IN mediæval times the ancient fable of the Fowler and the Little Bird was appropriated by several monkish compilers of exempla, designed for the use of preachers; but this version is unique, so far as my knowledge of other forms of the fable extends. It has, exclusively, the scene between the lapwing and the nightingale; the references to the Muslim legend of Solomon's receiving from a lapwing, or hoopoe, intelligence of the city of Sabá (or Sheba) and Queen Bilkís; and the allegation of the nightingale to the gardener that the fruit the bird had destroyed was poisonous. The fable is found in the spiritual romance of Barlaam and Joasaph (not Josaphat, as the name is commonly written), which is said to have been composed in the first half of the 7th century, by a Greek monk named John, of the convent of St. Sabá, at Jerusalem, and—according to M. Hermann Zotenberg—redacted by Johannes Damascenus, a Greek Father, of the 8th century, and included in his works. It is now certain that the substance of this work was derived from Indian sources: the incidents in the youth of Joasaph correspond with those in the early years of Gautama, the founder of Buddhism; while some of the parables contained in the romance are found in the Játakas, or Buddhist Birth-stories and others in Hindú books. This is how the fable is told in Barlaam and Joasaph:

They who worship idols are like the bird-catcher who caught one of the smallest birds, which they call the nightingale. As he was about to kill and eat it, articulate speech was given to the bird, and it said: “What will the killing of me profit thee, man? Thou canst not fill thy belly with me. But if thou set me free, I will give thee three injunctions, which, if thou observe, will benefit thee all thy life.” He was amazed to hear the bird speak, and promised. Then said the nightingale: “Never try to reach the unattainable. Rue not a thing that is past. Never believe a thing that is beyond belief.” Away flies the bird; but, to test the man's common sense, it cries to him: “How thoughtless thou art! Inside of my body is a pearl larger than the egg of an ostrich, and thou hast not obtained it!” Then he repented having let the bird go free, and tried to coax it back by fair offers. But the bird rebuked his folly in so soon forgetting all the three injunctions it had given him.

In this form the fable also occurs in the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alphonsus, a Spanish Jew, who was converted to Christianity in 1106, and who avowedly derived the materials for his work from the Arabian fabulists, and from this collection it was taken into the Gesta Romanorum (see Swan's translation, ed. 1824, vol. ii, p. 87). John Lydgate, the monk of Bury, of the 15th century, turned the fable into English verse, under the title of “The Chorle and the Bird, from a pamflete in Frenche,” which is conjectured to have been the fabliau “Le Lai de l'Oiselet,” but this I think is rather doubtful. According to Lydgate's poem, a little bird takes up its abode in a laurel-tree in a churl's garden, and sings merrily all the livelong day. The churl sets a trap (pantere) to catch the bird.

It was a verray hevenly melodye,
Evyne and morowe to here the bryddis songe,
And the soote sugred armonye
Of uncouthe varblys and tunys drawen on longe,
That al the gardeyne of the noysè rong,
Til on a morwe, whan Tytan shone ful clere,
The birdd was trapped and kaute with a pantere.

The churl puts the little bird into a fine cage and orders it to sing, but says the bird:

“Song and prison have noon accordaunce,
Trowest thou I wolle syng in prisoun?
Song procedethe of joy and of plesaunce,
And prison causethe dethe and destruccioun;
Rynging of fetires makethe ne mery sounde,
Or how shuld he be gladde or jocounde
Agayne his wylle, that ligthe in chaynès bounde?”

“But let me out,” the bird goes on to say, “so that I may perch again on the laurel-tree, and then I will sing to thee, and moreover,

“I shal the yeve a notable gret gwerdoun,
Thre grete wysdoms according to resoun,
More of walewe, take hede what I do profre,
Thane al the golde that is shet in thi cofre.”

The three “great wisdoms” are the same as those in other versions, and then the little bird says that the churl by setting him free has missed gaining a rare treasure, for in his inside is a stone, fully an ounce in weight, which has many wonderful properties: making its possessor victorious in battle; he should suffer no poverty or indigence but have abundance of wealth; all should do him reverence; it would reconcile foes, comfort the sorrowful, and make heavy hearts light.* The churl is beside himself with vexation, and the bird calls him a fool for believing such a rank impossibility.*

Husain Vá'iz has re-told the apologue in his Anvár-i Suhaylí, or Lights of Canopus, a Persian rendering, in prose and verse, of the celebrated Fables of Bidpaï with additions, of which this is one. Here, however, the nightingale—having been entrapped by the gardener, because it destroyed his roses—does not, when liberated, give the gardener three maxims, but tells him that beneath such a tree is a vessel full of gold. The villager digs and finds the treasure, and then asks the bird how it was that he could see a vessel full of gold under the earth, yet not discover the snare above ground; to which the nightingale replies, like a good Muslim: “Hast thou not heard that ‘when Fate descends caution is in vain’?”*

The fabliau version, “Le Lai de l'Oiselet,” as found in Méon's edition of Barbazan's collection, Paris, 1808, t. iii, 114, and (in modern French prose) in Le Grand, ed. 1784, t. iii, 430, can hardly have been the original of Lydgate's poem, as may be seen from the following free rendering of Le Grand's abridgment (in which, however, he omits the bird's statement about the wonderful stone in its body), including a few lines from Way's agreeable English metrical translation:

Once on a time there was a noble castle surrounded by a wide domain of field and forest, which was first owned by a worthy knight. His son and successor wasted his patrimony in riotous living—“ye know well,” quoth our poet, “that it needs but one spendthrift heir to bring great wealth to nought”; and now the fair castle and domain had become the property of a rich but sordid churl. This lofty and strong castle had been reared by magic art. A pebble-paved stream flowed round a beauteous orchard, where grew tall and shapely trees, flowers of every hue, and odorous plants; and such was the fragrance of the air that it might have arrested a man's parting breath. In the midst of this fair scene a gushing fountain sparkled in the sunlight, while near it a lofty pine tree's deathless verdure afforded grateful shade at noontide.

A marvellous bird had fixed his abode in this tufted pine, and ever he sat and sang his lay of love in such sweet and moving strains that, matched against his magic melody, the music of viol and full-toned harp were as nought. Such was the power of this wondrous feathered minstrel that his strains could create unutter­able joy in the heart of the despairing lover; and should they cease, and the songster take his flight from this enchanted ground, then would all the goodly scene—castle, trees, flowers, forest— fade away and forever disappear.

“Listen, listen, to my lay
(Thus the merry note did chime),
All who mighty Love obey,
Sadly wasting in your prime,
Clerk and laic, grave and gay;
Yet do ye, before the rest,
Gentle maidens, mark me tell!
Store my lesson in your breast,
Trust me it shall profit well:
Hear and heed me, and be blest!”*

The little warbler had no sooner ended his lay of love when he discovered the churl, upon which the bird ordered the river to retire to its source, the flowers to fade, the fruit to wither, and the castle to sink into the earth; for a vile churl should not be suffered to dwell where the beautiful and the brave had once held sweet communion. The churl, having heard the melodious strains of the little bird, resolved to capture him and sell him for a large sum. Accordingly he set his snare and caught the feathered songster. “What injury have I done thee?” cried the little bird. “And why dost thou doom me to death?” “Fear not,” said the churl; “I only desire to hear thy song, and will get thee a fine cage and plenty of seeds and kernels to eat. But sing thou must, else I'll wring thy neck and pick thy bones.” “Alas,” sighed the pretty captive, “who can sing in prison? And even were I cooked, I could scarce furnish thee with one mouthful.” Finding that all entreaties failed to move the hard-hearted churl, the bird then promised that, if set free, he would tell him three rare and precious secrets. This offer the churl could not resist, so he freed the little bird, who straightway flew to the summit of the pine tree, and then proceeded to disclose the three precious secrets. “First then,” said the bird: “Yield not a ready faith to every tale.” “Is this all your secret?” quoth the fellow, in rising wrath. “I need it not.” “Yet,” said the bird, “you seemed but lately to have forgot it—but now you may hold it fast. My second secret is: What is lost, 'tis wise to bear with patience.” At this the churl chafed more and more. “My third secret,” continued the bird, “is by far the best: What good thou hast, do not cast lightly away.” So saying, the little bird fluttered his wings a moment, and then flew away; and im­mediately the castle sank into the ground; and the fountain flowed back to its source; and the fruits dropped withered from the trees; and the flowers faded—and all the beauteous scene was melted into thin air.