Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Hare and the Bear

By Patrick J. Walsh

As I walk by, unaware of their doings, a small group of animals gathers in an open patch of grass in the woods, a short distance from the edge of the paved road in the park.

They are discussing their upcoming spring play — a rollicking presentation based on The Knight's Tale, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The largest of the group, obviously in charge of the production, is a small bear. He surveys the collection of dramatis personae and, in a quiet aside to his assistant — a large hare — he begins to run down the list of roles and the animals necessary to fulfill them:

"So we've got the owl to play Theseus and the ground hog for Aegeus, and the three deer for Palamon and Arcite and Emily —"

"Yes, yes," the hare replies, impatient. "But I've already told you, it's not the character roles you have to worry about. I'm worried about the background players — like for instance, who will play the magical forest creatures who scurry away when the trees are cut down for Arcite's funeral pyre?"

The bear replies with a sigh and a wave of his paw — a gesture that, while unintentional in its effect, nonetheless causes the hare to dodge quickly out of the way.

"Not this again — again with the trees?"

"Well it's important," the hare persists. "It makes a huge impact on an audience, how the background is constructed. If we're going to have magical creatures and trees being cut down, we need to think about that."

"All right, all right. So who do you want for the trees?"

"Well it depends on what kind of tree —"

Growing impatient, the bear brings his paw down heavily on a small clump of wizened sod, sending a loud ‘whump’ off echoing among the slanted rays of sunlight scattered through the woods.

“Okay then,” he responds, obviously trying to stay his annoyance, “what kind of tree? For instance?”

For his part, the hare responds with the first small sign of a smile, the corners of his tiny mouth quivering slightly as he asks:

"Well, a dogwood, for example. I mean, who can we get to play a good dogwood? What sort of an animal will be willing to play a dogwood tree?"

Utterly unaware that he is being led toward a punchline, the bear wearily re-traces the hare's rhetorical question in the sprightly wind of the lovely spring afternoon:

"I don't know… what sort of animal would make a good dogwood tree?"

Tittering slightly while taking a beat — and carefully moving himself several steps away from his much-larger friend — the hare responds:

"Well… a dog would."

And somewhere, some half a mile or so away, I stop suddenly in the midst of my walk, certain that I hear something… something, oddly enough, that sounds sort of like a large hare, laughing hysterically, and a small bear, moaning indulgently.

As the sounds fade, I wonder how I’ve come to think of Chaucer and his Tales, as I wander along the edge of the woods, eyeing the rough bark of the dogwoods on this fine sunny afternoon in the park.

* * *

Did you know?: The oldest existing reference to the dogwood tree in an English language manuscript is found in “The Knight’s Tale,” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales (although it is referenced therein in various iterations by its earlier moniker, the archaic “whippletree,” or as “cornel,” which is a variant of the scientific name for its genus, Cornus).

© Patrick J. Walsh



  1. I didn't know the oldest reference to dogwood was in "The Knight's Tale." Can't believe I didn't see the "dog would" joke coming from a mile away ;)

  2. It's a pretty funny joke - the hare laughed REALLY loud :)

    It isn't necessarily the oldest reference - just the oldest reference in a still-existing manuscript.

    Believe it or not, there's a list of about two thousand words whose oldest existing first reference occurs in manuscripts by Chaucer. I know he's considered to be one of the first to write "in the vernacular" whose manuscripts have survived, but it is really surprising that so many 'first' words are in his work.