“It happened that the cat met the fox in a forest, and as she thought to herself, ‘He is clever and full of experience, and much esteemed in the world,’ she spoke to him in a friendly way. ‘Good day, dear Mr. Fox, how are you? How is all with you? How are you going through this dear season?'”
Knowing what I know about Grimm fox tales, this story did not go anywhere near where I thought it would go.
The fox replies arrogantly to the cat’s inquiries, and asks how many “arts” the cat has learned. The cat replies, “‘I understand but one…When the hounds are following me, I can spring into a tree and save myself.'” The fox is quite unimpressed by this, and boasts about how he is a “‘master of a hundred arts.'” He tells the cat that she has a lot to learn from him, but “just then came a hunter with four dogs.” The cat sprang up into a tree and yelled down to Mr. Fox, “but the dogs had already seized him, and were holding him fast.” The story ends with the cat crying out to Mr. Fox: “‘You with your hundred arts are left in the lurch! Had you been able to climb like me, you would not have lost your life.'”
First off, I had forgotten what an excellent phrase “left in the lurch” is. Second, it’s interesting how practical skills (a practical skill) is put up against knowledge of “arts.” The fox is described as arrogant, and uses early English second-person pronouns (thou, thee) when speaking to the cat, while the cat is described as friendly, speaks plainly, and understands how to keep herself safe and alive, and not much else (for the sake of this tale, presumably).
However, even with the vast knowledge he has, the fox is not able to summon the practical knowledge to get away from the hounds, while the cat easily gets to safety. I don’t want to say that this story is making one sound better than the other—although with the fox’s fate it’s pretty logical to come to that conclusion—instead I like to think that the tale showcases how friendliness, having practical knowledge, and being humble are quite valuable. Either way, I have learned that these two characters exemplify two opposing cognitive styles—I’ve linked my sources in the EXTRAS list below.
- A comparable story can be found in the Panchatantra.
- An ancient parable from Greek poet Archilochus—”the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”— and an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox” both divide thinkers into two groups. Learn more here.
- Psychologist Philip E. Tetlock and cognitive styles (while the information on this NPR page is in reference to a particular story, I’m not linking it because of the story, but because of the simple explanation of Tetlock’s ideology).