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This poem is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

from the Fables (translated by Harriet Spiegel) Marie de France

Marie de France, presumably a twelfth-century French woman living in England, is justly famous for her Lais. Her longer work, the Fables, has yet to be discovered by modern audiences, though the twenty-three surviving manuscripts of this work (as compared to one complete and four partial texts of the Lais) suggest the greater popularity of the Fables in the Middle Ages. Marie's collection of 103 fables is the earliest extant collection in the vernacular of western Europe. The first forty are clearly a part of the Latin tradition, specifically the Romulus Nilantii; the other sixty-three seem to come from all over - other Greek and Latin works, fabliaux, monks' tales, the Panchatantra, folk traditions of Italy, Germany, Greece, France, the Middle East - and many fables that, as far as is known, appear for the first time here. The collection has been neglected as an original work of Marie's perhaps because of her claim that she set out to translate (treire) these fables from the English of li reiz Alvrez. Scholars have generally assumed that she meant some Alfred but not Alfred the Great; in any case no such English text now survives. She may only, in the medieval way, have been offering a gesture of modesty while at the same time seeking the protection and authority of a tradition. And whether she had a single immediate source or not, Marie, putting the fables into verse (as she herself says), contributes her own perspective: a wry fatalism, timely social commentary, and even a feminine touch (the gods of the animals, for example, are female). The translation follows the original (which I have edited from Harley 978) very closely, for the most part line by line. The verse form is the closest equivalent to Marie's octosyllabic rhymed couplet; it has the advantage also of being the traditional verse form for English fables.

1 THE COCK AND THE GEM

  About a cock this tale is found
Who climbed a dungheap, scratched around
In nature's way, as he best could,
Searching for a scrap of food.
Discovering a precious stone,
He studied how it brightly shone.
'I thought,' he said, 'I might procure
A little food in this manure.
Instead, this precious stone I see -
Fat lot of honour you'll do me!
A rich man finding you, I'm sure
Would have you set in gold most pure;
And thus your beauty he'd augment
With gold - so very radiant!
Since I have no desire for thee,
...


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