I was going to post about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, which I recently finished reading, but was diverted by an entry in an old notebook of mine about this fable of the wolf and the lamb. It resonates even more today, given recent events in the world.The beast fables of Aesop (620-c 560 BCE), themselves often derived from more ancient oriental sources such as the Buddhist Dipi Jatakas, were adapted by the Roman poet Phaedrus (15 BCE-50). The text that follows is from a prose translation by H.T. Riley, published in London, 1887, available at Project Gutenberg; I’ve made minor adjustments in line with the original Latin text.
THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.
Driven by thirst, a Wolf and a Lamb had come to the same stream; the Wolf stood above, and the Lamb at a distance below. Then, the villain (thief or brigand, lit.), prompted by hunger (or ‘wicked throat’), trumped up a pretext for a quarrel. “Why,” said he, “have you made the water muddy for me while I am drinking?” The wool-bearer, trembling, answered: “Please, Wolf, how can I do what you complain of? The water is flowing downwards from you to where I am drinking.” The other, disconcerted by the force of truth, exclaimed: “Six months ago, you slandered me.” “Indeed,” answered the Lamb, “I was not born then.” “By Hercules,” said the Wolf, “then ’twas your father slandered me;” and so, snatching him up, he tore him to pieces, killing him unjustly.
This Fable is applicable to those men who, under false pretences, oppress the innocent.
More pertinent is the alternative version by Christopher Smart (1722-71), which ends :
Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know
’Tis now exact six months ago
You strove my honest fame to blot”—
“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”
“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,
And so he tore him, till he died.
To those this fable I address
Who are determined to oppress,
And trump up any false pretence,
But they will injure innocence
The fable was adapted many times subsequently; La Fontaine (published 1668-94) of course, but also by the Scots makar, Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his version (adapted slightly):
It’s about widespread social breakdown. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to Scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered by the Wolf with perversions of all these. Then Henryson in his own person comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolves who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers; real estate tycoons intent on extending their estates; and landowners who exploit their tenants.
To this could be added, in our day, the power-crazed in all walks of life, including politics.
I shall be going on holiday soon, so may not post much for a while; meantime I hope to post the Angel piece before I go.