A Summary and Analysis of the ‘Dog in the Manger’ Fable

‘The Dog in the Manger’ is one of several fables attributed to the ancient writer Aesop which have become not just famous, but proverbial: the fable has itself become a well-known phrase whose meaning is synonymous with the fable’s moral. However, as with a few other famous ‘Aesop fables’, the attribution to Aesop is shaky at best, and most early copies of Aesop’s fables don’t actually contain ‘The Dog in the Manger’. More on this in a moment.

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the origins of the phrase ‘dog in the manger’, and offer an analysis of the fable which gave us the expression.

‘The Dog in the Manger’: plot summary

One day, in a stable on a farm, a dog lay asleep in a manger that was filled with hay. The dog was awakened by the cattle, which came into the stable tired and hungry from working all day in the field.

But the dog would not let them get near the manger, because he wanted it all for himself. Indeed, he snarled and bared his teeth at them: it was as if the manger were filled with the best of meat and bones, which he wished to keep all for himself. In actual fact, of course, the manger contained only hay (and the dog himself).

The cattle looked at the dog with undisguised contempt.

‘How selfish he is!’ said one of the cows. ‘He cannot eat the hay himself, but he will not let us eat it – even though we are so hungry for it!’

At this point, the farmer came into the stable and saw how the dog was acting. He grabbed a stick and drove the dog out of the stable, hitting him for his selfish behaviour towards the cows.

‘The Dog in the Manger’: analysis

The moral of ‘The Dog in the Manger’ is usually summarised as follows: Do not grudge others what you cannot enjoy yourself. Aesop’s fables tend to have a concluding moral which sums up the ‘message’ of the story, and this single sentence sums up the ‘thrust’ of ‘The Dog in the Manger’.

From this moral, and the accompanying fable, the common expression ‘dog in a manger’ (or ‘dog in the manger’) was born, to refer to someone who has no need of (or ability to use) a possession that would be useful or valuable to others, but who prevents others from having it.

However, it seems unlikely that ‘The Dog in the Manger’ was Aesop’s work. Indeed, it wasn’t first attributed to him until the fifteenth century, when Steinhöwel, in his Esopus (c. 1476), included it.

The story appears in the work of Diogenianus, a Greek grammarian from the reign of Hadrian (second century AD). Diogenianus glosses the meaning of the fable as follows: ‘The dog in the manger, concerning those who neither themselves use nor allow others to use: Insofar as the dog neither itself eats the barleycorns, nor allows the horse to.’ In early versions of the story, it is a horse, rather than a group of cattle, that the dog thwarts with his selfish actions.

Curiously, the popularity of the ‘dog in the manger’ story appears to have had more to do with the spread of Christianity than the popularity of Aesop’s work.

The story is even mentioned in one of the apocryphal gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, although it’s oxen (rather than cattle or a horse) which feature alongside the dog: ‘Jesus said, “Woe to the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat”.’

And then, in the Middle Ages and even before the fable had been attributed to Aesop, John Gower, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote in his late fourteenth-century poem Confessio Amantis:

Though it be not the hound’s habit
To eat chaff, yet will he warn off
An ox that commeth to the barn
Thereof to take up any food.

So, much like another well-known fable attributed to Aesop, ‘The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ – which, although it has the ‘ring’ of Aesop’s other fables, doesn’t appear to have been his work either – ‘The Dog in the Manger’ has been retrospectively bundled in with Aesop’s other fables even though it probably only emerged centuries later and was not originally part of the cycle of short animal stories associated with the figure named Aesop.

In this respect, ‘The Dog in the Manger’ is a little like the most famous stories from the Arabian Nights – the tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor – none of which was part of the original 1,001 Nights sequence. Those three stories were orphan tales which were added much later. Both the Arabian Nights and Aesop’s Fables are very much part of an oral tradition of storytelling, and the cycle of works included under those titles has changed over time as new stories which ‘fitted the bill’ were added. But perhaps that doesn’t ultimately matter: if the story, and the moral, is good, such stories can become an authentic part of the tradition, even if they were late additions.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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