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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

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A MAN was walking through the forest one day when he saw a funny black thing like a whip wriggling about under a big stone. He was curious to know what it all meant. So he lifted up the stone and found there a huge black snake.

"That's well," said the snake. "I have been trying to get out for two days, and, Oh, how hungry I am. I must have something to eat, and there is nobody around, so I must eat you."

"But that wouldn't be fair," said the man with a trembling voice. "But for me you would never have come out from under the stone."

"I do not care for that," said the snake. "Self preservation is the first law of life; you ask anybody if that isn't so."

"Anyone will tell you," said the man, "that gratitude is a person's first duty, and surely you owe me thanks for saving your life."

"But you haven't saved my life, if I am to die of hunger," said the snake.

"Oh yes, I have," said the man; "all you have to do is to wait till you find something to eat."

"Meanwhile I shall die, and what's the use of being saved!"

So they disputed and they disputed whether the case was to be decided by the claims of gratitude or the rights of self-preservation, till they did not know what to do.

"I tell you what I'll do," said the snake, "I'll let the first passer-by decide which is right."

"But I can't let my life depend upon the word of the first comer."

"Well, we'll ask the first two that pass by."

"Perhaps they won't agree," said the man; "what are we to do then? We shall be as badly off as we are now."

"Ah, well," said the snake, "let it be the first three. In all law courts it takes three judges to make a session. We'll follow the majority of votes."

So they waited till at last there came along an old, old horse. And they put the case to him, whether gratitude should ward off death.

"I don't see why it should," said the horse. "Here have I been slaving for my master for the last fifteen years, till I am thoroughly worn out, and only this morning I heard him say, 'Roger' -- that's my name -- 'is no use to me any longer; I shall have to send him to the knacker's and get a few pence for his hide and his hoofs.' There's gratitude for you."

So the horse's vote was in favor of the snake. And they waited till at last an old hound passed by limping on three legs, half blind with scarcely any teeth. So they put the case to him.

"Look at me," said he; "I have slaved for my master for ten years, and this very day he has kicked me out of his house because I am no use to him any longer, and he grudged me a few bones to eat. So far as I can see nobody acts from gratitude."

"Well," said the snake, "there's two votes for me. What's the use of waiting for the third? he's sure to decide in my favor, and if he doesn't it's two to one. Come here and I'll eat you!"

"No, no," said the man, "a bargain's a bargain; perhaps the third judge will be able to convince the other two and my life will be saved."

So they waited and they waited, till at last a fox came trotting along; and they stopped him and explained to him both sides of the case. He sat up and scratched his left ear with his hind paw, and after a while he beckoned the man to come near him. And when he did so the fox whispered, "What will you give me if I get you out of this?"

The man whispered back, "A pair of fat chickens."

"Well," said the fox, "if I am to decide this case I must clearly understand the situation. Let me see! If I comprehend aright, the man was lying under the stone and the snake -- -- "

"No, no," cried out the horse and the hound and the snake. "It was the other way."

"Ah, ha, I see! The stone was rolling down and the man sat on it, and then -- -- "

"Oh, how stupid you are," they all cried; "it wasn't that way at all."

"Dear me, you are quite right. I am very stupid, but, really, you haven't explained the case quite clearly to me."

"I'll show you," said the snake, impatient from his long hunger; and he twisted himself again under the stone and wriggled his tail till at last the stone settled down upon him and he couldn't move out. "That's the way it was."

"And that's the way it will be," said the fox, and, taking the man's arm, he walked off, followed by the horse and the hound. "And now for my chickens."

"I'll go and get them for you," said the man, and went up to his house, which was near, and told his wife all about it.

"But," she said, "why waste a pair of chickens on a foxy old fox! I know what I'll do."

So she went into the back yard and unloosed the dog and put it into a meal-bag and gave it to the man, who took it down and gave it to the fox, who trotted off with it to his den.

But when he opened the bag out sprung the dog and gobbled him all up.

There's gratitude for you.

Jacobs' Notes and References

This story is one of the most interesting in the study of the popular diffusion of tales, and I therefore give it here though I have given an excellent version from Temple and Steel in Indian Fairy Tales, ix., "The Tiger, the Brahman, and the Jackal, " and have there discussed the original form. Its interest, from the point of view of diffusion, lies in the fact that it occurs in India, both early (see Benfey, i., 117) and late (Temple, 12, Frere, 14), in Greece, both classical (AEsopic fable of the serpent in the bosom) and modern (Hahn, 87, Schmidt, p. 3), and in the earliest mediaeval collection of popular tales by Petrus Alfonsi (Disciplina clericalis, vii.), as well as in the Reynard cycle. Besides these quasi-literary sources ranging over more than two thousand years, there are innumerable folk-versions collected in the last century and ranging from Burmah (Semeaton, The Karens, 128) to America (Harris, Uncle Remus, 86). These are all enumerated by Professor Krohn in an elaborate dissertation, "Mann und Fuchs" (Helsingfors, 1891). In essentials the trick by which the fisherman gets the djin inside the bottle again, in the first story within the frame of the Arabian Nights (adapted so admirably by Mr. Anstey in his Brass Bottle), is practically the same device. Richard I. is said, by Matthew Paris (ed. Luard, ii., 413-16), to have told the nobles of England, after his return from captivity in the East, a similar apologue proving the innate ingratitude of man. This is derived from the Karma Jataka, which was possibly the ultimate source of the whole series of tales.

Amid all these hundred variants there is one common idea, that of the ingratitude of a rescued animal (crocodile, snake, tiger, etc.), which is thwarted by its being placed back in the situation from which it was rescued. In some cases the bystander who restores equilibrium is alone; in most instances there are three of them; the first two having suffered from man's ingratitude see no reason for interfering. This is the "common form" which I have adopted in my version. In India the sufferer from ingratitude is sometimes a tree (a mulberry tree, in Indian Fairy Tales), but the European versions prefer horses or dogs.

Now it is obvious that such an artificial apologue on man's ingratitude could not have been invented twice for that particular purpose; and thus the hundred different versions (to which Dr. Bolte could probably add another century) must all, in the last resort, have emanated from a single source. When and where that original was concocted is one of the most interesting problems of folk-tale diffusion; the moralizing tendency of the tale, the animistic note underlying it, all point to India, where we find it in the Bidpai literature before the Christian era and current among the folk at the present day. The case for Indian origin is strongest for drolls of this kind.

I may add that the ingratitude of the man towards the fox at the end is not so universal a tail piece to the story as the rest of it, and is ultimately derived from the Reynard cycle, in which I have also introduced it (see "Bruin and Reynard").

But it occurs in many of the variants and comes in so appropriately that I thought it desirable to add it also here.  The substitution of a dog for something else desired also occurs in the story of the Hobyahs in More English Fairy Tales, where Mr. Batten's released dog is so fierce (p. 125) that it drives one of the Hobyahs over on to the next page belonging to altogether another story.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/22/07