The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Mice and the Screech-Owl

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The Original Fables of La Fontaine by Jean de La Fontaine, translated by F. C. Tilney
The Mice and the Screech-Owl

XXXVII

THE MICE AND THE SCREECH-OWL

(Book XI.—No. 9)

"It is not always wise to say to your company, "Just listen to this joke" or "What do you think of this for a marvel?" for one can never be sure that the listeners will regard the matter in the same way that the teller does. Yet here is a case that makes an exception to this good rule, and I maintain that it is in truth wonderful, and, although it has the appearance of being a fable, it is in reality absolute fact.

There was once an extremely old pine-tree which an owl, that grim bird which Atropus [1] takes for her interpreter, had made to serve as his palace. But there were other tenants lodging in its cavernous and time-rotted trunk. These were mice, well fed, positive balls of fat, but not one of them had a foot. They had all been mutilated. The owl had nipped their feet off with his beak, whilst feeding and fostering them with wheat from neighbouring stacks.

It must be confessed that this bird had reasoned.

Doubtless, in his time, when hunting mice, he had found that after bringing them home they escaped again from the trunk, and to prevent the recurrence of such a loss the artful rascal had thenceforth nipped off the feet of all he caught, keeping them prisoners and eating them one to-day and one to-morrow. To eat them all at once would have been impossible. He had his health to think of. His forethought, which went quite as far as ours, extended to bringing them grain for their subsistence.

     

If this is not reasoning, then I do not understand what reasoning is. See what arguments he used:—

"When these mice are caught they run away, therefore I must eat them as I catch them. What all?' Impossible! But would it not be well to keep some for a needy future? If so, I must keep them and feed them too, without their escaping. But how's that to be done? Happy thought! Nip off their feet!"

Now find me among human beings anything better carried out. Did Aristotle and his followers do any better thinking, by my faith?


Note.–This is not a fable. The thing actually occurred, although marvellous enough and almost incredible. I have perhaps carried the forethought of this owl too far, for I do not pretend to establish in animals a line of reasoning; but in this style of literature a little exaggeration is pardonable.

  1. One of the three Fates, the first and second being Clotho and Lachesis. They spun, measured, and cut off, respectively, the thread of life for men at their birth.