The Frog and the Mouse

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A plate from 1880 illustrating the fable

"The Frog and the Mouse" is one of Aesop's Fables and exists in several versions. It is numbered 384 in the Perry Index.[1] There are also Eastern versions of uncertain origin which are classified as Aarne-Thompson type 278, concerning unnatural relationships.[2] The stories make the point that the treacherous are destroyed by their own actions.

The Greek fable and its variations[edit]

The basic story is of a mouse that asks a frog to take her to the other side of a stream and is secured to the frog's back. Midway across, the frog submerges and drowns the mouse, which floats to the surface. A passing kite picks it from the water and carries the frog after it, eventually eating both. Other versions depict them as friends on a journey together or else exchanging hospitality.

The story appears in the early Mediaeval fable collections of Odo of Cheriton and Marie de France, dating from the end of the 12th century. Marie's story is the more circumstantial and concludes differently from most others. The mouse lives contentedly in a mill and offers hospitality to a passing frog. The frog then lures the mouse into crossing the stream on the pretence of showing her his home. While he is trying to drown his passenger, the pair are seized by the kite, who eats the frog first because it is fat. Meanwhile the mouse struggles free of its bonds and survives.[3] At the start of the 15th century, the poet John Lydgate expanded Marie's story even further.[4] The most significant additional detail is the mouse's moralising on the happiness of being satisfied with one's lot. It is as a result of this that the frog is preferred by the kite for its fatness, since the virtuous mouse, being content with little, is 'slender and lean'.[5]

Lydgate's collection was followed by two more vernacular versions in Britain during the 15th century. In William Caxton's collection of the fables, it is a rat on pilgrimage who asks the frog's help to cross a river.[6] A Scottish poem under the title The Paddock and the Mouse appears among Robert Henryson's Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian. It too is an expanded version, in the course of which the frog offers to carry the journeying mouse over to the grain fields on the stream's other bank. Henryson interprets the tale in his concluding ballade, making the point that 'Foul mind is hid by words both fair and free' and that it is better to be content with one's lot 'Than with companion wicked to be paired'.[7]

In the Renaissance the situation at the start of the mock epic Batrachomyomachia was sometimes merged into the fable, making the two creatures enemies. There a frog carrying a mouse on its back had submerged from fear of a snake and inadvertently drowned his rider. In revenge, the mice declare war on the frogs. The Neo-Latin poet Hieronymus Osius records both versions in his Phryx Aesopus (1574).[8] In the first of these the two animals are presented as friends; in the second they are enemies disputing rulership of the marsh and are carried off by the kite as they fight. It was the latter version that appeared in the English fable collections of Francis Barlow (1687),[9] Roger L'Estrange (1692)[10] and Samuel Croxall (1722).[11] In the aftermath of civil strife and revolution, it was a welcome opportunity to preach civil concord. Meanwhile in France Jean de la Fontaine had recorded the first version, in which the frog invites the mouse to a meal, among his Fables (IV.11, 1668).

The fable was among those translated into German by Martin Luther in 1530. In modern times it was included among those set by Hans Poser in his Die Fabeln des Äsop for accompanied choir (Op. 28, 1956).

The Eastern analogue[edit]

Aesop's fable was current in the East during mediaeval times and is told at great length by Rumi in his Masnavi as an example of the dangers of unequal friendship.[12]

An 1847 illustration of "The Scorpion and the Turtle" from the Persian Kalilah and Dimna

At about the same time, a different version concerning a scorpion and a tortoise had emerged among the fables of Bidpai. The scorpion asks the tortoise to carry it across a stream and promises that it will do no harm. When the tortoise discovers that the scorpion is trying to drive its sting through his shell, he dives and drowns its treacherous passenger. Although many of Bidpai's stories can be traced back to the ancient Hindu fable collection, the Panchatantra, no Sanskrit version of the scorpion story exists. A German study by Arata Takeda suggests that it was introduced during the 12th and 13th century in the Persian language area.[13]

Takeda's study began as an attempt to find the origin of a more recent hybrid tale with elements of both Aesop's fable and the Eastern analogue. In this, it is a frog that is asked by the scorpion to carry it across the water. To allay the frog's suspicions, the scorpion argues that this would be safe since, if he stung the frog, both would drown. The frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog. When asked the reason for his illogical action, the scorpion explains that this is simply his nature. The earliest verifiable appearance of this variant was in the 1954 script of Orson Welles' film Mr. Arkadin.[14] On account of its dark morality, there have been many popular references since then.[15] The moral that there is no hope of reform in the basically vicious was common in ancient times and was exemplified, for example, in Aesop's fable of The Farmer and the Viper, but no evidence exists of a link between them.

Claims are sometimes made, also without supporting evidence, that the fable of the frog and the scorpion is of Arab origin, but the authentic West Asian stories in which these two appear are completely different. A Sufi source from the 6th century illustrates divine providence with the tale of a scorpion that crosses the Nile on a frog's back in order to save a sleeping drunkard from being stung by a snake.[16] There was also a Jewish variant in the Babylonian Talmudic commentary in which a rabbi witnessed a scorpion crossing a river in the same way in order to sting a man to death.[17] In neither case is the frog harmed.


  1. ^ Aesopica site
  2. ^ D.L. Ashliman, Folklore and Mythology
  3. ^ Google Books
  4. ^ Edward Wheatley, Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers, University of Florida 2000, pp.124-31
  5. ^ Isopes Fabules, Fable 3
  6. ^ Fables of Esope 1.3
  7. ^ A slightly modernised version
  8. ^ Aesopica site
  9. ^ Fable 35
  10. ^ Fable 4
  11. ^ fable 98
  12. ^ Book VI, 2632-2973
  13. ^ Takeda, Arata (2011). "Blumenreiche Handelswege: Ost-westliche Streifzüge auf den Spuren der Fabel Der Skorpion und der Frosch". Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Volume 85, Issue 1, pp. 124-152.
  14. ^ See Giancarlo Livraghi's 2007 footnote to his book The Power of Stupidity (2004)
  15. ^ Listed in a past version of Wikipedia
  16. ^ René Khawam, Propos d’amour des mystiques musulmans, choisis, présentés and traduits de l'arabe, Paris, 1960; section 3, "Le soufisme authentique"
  17. ^ Tractate Nedarim folio 41a

External links[edit]