The Fable of the Bee and the Spider in The Battle of the Books
The ‘Fable of the Bee and the Spider‘ is an imaginative allegorical representation of the literary squabble regarding the respective merits of the Moderns and the Ancients. The apt symbolism and the neatly summed up arguments add to the interest of the fable. The Bee and spider episode is introduced immediately after the introduction of the controversy going on between the two literary factions.
The Bee symbolizes the Ancients; the Spider symbolizes the Moderns. The episode is introduced as a material accident which sparks off the battle. In a Corner of the library there lived a spider swollen up by the destruction of innumerable of flies whose spoils lay scattered before the gates of his palace. A Bee happened to enter there by mistake. A torrent of curses flowed from the Spider.
The Spider’s Speech
The spider calls the Bee a rogue, a vagabond “without house or home”, a plunderer who robs nature and flowers of honey and lives upon the body so obtained. The spider tells the Bee that the latter is without stock or inheritance, born to no possession …. but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe. The spider becomes furious and rubes the Bee.
The Bee’s Reply
The Bee replies “Whatever I collect thence enriches myself without the least injury to their beauty, their small, or their taste.” The Bee adds that the Spider’s web is no more than Store of dirt enriched by sweepings exhaled from below. Swift is here commenting on the method of the Moderns who claimed admiration for their laboured ingenuity and who showed contempt for the classical qualities of Ancient’s books.
Swift introduces Aesop as the interpreter. The listens to the arguments of both the parties and at once notices a close parallel between the spider and the Moderns. Like the Moderns, the Spider boasts of his self-sufficiency and scorns assistance from without. The Bee does not pretend to be self-sufficient; he depends upon the bounty of nature to build his live and fills it with honey through hard labour and search. The spider produces poison, the Bee provides the humanity with honey and wax. The episode has been widely admired for its brilliant effect and artistic economy.
The Fable has a satiric purpose. It shows pretentious nature of the Moderns in its clear from. The first blow is struck when the spider is established as the representative of the latter day men of letters. The spider is seen as a close associate of the Moderns. The spider vainly despises and repudiates the Bee’s fruitful search among the flowers and terms it as an act of plunder. The Moderns show an unthinkable disregard for the classical rules and values so studiously acquired and practiced by the Ancients. Aesop says,
“Erect your schemes with as much method and skills as you please, yet if the materials be nothing but dirt, spun out of your entrails, the edifice will conclude at last in a cobweb …… For anything else of genuine that the Moderns may pretend to. I cannot recollect; unless it be a large vein of wrangling and satire, much of a nature and substance with the spider’s poison.”
The Fable of the Bee and the Spider has been ‘universally admired by the critics. It is Swift’s real contribution to the ancient-modern controversy. Swift as a satirist is at his best in this episode. It s remarkable for its artistic economy and satiric efficacy.
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