The Mountain in Labour
The Mountain in Labour is one of Aesop's Fables and appears as number 520 in the Perry Index. It was often cited in Classical times and applied to a variety of situations. It refers to speech acts which promise much but deliver little.
The Fable and its interpretation
The earliest surviving version of the tale is in the first two and a half lines of a four-line Latin poem by Phaedrus. 'A mountain had gone into labour and was groaning terribly. Such rumours excited great expectations all over the country. In the end, however, the mountain gave birth to a mouse.' Phaedrus then goes on to say that this applies to those who make serious but empty threats. Walter of England and William Caxton were eventually to follow him in this, but that such an interpretation is too narrowly focused is suggested by the many other Classical allusions to what was clearly a popular proverb.
The most well-known mention of the fable appears in Horace's epistle on The Art of Poetry. Discussing what to avoid in a poem's opening, he recommends
- And don’t start like the old writer of epic cycles:
- ‘Of Priam’s fate I’ll sing, and the greatest of Wars.’
- What could he produce to match his opening promise?
- Mountains will labour: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!
- (Ep.II.3, 136–9)
When the English poet Lord Byron updated the work in his Hints from Horace, he substituted a reference to a contemporary writer of bad epics, Robert Southey, ' Whose epic mountains never fail in mice' (line 198). The treatment of the tale in La Fontaine's Fables also followed Horace in applying it to literary criticism (Fables V.10).
A number of writers of Greek origin mention the fable, although only these allusions have survived in Greek. Commenting on the ruler Agesilaus in his Parallel Lives, the 1st century historian Plutarch writes that 'the old proverb was now made good: The mountain had brought forth a mouse'. In the 2nd century the poet Lucian makes only a fragmentary allusion, while in the 3rd century the rhetorician Porphyry claims that it is a Greek proverb that Horace was quoting.
The line from Horace's poem (Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus) is reproduced word for word in a mediaeval compilation of fables, the Ysopet-Avionnet. In this instance, however, it is in connection with the fable about Belling the cat where the author comments on the ineffectiveness of political dialogue. In his prose retelling (The Mountains in Labour, Fable 26), Samuel Croxall also draws from it a warning against the promises of politicians and cites 'Great cry and little wool' as a parallel English proverb that fits the situation. In the 19th century it was also given a political application under the title 'The Mountain of Horace' in an American political cartoon by Thomas Nast satirising the supporters of Horace Greeley in the presidential election of 1872. It depicts Greeley as a mouse emerging from a pile of mud labeled "Liberal Mountain."
Though it has been less popular in more modern times, the brevity of narration leading to the fable's satirical pay-off, which recommended it also to La Fontaine, is underlined by the setting given it by the musician Bob Chilcott in his Aesop's Fables for piano and choir (2008).
- A rather free 19th century translation
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados and Gert-Jan van Dijk, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable vol.3, Brill 2003, pp.515–6; Google books
- Ysopet-Avionnet, the Latin and French texts, University of Illinois 1919; fable LXII, pp.190–2; this is archived online
- A performance of this is available on YouTube
- 15th-20th century book illustrations online