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The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables

by Robert Henryson
translated by Seamus Heaney


When thinking of the literature of the middle ages, most of us think of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. However, closer to the Renaissance but still firmly rooted in the Medieval era, are the writings of Robert Henryson. Henryson was a schoolteacher but was also well known for his poetry. He completed three major narrative poems and many shorter works as well. One of his major poems was The Testament of Cresseid, which along with seven of his fables make up the contents of this book.

Readers of Chaucer know of his tale of Troilus and Criseyde, lovers during the Trojan War. Criseyde proved faithless to her Troilus and ran off with another man. Here is where Henrysonís poem picks up. Cresseid, as Henryson calls her, has been cast aside by Diomede, whom she had left Troilus to be with. Now, she is no more than a camp whore and decides to hide in her fatherís house. When she dares to curse Cupid and Venus and place her ill fortune at their feet, things begin to spin out of control.

After the story of Cresseid come the seven fables that Henryson himself translated from the famous Aesop. The best known are there, such as the "The Two Mice" (The City Mouse and the Country Mouse) and "The Lion and the Mouse."

This book is a wonderful translation. It is always difficult to take another language, in this case Old Scottish, and recreate its word in rhyming English; but translator Seamus Heaney did just that and did it well. The text is beautifully lyrical and, equally important, easy to read. The tale of Cresseid is a wonderful tragedy in the same vein as Romeo and Juliet and just as compelling. The fables are ingeniously retold, especially considering that they are a translation of a translation of the original. This book is well worth a read and as enjoyable as any modern tale.

The Book

Farrer, Straus, and Giroux
October 12, 2009
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The Reviewer

Emily Decobert
Reviewed 2010
NOTE: Reviewer Emily Decobert is the author of Continuing on Alone.
© 2010