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Do you agree that the whimsical, sometimes farcical behaviour, of the animals (toy animals) in Fables is nothing more than a comic device? Discuss in relation to two texts on your module, one to be medieval.

Do you agree that the whimsical, sometimes farcical behaviour, of the animals (toy animals) in Fables is nothing more than a comic device? Discuss in relation to two texts on your module, one to be medieval.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kate Rothwell. Originally submitted for Talking Animals at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Niamh Pattwell in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kate Rothwell. Originally submitted for Talking Animals at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Niamh Pattwell in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Do you agree that the whimsical, sometimes farcical behaviour, of the animals (toyanimals) in Fables is nothing more than a comic device? Discuss in relation to twotexts on your module, one to be medieval.
There may be a gap of over 500 years between the composition of GeoffreyChaucer’s
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
and that of James Thurber’s
 Fables for Our Time
butthere are many similarities to be found in the humour of the two texts. The comedy oftenlies in the anthropomorphising of animal characters who are placed in ludicrous situationsor given bizarre notions in order to criticise the authors’ contemporary societies. These portrayals are not simply designed to shed light on the actions of others, but the reader isalso expected to acknowledge a reflection of their own faults in the didactic examplesfound in these humorous beast fables. To quote Thurber; “People can laugh out of a kindof mellowed self-pity as well as out of superiority” (Hill 176).The fact that both Chaucer and Thurber give creatures the ability to talk isamusing in itself, but the particular language that these animals use is also worth noting.Chaucer’s main animal character in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a cock calledChauntecleer, who when engaged in an intense discussion with his wife Pertelote aboutthe prophetic importance of dreams, displays his knowledge of Latin in order toemphasise the fact that he is more learned than his fair lady, and is therefore more likelyto be right. His ruse is successful in that he then woos and subsequently manages todistract his wife from continuing their conversation, but she does not realise that histranslation of the Latin “In principio, Mulier est hominis confusio” (Chaucer lines 3163-3164, pg 257) as “Womman is mannes joye and al his blis” (3166, 257) is in factincorrect. The true translation is ‘Woman is man’s ruin’, the absolute antithesis of what
 
Chauntecleer maintained that the phrase meant. A devious cock schooled in Latin was ahumorous concept in the Middle Ages, and this is a comic scene that still resonates withreaders today. Yet Chauntecleer’s actions stand as a warning not to implicitly trust thosewho are (or appear to be) highly educated; behind the foreign language or terminological jargon may lie a simple falsehood. Chauntecleer’s mistranslation mocks those who believe that they are superior because they are learned, and A. Paul Shallers considers avalid suggestion by Charles Owen that the entire tale may have been written in order to prove the pretentious self-importance of the storyteller himself. “Charles Owensuggested, in independent articles, still another twist, that Chaucer designed the wholetale to expose the Nun's Priest himself who, unaware of the inappropriateness of his high-flown rhetoric to the lowly events of a barnyard, demonstrates a pomposity equal toChauntecleer's” (Shallers 320).Chauntecleer’s own pomposity is most evident when he is praised by the fox andthen coaxed into singing by the suggestion that he is not as good a singer as his father.The fox’s description of a cock’s harsh crowing as “as myrie a stevene, As any aungelhath that is in hevene” (Chaucer 3291-3292, 259) is comical in itself, and as in mostfables such false flattery is to be expected from the sly creature that is a fox. The reader is aware of this, but Chauntecleer’s lack of intelligence is further emphasised by hisaccepting of the fox’s compliments to be true. He becomes physically inflated with hisown importance by flapping his wings, and is made to seem even more ridiculous when preparing himself to prove his talent: “He stood hye upon his toos, Strecchnge his nekke,and heeld his eyen cloos” (3331-3332, 259). This visible expression of superiority issimilar to that of Thurber’s ‘The Seal who became Famous’. The seal’s newly-acquired2
 
talent is balancing objects, and he demonstrates his conceit among his peers not with physical actions such as Chauntecleer’s, but instead by showing off what gimmicks hehas brought back from the city; “liquor in a golden flask, zippers, a gardenia in his lapel”(Thurber 23) as well as making sure to confound his friends and family with “the latestslang” (23). It is his showy attire, “smart city clothes, which included a pair of seventeen-dollar shoes” (23), coupled with his abandonment of what is truly important in a seal’slife (swimming), that leads to his death. His “simple, but dignified funeral” (23) is anideal example of Thurber’s wry humour and fondness of irony, as well as his obviousdistaste for those who focus on material wealth and believe themselves to be better thanwhere they came from. David S. Adams notes that this fable reminds the reader thatseemingly dull, commonplace activities should not be abandoned for the sake of a moreglamorous lifestyle: “As with "The Patient Bloodhound," the sociological lesson is thatthe routines of norm-governed everyday life are absolutely essential if we are to survive”(Adams 401).Another character who believes herself to be of greater importance than her hometown peers is Pertelote. Her notions of grandeur are made obvious by her ladylikemanner; “Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire, And compaignable, and bar hyrself sofaire” (Chaucer 2871-2872, 254). She and Chauntecleer play the roles of a courtlycouple; Chauntecleer woos his “faire damoysele”, they engage in intellectualconversation, and when he disappoints her by being frightened by his own dreams andtherefore failing to play his part as the manly protector figure she makes a dramatic sceneand exclaims that he has lost her heart. “Now han ye lost myn herte and al my love! I kannat love a coward, by my feith!” (2910-2911, 254). Their courtly behaviour is almost3

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