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The Ass in the Lion’s Skin

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The Ass in the Lion’s Skin is one of Aesop’s Fables (Perry Index 188). The story has several variations and its interpretation varies accordingly.

Arthur Rakham Illustration, 1912

An Ass, having put on the lion’s skin, amused himself by terrifying all the foolish animals. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, “I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray.” The moral of the story is often quoted as Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.[1]

Jean de la Fontaine‘s version (5.21) follows mediaeval sources. It is the end of one of his ears poking out that gives the Ass away and he is driven back to work. The moral La Fontaine draws is not to trust to appearances and, following the interpretation of the Classical original, that clothes do not make the man.[2]

In India the same story appears in Buddhist scripture as the Sihacamma Jataka. Here the ass’s master puts the lion’s skin over his beast and turns it loose to feed in the grain fields during his travels. The village watchman is usually too terrified to do anything but finally one of them raises the villagers; when they chase the ass, it begins to bray and betrays its true identity.[3] The ass is then beaten to death, thus illustrating the Biblical saying that ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin’ (Proverbs 13.3, NIV). Another Jewish variant on this sentiment is the Sephardic proverb in Ladino, Asno callado, por sabio contado, a silent ass is considered wise. The English equivalent is ‘A fool is not known until he opens his mouth’.

The story and its variants is alluded to idiomatically in various other languages. In Latin it was Leonis exuvium super asinum.[4] In Mandarin Chinese it is yang(2) zhi(4) hu(3) pi(2), ‘a goat in a tiger’s skin’. In the Chinese story a goat assumes this disguise but continues to eat grass as usual. When it spies a wolf, instinct takes over and the goat takes to its heels.[5] In this instance the lesson to be learned is equivalent to the Afghan proverb ‘It is the same donkey but with a new saddle’, said of someone who has recently gained a high position undeservedly.[6]

An Ass, having put on the lion’s skin, amused himself by terrifying all the foolish animals. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, “I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray.” The moral of the story is often quoted as Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.[1]

Jean de la Fontaine‘s version (5.21) follows mediaeval sources. It is the end of one of his ears poking out that gives the Ass away and he is driven back to work. The moral La Fontaine draws is not to trust to appearances and, following the interpretation of the Classical original, that clothes do not make the man.[2]

In India the same story appears in Buddhist scripture as the Sihacamma Jataka. Here the ass’s master puts the lion’s skin over his beast and turns it loose to feed in the grain fields during his travels. The village watchman is usually too terrified to do anything but finally one of them raises the villagers; when they chase the ass, it begins to bray and betrays its true identity.[3] The ass is then beaten to death, thus illustrating the Biblical saying that ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin’ (Proverbs 13.3, NIV). Another Jewish variant on this sentiment is the Sephardic proverb in Ladino, Asno callado, por sabio contado, a silent ass is considered wise. The English equivalent is ‘A fool is not known until he opens his mouth’.

The story and its variants is alluded to idiomatically in various other languages. In Latin it was Leonis exuvium super asinum.[4] In Mandarin Chinese it is yang(2) zhi(4) hu(3) pi(2), ‘a goat in a tiger’s skin’. In the Chinese story a goat assumes this disguise but continues to eat grass as usual. When it spies a wolf, instinct takes over and the goat takes to its heels.[5] In this instance the lesson to be learned is equivalent to the Afghan proverb ‘It is the same donkey but with a new saddle’, said of someone who has recently gained a high position undeservedly.[6]

An Ass, having put on the lion’s skin, amused himself by terrifying all the foolish animals. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, “I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray.” The moral of the story is often quoted as Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.[1]

Jean de la Fontaine‘s version (5.21) follows mediaeval sources. It is the end of one of his ears poking out that gives the Ass away and he is driven back to work. The moral La Fontaine draws is not to trust to appearances and, following the interpretation of the Classical original, that clothes do not make the man.[2]

In India the same story appears in Buddhist scripture as the Sihacamma Jataka. Here the ass’s master puts the lion’s skin over his beast and turns it loose to feed in the grain fields during his travels. The village watchman is usually too terrified to do anything but finally one of them raises the villagers; when they chase the ass, it begins to bray and betrays its true identity.[3] The ass is then beaten to death, thus illustrating the Biblical saying that ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin’ (Proverbs 13.3, NIV). Another Jewish variant on this sentiment is the Sephardic proverb in Ladino, Asno callado, por sabio contado, a silent ass is considered wise. The English equivalent is ‘A fool is not known until he opens his mouth’.

The story and its variants is alluded to idiomatically in various other languages. In Latin it was Leonis exuvium super asinum.[4] In Mandarin Chinese it is yang(2) zhi(4) hu(3) pi(2), ‘a goat in a tiger’s skin’. In the Chinese story a goat assumes this disguise but continues to eat grass as usual. When it spies a wolf, instinct takes over and the goat takes to its heels.[5] In this instance the lesson to be learned is equivalent to the Afghan proverb ‘It is the same donkey but with a new saddle’, said of someone who has recently gained a high position undeservedly.[6]

The Fable

An Ass, having put on the lion’s skin, amused himself by terrifying all the foolish animals. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, “I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray.” The moral of the story is often quoted as Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.[1]

Jean de la Fontaine‘s version (5.21) follows mediaeval sources. It is the end of one of his ears poking out that gives the Ass away and he is driven back to work. The moral La Fontaine draws is not to trust to appearances and, following the interpretation of the Classical original, that clothes do not make the man.[2]

In India the same story appears in Buddhist scripture as the Sihacamma Jataka. Here the ass’s master puts the lion’s skin over his beast and turns it loose to feed in the grain fields during his travels. The village watchman is usually too terrified to do anything but finally one of them raises the villagers; when they chase the ass, it begins to bray and betrays its true identity.[3] The ass is then beaten to death, thus illustrating the Biblical saying that ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin’ (Proverbs 13.3, NIV). Another Jewish variant on this sentiment is the Sephardic proverb in Ladino, Asno callado, por sabio contado, a silent ass is considered wise. The English equivalent is ‘A fool is not known until he opens his mouth’.

The story and its variants is alluded to idiomatically in various other languages. In Latin it was Leonis exuvium super asinum.[4] In Mandarin Chinese it is yang(2) zhi(4) hu(3) pi(2), ‘a goat in a tiger’s skin’. In the Chinese story a goat assumes this disguise but continues to eat grass as usual. When it spies a wolf, instinct takes over and the goat takes to its heels.[5] In this instance the lesson to be learned is equivalent to the Afghan proverb ‘It is the same donkey but with a new saddle’, said of someone who has recently gained a high position undeservedly.[6]

Illustration for La Fontaine’s Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant, Jean-Baptiste Oudry and Dominique Sornique, 1729.

Synopsis

The fable concerns a grasshopper who has spent the warm months singing away while the ant (or ants in some editions) worked to store up food for winter. When winter arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger, and upon asking the ant for food is only rebuked for its idleness. The story is used to teach the virtues of hard work and saving, and the perils of improvidence. Some versions of the fable state a moral at the end, along the lines of: “Idleness brings want”, “To work today is to eat tomorrow”, “Prepare for want before it comes”.

Ancient versions

Versions of the fable are found in the verse collections of Babrius (140) and Avianus (34), and in several prose collections including those attributed to Syntipas and Apthonius. In a variant prose form of the fable (Perry 112), the lazy animal is a dung beetle, which finds that the winter rains wash away the dung on which it feeds. In its Greek original, as well as in its Latin and Romance translations, the grasshopper is in fact a cicada.

The moral point of view behind the fable is expressed in the Book of Proverbs 6:6-9, a book of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), which admonishes, “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. How long will you slumber, O sluggard!”

[edit] Later adaptations

In the 17th century Jean de la Fontaine set the story of “La cigale et la fourmi” at the very start of his Fables. In his retelling, the tight-fisted ant suggests that since the grasshopper has sung all summer it should now dance to keep out the cold.[2]

In France the grasshopper (or rather the cicada) then became the proverbial example of improvidence: so much so that Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1911) could paint a picture of a female nude biting her fingers among the falling leaves and be sure viewers would understand the point by giving it the title La Cigale. The painting was exhibited at the 1872 Salon with a quotation from La Fontaine, “Quand la bise fut venue” (When the cold north wind came), and was seen as a critique of the lately deposed Napoleon III, who had led the nation into a disastrous war with Prussia. Another with the same title, alternatively known as “Girl with a Mandolin” (1890), was painted by Edouard Bisson (1856–1939) and depicts a gipsy musician in a sleeveless dress shivering in the falling snow.[3] Also so-named is the painting by Henrietta Rae (a student of Lefebvre’s) of a naked girl with a mandolin slung over her back who is cowering among the falling leaves at the root of a tree.[4]

A secondary association in these paintings is that of the sexually loose woman. This is the implication behind Anton Chekhov‘s short story titled “The Grasshopper” (Poprygunya, 1892), which concerns an artistic wife who is unfaithful to her doctor husband and does not come to appreciate him until his death from diphtheria.[5] The story was made into a film by Samson Samsonov under its Russian name in 1955 and produced for TV in France in 1977 under the title La Cigale. A completely different story dealing with a young woman passing from man to man until she falls into prostitution was directed in the USA by Jerry Paris and released in 1969 under the title “The Grasshopper”.

La Fontaine’s portrayal of the Ant as a flawed character led to that insect being viewed as anything but an example of virtue. Jules Massenet‘s two-act ballet Cigale, first performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1904, portrays the cicada as a charitable woman who takes pity on “La Pauvrette” (the poor little one). But La Pauvrette, after being taken in and fed, is rude and heartless when the situation is reversed. Cigale is left to die in the snow at the close of the ballet.

The English writer W. Somerset Maugham goes so far as to reverse the moral order in his short story, “The Ant and The Grasshopper” (1924). It concerns two brothers, one of whom is a dissolute waster whose hard-working brother has constantly to bail him out of difficulties. At the end the latter is enraged to discover that his ‘grasshopper’ brother has married a rich widow, who then dies and leaves him a fortune.[6]

James Joyce also adapts the fable into a tale of brotherly conflict in “The Ondt and the Gracehoper” episode in Finnegans Wake[7] and makes of the twin brothers Shem and Shaun opposing tendencies within the human personality:

These twain are the twins that tick Homo Vulgaris.

John Updike‘s 1987 short story Brother Grasshopper deals with a pair of brothers-in-law whose lives parallel the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. One, Fred Barrow, lives a conservative, restrained existence; the other, Carlyle Lothrop, spends his money profligately, especially on joint vacations for the two men’s families, even as he becomes financially insolvent. However, at the end comes an unexpected inversion of the characters’ archetypal roles, as when Carlyle dies, Fred—now divorced and lonely—realizes he has been left with a rich store of memories which would not have existed without his friend’s largesse.

Musical settings

1919 illustration of Aesop’s Fables by Milo Winter

The text of La Fontaine’s version of the fable was set by the following French composers:

There was also a three-act comic opera based on the fable by Edmond Audran, performed in Paris in 1886, in London in 1890 and in New York in 1891. This was shortly followed by the darker mood of Jules Massenet‘s ballet Cigale, mentioned above. Massenet also set a song by Maurice Fauré titled “The Grasshopper’s Death” (La mort de la cigale, 1912) for voice and piano. This is only loosely connected to the fable and pictures the wheat fields ready for harvest, after which

The cricket slumbers, as a poet dies,
Tired of living, proud of having sung.

Later adaptations of the fable to ballet include Henri Sauguet‘s La cigale at la fourmi (1941) and an episode in Francis Poulenc‘s Les Animaux Modèles (Model Animals, 1941).

The Belgian composer Joseph Jongen set La Fontaine’s fable for children’s chorus and piano (op. 118, 1941) and the Dutch composer Rudolf Koumans set the French text in Vijf fabels van La Fontaine (op. 25, 1964) for school chorus and orchestra. A Russian version of the fable by Ivan Krylov was written under the title “The dragonfly and the ant” (Strekoza i muravej).[12] This was set for voice and piano by Anton Rubinstein in 1851; a German version (Der Ameise und die Libelle) was later published in Leipzig in 1864 as part of his Fünf Fabeln (Op.64). In the following century the Russian text was again set by Dmitri Shostakovich in Two Fables of Krylov for mezzo-soprano, female chorus and chamber orchestra (op.4, 1922). A Hungarian translation of the fable by Dezső Kosztolányi was also set for mezzo-soprano, four-part mixed chorus and 4 guitars or piano by Ferenc Farkas in 1977. Most recently the fable has figured as a purely instrumental piece in Karim Al-Zand’s Four Fables for flute, clarinet and piano (2003).[13]

Movie treatments

La Fontaine’s fable lent itself to animated film features from early on, the earliest being by George Méliès in France in 1897. Others produced under the title La cigale et la fourmi were directed by Louis Feuillade (1909) and Georges Monca (1910). There were also Italian films under the title La cicala e la formica by Mario Caserini (1908) and Renato Molinari (1919). In America the Aesop’s Film Fables featured several, including The Ants and the Grasshopper (1921); in the UK the animated short The Grasshopper and the Ant was directed by Lotte Reiniger in 1954.

Walt Disney provided the story with a happier ending based on a socially responsible compromise in the animated cartoon “The Grasshopper and the Ants” (discussed in the next section). He also adapted the story, less directly, in the Mickey’s Young Readers Library segment Mickey and the Big Storm; in this adaptation, Donald Duck and Goofy spend the first day of a winter snowstorm playing out in the snow and don’t bother to stock up on supplies. Fortunately for them, Mickey has more than enough for himself and his friends.

Friz Freleng twice put a spin on the tale in his Warner Bros. cartoons. Porky’s Bear Facts depicts Porky Pig working hard while his lazy neighbor refuses to do anything, only to suffer during winter; Foney Fables shows a brief version of the story, in which it turns out that the grasshopper has a war ration card and thus doesn’t need to work.

Ringing the moral changes, Don Ameche has the grasshopper eat the ant in the film Things Change. Elements of the fable were also loosely adapted as part of the storyline of the Pixar film A Bug’s Life. In this there are multiple grasshoppers who act as Mafia-like tyrants, demanding a tribute of food from the ant colony, even though the ants far outnumber the grasshoppers.

The moral debate

Gustave Doré illustration of La Fontaine’s The Ant and the Grasshopper

La Fontaine’s criticism of the ant in 17th century France was that it lacked generosity. The Grasshopper had asked for a loan which it promised to pay back with interest, but

The Ant had a failing,
She wasn’t a lender.

By this time readers were aware of the Christian duty of charity and therefore sensed the moral ambiguity of the fable. This is brought out by Gustave Doré‘s 1880s print which pictures the story as a human situation. A female musician stands at a door in the snow with the children of the house looking up at her with sympathy. Their mother looks down from the top of the steps. Her tireless industry is indicated by the fact that she continues knitting but, in a country where the knitting-women (les tricotteuses) had jeered at the victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution, this activity would also have been associated with lack of pity.

Other French fabulists had already started the counter-attack on the self-righteous ant. In around 1800 Jean-Jacques Boisard has the cricket answering the ant’s criticism of his enjoyment of life with the philosophical proposition that since we must all die in the end, Hoarding is folly, enjoyment is wise. In a Catholic educational work (Fables, 1851) Jacques-Melchior Villefranche offers a sequel in which the ant loses its stores and asks the bee for help. The ant’s former taunt to the grasshopper is now turned on himself:

Are you hungry? Well then,
Turn a pirouette,
Dine on a mazurka,
Have polka for supper.

But then the bee reveals that it has already given the grasshopper shelter and invites the ant to join him since ‘All who are suffering/Deserve help equally.’

In the 20th century the fable enters the political arena. Walt Disney‘s cartoon version, The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934)[14] confronts the dilemma of how to deal with improvidence from the point of view of Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal. The Grasshopper’s irresponsibility is underlined by his song “The World Owes us a Living”, which later that year became a Shirley Temple hit, rewritten to encase the story of the earlier cartoon. In the end the ants take pity on the grasshopper on certain conditions. The Queen of the Ants decrees that the grasshopper may stay, but he must play his fiddle in return for his room and board. He agrees to this arrangement, finally learning that he needs to make himself useful, and ‘changes his tune’ to

Oh I owe the world a living….
You ants were right the time you said
You’ve got to work for all you get.[15]

In recent times the fable has again been put to political use by both sides in the social debate between the enterprise culture and those who consider the advantaged have a responsibility towards the disadvantaged. A modern satirical version of the story, originally written in 1994, has the grasshopper calling a press conference at the beginning of the winter to complain about socio-economic inequity, and being given the ant’s house. This version was written by Pittsburgh talk show guru Jim Quinn[16] as an attack on the Clinton administration’s social programme in the USA. In 2008 Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin also updated the story[17] to satirize the policies of ‘Barack Cicada’. There have been adaptations into other languages as well. But the commentary at the end of an Indian reworking[18] explains such social conflict as the result of selective media presentation that exploits envy and fear.

The fable is equally pressed into service in the debate over the artist’s place within the work ethic. In Marie de France‘s mediaeval version the grasshopper had pleaded that its work is ‘to sing and bring pleasure to all creatures, but I find none who will now return the same to me.’ The ant’s reply is thoroughly materialistic, however: ‘Why should I give food to thee/When you cannot give aid to me?’[19] The poetic art is no more highly regarded six centuries later in Marie’s home country. In 1810 the French revolutionary Pierre-Louis Ginguené authored a book of “New Fables” (1810), in which appears “The Grasshopper and the Other Insects”.[20] There the Grasshopper exhorts the others to follow his example of tireless artistic activity. It is answered that the only justification for poetry can be if it is socially useful. Such an argument derives from the 18th Century utilitarianism that was soon to be challenged by Romanticism. As a consequence, the use of fables during the century that followed was largely confined to those who aspired to educate their public.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Romanian poet George Topîrceanu was to make the case for pure artistic creation in “The ballad of a small grasshopper” (Balada unui greier mic), although more in the telling than by outright moralising. A cricket passes the summer in singing; autumn arrives, but he continues. It is only in icy winter that the cricket realizes that he hasn’t provided for himself. He goes to his neighbour, the ant, to ask for something to eat, but the ant refuses saying, “You wasted your time all summer long.” The English folk-singer and children’s writer Leon Rosselson subtly turns the tables in much the same way in his 1970s song The Ant and the Grasshopper, using the story to rebuke the self-righteous ant (and those humans with his mindset) for letting his fellow creatures die of want and for his blindness to the joy of life;[21] a recording is available on YouTube[22]

In the field of children’s literature, Slade and Toni Morrison‘s rap retelling of the fable, Who’s Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003), where the grasshopper represents the artisan, provokes a discussion about the importance of art, as does Leo Lionni‘s book about the fieldmouse Frederick (1967), faced with the same dilemma of how to provide for the winter. Illustrator Eric Carle retells Aesop’s fable in his Treasury of Classic Tales for Children (1988) without explicitly stating the moral. In fact it is given a new conclusion in which the last group of ants approached by the grasshopper welcome him into their home to play his fiddle, eat with them and be merry – echoing the Disney cartoon of fifty years before.

Modern allusions

  • The Timon and Pumbaa episode “Wide Awake in Wonderland” featured a parody of the story with Timon in the role of the grasshopper and Pumbaa as the ant.
  • Satirist Dave Barry has a version that ends with both the grasshopper and the ants being killed by passing Boy Scouts.
  • The song “Stalker” by the Japanese band The Pillows alludes briefly to the fable, in a line that can be translated as “A rocker working like an ant/ Are you harvesting for the winter?”.
  • In the Futurama episode My Three Suns, Fry recounts the story of The Grasshopper and the Octopus as a rationalization for laziness: “All year long the grasshopper kept burying acorns for winter, while the octopus mooched off his girlfriend and watched TV. But then the winter came, and the grasshopper died, and the octopus ate all his acorns. And also, he got a racecar. Isn’t any of this getting through to you?”
  • Lee and Herring parodied the fable on their series Fist of Fun. Richard Herring references the fable to illustrate his diligence in writing the script while Stewart Lee lazily avoids work. Lee then recites his amended fable, “The Ant and the Man”, which demonstrates that tales involving animals have no bearing on human behaviour since humans are capable of rational thought and not just natural instinct.
  • The 5 November 2006 episode of Jong-Cherl Yeon’s comic-book format diary, Marineblues, featured an alternate version of this fable in which the price of the grasshopper’s house rises by 300 million after three years of lazing about, and the ant only earns 3 million despite working hard for three years.[citation needed]
  • An episode of Super Why! reworks the tale, having the Ant tell the Grasshopper that there is food atop a tall mountain, and showing the grasshopper how to get there. However, when the Grasshopper arrives, a cricket has taken the last of the food. In keeping with the Super Why! format, the “Super Readers” change the story, and the Grasshopper is then given Winterberry seeds, which grow into a holly bush resplendent with berries. The plot serves to teach a central Super Why character the value of early preparation.
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