Robert Henryson’s work is often compared to Geoffrey Chaucer’s and although he does not have the sweep and range of his English predecessor, Henryson does mirror, consciously or not, some of Chaucer’s characteristics. Like Chaucer, he is interested in astrology, and in both The Testament of Cresseid and the Tale of Orpheus, the planets determine the fates of characters. In the Fables, his speaking animals sometimes have the comic and colloquial range of the Eagle in Chaucer’s the House of Fame (1372-1380) or the birds in his Parlement of Foules (1380).
Henryson’s most Chaucerian invention, however, is the narrative voice in The Testament of Cresseid. This narrative persona allows Henryson to present a morally complex situation with a degree of sophistication unmatched by his other works. Since the dates of Henryson’s poems are uncertain, it would be wrong to view The Testament of Cresseid as a culmination of his narrative technique. However, in this brief work, he not only tells a story but also offers a series of moral perspectives on the action by allowing different characters, including the narrator, varying degrees of objectivity.
In the Fables and the Tale of Orpheus, he uses a more conventional method of achieving a mixed perspective. Each of the thirteen fables concludes with a separate section, labeled moralitas, which spells out the allegorical and moral implications of the fable itself. Similarly, the Tale of Orpheus concludes with an analytical moralitas, pairing each character and event with a specific allegorical function. Perhaps because formal allegory has long been an acquired taste, these two works show to a disadvantage beside the freshness and seeming modernity of The Testament of Cresseid.
Henryson’s longest work, The Morall Fabillis of Esope, the Phrygian, also known as Fables, is a collection of thirteen Aesopic fables, each consisting of a beast tale followed by an explicating moralitas. Unanimity has not been reached on the question of the sources for Henryson’s versions of the traditional fables, but most scholars agree that he depended on the Latin verse Romulus of Gualterus Anglicus for seven of the tales. He may also have used a French translation of Gualterus known as Isopet de Lyon, John Lydgate’s Translation of Aesop (wr. c. 1400, pb. 1885; the first Aesopic collection in English), and William Caxton’s Fables of Aesop.
Some editors, borrowing phrases from early manuscripts, call Henryson’s fables the Morall Fabillis of Esope, the Phrygian, but Denton Fox, pointing out that Henryson evidently thought Aesop was a Roman, doubts the authenticity of the title and prefers simply Fables (see Fox’s 1981 edition).
Henryson provides a prologue to his tales that echoes the Horatian dictum about delight and instruction. In general, the fables themselves are lively tales in a colloquial style, featuring anthropomorphic beasts wandering into error. Some of the errors are more blatantly human than others, but all are corrected in the moralitas, which often have a more formal level of diction than do the tales. The relationship between fable and moral is not always what the modern reader expects; sometimes the highbrow stiffness of the moral does not do full justice to the human (or bestial) complexity of the tale. The key word in the preceding sentence is “bestial,” for clearly the animals of the stories, like Eurydice and Cresseid, represent aspects of human beings’ appetitive nature.
An example of the gap between fable and moralitas may be taken from the first fable, “The Cock and the Jasp,” in which a rooster, scrounging in a dunghill for food, comes upon a precious stone. Realizing that he, a cock, can have no use for a jewel, he casts it aside and continues the search for food. Now, to the reader, the rooster seems to have made a wise choice. Is it not better to attend to basic needs, like that for food, and ignore the useless material items? The moralitas, however, turns this perception inside out. Based on biblical tradition, the jewel is glossed as wisdom; suddenly, the cock can be seen as foolishly preferring dungy food to the intangible riches of knowledge. Henryson’s intention, it would seem, is to shock the reader into recognizing his own similarity to the foolish cock.
The fables, then, are explicitly didactic, and they work by creating a gap between the formal “correct” view of a situation and the partial human/animal view. The tidy structure of “The Cock and the Jasp” is not, however, precisely paralleled by all the other fables. In fact, as the sequence progresses, the fables themselves become harsher and bleaker, and the morals less pleasant. In the first seven, only blatantly evil characters are punished; in the latter six, however, the innocent begin to suffer. For example, in “The Wolf and the Lamb,” the twelfth fable, a pathetic lamb argues for its life but, without any hope of justice, is killed and eaten. The moralitas compares the lamb to “the pure pepill” and the wolf to “fals extortioners and oppresouris” and warns powerful men not to be like the wolf. A moral universe divides fable 12 from fable 1; Henryson has moved from questions of personal governance, as in “The Cock and the Jasp,” to address his fears about the contemporary political situation.
The thirteenth and final fable has a religious dimension; here a greedy mouse and a predatory paddock (toad) end up in a life-or-death water fight, and both are killed by a passing bird of prey. The mouse is allegorized by Henryson as man’s soul, the paddock as man’s body, and the whole tale as a parable for the difficulty of reconciling the two. Man is warned that unless he can reconcile body and soul he may become the victim of external predators. Henryson does not, however, offer a plan for effecting such a reconciliation. Although the early fables often surprise the reader, they do offer moral advice. The later fables, much darker, offer cautionary tales without explicit directions about how to avoid pitfalls oneself.
The Testament of Cresseid
By far Henryson’s best-known work,...
(The entire section is 2617 words.)