Natural moralities

December 4, 2010

This perplexing image is from Caxton’s 1484 English edition of Aesop’s Fables, which at that point was not considered primarily a text for children. It depicts a rat, which is tied to the foot of a frog, getting carried off by a kite. As it is described in the text:

Now it be so / that as the rat wente in pylgremage / he came by a Ryuer / and demaunded helpe of a frogge for to passe / and go ouer the water / And thenne the frogge bound the rats foote to her foote / and thus swymed vnto the myddes ouer the Ryuer / And as they were there the frogge stood stylle / to thende that the rat shold be drowned / And in the meane whyle came a kyte vpon them / and bothe bare them with hym / This fable made Esope for a symplytude whiche is prouffitable to many folkes / For he that thynketh euylle ageynst good / the euylle whiche he thynketh shall ones fall vpon hym self

What is really going on in this fable? What is the moral system of each character? On a first reading it looks as though the rat and the frog are bound up in anthropomorphic co-operation and backstabbing, while the kite exists in another order of natural processes and inevitability. The kite is certainly not evil by intent. The frog has thought about visiting evil – for which I think we can read misfortune – on the rat and so is in turn rendered a victim. It is all in the titles: this is the fable of the rat and the frog, but it makes way for another form of incidental agency embodied in the figure of the bird who simply acts on the basis of normal predatory instincts. I don’t think the kite is meting out punishment in a considered manner here.

Even more intriguing are the fables where a human takes the kite role to become the natural hazard in a moral balance between two non-humans. Like for example the fable of the two rats.

In this fable a fat rat leads a poor rat into a human cellar containing plenty of food. While they are enjoying the food they are disturbed by a butler, who doesn’t see them but the encounter scares them and indicates hazard. The message is ‘Better worthe is to lyue in pouerte surely / than to lyue rychely beyng euer in daunger’, the kite-like danger here represented by a man who is out of the moral sphere and features as an accident or condition, just going about his normal job with no will at all towards the rats.

Aesop’s fables are interesting in this way because, although their lens is highly anthropomorphic, they offer up scenarios which include this third character outside the main moral transaction, and it is especially interesting when that character is homo sapein.

One Response to “Natural moralities”

  1. dhildyard said

    Your description of the extremely different things which the fables bring to bear on the figures of animals made me think about how such different processes can be subsumed by the term ‘anthropomorphism’. It seems like animals can stand for whole persons or actions in these stories, or for individual traits, like cunning foxes or lazy sloths. Does it count that the cellar-dwelling creatures are rats, or could they just as well be eagles or lions or lugworms? Generically different, but also in a sense, anthropomorphic, are the uses of animals as the objects of seventeenth-century medical experiments which extrapolate about human anatomy from their findings.

    On the other hand, are we more inclined nowadays to assign feelings to animals – I wonder if that’s one of the things John Berger’s trying to do with the weird short story, ‘A Question of Place’, in which he gives an account of the slaughter of a heifer in an itemised, documentary sort of way which seems devoid of drama or emotion – though I suppose it might be pretty sensational, if you were a cow.

    On one level, there’s obviously a history of identifying humans with animals – but where, then, does the supplementary figure of the human or the animal as agent of fate or divine will or something else fit in? Perhaps, after all, there are too many different directions to go in, like trying to think about ‘the figure of the human in writing’. But I’d like to go back to some of these anatomical experimental texts with these questions in mind.

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