, the friar cannot even produce any actual quotes, just a general warning that the priest will die in sin if he doesn’t give in to the Friars’ order). They go so far as to insist that the priest break his legal contracts by taking back gifts he has already given.  

At this point the priest is outraged, but calmly sets about devising his trick. He promises to give them a treasure that he alone has had in his possession. He even gives them a day to salivate over the prospect, and they are to come back the next day in the presence of the town councillors and the mayor. This waiting period allows the trick to have more humorous impact, as the two friars brag to their order about the impending wealth, and squander resources like fools.  In the end, the trick reveals them for the greedy fools they are, as (in front of important people, mind you) they are promised delivery of the gift upon the priest’s death—his bladder.  The priest says, “It will be better than leather / And last you much longer. / You can put your pepper in it.” The trickster wins in the end, and we relish in the situational irony, knowing that the corrupt friars get what they deserve—to become laughingstocks due to the covetous mercenaries that they are.

Many aspects of this tale are evident in the much more dramatic story of The Shawshank Redemption.  The priest can be seen as represented by Andy Dufresne, while the role of the friars is seen in Warden Norton.  Andy is a very intelligent banker, who has lived a successful life and been a man of moral character, for the most part.  Although he is not on his deathbed, he is framed for murder and sentenced to life in prison.  Like the friars, Norton sees profit to be gained from a man stuck in dire straights.  Andy is completely at the mercy of the warden, who forces the former banker to set up illegal money-making schemes, then launder the money to cover up the crimes. Norton also uses Scripture as an attempt to guilt Andy into following his rules. His favorites are “Salvation lies within” and “His judgement cometh, and that right soon,” which is embroidered on a wall-hanging in his office. Yet the warden, like the friars, is so self-absorbed and greedy that he underestimates his victim’s intelligence, ignoring his own religious references.

Andy is forced to become a trickster in order to extract himself from his unjust situation.  He doesn’t just escape prison; he takes Norton down on his way out.  After mailing evidence of the warden’s illegal dealings to the police and several news stations, Andy makes his escape, but not before leaving Norton a humorous message about the irony of his trick.  The rock-pick with which Andy tunnelled out of his cell over many years had been hidden all along inside the Bible that the Warden praised him for having.  Andy swaps this out for the warden’s bank deposit.  When Norton makes the discovery, he reads Andy’s message, “Dear Warden, you were right.  Salvation lay within.” The full, ironic impact of Andy’s trick dawns on him.  As police break down his office door (“His judgement cometh”), Warden Norton takes his own life. While not a humorous ending like “The Tale of the Priest's Bladder,” it presents a similar moral: don’t trick a trickster, because the consequences are never worth your imagined gain.