The Mouse Turned into a Maid

The mouse turned into a maid is an ancient fable of Indian origin that travelled westwards to Europe during the Middle Ages and also exists in the Far East. Its Classical analogue is the Aesop’s Fable of “Venus and the Cat” in which a man appeals to the goddess Venus to change his cat into a woman. The fable has the themes of incomplete transformation and, in the Indian form, of a succession of more powerful forces. It has received many treatments in literature, folklore and the arts.

It is Aarne-Thompson type 2031C.[1] Another tale of this type is The Husband of the Rat’s Daughter.

The Mouse-Maid Made Mouse

The story found in the Panchatantra relates how a mouse drops from the beak of a bird of prey into the hands of a holy man, who turns it into a girl and brings her up as his own. Eventually he seeks a powerful marriage for her and first approaches the sun, asking the girl:

“Little girl, how do you like him, this blessed lamp of the three worlds?” “No, father,” said the girl. “He is too burning hot. I could not like him. Please summon another one, more excellent than he is.”
Upon hearing this, the holy man said to the sun: “Blessed one, is there any superior to you?” And the sun replied: “Yes, the cloud is superior even to me. When he covers me, I disappear.”
So the holy man summoned the cloud next, and said to the maiden: “Little girl, I will give you to him.” “No,” said she. “This one is black and frigid. Give me to someone finer than he.”
Then the holy man asked: “O cloud, is there anyone superior to you ?” And the cloud replied: “The wind is superior even to me.”
So he summoned the wind, and said: “Little girl, I give you to him.” “Father,” said she, “this one is too fidgety. Please invite somebody superior even to him.” So the holy man said: “O wind, is there anyone superior even to you ?” “Yes,” said the wind. “The mountain is superior to me.”
So he summoned the mountain and said to the maiden: “Little girl, I give you to him.” “Oh, father,” said she. “He is rough all over, and stiff. Please give me to somebody else.”
Then the holy man asked: “O kingly mountain, is there anyone superior even to you ?” “Yes,” said the mountain. “Mice are superior to me.”
Then the holy man summoned a mouse, and presented him to the girl, saying: “Little girl, do you like this mouse?”

Since the girl feels the call of like to like in this case, she is changed back to her original form and goes to live with her husband in his hole.[2]

The tale has many Indian versions, including current oral examples.[3] It was eventually translated into Pahlavi and then into Arabic, but before a version of any of these works had reached Europe the fable appeared in Marie de France‘s Ysopet as a cautionary tale against social climbing through marrying above one’s station (Fable 74). The creature involved is a male vole (‘which is a kind of mouse’, Marie explains) who applies to the sun for the hand of his daughter. He is sent on to a cloud, the wind, a tower, and then the mouse that undermines it, to the ruin of his aspirations.[4]

The theme of keeping to one’s class reappears in a Romanian folk variant in which a rat sets out to pay God a visit. He applies to the sun and to clouds for directions, but neither will answer such a creature; then he asks the wind, which picks him up and flings him on an ant-heap – ‘and there he found his level’, the story concludes. A less harsh judgement is exhibited in Japanese and Korean variants where the father seeking a powerful match for his daughter is sent round the traditional characters of sun, cloud and wind, only to discover that he too has a his place on the ladder of power. It is interesting to note that all these are animal fables and lack the transformation theme. In the Japanese case a rat is involved and in the Korean a mole.[5]

Jean de la Fontaine‘s later version, “The Mouse Metamorphosed into a Maid” (Fables IX.7), acknowledges the story’s Indian origin by making it a Brahmin who fosters the mouse and gives it back the body it had in a former birth. Such goings-on shock the good Catholic in La Fontaine, who finds in the story’s culmination, in which the girl falls in love with the burrowing rat at the mere mention of its name, an argument to confound the Eastern fabulist’s beliefs:

In all respects, compared and weigh’d,
The souls of men and souls of mice
Quite different are made –
Unlike in sort as well as size.
Each fits and fills its destined part
As Heaven doth well provide;
Nor witch, nor fiend, nor magic art,
Can set their laws aside.[6]

It is the philosophical wrangling in this fable which inspired the American poet Marianne Moore to a wry and idiosyncratic recreation in her versions of La Fontaine (1954):

We are what we were at birth, and each trait has remained
in conformity with earth’s and with heaven’s logic:
Be the devil’s tool, resort to black magic,
None can diverge from the ends which Heaven foreordained.[7]

This in turn was set for unaccompanied soprano by the British composer Alexander Goehr in 1991. The fable is also the subject of Print 90 in Marc Chagall‘s set of 100 hand-coloured etchings of La Fontaine’s work commissioned by Ambroise Vollard in 1926 and executed between 1927 and 1930.[8]

The original Indian version has been made into an animated film and appears with Hindi, Kannada and English narrations on YouTube.[9]

Cumulative theme

The search for the strongest husband in the Indian fable is perhaps the ancestor[10] of the many cumulative tales dispersed across the world. An early Jewish Midrash has a similar cumulative theme: Abraham is accused of impiety and brought before King Nimrod, who commands him to worship fire. Abraham replies that it would be more reasonable to worship water, which can quench fire and is therefore more powerful. When this premise is granted, he points out that the clouds, as sustainers of water, are more worthy of worship, and then that the wind that disperses them is more powerful still. Finally he confronts Nimrod with the observation that “man can stand up against the wind or shield himself behind the walls of his house” (Gen. R. xxxviii). This theme of a succession of more powerful elements, and even some of the same elements, seems to survive in many rhymes, songs and cumulative tales. Chad Gadya, for instance, is a playful cumulative song, written mainly in Aramaic and sung at the end of the Passover Seder; it begins with one little goat and proceeds by turns to more powerful creatures and forces:[11]

One little goat, one little goat
Then came the Holy One, Blessed be He,
and smote the angel of death, who slew the slaughterer,
who killed the ox, that drank the water,
that extinguished the fire, that burned the stick,
that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the goat
Which my father bought for two zuzim.

Modern examples appear to be descendents of this type of tale: the folktale “The Old Woman and Her Pig”[12] and the anonymous poem “What’s in there?”.[13]

Venus and the Cat

The Indian fable’s western equivalent is the story of “Venus and the Cat”, which goes back to Classical times and is given the moral that nature is stronger than nurture. There are various versions but all feature a cat turned into a woman by the goddess, who then tests her on the wedding night by introducing a mouse into the bedchamber. Jean de la Fontaine gives it an extended, thoughtful treatment in his fable of “The Cat Metamorphosed into a Woman” (II.18),[14] concluding that:

So great is stubborn nature’s force.
In mockery of change, the old
Will keep their youthful bent.
When once the cloth has got its fold,
The smelling-pot its scent,
In vain your efforts and your care
To make them other than they are.
To work reform, do what you will,
Old habit will be habit still.

The fable has received musical treatments which reinterpret the basic story. Jacques Offenbach‘s one-act operetta La Chatte Metamorphosée en Femme (1858) verges on farce.[15] A financially ruined reclusive bachelor is pursued by his female cousin. With the help of a Hindu fakir, she makes him believe that she is the reincarnation of the pet cat with which he is besotted. Its happy ending is reversed in Henri Sauguet‘s popular ballet La Chatte (1927). Here the goddess Aphrodite turns the woman back into a cat again after she leaves her lover to chase a mouse and he dies of disappointment. There had in fact been a much earlier ballet of La chatte metamorphosée en femme, with music by Alexandre Montfort and choreography by Jean Coralli. This was first performed in 1837 with the Austrian dancer Fanny Elssler in the lead role. Not only did the work inspire Offenbach to write his opera but it was also indirectly responsible for Frederick Ashton‘s late ballet of that name, created in 1985 for a gala in honour of Fanny Elssler in Vienna.

Jean-François Millet‘s drawing of the fable

The fable has also had several film treatments including the French shorts by Louis Feuillade (1909) and Michel Carré (1910), the cartoon from the American Aesop’s Fables Studio (1921), and Martin Simpson’s “Venus and the Cat” (2010).

Interpretations in the Fine Arts include Millet‘s chalk and pastel drawing of the fable (c.1858) in which a black cat with shining eyes enters and looks toward a startled man who pokes his head through the bed curtains.[16] This was followed by an Art Nouveau marble sculpture exhibited in 1908 by Ferdinand Faivre in which the woman seems more to be contemplating and stroking the mouse than hunting it. Later the subject featured as Plate 25 in Marc Chagall‘s etchings of La Fontaine’s fables[17] in which a figure with the head of a cat but the well developed body of a woman looks out at us from the picture while leaning on a small table. Though the series was issued in 1953, sketches for some of the earliest date from the 1920s when the vogue for Japanese prints was still strong among Parisian artists. Its kinship with Utagawa Kuniyoshi‘s “Cat Dressed as a Woman” (a parody of a kabuki theme) is striking.

Chagall’s print, in its turn, inspired a poem by American poet Patricia Fargnoli.[18] Published in her collection Small Songs of Pain (2003), it considers what the physical process of changing into a woman must have felt like. With its concentration on the woman’s sexual characteristics, it takes us full circle to François Chauveau’s copper engraving in the first edition of La Fontaine’s Fables (1668) where it is made clear that the hunt for the mouse takes place immediately following the act of love.[19] This underlines the character of Aphrodite’s test of the woman and explains the love-goddess’ judgement in turning her back to her original form. In the light of this too, the posture of Faivre’s sculpture exhibits an interesting ambiguity.


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