The Wolf and the Lamb

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The Wolf and the Lamb is a well known fable of Aesop and is numbered 155 in the Perry Index.[1] There are several variant stories of tyrannical injustice in which a victim is falsely accused and killed despite a reasonable defence.

The fable and its variants[edit]

Arthur Rackham's drawing of a companion fable, "The Cat and the Cock"

A wolf comes upon a lamb and, in order to justify taking its life, accuses it of various misdemeanours, all of which the lamb proves to be impossible. Losing patience, it says the offences must have been committed by someone else in the family and that it does not propose to delay its meal by enquiring any further about the matter. The morals drawn are that the tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny and that the unjust will not listen to the reasoning of the innocent.[2]

A variant story attributed to Aesop also exists in Greek sources. This is the fable of the cock and the cat, which is separately numbered 16 in the Perry Index.[3] Seeking a reasonable pretext to kill the cock, the cat accuses it of waking people early in the morning and then of incest with its sisters and daughters. In both cases the cock answers that humanity benefits by its activities. But the cat ends the argument by remarking that it is now her breakfast time and 'Cats don't live upon Dialogues'.[4] Underlying both these fables there is the Latin proverb, variously expressed,[5] that 'an empty belly has no ears' or, as the Spanish equivalent has it, Lobo hambriento no tiene asiento (a hungry wolf doesn't hang about).[6]

The fable also has Eastern analogues. One of these is the Buddhist Dipi Jataka in which the protagonists are a panther and a goat. The goat has strayed into the presence of a panther and tries to avert its fate by greeting the predator politely. It is accused of treading on his tail and then of scaring off his prey, for which crime it is made to substitute.[7] A similar story involving birds is found among Bidpai's Persian fables as "The Partridge and the Hawk".[8] The unjust accusation there is that the partridge is taking up all the shade, leaving the hawk out in the hot sun. When the partridge points out that it is midnight, it is killed by the hawk for contradicting.

Moral applications[edit]

A cartoon from Punch, 1893

Down the centuries the various interpreters of the fable have applied it to the injustices of their time. In the extended treatment by the 15th century Scottish poet Robert Henryson in his Moral Fables a picture of widespread social breakdown is depicted. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered with perversions of all these by the Wolf. Then Henryson enters in his own person and comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolf who oppress the poor. The first are dishonest lawyers, the second are landowners intent on extending their estates, and the third are aristocrats who exploit their tenants.[9]

A political application of the fable to international relations is the 1893 Punch cartoon published at the time Britain and France were both considering extending their colonial influence into Thailand and looking for excuses. A wolf dressed in the uniform of the French army is shown eyeing the Thai lamb across the Mekong river. The presence of the fable in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry has suggested that a similar political comment is being made through it by the English embroiderers to express their dissent and horror at the Norman invasion of Britain.[10]

Artistic applications[edit]

The story was among those included in La Fontaine's Fables (I.10)[11] and was set to music by several French composers, including

La Fontaine's fable in Catalan translation is part of Xavier Benguerel i Godó’s Siete Fabulas de La Fontaine for recitation with orchestral accompaniment.[18] But it was Martin Luther's German translation, Fabel Vom Wolf und Lämmlein that Hans Poser set for male choir and accompaniment in his Die Fabeln des Äsop (0p.28, 1956). A ballet based upon the fable was choreographed in 2004 by Béatrice Massin for the composite presentation of Annie Sellem, Les Fables à La Fontaine. This was interpreted to the Baroque music of Marin Marais.[19]

The fable also figured on two French stamps. First was a 1938 portrait of La Fontaine with the tale illustrated in a panel below it.[20] There was also a six-stamp strip issued in 1995 to commemorate the third centenary of La Fontaine's death; here the lamb is shown as startled by the wolf's reflection in the water.[21] In 1977 Burundi issued a four-stamp block of fables where the designs are based on Gustave Doré's illustrations, of which this fable is one.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aesopica site
  2. ^ The Aesop for Children, Chicago 1919, p. 42
  3. ^ Aesopica site
  4. ^ Roger L'Estrange's wording
  5. ^ Latin via Proverbs example 2092
  6. ^ Refranero Latino, Madrid 2005, proverb 672 (p.62) and proverb 3161 (p.236)available on Google Books
  7. ^ Jataka tales, edited by H.T. Francis and E.J. Thomas, Cambridge 1916 pp.289-91
  8. ^ Maude Barrows Dutton, The Tortoise and the Geese and Other Fables of Bidpai, Boston and New York 1908, p.56
  9. ^ A modernised version is available at the Glasgow University site
  10. ^ Middle Ages org. What are on the Borders of the Bayeux Tapestry?
  11. ^ Fifty Fables of La Fontaine translated by Norman Shapiro, University of Illinois 1997 p.13
  12. ^ There is a performance on YouTube
  13. ^ Available on YouTube
  14. ^ Available on YouTube
  15. ^ Included in a video of the whole work
  16. ^ A performance on YouTube
  17. ^ A percormance on YouTube
  18. ^ Available on YouTube
  19. ^ The opening is available on Vimeo and the hunt sequence here
  20. ^ Illustrated at Creighton University
  21. ^ Creighton University
  22. ^ Creighton University

External links[edit]