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Robert Henryson’s “The Tale of the Paddock and the Mouse”

By listener request, here is my reading version of Robert Henryson’s “The Taill of the Paddok and the Mous,” lightly adapted for modern English speakers by me, as featured in Episode 73.

Upon a time, as Aesop could report,
A little Mouse came to a river side;
She might not wade, her shanks were so short;
She could not swim, she had no horse to ride:
Of verray force behove it her to bide,
And to and fro beside that river deep
She ran, crying with many piteous peep.

“Help over, help over,” this silly Mouse did cry,
“For God’s love, somebody over this brim.”
With that a Paddock in the water by
Put up her head, and on the bank did climb;
Quick by nature could duck, and gayly swim.
With voice full rauk, she said on this manner:
“Good morne, Sir Mouse, what is your errand here?”

“Seeist thou,” quod she, “of corn yon jolly flat
Of ripe oats, of barley, peas, and wheat;
I am hungry, and fain would be there-at,
But I am stopped by this water great;
And on this side I get nothing to eat
But hard nuts, which with my teeth I bore.
Were I beyond, my feast were far the more.

“I have no boat, here are no mariners:
And, though there were, I have no freight to pay.”
Quod she, “Sister, let be your heavy cheer;
Do my counsel, and I shall find the way
Without horse, bridge, boat, or yet galley,
To bring you over safely—be not affeared!
And not wetting the whiskers of your beard.”

“I have great wonder,” quod the silly mouse,
How can thou float without feather or fin?
This river is so deep and dangerous,
Me think that thou should drowned be therein.
Tell me, therefore, what faculty or gyn
Thou has to bring thee over this water?” Than
Thus to declare the Paddock soon began:

“With my two feet,” quod she, “lucken [webbed] and broad,
Instead of oars, I row the stream full still;
And though the brine be perilous to wade,
Both to and fro I row at my own will.
I may not drown, for why?—my open gill
Devoids all the water I receive:
Therefore to drown forsooth no dread I have.”

The Mouse beheld unto her fronsit [furrowed] face,
Her wrinkled cheeks, and her lips wide;
Her hanging brows, and her voice so hoarse;
Her gangly legs, and her harsky hide.
She ran aback, and on the Paddock cried:
“If I know any skill of physiognomy,
Thou has some part of falseness and envy.

“For Clerks say the inclination
Of man’s thought proceeds commonly
After the corporeal complexion
To good or evil, as nature will apply:
A twisted will, a twisted physiognomy.
The old proverb is witness of this: Lorum
Distortum vultum, sequitur distortio morum.”

“No,” quod the Toad, “that proverb is not true;
For fair things oft times are found fake.
The blueberries, though they be sad of hue,
Are gathered up when primrose is forsaken.
The face may fail to be the heart’s token.
Therefore I find this Scripture in all places:
Thou should not judge any man after his face.

“Thought I unwholesome be to looked upon,
I have no cause why I should be found lacking;
Were I else fair as jolly Absolon,
I am no causer of that great beauty.
This difference in form and quality
Almighty God has caused dame Nature
To print, and set in every creature.

“Of some the face may be full flourished;
Of silken tongue, and cheer right amorous;
With mind inconstant, false, and varying;
Full of deceit, and means cautelous.”
“Let be thy preaching,” quod the hungry Mouse;
And by what craft thou make me understand
That thou would guide me to yon yonder land?”

“Thou wait,” quod she, “a body that has need,
To help themself should many ways cast:
Therefore go take a double twined thread,
And bind thy leg to mine with knots fast;
I shall thee teach to swim—be not aghast!—
As well as I.” “As thou,” then quod the Mouse,
“To prove that play it were right perilous.

“Should I be bound and fast where I am free,
In hope of help, now then I shrew us both;
For I might lose both life and liberty.
If it were so, who should amend the scathe?
But if thou swear to me the murder oath,
Without fraud or guile, to bring me over this flood,
Without hurt or harm.” “In faith,” quod she, “I do it.”

She gawked up, and to the heavens did cry:
“О Jupiter! of Nature god and king,
I make an oath truly to thee, that I
This little Mouse shall over this water bring.”
This oath was made. The Mouse, not perceiving
The false engine of this foul, deceitful Toad,
Took thread and bound her leg, as she her bade.

Then foot for foot they lept both in the brim;
But in their minds they were right different:
The Mouse thought of nothing but for to swim,
The Paddock for to drown set her intent.
When they in midward of the stream were went,
With all her force the Paddock pressed down,
And thought the Mouse without mercy to drown.

Perceiving this, the Mouse on her did cry:
“Traitor to God, and mansworn unto me,
Thou swore the murder oath right now, that I
Without hurt or harm should ferried be and free;”
And when she saw there was but do or die,
With all her might she forced her to swim,
And pressed upon the Toad’s back to climb.

The dread of death her strengths gave increase,
And forced her defend with might and main.
The Mouse upward, the Paddock down did press;
While to, while fro, while ducking up again.
This silly Mouse, thus plunged into great pain,
Kept fighting as long as breath was in her breast;
Till at the last she cried for a priest.

As they fought thusly, the Glede sat on a branch,
And to this wretched battle took good heed;
And with a wisk, before any of them wist,
He clutched his claw betwix them in the thread,
Then to the land he flew with them good speed,
Glad of that catch, piping with many a pew:
Then loosed them, and both without pity slew.

Then disemboweling them, that butcher, with his bill,
And peeling the skin, full keenly them flayed;
But all their flesh would scant be half a fill,
And guts also, unto that greedy Glede.
When he had their debate thus settled,
He took his flight, and over the fields flew:
If this be true, ask ye at them that saw.


My Brother, if thou will take notice,
By this Fable, thou may perceive and see,
It passes for all kind of pestilence,
A wicked mind, with words fair and sly.
Beware therefore, with whom thou fellows thee:
To thee were better to bear the stone wheelbarrow,
For all thy days to delve while thou may endure,
Than to be matched with a wicked marrow.

A false intent under a fair presence
Has caused many innocent for to die.
Great folly is to give over soon credence
To all that speak fairly unto thee.
A silken tongue, a heart of cruelty,
Smites more sore than any shot of arrow.
Brother, if thou be wise, I advise thee flee,
Than match thee with a twisted feigned marrow.

I warn thee also, it is great negligence
To bind thee fast where thou was frank and free.
For once thou be bound, thou may make no defence
To save thy life, nor yet thy liberty.
This simple counsel, brother, take of me,
And it to learn by heart: see thou not tarrow;
Better but strive to life alone in peace
Than to be matched with a wicked marrow.

This hold in mind; right more I shall thee tell
Whereby these beasts may be figured.
The Paddock, used in the flood to dwell,
Is man’s body, swimming early and late
Into this World, with cares implict;
Now high, now low; at times plunging up, at times down;
Ever in peril, and ready for to drown.

Now dolorous, now blithe as bird on briar;
Now in freedom, now wrapped in distress;
Now hale and sound, now dead and brought on bier;
Now pure as Job, now surrounded in riches;
Now gowns gay, now rags laid in a chest;
Now full as fish, now hungry as a hound;
Now on the wheel, now wrapped to the ground.

This little Mouse here tied thus by the shin
The Soul of man betoken may indeed;
Bound, and from the body may not win,
While cruel Death can break of life the thread;
The which to drown should ever stand in dread,
Of carnal lust by the suggestion,
Which draws ever the soul, and drags it down.

The water is the World, always weltering
With many wail of tribulation;
In which the soul and body were stirred,
Standing right different in their opinion:
The soul upward, the body presses down;
The soul right fain would be brought over, I wis,
Out of this world unto the heavens’ bliss.

The Glede is Death, that comes suddenly
As does a thief, and ends soon the battle.
Be vigilant therefore, and always ready;
For man’s life is brittle, and ever mortal:
My friend, therefore, make thee a strong Castle
Of faith in Christ; for Death will thee assay,
Thou knows not when: evening, morrow, or midday.

Adieu, my friend; and if that any asks
Of this Fable so shortly I conclude,
Say thou, I left the rest unto the Friars,
To make example and a similitude.
Now Christ for us that died on the rood,
Of soul and life, as thou art Savior,
Grant us to pass until a blessed hour.

The original text can be found here:

  • Henryson, Robert. “The Taill of the Paddok and the Mous.” The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson, edited by David Laing, William Paterson, 1865. Google Books.

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