to the students of the MA/PgDip Narrative Illustration/Editiral Design Course

The Fox Sings for the Crow's Supper


The Crow with laden beak the tree retires
The Fox to gett her prey her forme admires
While she to show her gratitude not small
Offering to give her thanks, her prize lets fall.
Moral: Shun faithless flatterors, Harlots jilting tears
They are fooles hopes, and youths deceitfull snares. All the representations of Art are necessarily restricted by its material limits to a single instant of time.

The Chosen Moment

One of the first and fundamental decisions a narrative illustrator has to make about a picture is the selection of a particular passage of the text and choosing the precise moment when the action of an event takes place.
This essay (relating to the evening talk on Wednesday 24 March 1993) looks at the fixed moment of choice that more than a hundred illustrators have made in depicting the particular moment when the action of the same story takes place. A single fable - `The Fox and the Crow' - has been chosen to make comparisons. The illustrated fable seems to be an ideal subject to consider, since apart from the fact that there are countless examples to make comparisons, the very brevity of its narrative eliminates the margin of choice for the illustrator, who can only operate on a fairly limited conceptual level. At the same time the terseness of most fable texts allows the artist a certain element of freedom where much detail and description is eliminated.
A History of the Fable
The `Fox and the Crow' is an ancient fable. Parallells of the story can be found in the sixth century B.C. Jatakas, or birth stories of the Buddha. Most of the early fable collections seem to derive from this now lost manuscript collection of some two hundred fables compiled by Demetrius of Phalerum in Athens. His Greek `Assemblies of Aesopic Tales' were gathered together towards the fourth century B.C. and were intended as a handbook for the use of writers and speakers. The fable appears in the 2nd century Greek `Augustana' collection which is the oldest and largest extant collection of 231 prose fables in Greek. Horace (65 - 8 BC.) seems to allude to it in his Satires (concerning the grasping inheritance of a will which is so often frustrated) and Ars Poetica. Early examples of the fable are to be found in the Latin of Phaedrus (about 40 AD) and the Greek of Babrius (about 250 AD), both depending on the Demetrius collection for their adaptations.

Fables have been used by orators and politicians and by ordinary people all over the world. They have been incorporated as texts in sermons by preachers in their pulpits to inculcate moral values, and as travellers' tales to entertain. They were long ago found in class room school books and they have been used in schools of rhetoric as a linguistic discipline. Since the earliest times animals have been depicted on cave walls and later artists and designers have represented fables in all manner of ways: there are fable versions on canvas, on panels, in marbled bas-relief, as sculptural groups, as woodcarvings on misericords, on tapestries and stuccoed ceilings. The fables appear on coins, medals, tiles, crockery, clocks, jig-saw puzzles, cigarette cards and sewing samplers. Representations can also be found on ink stands, chair covers, jewel boxes, thimbles, quill holders, wash stands and fountains. Monks have illuminated them on manuscripts and they have continued to be a favourite subject for book illustrators.

The Italian orientalist Angelo De Gubernatis speculated that the fox (the spring aurora) had taken the cheese (the moon) from the crow (the winter's night) by making it sing. In a poem `Il vole' by Louise de Vilmorin the setting sun, reflected in the polished surface of a table, is the round cheeses of the fable. In the poem the crow steals the cheese, the lover steals the heart and flies or steals away; with him goes happiness. There is a pun on the double meaning of the French verb `voler'. It can mean `to fly' and `to steal'.
I cannot resist mentioning here that there was a 16th century artist called Joannes Corvus who painted a portrait of Bishop Foxe, which used to hang (and may still) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.  
The Plot of the Fable

1. Here is the Phaedrus Latin text with a translation by Ben Edwin Perry.

Vulpis et Corvus
The Fox and the Crow
Qui se laudari gaudet verbis subdolis
He who takes delight in treacherous flattery
fere dat poenas turpi paenitentia.
usually pays the penalty by repentance and disgrace.
Cum de fenestra corvus raptum caseum
When a crow, perched on a high tree, was about
comesse vellet celsa residens arbore,
to eat a piece of cheese which he had carried off from
vulpes invidit, deinde sic coepit loqui:
a window, a fox who coveted the prize spoke up as
"O qui tuarum, corve, pennarum est nitor!
follows: "Oh, Mr. Crow, what a lustre your plumes
quantum decoris corpore et vultu geris!
have, how graceful your face and your figure! If
si vocem haberes, nulla prior ales foret."
only you had a voice no bird would rate higher."
at ille stultus, dum vult vocem ostendere
Anxious to show he did have a voice, the foolish
lato ore emisit caseum; quem celeriter
crow opened his mouth to sing and let fall the cheese,
dolosa vulpes avidis rapuit dentibus.
which the crafty fox immediately snapped up with
tum demum ingemuit corvi deceptus stupor.
eager jaws. Too late the crow, betrayed by his own folly, moaned his loss.

2. Here follows Perry's translation of the same fable from the Greek of Babrius:

A crow, holding in his mouth a piece of cheese, stood perched aloft. A crafty fox who hankered for the cheese deceived the bird with words to this effect: "Sir Crow thy wings are beautiful, bright and keen thine eye, thy neck a wonder to behold. An eagle's breast thou dost display, and with thy talons over all the beasts thou canst prevail. So great a bird thou art; yet mute, alas, and without utterance." On hearing this flattery the crow's heart was puffed up with conceit, and, dropping the cheese from his mouth, he loudly screamed: "Caw! Caw!" The clever fox pounced on the cheese and tauntingly remarked: "You were not dumb, it seems, you have indeed a voice; you have everything, Sir Crow, except brains."

3. Here is a late seventeenth century version by the colourful Roger L'Estrange -
A Fox and a Raven

A Certain Fox spy'd out a Raven upon a Tree with a Morsel in his mouth, that set his Chops a watering; but how to come at it was the Question. Ah thou Blessed Bird! (says he) the Delight of Gods, and of Men! and so he lays himself forth upon the Gracefulness of the Ravens Person, and the Beauty of his Plumes; His Admirable Gift of Augury. And now, says the Fox, If thou hadst but a Voice answerable to the rest of thy Excellent Qualities, the Sun in the Firmament could not shew the World such Another Creature. This Nauseous Flattery sets the Raven immediately a Gaping as Wide as ever he could stretch, to give the Fox a taste of his Pipe; but upon the Opening of his Mouth, he drops his Breakfast, which the Fox presently Chopt up, and then bad him remember, that whatever he had said of his Beauty, he had spoken Nothing yet of his Brains.

4. Jean de La Fontaine set his Fables to verse between 1668-94.


Le Corbeau et le Renard
The Fox and the Crow
Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perche
Master crow perched on a tree,
Tenait en son bec un fromage,
Was holding in his beak a cheese.
Maître renard, par l'odeur alléché,
Master fox, enticed by the odor,
Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
Addressed him more or less in these terms:
"Hé bonjour, monsieur du corbeau.
"Ah! good day, my dear Sir Crow.
Que vous êtes joli! que vous me semblez beau!
How pretty you are! how beautiful you seem!
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Truly, if your warbling
Se rapporte ; votre plumage,
Is in keeping with your plumage,
Vous etes le phoenix des hotes de ces bois."
You are the phoenix of the denizens of this forest."
A ces mots, le corbeau ne se sent pas de joie,
At these words, the crow is beside himself with joy;
Et, pour montrer sa belle voix,
And to show his beautiful voice,
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.
He opens a large beak, lets fall his prey.
Le renard s'en saisit, et dit: "Mon bon monsieur,
The fox grabs it up, and says: "My good fellow,
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Learn that all flatterers
Vit aux depens de celui qui l'écoute:
Live off those who listen to them.
Cette leeon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.
" This lesson is well worth a cheese no doubt."
Le corbeau, honteux et confus,
The crow embarrassed and ashamed,
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu'on ne l'y prendrait plus.
Swore, a bit too late, he wouldn't get caught again.

5. Mrs Trimmer's version is written entirely in 249 words of single syllables

A CROW, who had made free with a piece of cheese, which was none of her own, flew with it to a high tree. A young Fox who saw this, and had a mind to cheat the thief, went this way to work with her: for, though he was but young, he was a sly rogue, and knew more bad tricks than he ought to have done. "My dear sweet Miss," said he,"what a shame it is that folks should tell such lies of you; they say that you are as black as coal; but now I see with my own eyes that your soft plumes are as white as snow. One would think they were all born blind And, dear me, what a fine shape you have! I think in my heart that no one can see you but he must fall in love with you. If you had but a clear voice, and could sing a good song, as I make no doubt but you can, there is not a bird which flies in the air that would dare to vie with you."
The Crow, like a fool, thought that all which the Fox had said was true, and had a mind to try her voice; but as soon as she did so, down dropped the cheeses, which the fox took up in his mouth, as fast as he could, and ran off with it in haste, and laughed at the Crow for want of sense.

Considerations when illustrating the fable

Projecting the view in the illustration

Do we view the scene as a distant or close by-stander?
What camera angle is employed in the picture - do we watch the action at eye level a few yards away, or from above the tree looking down at the action or do we look up the tree from the vantage point of the ground?
Which creature do we identify with; do we see things from the crow or the fox's point of view?

What do we include in the picture and how do we compose it?
Essentials : -Most likely crow, fox and tree (a tall tree in some texts) and the morsel of cheese or meat; perhaps the window from where the crow took the cheese if we choose that particular moment of the action.
We may consider including other features of interest or scenic elements of landscape.

Physical gestures of fox and crow and their facial expressions reacting to each other, their thoughts and situation may preoccupy us when illustrating the fable.
Fixing the moment of time when the action takes place
If it be true that the artist can adopt from the face of ever-varying nature only such of her mutable effects as will belong to one single moment and that the painter, in particular, can seize this single moment only under one solitary point-of-view; - if it be true also that his works are intended not to be merely glanced at but be long and repeatedly examined; - then it is clear that the great difficulty will be to select such a moment and such a point of view as shall be sufficiently pregnant with meaning.
Let us here analyse the story's sequence of events at each stage and consider the numerous possibilities when, in an instant, we can freeze the chosen scene as a single action:

A promytheum is a brief statement made at the beginning of a fable summarising the intended meaning of what is to follow. A moral statement which closes a fable is known as a promytheum. Phaedrus opens the fable with the moral -
He who takes delight in treacherous flattery usually pays the penalty by repentance and disgrace.
While Caxton introduces his fable thus:
They that be glad and Ioyefull of the praysynge of flaterers oftyme repente them thereof, whereof Esope reherceth to vs suche a fable.

Firstly we have to consider that before the two creatures met each was involved in its daily routine.What sort of crow, rook or raven and which species of fox do we expect to draw? A crow is the favoured bird among the Corvidae family to be represented in the fable but there are many instances of ravens and the occasional rook among our texts. John Ogilby, in one of his seventeenth century versions of the fable, even calls into question the identity of the bird, wondering if it was a Crow, a `sherking' Rook, a Chough, Pye or Daw. He finally settles upon a crow. The fox's identity is rarely in doubt - as far as I know no other species of animal has set out to acquire the cheese from the bird. I assume it is the familiar red fox. So far as the illustrator is concerned visual reference of the creatures will involve either an extremely lucky encounter in the countryside or a visit to the zoo if drawing from direct observation is hoped for. It is more than likely that in most cases it will be necessary to borrow and adapt information gleaned from other forms of pictorial material or drawing from memory.


Issi avient , e bien pot estre,
It came to pass (and could be so)
Que par devant une fenestre
That once in front of a window
Que en une despense fu,
Which in a pantry chanced to be,
Vola un corf, si ad veü
A crow happened to fly by and see
Furmages que dedenz esteient
That there, within, some cheeses lay
E (de) sure une cleie giseient.
All spread out on a wicker tray.
Un en ad pris, od tut s'en va.
He took a whole one; off he flew.


Unless I refer to a specific text I will generally refer to a female crow and cheese. Some versions of the fable have a piece of cheese as the food taken by the crow, others seem to think it more fitting that a carrion bird should have taken a piece of meat. Cereals, earth-worms, wild fruits, seeds, beetles, small mammals and carrion are the most regular constituents of the crow's normal diet. They are well known for their habit of egg-stealing. A fox will scavenge anything he can get hold of. We are familiar with `sour grapes' expression from the fable of the Fox and the Grapes. Now and again our transcribers of the fable may be specific about the variety of the cheese or meat. As to the size and variety of the cheese - Ogilby tells us that his Crow `a dainty piece of Cheese had nimm'd, and then is not sure as to its kind, wondering if it was `Home-made, or else Forein Cheese'. Obviously some of these textual details may affect how the illustrator approaches the subject. Crow sees cheese (or meat, which variety, how big?) by an open window. In many cases the crow has pilfered some meat or (as Townsend, in 1867, put it) `stolen a bit of flesh'. The size of the cheese isn't always clear. James's 1848 version refers to a `goodly piece of cheese'.
Comparing these texts we soon come to realise that there are subtle differences between the narratives. We are told by Phaedrus that his crow has previously taken the cheese from a window before his encounter with the fox. Babrius doesn't inform us about the source of the cheese.
Perry's translation of Phaedrus states, less accusingly, that the crow `had carried off' the cheese whereas Riley's version tells us that the it was stolen by a Raven.
We do know that the Corvidae have a justifiable reputation for acquisitiveness. In Somerset to `crow' something was an archaic word meaning to claim it. To `rook' someone is to steal or pull a fast one on someone.


In most texts the crow then takes the cheese (from where?) and flies towards a tree (what species of tree, tall or small winter or summer?) with it in its beak. The crow arrives at the tree and perches on a branch. (What posture does the crow have during the several stages of the fable?). We note that in many texts (site) the tree is a tall one (although few illustrators pay much attention to their texts to this (which came first author or illustrator ?) and that the kind is not specified. In some of the later texts a particular type of tree may be chosen. One of John Ogilby's foxes found `her on a branching Alder pearch'd'.



The skulking fox may previously have observed the action of the crow or smelled the cheese. Certainly the smell was strong enough to be conveyed `through the ambient Air' to reach the nostrils of Ogilby's Reynard and it set L'Estrange's fox's `Chops a watering'. But how to come at the cheese was the question. The fox reached the foot of tree and then hatched his plan; Fox's are well known for their cunning and astuteness and their strong instinct for survival The crow may have been aware of the fox's presence but felt safe aloft in flight and up the tree;


We are told in some texts that the crow is a male in others a female bird is sometimes preferred to receive the mock adulation of the fox. Some writers consider it to be conventionally fitting to register the bird as a female in the circumstances of allowing the fox to wax eloquent upon her appearance. The fox is always singled out to be a male and is sometimes called `Reynard". The sex of the creatures doesn't really affect the illustrators since their is hardly any difference between them so far as appearance is concerned. A female crow is however said to be less glossy than the male and sometimes has a brown tinge on her plumage. `The Fox praiseth the meat out of the crow's mouth'

The fox's speech is probably the longest episode in the drama. "Haile Mistris" is how William Barret's fox salutes the crow in his 1639 version of the fable. "Maître corbeau" is how La Fontaine's fox addresses "the phoenix of the forest". "Ah thou Blessed Bird! the Delight of Gods, and of Men!" announces Sir Roger L'Estrange's fox.



How could any raven or crow resist the flattery of Caxton's fox?
O gentyll rauen thow art the fayrest byrd of alle other byrdes. For thy fethers ben so fayr so bryght and so resplendysshynge.
And so - (in Roger L'Estrange's words) the fox `lays himself forth upon the Gracefulness of the Raven's Person' thus proceeding to flatter the bird with the sole intention of gaining the cheese. The first overtures usually refer to the crow's or raven's sleek, glossy and lustrous plumage. Some falsely observe the feathers to be of a `delicate white'. Her `bright and keen' eye is sometimes commented on. Some texts commend her `handsomeness' and refer to `the beauty of her shape' and the `graceful turn of body'. Others report on `the fairness of her complexion', her `eagle's breast' and `how graceful' her face is, or how her neck is `a wonder to behold'. The bird's `Admirable Gift of Augury'' is sometimes mentioned and his or her talons come in for some considerable and consistent praise.

This `Nauseous Flattery' concludes with the fox finally cajoling the crow to sing. But if only the crow had a voice "no bird would rate higher". "If thou hadst but a Voice answerable to the rest of thy Excellent Qualities, the Sun in the Firmament could not shew the World such Another Creature."

The illustrator has to consider here the posture of the sycophantic fox and his facial expression while in a lofty mood of admiration for the crow.. The clue to the actual moment of the story being depicted can be seen if the fox's mouth is opened. How does he flatter the different aspects of the crow's appearance? The crow's gestural reaction to such adulation has also to be considered by the illustrator when she becomes `tickled `with the fox's `very civil language' and when her `heart becomes puffed up with conceit'. La Fontaine's male crow is `beside himself with joy' and we are told by Croxall that his female crow `nestled and riggled about'.



The crow ruffles her feathers in delighted response to the fox's enraptured speech. The fox meanwhile is at the ready to see if his trick has worked. Does he act nonchalantly or is he bristling with anticipation for the crow to cough up the cheese?


The crow is moved to sing and the cheese starts to budge from her gradually-opening mandibles. When the beak becomes wide open (and releases the grip on the cheese) a cawing sound issues forth from the crow's throat. She thinks it is a song while the fox thinks of cheese. She sings in full voice to her heart's content while the fox eagerly watches her every gesture resulting in the expected fall of the cheese.When the crow is performing her raucous aria it is wondered if she would sing with her eyes to the skies or eagerly watching the enraptured reaction from the fox down below.

In folklore generally the crow or raven is a bird of omen. The crows are considered to be birds of doom and the prospect of hearing the crow's or raven's dismal croak could not have been too enthusiastically met with by the fox for their cawing is also said to portend rain. There is an old superstition that the voice of the bird also presages death, as in Macbeth when the raven `croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan'.



The cheese starts its descent, perhaps the greatest moment of dramatic interest. It either clatters about the branches as it tumbles or it falls cleanly through mid air. The fox is keenly aware of his successful duping of the crow and probably shifts about in eager anticipation of the cheese's imminent arrival. At some stage it will begin to dawn on the crow that she has lost the cheese. Is the crow aware of having lost the cheese when it either falls through the branches; is snapped up by the fox; is taken away; is eaten by the fox or when the fox offers up his jeering advice. Scenting, and observing the close approach of the cheese, may cause the fox to saliva at the jowls.

Does the cheese drop at the feet of the anxious fox, or at the foot of the tree, or does it land straight into fox's mouth? Marie de France informs us that `no sooner did it hit the ground, than fox, he seized it in a bound'. The fox may have pounced on to the cheese with his paws, or snapped it up in a trice `with eager jaws' - either chewing it up instantly or taking it away to eat later. Croxall tells us that the fox `chop'd it up in a Moment; and trotted away, laughing in his Sleeve, at the easie Credulity of the Crow'.

Usually at the end of most versions the fox chides the crow for being so foolish. The crow becomes aware of the loss of cheese and is mortified when the fox taunts her for indeed having a voice but no brains. La Fontaine's fox offers the following aphorism -
... "My good fellow,
Learn that all flatterers
Live off those who listen to them.
This lesson is well worth a cheese no doubt."
The crow embarrassed and ashamed,
Swore, a bit too late, he wouldn't get caught again.
When the moral is placed apart at the end of the fable , it is called an `epimythium'. Here the author (sometimes in the voice of one of his animal characters) explains or points out the essential moral of the preceding story. Sometimes they may be superfluous
The fable of the Fox and the Crow is essentially about weakness that succumbs to flattery. Robert Dodsley considered it to be the `strongest admonition against the power of flattery'. Fables can be double-edged instruments of instruction. In many cases the messages we may gain from them can be ambiguous - teaching us right and wrong at the same time, but not necessarily right from wrong. What we get from them is our own choice. In the fable of `The Fox and the Crow' we may choose to identify with the crow's lot and learn to avoid being moved by flattery in our future dealings with people; or we may take sides with the wily fox and realise that advantages can be gained by offering insincere praise to the gullible in order to get our own way. Some would say that since it was the crow who stole the cheese in the first place and she merely got her `come uppance'. It `takes [as the saying goes] a thief to catch a thief'. With their apparent mental superiority compared with other birds, crows seem to be particularly adept at learning and profiting from experience. It is hoped that this one does so.



The fox trots off in a smug and satisfied humour with or without the cheese depending if he was in a rush to swallow it right away. The miserable and disgruntled crow eventually flies away from the scene. It was `hard cheese' for the humiliated crow to have to `eat crow' and swallow what the fox had to say instead of the cheese.
In fable illustration one can only operate as an artist on a limited conceptual level -the directness and simplicity of the tale paradoxically and simultaneously traps the illustrator ( by offering a narrow choice of characters within a brief event)but also frees the illustrator by rarely imposing a precise context or environmental whereabouts. Images aid memory - and, as the reader becomes familiar with the fable illustration it takes the form of an emblematic symbol or a memorable trademark of the fable's suggested meaning. Illustrations therefore help the reader retain the fable stories in their memories and their images become a mental pictorial index of the fable, as it were.

Puis n'ot il cure de sun chant;
He had no interest in the song;
Del furmage ot sun talant.
The cheese he'd wanted all along.
Ceo est essample des orguillus
A lesson's here about the proud
Ki de grant pris sunt desirus:
Who wish with fame to be endowed:
Par losenger, par mentir,
If you should flatter them and lie,
Les puet hum bien a gré servir.
You'll find they readily comply.
Le lur despendent folement
They'll spend their all quite foolishly
Pur faus losenge de la gent.
When they receive false flattery.
Marie de France