I was looking through my old notebooks for a quotation that I knew I had read in university, and I came across a literary discovery that I had made during that time, one that still amuses me. It is a line from Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, where fools who think they are wise are described as strutting about “like apes in purple and asses in lion skins.”
“Apes in purple” is a reference to an old saying that takes various forms: “An ape is an ape, though it is dressed in scarlet,” or “An ape is an ape, though it wears a badge of gold,” or, as in this case, “An ape is an ape, though it is clothed in purple.” Erasmus discusses this saying at some length in his Adages, where he quotes the adage as “An ape is an ape although she wears badges of gold.” Lucian provides perhaps the first literary example of this adage in his Adversus Indoctum, and it has been used literarrily at least as recently as Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape.
“Donkeys in lion skins” is a reference to a story in which a donkey escapes from his master, finds a lion skin, and uses it to frighten people until his bray reveals his true identity. Erasmus also discusses this image in the Adages, suggesting that it originates in a story told by Lucian in The Fisherman. He also notes that it was used by Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus, by Lucian in Pseudologista and the Philopseudes and by Eusebius of Caesaria in Adversus Hieroclem. A slightly different version of the story also appears in Aesop’s Fables.
It is only in Praise of Folly, however, that I have ever run across a mention of the two figures together, which makes Erasmus, at least in my estimation, the likely source for C. S. Lewis’ ape and donkey characters in The Last Battle. In Lewis’ version of the story, the donkey does not himself choose to wear the lion skin and to impersonate the lion-king Aslan, but is convinced to do so by the ape, who sets himself up in fine clothing and wields power through the false king that he has created.
Lewis also deviates from the form of the source story in that the donkey does not reveal his true identity through his own bray. Instead, the real Aslan arrives, and the other characters are forced to choose between one or the other without ever really having seen either, making the story less about how fools should keep their mouths shut and more about how foolishness and wisdom are sometimes difficult to distinguish, especially when issues of faith are concerned.
In any case, I have not before or since seen anyone make this connection between Erasmus and Lewis, and I would like to think that it is a literary discovery all my own, however unlikely this might be. There may even be a paper to be written on the subject, though I am not sure that anyone would be interested to read it, and though I am very certain that I lack the time to write it. Besides, I love these little literary coincidences when they remain just little literary coincidences. I like them much less when they become papers. So, perhaps it is best if we just keep this between us after all.