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BABRIUS

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Originally appearing in Volume V10, Page 116 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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BABRIUS. traced to the History of Reynard the Fox. This great beast-epic has been referred by Grimm as far back as the loth century, and is known to us in three forms, each with independent episodes, but all woven upon a common basis. The Latin form is probably the earliest, and the poems Reinardus and Ysengrinus date from the roth or rrth century. Next come the German versions. The most ancient, that of a minnesinger Heinrich der Glichesaere (probably a Swabian), was analysed and edited by Grimm in 1840. The French poem of more than 30,000 lines, the Roman du Renard, belongs probably to the 13th century. In 1498 appeared Reynke de Voss, .almost a literal version in Low Saxon of the Flemish poem of the 12th century, Reinaert de Vos. Hence the well-known version of Goethe into modern German hexameters was taken. The poem has been well named " an unholy world Bible." In it the Aesopian fable received a development which was in several respects quite original. We have here no short and unconnected stories. Materials, partly borrowed from older apologues, but in a much greater proportion new, are worked up into one long and systematic tale. The moral, so prominent in the fable proper, shrinks so far into the background, that the epic might be considered a work of pure fiction, an animal romance. The attempts to discover in it personal satire have signally failed; some critics deny even the design to represent human conduct at all; and we can scarcely get nearer to its signification than by regarding it as being, in a general way, what Carlyle has called " a parody of human life." It represents a contest maintained successfully, by selfish craft and audacity, against enemies of all sorts, in a half-barbarous and ill-organized society. With his weakest foes, like Chaunteclere the Cock, Reynard uses brute-force; over the weak who are protected, like Kiward the Hare and Belin the Ram, he is victorious by uniting violence with cunning; Bruin, the dull, strong, formidable Bear, is humbled by having greater power than his own enlisted against him; and the most dangerous of all the fox's enemies, Isengrim, the obstinate, greedy and implacable Wolf, after being baffled by repeated strokes of malicious ingenuity, forces Reynard to a single combat, but even thus is not a match for his dexterous adversary. The knavish fox has allies worthy of him in Grimbart the watchful badger, and in his own aunt Dame Rukenawe, the learned She-ape; and he plays at his pleasure on the simple credulity of the Lion-King, the image of an impotent feudal sovereign. The characters of these and other brutes are kept up with a rude kind of consistency, which gives them great liveliness; many of the incidents are devised with much force of humour; and the sly hits at the weak points of medieval polity and manners and religion are incessant and palpable. It is needless to trace the fable, or illustrations borrowed from fables, that so frequently occur as incidental ornaments in the older literature of England and other countries. It has appeared in every modern nation of Europe, but has nowhere become very important, and has hardly ever exhibited much originality either of spirit or of manner. In English, Prior transplanted from France some of La Fontaine's ease of narration and artful artlessness, while Gay took as his model the Conies rather than the Fables., Gay's fables are often political satires, but some, like the Fox on his Deathbed, have the true ring, and in the Hare with many Friends there is genuine pathos. To Dryden's spirited remodellings of old poems, romances and fabliaux, the name of fables, which he was pleased to give them, is quite inapplicable. In German, Hagedorn and Gellert, both famous in their day and the latter extolled by Goethe, are quite forgotten; and even Lessing's fables are read by few but schoolboys. In Spanish, Yriarte's fables on literary subjects are sprightly and graceful, but the critic is more than the fabulist. A spirited version of the best appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, 1839. Among Italians Pignotti is famous for versatility and command of rhythm, as amongst Russians is Kriloff for his keen satire on Russian society. He has been translated into English by Ralston. France alone in modern times has attained any pre-eminence in the fable, and this distinction is almost entirely owing to one author. Marie de France in the 13th century, Gilles Corrozet, Guillaume Haudent and Guillaume Gueroult in the 16th, are now studied mainly as the precursors of La Fontaine, from whom he may have borrowed a stray hint or the outline of a story. The unique character of his work has given a new word to the French language: other writers of fables are called fabulistes, La Fontaine is named le fablier. He is a true poet; his verse is exquisitely modulated; his love of nature often reminds us of Virgil, as do his tenderness and pathos (see, for instance, The Two Pigeons and Death and the Woodcutter). He is full of sly fun and delicate humour; like Horace he satirizes without wounding, and " plays around the heart." Lastly, he is a keen observer of men. The whole society of the 17th century, its greatness and its foibles, its luxury and its squalor, from Le grand monarque to the poor manant, from his majesty the lion to the courtier of an ape, is painted to the life. To borrow his own phrase, La Fontaine's fables are " une ample comedie a cent actes divers." Rousseau did his best to discredit the Fables as immoral and corruptors of youth, but in spite of Emile they are studied in every French school and are more familiar to most Frenchmen than their breviary. Among the successors of La Fontaine the. most distinguished is Florian. He justly estimates his own merits in the pretty apologue that he prefixed to his Fables. He asks a sage whether a fabulist writing after La Fontaine would not be wise to consign his work to the flames. The sage replies by a question: " What would you say did some sweet, ingenuous Maid of Athens refuse to let herself be seen because there was once a Helen of Troy ? " The fables of Lessing represent the reaction against the French school of fabulists. " With La Fontaine himself," says Lessing, " I have no quarrel, but against the imitators of La Fontaine I enter my protest." His attention was first called to the fable by Gellert's popular work published in 1746. Gellert's fables were closely modelled after La Fontaine's, and were a vehicle for lively railings against the fair sex, and hits at contemporary follies. Lessing's early essays were in the same style, but his subsequent study of the history and theory of the fable led him to discard his former model as a perversion of later times, and the " Fabeln," published in 1759, are the outcome of his riper views. Lessing's fables, like all that he wrote, display his vigorous common sense. He has, it is true, little of La Fontaine's curiosa felicitas, his sly humour and lightness of touch; and Frenchmen would say that his criticism of La Fontaine is an illustration of the fable of the sour grapes. On the other hand, he has the rare power of looking at both sides of a moral problem; he holds a brief for the stupid and the feeble, the ass and the lamb; and in spite of his formal protest against poetical ornament, thereis in not a few of his fables a vein of true poetry, as in the Sheep (ii. 13) and Jupiter and the Sheep (ii. 18). But the monograph which introduced the Fabeln is of more inportance than the fables themselves. According to Lessing the ideal fable is that of Aesop. All the elaborations and refinements of later authors, from Phaedrus to La Fontaine, are perversions of this original. The fable is essentially a moral precept illustrated by a single example, and it is the lesson thus enforced which gives to the fable its unity and makes it a work of art. The illustration must be either an actual occurrence or represented as such, because a fictitious case invented ad hoc can appeal but feebly to the reader's judgment. Lastly, the fable requires a story or connected chain of events. A single fact will not make a fable, but is only an emblem. We thus arrive at the following definition:—" , A fable is a relation of a series of changes which together form a ,whole. The unity of the fable consists herein, that all the parts lead up to an end, the end for which the fable was invented being the moral precept." We may notice in passing a problem in connexion with the fable which had long been debated, but never satisfactorily resolved till Lessing took it in hand—Why should animals have been almost universally chosen as the chief dramatis personae? The reason, according to Lessing, is that animals have distinct characters which are known and recognized by all. The fabulist who writes of Britannicus and Nero appeals to the few who know Roman history. The Wolf and the Lamb comes home to every one whether learned or simple. But, besides this,human sympathies obscure the moral judgment; hence it follows that the fable, unlike the drama and the epos, should abstain, from all that is likely to arouse our prejudices or our passions. In this respect the Wolf and the Lamb of Aesop is a more perfect fable than the Rich Man and the Poor Man's Ewe Lamb of Nathan. Lessing's analysis and definition of the fable, though he seems himself unconscious of the scope of his argument, is in truth its death-warrant. The beast-fable arose in a primitive age when men firmly believed that beasts could talk and reason, that any wolf they met might be a were-wolf, that a peacock might be a Pythagoras in disguise, and an ox or even a cat a being worthy of their worship. To this succeeded the second age of the fable, which belongs to the same stage of culture as the Hebrew proverbs and the gnomic poets of Greece. That honesty is the best policy, that death is common to all, seemed to the men of that day profound truths worthy to be embalmed in verse or set off by the aid of story or anecdote. Last comes an age of high literary culture which tolerates the trite morals and hackneyed tales for the sake of the exquisite setting, and is amused at the wit which introduces topics and characters of the day under the transparent veil of animal life. Such an artificial product can be nothing more than the fashion of a day,. and must, like pastoral poetry, die a natural death. A serious moralist would hardly choose that form to inculcate, like Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees, a new doctrine in morals, for the moral of the fable must be such that he who runs may read. A true poet will not care to masquerade as amoral teacher, or show his wit by refurbishing some old-world maxim. Yet Taine in France, Lowell in America, and J. A. Froude in England have proved that the fable as one form of literature js not yet extinct, and is capable of new and unexpected developments. BIataoGRAPHY. Pantschatantrum, ed. Kosegarten (Bonn, 1848) ; Hitapadesa, ed. Max Muller (1864) ; Silvestre de Sacy, Calilah et Dimna, ou Fables de Bidpai, en Arabe, precedees d'un memoire sur l'origine de ce livre (Paris, 1816), translated by the Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull (Oxford, 1819) ; Comparetti, Ricerche interne at Libro di Sindebdd (Milan, 1869); Max Muller, "Migration of Fables," Chips from a German Workshop, vol. iv. (1875); Keller, Untersuchungen fiber die Geschichte der griechischen Fabel (Leipzig, 1862); Babrius, ed. W. G. Rutherford, with excursus on Greek fables (1883); L. Hervieux, Les Fabulistes latins (1884); Jakob Grimm, Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin, 1834) ; A. C. M. Robert, Fables inedites des XIP, XIII' et XLVe siecles, &c. (Paris, 1825); Taine, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (1853); Saint-Marc Girardin, La Fontaine et les fabulistes (Paris, 1867). (F. S.)
End of Article: BABRIUS
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