The “lion’s share” is probably the most famous of all the phrases and mottoes that come from Aesop’s fables. In previous articles, I’ve looked at examples of the story of the “lion’s share” from several different sources, and with this article, I want to close out the series by looking at the fable of the “lion’s share” as told by Sir Roger L’Estrange, a controverial pamphleteer and political figure 17th-century in England. Sir Roger L’Estrange demonstrates the pliability of the Aesopic tradition by telling the fable twice, and providing it with two different morals, at opposite ends of the spectrum of interpretation that we have seen so far.
First, however, let’s review that spectrum of interpretation. In the traditional Greek fable, which I discussed in the first article in this series, the lion is a dangerous and greedy character who takes everything, or almost everything, for himself. The moral is that someone who partners with a lion will end up empty-handed as a result. This anti-authoritarian message is turned upside-down by the Islamic poet Rumi, as I discussed in that first article. For Rumi, the lion is a symbol of God, whose awesome power demands total obedience. The “lion’s share” is not a symbol of injustice or exploitation, but is an allegory of the spiritual gulf dividing the Creator from his creation. The medieval Christian preacher Odo of Cheriton, whom I discussed in the second article in this series, likewise interprets the “lion’s share” as an allegory of God’s divine justice and obedience to authority. This variety of interpretation is a key element in the fables’ longevity, allowing storytellers in different ages and cultures to adapt the stories to their own worlds.
The question of divine and secular authority was central to the 17th-century world of Sir Roger L’Estrange. Born in 1616 during the reign of King James I, L’Estrange took the side of James’s son, King Charles I, in the English Civil War, defending the king’s divine right to rule. The young L’Estrange was sentenced to death in 1644 for his participation in a conspiracy in support of the king, although he was finally pardoned by Oliver Cromwell in 1653. In 1663, following the restoration of the monarchy with the reign of Charles II, L’Estrange became a journalist and eventually a member of Parliament. His massive collection of 500 Aesop’s fables, in which each fable is accompanied by a lengthy “reflection,” was published in 1692, near the close of L’Estrange’s long public career. The choice of subject matter is no surprise. Just as Aesop’s fables had played a part in the turbulent political discourse of ancient Greece and Rome, they were also a regular feature of early modern English politics (Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History). While some writers discovered populist morals in the fables, L’Estrange was an ardent monarchist, as Patterson explains:
[L'Estrange] pinned [each fable] down securely with an authoritarian gloss, [ ] repeating over and overagain the same political doctrine: the subject’s duty of obedience, the fickleness of the mob, the dangers of giving the people the gost of a voice in the way they shall be governed. (141)
The “subject’s duty of obedience” is indeed what we find in L’Estrange’s presentation of the fable of the lion’s share, where the lion embodies an absolute secular authority which must be obeyed at all costs:
There was a Hunting-Match agreed upon betwixt a Lion, an Ass, and a Fox, and they were to go Equal Shares in the Booty. They ran down a Brave Stag, and the Ass was to Divide the Prey; which he did very Honestly and Innocently into Three Equal Parts, and left the Lion to take his Choice: Who never Minded the Divident; but in a Rage Worry’d the Ass, and then bad the Fox Divide; who had the Wit to make Only One Share of the Whole, saving a Miserable Pittance that he Reserv’d for Himself. The Lion highly approv’d of his Way of Distribution; but Prethee Reynard, says he, who thee to Carve? Why truly says the Fox, I had an Ass to my Master; and it was His Folly made me Wise.
THE MORAL. There must be no Shares in Sovereignty.
For L’Estrange, this lion is a symbol of the sovereign monarch, and there must be “no Shares in Sovereignty” – in other words, the exorbitant share of the lion king is exactly what the lion deserves. Yet as L’Estrange himself admits in the reflection added to the moral, “This Fable is diffidently Moralliz’d Elsewhere.” This “elsewhere” includes L’Estrange’s own collection of fables, where he tells the story of the lion’s share a second time, and with a quite different slant. This other version does not endorse the absolute authority of the lion king, but instead provides a cautionary moral, which warns you to beware of men more powerful than yourself:
A Lion, an Ass, and some other of their Fellow-Foresters, went a hunting one day; and every one to go share and share-like in what they took. They pluck’d down a Stag, and cut him into so many Parts; but as they were entring upon the dividend, Hands off, says the Lion, This Part is mine by the Privilege of my Quality; this, because I’ll have it in spite of your teeth; this again, because I took most pains for’t; and if you dispute the fourth, we must e’en pluck a Crow about it. So the Confederates Mouths were all stopt, and they went away as mute as Fishes.
THE MORAL. There’s no entring into Leagues or Partnerships with those that are either too powerful, or too crafty for us. He that has the Staff in his Hand will be his own Carver.
In this version of the story, L’Estrange does not insist that authority should be obeyed, but instead that it should be avoided. Instead of interpreting the lion as an emblem of royal sovereignity, this time L’Estrange characterizes this lion as “too powerful” and “too crafty,” a “carver” rather than a king. Notice, too, that the plot is slightly different. Instead of the Greek version of the story which features the witty repartee of the lion and the fox, this version, derived from the Roman poet Phaedrus, keeps the lion’s companions in total silence. Confronted by the brute force of the lion’s power, the other animals can say nothing at all. It’s still a story of the “lion’s share,” but this time the lion’s share is a symbol of coercion and exploitation, and no longer the divine right of kings.
Working with these different versions of the fables, L’Estrange embraced the task of moralizing the stories for his own political purposes, just as the politicians of ancient Greece and Rome had done in their time. Yet if you want to find L’Estrange’s wonderful book of fables in a bookstore today, you will have no luck in the History or Politics section. Instead, you must go to the Children’s section, which is where Aesop’s fables have been consigned in our own day and time. Enshrined in the Everyman’s Library of Children’s Classics published by Knopf, you will indeed find a modern edition of L’Estrange’s fables, beautifully illustrated, and with his explosive 17th-century prose intact. It’s my favorite of all the English translations of Aesop’s fables, but surely not 21st-century children’s fare.
Meanwhile, keep your ears open for the next time you hear someone use the phrase “the lion’s share.” It’s still a very common English phrase, although most people no longer know the fable that it comes from. Consider the context in which the phrase is used, and ask yourself which side of the spectrum it has landed. Is “the lion’s share” being used to symbolize something natural and right, the large proportion necessarily due to someone who is the king of the beasts…? Or is it instead something unfair and exorbitant, the share that is wrongly taken by force…? You might even engage in a bit of fable revival, and tell your own version of the story about what happened when the lion went hunting in partnership with the other beasts.
- Patterson, Annabel. Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History. 1991.
- L’Estrange, Sir Roger. Fables of Aesop, and Other Eminent Mythologists, with Morals and Reflexions. 1692. (The full text of the 1738 edition of the book is available online at Google Books.)