The Lion, the Bear & the Fox

The Lion, the Bear and the Fox is a story type of eastern origin that began to be added to the collection of Aesop’s Fables only in the 17th century. It is number 147 in the Perry Index.

The Basic Story

European versions of this story feature two animals fighting over a find or their prey, only to have a third animal come and steal it. One of the earliest occurrences of a story of this type is in Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales. It is referred to briefly in “The Knight’s Tale”:

We strive as did the two hounds for the bone,
They fought all day, and yet their part was none;
There came a kite by, while that they were wrath,
And bore away the bone between them both. (CT 1177-80)

A variation on this became proverbial as “While two dogs are fighting for a bone, a third runs away with it”.[2]

The fable of “The Lion and the Bear” appears as number 60 in the collection of 150 fables in Latin verse by the Austrian poet Candidus Pantaleon (1604).[3] Here a lion and a bear simultaneously attack a fawn and fight over it until they collapse from fatigue. Then a fox that has been watching them snatches their prey and makes off with it. The moral Pantaleon draws at the end is Saepe alter alterius fruitur labribus: from the labours of others it is often another who profits. The story seems to have entered collections of Aesop’s fables from this source. In his 1692 retelling, Sir Roger L’Estrange anglicizes the conclusion as ‘Tis the Fate of all Gotham Quarrels, when Fools go together by the Ears, to have Knaves run away with the Stakes’.

Honoré Victorin Daumier: Lithograph of La Fontaine’s fable, “The Ass and the Two Thieves”, 1863

The French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine transformed the story into his tale of Les voleurs et l’âne (I.13)[4] in which two thieves fight over the question of whether to keep or sell a stolen donkey, only to have another thief ride it off while they are doing so. La Fontaine draws a political moral, likening the dispute to a contemporary war between Hungary and Turkey over the province of Transylvania. In the Walloon dialect imitation made by François Bailleux in 1851, Lès voleûrs èt l’ågne[5], that author likens the dispute between the thieves to two lovers fighting over a girl while a third has his way with her.

Ambrose Bierce also reinterprets the story in the “Old Saws with New Teeth” section of his Fantastic Fables (1899)[6]: Bierce takes the hint for the conduct of his ‘honest man’ from Samuel Croxall’s Fables of Aesop and others: translated into English with instructive applications (1722 and often reissued). The ‘application’ for the fable of “The Lion, the Bear and the Fox” reflects on the foolishness of applying to lawyers in disputes over property: ‘When people go to law about an uncertain title, and have spent their whole estates in the contest, nothing is more common than for some little pettifogging attorney to step in, and secure it to himself.’[7] Thomas Bewick indicates the same moral in his illustrated Select Fables of Aesop (1784). There the preface to Fable 20, titled “The Lion, the Tyger and the Fox”, warns that ‘The intemperate rage of clients gives the lawyer an opportunity of seizing the property in dispute’

Eastern Variations

Just as the story of the dogs who lost everything while fighting over a bone became proverbial in England, the Indian proverbial equivalent is expressed as ‘monkey’s justice’. The story there is of two cats who fight over a piece of bread, or butter or cheese, and go before a monkey to adjudicate their shares. He cuts it into two unequal halves and has to nibble first one then the other to get them equal until the cats beg him to stop; claiming it as his fee, the monkey gobbles the remainder and leaves them nothing.

The fable involves the same distrust of lawyers as in the West and it is this parallel that is underlined when the story began to appear in European sources. One of the earliest examples is in Jean-Baptiste Perrin’s Fables Amusantes (1771) under the title “Les Deux Chats et le Singe” (The Two Cats and the Monkey).[9] The same story reappears in poetic form in Alfred de Saint-Quentin’s Guyanese creole variant, Dé Chat ké Makak (The Two Cats and the Monkey).[10]

A much earlier Indian variation on the story appears in the Buddhist scriptures as the Dabbhapuppha Jataka.[11]. Here a jackal offers to arbitrate between two otters who are quarrelling over the division of a fish they have co-operated in bringing to land. The jackal awards them the head and tail and runs off with the bulk of their catch. The moral drawn is a political one:

Just as when strife arises among men,
They seek an arbiter: he’s leader then,

Their wealth decays and the king’s coffers gain

The story has obvious affinities with the fable of the Lion’s Share and the similar political moral drawn from it by some commentators. Gandhi drew a similar conclusion when applying the story of the cats and the monkey to the troubles arising from the partition of India in 1947.[12]

Artistic Interpretations

The fable of “The Lion, the Bear and the Fox” figured as one of a series in the Copeland and Garrett period of late Spode pottery between 1830-79. The designs for these were taken from the illustrations in the 1793 edition of the Rev. Samuel Croxall’s Fables of Aesop[13].

Honoré Daumier made an oil painting of La Fontaine’s fable (c.1858-60) which is on display in the Musée d’Orsay. It is based on a lithograph of street fighters which appeared in Le Charivari on 23 August 1845, the preliminary drawing for which is also in the same museum. The painter emphasises the fight between the thieves in the foreground, standing out against the over-all dark colouring, while in the background, hidden in the shadows, the flight of the third thief on the ass is roughly sketched in.[14]


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