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Middle English animal fable : a study in genre Silkens, Rose-Marie

Abstract

This study examines animal fables written in Middle English. While the purposes and methods of these narratives differ widely, an examination of them bears out the thesis that the characterization peculiar to animal fable is the basis of the fulfillment of these several purposes. Middle English animal fables extant range in type from brief Aesopic prose narratives in homilies and treatises to sophisticated narrative poems, and in time from the thirteenth century to the late fifteenth century, although some exempla in homilies are believed to have earlier origins. Many of the brief exempla fables are the work of anonymous compilers, while the poets Chaucer, Langland, Lydgate and Henryson also used the genre, the two latter having written collections. The Middle English animal fables are not exclusively didactic. Indeed, Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" and the thirteenth-century "The Vox and the Wolf" are predominantly comic in tone, as are Lydgate's "The Churl and the Bird" and many of Henryson's "Morall Fabillis". Satire also plays an important part in a definition of the nature of fable, and the use of animal characters for the purposes of political and social criticism is common to medieval manifestations of the genre. The depiction of animal characters combining traits both bestial and human is the basic characteristic of the fables. In the simple exempla or in heavily didactic or satirical narratives, the characterization is not developed beyond what is necessary to clarify the implications for the human world. The best fables, however, develop the ironies of fable characterization, usually in a comic way, into lively and entertaining animal tales that reflect in various ways upon the human beings who serve as models for the characters. Although the Middle English animal fable includes brief narratives in the style of the Aesopic apologue as well as lengthier poems similar to the continental beast epic cycles, the common manner of portraying animals and developing the portrayals is to be found in all. The fables of Lydgate, Henryson and Chaucer combine basic Aesopic plots with beast epic characteristics. The animal fable in the hands of Middle English writers, while initially an imitative genre relying upon reworkings of Classical models, becomes a well-developed and highly entertaining form of narrative poetry.

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