The Wolf & the Crane

The Wolf and the Crane is a fable attributed to Aesop that has several eastern analogues. Similar stories have a lion instead of a wolf, and a heron or partridge takes the place of the crane

A Wolf had been gorging on an animal he had killed when suddenly a small bone stuck in his throat and he could not swallow it. In terrible pain, he ran up and down groaning and groaning and seeking for someone to relieve him. “I would give anything,” said he, “if you would take it out.” At last the Crane agreed to try and, putting its long neck down the Wolf’s throat, loosened the bone with its beak till at last he got it out. But when the Crane asked for his reward, the Wolf grinned and showed his teeth. “Be content,” he said; “you have put your head inside a Wolf’s mouth and taken it out again in safety; that ought to be reward enough for you.”

In early versions, where Phaedrus has a crane, Babrius has a heron, but a wolf is involved in both.

Alternative versions

The story is very close in detail to the Javasakuna Jataka in the Buddhist scriptures. In this it is a woodpecker that dislodges the bone, having first taken the precaution of propping the lion’s mouth open with a stick. On testing his gratitude later, the woodpecker is given the same answer as the wolf’s and reflects

From the ignoble hope not to obtain
The due requital of good service done.[1]

A Jewish Midrash version dating from the 1st century CE tells how an Egyptian partridge extracts a thorn from the tongue of a lion. For reward it is told to be grateful that the lion’s jaws did not close on its head. Other retellings have a crane dislodging a bone from its throat, as in the Indian account. One of this fable’s earliest applications was at the beginning of the Roman emperor Hadrian‘s reign (117 – 138 CE), when Joshua ben Hananiah skilfully made use of it to prevent the Jewish people from rebelling against Rome and once more putting their heads into the lion’s jaws (Genesis Rabba lxiv., end).

It is notable that both these versions are given a political application. This is equally true of John Lydgate‘s 15th century retelling of Isopes Fabule, titled ‘How the Wolf deceived the Crane’.[2] The crane there is described as a surgeon engaged to perform a delicate operation who is then deceived out of the salary promised. Lydgate goes on to draw the wider lesson of how a tyrannous aristocracy oppresses the rural poor and gives them no return for their service


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