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The Bell & the Cat

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Bell and the Cat, also known as Belling the Cat, The Mice, the Bell, and the Cat, or The Mice in Council is a fable attributed to Aesop, providing a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and the feasibility of their execution, and how this plays into the value of a given plan. In the numbering system established for Aesopic fables by B. E. Perry, it is number 613.[1] The fable has been retold or adapted in a number of modern works. The story is the basis of the English colloquialism that means to suggest or attempt to perform a difficult or impossible task.[2]

Synopsis

The Fable concerns a group of mice who debate over a variety of plans to nullify the threat of the cat. In the end, one mouse proposes a plan having to do with placing a bell around the neck of the cat, which is lauded by the other mice, until one mouse asks who it is who would place the bell on the cat. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan based not only on how desirable the outcome would be once executed, but to think first of how the plan would be executed. Some versions of the fable state a moral at the end, along the lines of:

It is one thing to suggest and another thing to do
It is easy to propose impossible remedies

Children’s Author Rick Walton’s version

What a queer meeting that was down in the cellar! There were big mice, little mice, old mice, young mice, gray mice, and brown mice, all very sober and thoughtful.

At last an old mouse spoke up and said, “Shall we have Mr. Graypate for our chairman? All those who wish Mr. Graypate to be chairman will please hold up their right hands.” Every mouse raised a tiny paw.

Mr. Graypate walked out to the front and took charge of the meeting. It was well that they chose him, for he was the wisest mouse in the whole country. Gazing over the crowd, he said, “Will Mr. Longtail tell us why we have met here? Mr. Longtail, come out in front where we can hear you.”

Mr. Longtail walked slowly to the front. Then he stood upon his hind legs and said:

“My friends, I think you all know why we are here. Last night Mrs. Whitenose, whom we all love, and all her family were killed by the big white cat. The night before, while Mrs. Blackfoot was out hunting, all her cunning little babies were killed by the same cat. Early this week one of my finest boys was killed. You or I may be next.

“Must we bear this and do nothing at all to save our loved ones and ourselves? We have met here to make some plan for our defense.”

Having spoken, Mr. Longtail walked back into the crowd.

Mr. Graypate arose and said:

“You have heard why we are here. Anyone who has a good plan for ridding us of the cat will please tell of it. The meeting is open to all.”

“Let us all run at him suddenly when he is not looking for us, and each give him a bite. That would surely kill him,” said one brave mouse.

“But how many of us do you think he would kill?” said another mouse. “I will not risk my life nor that of my family.” “Nor I”; “nor I”; “nor I,” said many other mice.

“Let us steal his food and starve him to death,” suggested another.

“That will only make him hungrier for mice,” they replied. “That will never do.”

“I wish we might drown him,” said another; “but I don’t know how we could get him into the water.”

At last a little gray mouse with a squeaky voice went up to the front and spoke:

“I have a plan that will surely work. If we could know when the cat is coming, we could get out of his way. He steals in upon us so quietly, that we can not escape. Let us find a little bell and a string. Let us put the bell on the string and tie the string around the cat’s neck. As soon as we hear the bell, we can run and get out of the cat’s way.”

“A very good plan,” said Mr. Longtail. “We will ask our leader to say which mouse shall put the bell on the cat’s neck.”

At this there was a great outcry. One said, “I am so little that I can not reach high enough to bell the cat.” Another said, “I have been very sick and am too weak to lift the bell”; and so the excuses came pouring in.

At last Mr. Graypate called to the crowd, “Silence! I shall choose no one. Who will offer to bell the cat?”

It was very quiet in the meeting. One after another of the younger mice went out. None but the older ones were left. At last they too went sadly home. No one would bell the cat.

(from Fifty Famous Fables , by Lida Brown McMurry)

Ancient versions

What a queer meeting that was down in the cellar! There were big mice, little mice, old mice, young mice, gray mice, and brown mice, all very sober and thoughtful.

At last an old mouse spoke up and said, “Shall we have Mr. Graypate for our chairman? All those who wish Mr. Graypate to be chairman will please hold up their right hands.” Every mouse raised a tiny paw.

Mr. Graypate walked out to the front and took charge of the meeting. It was well that they chose him, for he was the wisest mouse in the whole country. Gazing over the crowd, he said, “Will Mr. Longtail tell us why we have met here? Mr. Longtail, come out in front where we can hear you.”

Mr. Longtail walked slowly to the front. Then he stood upon his hind legs and said:

“My friends, I think you all know why we are here. Last night Mrs. Whitenose, whom we all love, and all her family were killed by the big white cat. The night before, while Mrs. Blackfoot was out hunting, all her cunning little babies were killed by the same cat. Early this week one of my finest boys was killed. You or I may be next.

“Must we bear this and do nothing at all to save our loved ones and ourselves? We have met here to make some plan for our defense.”

Having spoken, Mr. Longtail walked back into the crowd.

Mr. Graypate arose and said:

“You have heard why we are here. Anyone who has a good plan for ridding us of the cat will please tell of it. The meeting is open to all.”

“Let us all run at him suddenly when he is not looking for us, and each give him a bite. That would surely kill him,” said one brave mouse.

“But how many of us do you think he would kill?” said another mouse. “I will not risk my life nor that of my family.” “Nor I”; “nor I”; “nor I,” said many other mice.

“Let us steal his food and starve him to death,” suggested another.

“That will only make him hungrier for mice,” they replied. “That will never do.”

“I wish we might drown him,” said another; “but I don’t know how we could get him into the water.”

At last a little gray mouse with a squeaky voice went up to the front and spoke:

“I have a plan that will surely work. If we could know when the cat is coming, we could get out of his way. He steals in upon us so quietly, that we can not escape. Let us find a little bell and a string. Let us put the bell on the string and tie the string around the cat’s neck. As soon as we hear the bell, we can run and get out of the cat’s way.”

“A very good plan,” said Mr. Longtail. “We will ask our leader to say which mouse shall put the bell on the cat’s neck.”

At this there was a great outcry. One said, “I am so little that I can not reach high enough to bell the cat.” Another said, “I have been very sick and am too weak to lift the bell”; and so the excuses came pouring in.

At last Mr. Graypate called to the crowd, “Silence! I shall choose no one. Who will offer to bell the cat?”

It was very quiet in the meeting. One after another of the younger mice went out. None but the older ones were left. At last they too went sadly home. No one would bell the cat.

(from Fifty Famous Fables , by Lida Brown McMurry)

Versions of the fable are found in the verse collections of Babrius and Aphthonius, and in several prose collections including those attributed to Ademar and Odo of Cheriton.

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