Moral Fables

What we like about Henryson is his purity of mind. As the political situation worsened and Scotland plunged deeper into chaos, Henryson was able to keep his head clear of all that was going on around him and reach deep into the moral core of humanity. He was a religious man, it is believed he was a teacher at a school associated with the Benedictines in Dunfermline. His work combines great poetic skill with a kind of theological truth – much as John Barbour saw his role as poet being to deliver a kind of historical truth.

During Henryson’s time, morality plays (like Everyman) where audiences went along to hear a sermon dressed up as entertainment, were all the rage. Also, his readers would certainly have been acquainted with the fables of Aesop, who used animals in various dramatic situations to illustrate the condition of human beings and provide lessons to be drawn from them. For example, in the famous tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper we hear of a happy-go-lucky grasshopper who sings and fools around all summer while the ants toil industriously collecting food and preparing their shelter. Come winter, the grasshopper finds he is starving and cold, while the ants are snug (and maybe a wee bit smug, too) in their nest having put in the work to see them through the dark and difficult days of winter. The tales all provide a moral which is made explicit at the end of the tale. In this case the moral would be: Work hard today for the needs of tomorrow.

As well as the Tales of Aesop, Henryson drew on the medieval beast epics – long stories involving animals in human situations, which had all the hallmarks of epic narrative such as hero, villain, victim etc. One of the most famous characters of these beast epics was Reynard the Fox. These tales often satirised various aspects of human life such as the courts, the church, the rich, etc. and picked out specific human failings like hypocrisy, greed, laziness etc.

One of the advantages of centring his tales around the antics of animals is that he takes things out of the local, specific circumstances of life in Dunfermline or Edinburgh in the 15th century and gives his stories a more universal meaning. Some of the underlying realities of his poems may reflect contemporary life, but arguably that cannot be avoided – where Henryson succeeds is in disregarding the many political changes and disputes raging on around him to focus on the uniquely human forces which move and shape us and which challenge us constantly to live a good life.