The Battle of Frogs and Mice
Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White
(ll. 1-8) Here I begin: and first I pray the choir of the Muses to come down from Helicon into my heart to aid the lay which I have newly written in tablets upon my knee. Fain would I sound in all men’s ears that awful strife, that clamorous deed of war, and tell how the Mice proved their valour on the Frogs and rivalled the exploits of the Giants, those earth-born men, as the tale was told among mortals. Thus did the war begin.
(ll. 9-12) One day a thirsty Mouse who had escaped the ferret, dangerous foe, set his soft muzzle to the lake’s brink and revelled in the sweet water. There a loud-voiced pond-larker spied him: and uttered such words as these.
(ll. 13-23) `Stranger, who are you? Whence come you to this shore, and who is he who begot you? Tell me all this truly and let me not find you lying. For if I find you worthy to be my friend, I will take you to my house and give you many noble gifts such as men give to their guests. I am the king Puff-jaw, and am honoured in all the pond, being ruler of the Frogs continually. The father that brought me up was Mud-man who mated with Waterlady by the banks of Eridanus. I see, indeed, that you are well-looking and stouter than the ordinary, a sceptred king and a warrior in fight; but, come, make haste and tell me your descent.’
(ll. 24-55) Then Crumb-snatcher answered him and said: `Why do you ask my race, which is well-known amongst all, both men and gods and the birds of heaven? Crumb-snatcher am I called, and I am the son of Bread-nibbler — he was my stout-hearted father — and my mother was Quern-licker, the daughter of Ham-gnawer the king: she bare me in the mouse-hole and nourished me with food, figs and nuts and dainties of all kinds. But how are you to make me your friend, who am altogether different in nature? For you get your living in the water, but I am used to each such foods as men have: I never miss the thrice-kneaded loaf in its neat, round basket, or the thin-wrapped cake full of sesame and cheese, or the slice of ham, or liver vested in white fat, or cheese just curdled from sweet milk, or delicious honey-cake which even the blessed gods long for, or any of all those cates which cooks make for the feasts of mortal men, larding their pots and pans with spices of all kinds. In battle I have never flinched from the cruel onset, but plunged straight into the fray and fought among the foremost. I fear not man though he has a big body, but run along his bed and bite the tip of his toe and nibble at his heel; and the man feels no hurt and his sweet sleep is not broken by my biting. But there are two things I fear above all else the whole world over, the hawk and the ferret — for these bring great grief on me — and the piteous trap wherein is treacherous death.
Most of all I fear the ferret of the keener sort which follows you still even when you dive down your hole. (1) In gnaw no radishes and cabbages and pumpkins, nor feed on green leeks and parsley; for these are food for you who live in the lake.’
(ll. 56-64) Then Puff-jaw answered him with a smile: `Stranger you boast too much of belly-matters: we too have many marvels to be seen both in the lake and on the shore. For the Son of Chronos has given us Frogs the power to lead a double life, dwelling at will in two separate elements; and so we both leap on land and plunge beneath the water. If you would learn of all these things, ’tis easy done: just mount upon my back and hold me tight lest you be lost, and so you shall come rejoicing to my house.’
(ll. 65-81) So said he, and offered his back. And the Mouse mounted at once, putting his paws upon the other’s sleek neck and vaulting nimbly. Now at first, while he still saw the land near by, he was pleased, and was delighted with Puff-jaw’s swimming; but when dark waves began to wash over him, he wept loudly and blamed his unlucky change of mind: he tore his fur and tucked his paws in against his belly, while within him his heart quaked by reason of the strangeness: and he longed to get to land, groaning terribly through the stress of chilling fear. He put out his tail upon the water and worked it like a steering oar, and prayed to heaven that he might get to land. But when the dark waves washed over him he cried aloud and said: `Not in such wise did the bull bear on his back the beloved load, when be brought Europa across the sea to Crete, as this Frog carries me over the water to his house, raising his yellow back in the pale water.’
(ll. 82-92) Then suddenly a water-snake appeared, a horrid sight for both alike, and held his neck upright above the water. And when he saw it, Puff-jaw dived at once, and never thought how helpless a friend he would leave perishing; but down to the bottom of the lake he went, and escaped black death. But the Mouse, so deserted, at once fell on his back, in the water. He wrung his paws and squeaked in agony of death: many times he sank beneath the water and many times he rose up again kicking. But he could not escape his doom, for his wet fur weighed him down heavily. Then at the last, as he was dying, he uttered these words.
(ll. 93-98) `Ah, Puff-jaw, you shall not go unpunished for this treachery! You threw me, a castaway, off your body as from a rock. Vile coward! On land you would not have been the better man, boxing, or wrestling, or running; but now you have tricked me and cast me in the water. Heaven has an avenging eye, and surely the host of Mice will punish you and not let you escape.’
(ll. 99-109) With these words he breathed out his soul upon the water. But Lick-platter as he sat upon the soft bank saw him die and, raising a dreadful cry, ran and told the Mice. And when they heard of his fate, all the Mice were seized with fierce anger, and bade their heralds summon the people to assemble towards dawn at the house of Bread-nibbler, the father of hapless Crumb-snatcher who lay outstretched on the water face up, a lifeless corpse, and no longer near the bank, poor wretch, but floating in the midst of the deep. And when the Mice came in haste at dawn, Bread-nibbler stood up first, enraged at his son’s death, and thus he spoke.
(ll. 110-121) `Friends, even if I alone had suffered great wrong from the Frogs, assuredly this is a first essay at mischief for you all. And now I am pitiable, for I have lost three sons. First the abhorred ferret seized and killed one of them, catching him outside the hole; then ruthless men dragged another to his doom when by unheard-of arts they had contrived a wooden snare, a destroyer of Mice, which they call a trap. There was a third whom I and his dear mother loved well, and him Puff-jaw has carried out into the deep and drowned. Come, then, and let us arm ourselves and go out against them when we have arrayed ourselves in rich-wrought arms.’
(ll. 122-131) With such words he persuaded them all to gird themselves. And Ares who has charge of war equipped them. First they fastened on greaves and covered their shins with green bean- pods broken into two parts which they had gnawed out, standing over them all night. Their breast plates were of skin stretched on reeds, skilfully made from a ferret they had flayed. For shields each had the centre-piece of a lamp, and their spears were long needles all of bronze, the work of Ares, and the helmets upon their temples were pea-nut shells.
(ll. 132-138) So the Mice armed themselves. But when the Frogs were aware of it, they rose up out of the water and coming together to one place gathered a council of grievous war. And while they were asking whence the quarrel arose, and what the cause of this anger, a herald drew near bearing a wand in his paws, Pot-visitor the son of great-hearted Cheese-carver. He brought the grim message of war, speaking thus:
(ll. 139-143) `Frogs, the Mice have sent me with their threats against you, and bid you arm yourselves for war and battle; for they have seen Crumb-snatcher in the water whom your king Puff- jaw slew. Fight, then, as many of you as are warriors among the Frogs.’
(ll. 144-146) With these words he explained the matter. So when this blameless speech came to their ears, the proud Frogs were disturbed in their hearts and began to blame Puff-jaw. But he rose up and said:
(ll. 147-159) `Friends, I killed no Mouse, nor did I see one perishing. Surely he was drowned while playing by the lake and imitating the swimming of the Frogs, and now these wretches blame me who am guiltless. Come then; let us take counsel how we may utterly destroy the wily Mice. Moreover, I will tell you what I think to be the best. Let us all gird on our armour and take our stand on the very brink of the lake, where the ground breaks down sheer: then when they come out and charge upon us, let each seize by the crest the Mouse who attacks him, and cast them with their helmets into the lake; for so we shall drown these dry-hobs (2) in the water, and merrily set up here a trophy of victory over the slaughtered Mice.’
(ll. 160-167) By this speech he persuaded them to arm themselves.
They covered their shins with leaves of mallows, and had breastplates made of fine green beet-leaves, and cabbage-leaves, skilfully fashioned, for shields. Each one was equipped with a long, pointed rush for a spear, and smooth snail-shells to cover their heads. Then they stood in close-locked ranks upon the high bank, waving their spears, and were filled, each of them, with courage.
(ll. 168-173) Now Zeus called the gods to starry heaven and showed them the martial throng and the stout warriors so many and so great, all bearing long spears; for they were as the host of the Centaurs and the Giants. Then he asked with a sly smile; `Who of the deathless gods will help the Frogs and who the Mice?’
And he said to Athena;
(ll. 174-176) `My daughter, will you go aid the Mice? For they all frolic about your temple continually, delighting in the fat of sacrifice and in all kinds of food.’
(ll. 177-196) So then said the son of Cronos. But Athena answered him: `I would never go to help the Mice when they are hard pressed, for they have done me much mischief, spoiling my garlands and my lamps too, to get the oil. And this thing that they have done vexes my heart exceedingly: they have eaten holes in my sacred robe, which I wove painfully spinning a fine woof on a fine warp, and made it full of holes. And now the money-lender is at me and charges me interest which is a bitter thing for immortals. For I borrowed to do my weaving, and have nothing with which to repay. Yet even so I will not help the Frogs; for they also are not considerable: once, when I was returning early from war, I was very tired, and though I wanted to sleep, they would not let me even doze a little for their outcry; and so I lay sleepless with a headache until cock-crow. No, gods, let us refrain from helping these hosts, or one of us may get wounded with a sharp spear; for they fight hand to hand, even if a god comes against them. Let us rather all amuse ourselves watching the fight from heaven.’
(ll. 197-198) So said Athena. And the other gods agreed with her, and all went in a body to one place.
(ll. 199-201) Then gnats with great trumpets sounded the fell note of war, and Zeus the son of Cronos thundered from heaven, a sign of grievous battle.
(ll. 202-223) First Loud-croaker wounded Lickman in the belly, right through the midriff. Down fell he on his face and soiled his soft fur in the dust: he fell with a thud and his armour clashed about him. Next Troglodyte shot at the son of Mudman, and drove the strong spear deep into his breast; so he fell, and black death seized him and his spirit flitted forth from his mouth. Then Beety struck Pot-visitor to the heart and killed him, and Bread-nibbler hit Loud-crier in the belly, so that he fell on his face and his spirit flitted forth from his limbs. Now when Pond-larker saw Loud-crier perishing, he struck in quickly and wounded Troglodyte in his soft neck with a rock like a mill-stone, so that darkness veiled his eyes. Thereat Ocimides was seized with grief, and struck out with his sharp reed and did not draw his spear back to him again, but felled his enemy there and then. And Lickman shot at him with a bright spear and hit him unerringly in the midriff. And as he marked Cabbage-eater running away, he fell on the steep bank, yet even so did not cease fighting but smote that other so that he fell and did not rise again; and the lake was dyed with red blood as he lay outstretched along the shore, pierced through the guts and shining flanks. Also he slew Cheese-eater on the very brink….
(ll. 224-251) But Reedy took to flight when he saw Ham-nibbler, and fled, plunging into the lake and throwing away his shield. Then blameless Pot-visitor killed Brewer and Water-larked killed the lord Ham-nibbler, striking him on the head with a pebble, so that his brains flowed out at his nostrils and the earth was bespattered with blood. Faultless Muck-coucher sprang upon Lick- platter and killed him with his spear and brought darkness upon his eyes: and Leeky saw it, and dragged Lick-platter by the foot, though he was dead, and choked him in the lake. But Crumb- snatcher was fighting to avenge his dead comrades, and hit Leeky before he reached the land; and he fell forward at the blow and his soul went down to Hades. And seeing this, the Cabbage- climber took a clod of mud and hurled it at the Mouse, plastering all his forehead and nearly blinding him. Thereat Crumb-snatcher was enraged and caught up in his strong hand a huge stone that lay upon the ground, a heavy burden for the soil: with that he hit Cabbage-climber below the knee and splintered his whole right shin, hurling him on his back in the dust. But Croakperson kept him off, and rushing at the Mouse in turn, hit him in the middle of the belly and drove the whole reed-spear into him, and as he drew the spear back to him with his strong hand, all his foe’s bowels gushed out upon the ground. And when Troglodyte saw the deed, as he was limping away from the fight on the river bank, he shrank back sorely moved, and leaped into a trench to escape sheer death. Then Bread-nibbler hit Puff-jaw on the toes — he came up at the last from the lake and was greatly distressed….
(ll. 252-259) And when Leeky saw him fallen forward, but still half alive, he pressed through those who fought in front and hurled a sharp reed at him; but the point of the spear was stayed and did not break his shield. Then noble Rueful, like Ares himself, struck his flawless head-piece made of four pots — he only among the Frogs showed prowess in the throng. But when he saw the other rush at him, he did not stay to meet the stout- hearted hero but dived down to the depths of the lake.
(ll. 260-271) Now there was one among the Mice, Slice-snatcher, who excelled the rest, dear son of Gnawer the son of blameless Bread-stealer. He went to his house and bade his son take part in the war. This warrior threatened to destroy the race of Frogs utterly (3), and splitting a chestnut-husk into two parts along the joint, put the two hollow pieces as armour on his paws: then straightway the Frogs were dismayed and all rushed down to the lake, and he would have made good his boast — for he had great strength — had not the Son of Cronos, the Father of men and gods, been quick to mark the thing and pitied the Frogs as they were perishing. He shook his head, and uttered this word:
(ll. 272-276) `Dear, dear, how fearful a deed do my eyes behold! Slice-snatcher makes no small panic rushing to and fro among the Frogs by the lake. Let us then make all haste and send warlike Pallas or even Ares, for they will stop his fighting, strong though he is.’
(ll. 277-284) So said the Son of Cronos; but Hera answered him: `Son of Cronos, neither the might of Athena nor of Ares can avail to deliver the Frogs from utter destruction. Rather, come and let us all go to help them, or else let loose your weapon, the great and formidable Titan-killer with which you killed Capaneus, that doughty man, and great Enceladus and the wild tribes of Giants; ay, let it loose, for so the most valiant will be slain.’
(ll. 285-293) So said Hera: and the Son of Cronos cast a lurid thunderbolt: first he thundered and made great Olympus shake, and the cast the thunderbolt, the awful weapon of Zeus, tossing it lightly forth. Thus he frightened them all, Frogs and Mice alike, hurling his bolt upon them. Yet even so the army of the Mice did not relax, but hoped still more to destroy the brood of warrior Frogs. Only, the Son of Cronos, on Olympus, pitied the Frogs and then straightway sent them helpers.
(ll. 294-303) So there came suddenly warriors with mailed backs and curving claws, crooked beasts that walked sideways, nut- cracker-jawed, shell-hided: bony they were, flat-backed, with glistening shoulders and bandy legs and stretching arms and eyes that looked behind them. They had also eight legs and two feelers — persistent creatures who are called crabs. These nipped off the tails and paws and feet of the Mice with their jaws, while spears only beat on them. Of these the Mice were all afraid and no longer stood up to them, but turned and fled. Already the sun was set, and so came the end of the one-day war.
(1) Lines 42-52 are intrusive; the list of vegetables which the Mouse cannot eat must follow immediately after the various dishes of which he does eat.
(2) lit. `those unable to swim’.
(3) This may be a parody of Orion’s threat in Hesiod, “Astronomy”, frag. 4.