The word for ‘fox’ in medieval France was goupil – until a set of allegorical tales about a fox called Reynard became so popular that renard started to be used instead. The characterisation of foxes as wily had already been established by Aesop, but Reynard himself first appeared in the tenth-century poem Ecbasis Captivi (‘The Escape of the Captive’), and he returned in the 12th-century Ysengrimus. In these mock epics Reynard and Ysengrimus, a wolf, try to get the better of each other; both poems avoid didactic lessons or obvious morals and give their protagonists psychological complexity. Between the 12th and the 15th centuries there were at least three French versions of these stories, and the fox’s reputation spread to Germany, the Low Countries and England. The Vox and the Wolf is the only extant Middle English beast fable before Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, written a century or so later. Anthropomorphic creatures always give an opportunity for humans to reflect on their own paradoxical status – half-animal, half-god – and to take delight in a fanciful refinement of the bestial world. But there is something more at work in the Reynard stories than the simple humour of walking, talking animals, and the satirising of political vice. Reynard is amoral and cynical; he doesn’t care about good and evil or right and wrong. He has endured because we respond to his sense that life is a game, but one that might be won.
In 1481 William Caxton translated a Flemish version of the epic and printed it as the History of Reynard the Fox. Most of the 97 books Caxton published on his press in Westminster were works of chivalric literature or religious piety, but he probably found room for the rather nasty Reynard because he thought it would sell. It did: there were 23 editions between 1481 and 1700. Now James Simpson, a medievalist at Harvard, has translated Caxton’s History of Reynard the Fox into colloquial modern English.
The book opens with the lion, the king of the beasts, calling the animals to court to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. The first thing we learn about Reynard is that he doesn’t want to go. The second thing we learn is that he doesn’t want to go because he has pissed on the faces of the children of his enemy, Isengrim the wolf. The story climaxes in a challenge between Reynard and Isengrim: Reynard, shorn and slathered in olive oil, urinates on his own tail and whips Isengrim in the face with it repeatedly.
The 45 chapters of Reynard the Fox are short, around five or six pages, and have titles like ‘How Bruin the bear fares with Reynard the fox’, ‘The king is terribly angry at these accusations’ and ‘The king forgives the fox everything, and makes him the most powerful lord in all his territory’. These chapters are subdivided into sections with headings like ‘In a very tight corner, Reynard the fox not only escapes hanging, but turns the tables on all his enemies’. There’s no suspense: we know from the start that Reynard will slip out of every tight corner. As Simpson notes in his introduction, unlike Aesop’s fables, which teach sentimental morals suitable for the classroom, the blackly humorous Reynard stories always make the same point: cleverness trumps brute force. The fox brings a creative flair to his cruelty:
While Isengrim was speaking, the fox was thinking hard about extricating himself. He forced his free paw between the wolf’s legs and gripped the wolf hard by the balls, before twisting them so violently that the wolf howled and cried out with the intense pain. The fox was then able to withdraw his other paw from the wolf’s mouth. The wolf was in such terrible pain from the tight twist the fox was applying to his balls that he spat blood and shat himself.
It’s not only Isengrim who brings charges against Reynard: Cuwaert the hare says that Reynard promised to teach him the Apostles’ Creed and instead tried to kill him, and Chaunticleer the cock accuses Reynard of murdering his daughter, Coppen. The king sends Bruin the bear and Tybert the cat to bring the fox to court from his lair, Wickedhole. Reynard makes easy work of both bailiffs. He promises Bruin honey and the bear gets stuck in a tree; he promises Tybert mice, and traps him in a barn, where he faces the wrath of the priest, his wife and their son, Martinet:
There were many hard strokes for Tybert across his whole body. Martinet was so angry that he knocked out one of the cat’s eyes. The naked priest raised his staff and was about to strike when Tybert, seeing that he would certainly die, sprang between the priest’s legs with claws spread and teeth bared, taking the priest’s right stone with him. That leap shamed the priest.
The anticlericalism of Reynard is pronounced. The priest isn’t celibate, and a footnote tells us what we’ve already worked out, that the book’s portrayal of parish life ‘falls far short of the doctrinal ideal’. Reynard has ‘the curse of the Church’ on him because he once persuaded Isengrim to abandon monastic life. He makes insincere confession to his nephew Grimbart the badger, who, without authority, grants him absolution; there are repeated references to simony and the bribing of Church Fathers; clerics have names like Take-it-all and Harm-watch. ‘Justice is always moved forward with a little cash,’ says Reynard’s uncle the ape, who is clerk to a bishop.
Simpson argues that Reynard influenced The Prince, which also makes use of the figures of the fox and the lion: ‘Whereas Machiavelli had counselled kings to survive their enemies and subjects,’ Simpson writes, ‘Reynard is rather about how clever subjects can survive enemies and kings.’ Machiavelli says the prince should be at once man, fox and lion: the man acts according to the law; the fox lies and betrays; the lion exerts power. All are necessary to keep the enemy, the wolf, at bay. But Reynard doesn’t want to be a prince, let alone a king; it isn’t power he wants but survival; his pleasures are small, his jokes sadistic. In his first court appearance, Reynard evades hanging by confessing his part in a plot against the king and promising to bring the king treasure buried in far-off Krekenpit; the king believes him, and arrests the wolf and the bear, who Reynard has claimed are co-conspirators. Reynard is given skin from the bear’s back to make a pouch, and the wolf’s feet are ‘pulled off from the claws to the sinews’ to make shoes from. Reynard returns to Wickedhole accompanied by Bellin the ram and Cuwaert the hare. He bites the hare’s head off, hangs it around Bellin’s neck in the bearskin pouch, and sends the unwitting ram back to court. ‘“Damn it,” said the King, “that I ever believed the fox!”’
In these stories the state consists of a legitimate but ineffectual sovereign and a trial system that never proves guilt or innocence to anyone’s satisfaction. The scholar Jill Mann – to whom Simpson dedicates his translation – claims that one of the innovations of the French Roman de Renart was its modern notion of crime and punishment; for the first time in beast epics, animals sought justice in a secular rather than a monastic court. Still, the system has a few problems. Key witnesses have sometimes been eaten by the time disputes come to court. The trouble with accusing Reynard is that nothing can be proved against him: it always comes down to who tells the better story – and we know who that is. Politics is a game of theatrical forms, and Reynard wins with rhetoric. Twice he defends himself in court, swaying the king and the crowd. He’s a good talker, but the other animals are so stupid that his skill, though often praised, is hardly tested.
One winter’s day, Isengrim tells the court, Reynard told the wolf’s wife that he would teach her to catch fish with her tail. When her tail was deep into the water, it froze; then Reynard raped her. Reynard denies this: ‘When I saw her stuck in the ice, I wanted to help her,’ he claims, ‘so I heaved and I shoved and I pushed her this way and that, but it was useless: she was too heavy for me.’ (Fat-shaming the woman who accuses you of rape is a winning strategy.) Besides, he adds, if wolves weren’t so greedy, they wouldn’t be so keen for his help. Reynard really only has this one trick: he promises a bounty of food to his enemies, who fall for it every time. At the end the fox triumphs again: he is invited to be a judge and a permanent member of the king’s council, where his cunning will be put to the court’s use.
Reynard has had dozens of lives over the last eight hundred years. For 15th-century readers, Simpson writes, Reynard’s court satire ‘answered to the intensely competitive, materialist conditions in which Caxton himself prospered’. (Reynard is enterprising enough, and worldly, but it’s hard to see him possessing any work ethic, Reformation or otherwise.) When Goethe put Johann Christoph Gottsched’s 1752 High German prose translation of a late 15th-century Low German verse epic into hexameters, he ennobled the fox. In Studies in Weimar Classicism, Roger Stephenson writes that Goethe’s characterisation reflects his own miserable wartime experiences in 1792 and 1793, and his critique of the ancien régime. Reineke Fuchs makes the fox responsible, restrained and trustworthy. Where Gottsched describes Reineke in terms of ‘List’ (low cunning), Goethe prefers ‘Witz’, with its connotations of intelligence and understanding. Reineke is a diplomat with a comfortable home life who bargains reasonably with his relentlessly aggressive enemies. He shows ‘the hopeful possibility of creating a fictional world in which, despite horrifying violence and political decadence, an individual could, with enough good fortune, intelligence, and above all, imagination, enjoy life’.
Reineke Fuchs had great influence outside Germany. Sanne Parlevliet, who studies children’s literature, writes that the illustrations to Goethe’s text inspired a display at the 1851 Great Exhibition, which revived Reynard for a new audience. Scholarly editions, children’s books and chapbooks subsequently appeared in English, most of them based on Goethe’s edition rather than Caxton’s; Reynard was also the subject of magic-lantern slides. The fox may have migrated to America, and disguised himself as Br’er Rabbit; more than a dozen episodes from the Uncle Remus stories are lifted from the Roman de Renart and the Reynaert de Vos. (Though one wouldn’t want to give Reynard credit for everything: Br’er Rabbit also has roots in African traditions, including the West African Anansi stories.)
The list goes on. Stravinsky, commissioned by the princesse de Polignac, wrote a one-act opera ballet called Renard, histoire burlesque chantée et jouée, based on the tales collected by the Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev. The piece, which he finished in 1916 but wasn’t staged until 1922, was meant to be performed by acrobats, dancers or clowns in front of the theatre curtain or on a trestle stage in front of the orchestra. The action begins with Renard contriving to trap Chaunticleer by making him confess his sins. (Renard is wearing a nun’s habit.) The melodies are playful, sinuous; the cimbalom, a kind of dulcimer, is the fox’s signature. ‘Greetings my little red-headed beauty,’ Renard sings. ‘Tell me all your sins.’ The cock is saved by the entry of the cat and a ram. As soon as they leave, the cock falls into Renard’s clutches again; the cat and ram reappear, brandish a knife, strangle the fox, and do a celebratory dance.
Most modern retellings sanitise the sadism and sexual violence of these epics. In 1930, Ladislas Starevich and his daughter Irene made a stop-motion puppet movie called Le Roman de Renard. In their version of the ice-fishing episode, Isengrim (not his wife) puts his tail in the freezing water; Reynard then cries wolf to the villagers, who arrive with sticks and clubs. The film culminates in a long siege sequence that shows Reynard masterminding his fortress’s dazzling and baroque defences with an array of levers marked cutely with arrows. The film, with its expressive, jerky style, was clearly an influence on Wes Anderson’s 2009 animated version of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Voiced smoothly by George Clooney, this fox is a gallant, wolf-phobic gentleman, a dreamer who writes a newspaper column and suffers an existential crisis that involves one master plan, three bandit hats and lots of gear. He doesn’t have much in common with the medieval Reynard.
In the late 1960s, a Disney employee had the idea of combining the figure of a wily fox with the feel-good story of Robin Hood. (According to Andrew Larson, Walt Disney had wanted to do a version of Reynard since the 1930s, but thought it wasn’t suitable for children.) In the Disney version, released in 1973, the characters were revised in an attempt to make the idea of robbing the rich more palatable: the lion king became the illegitimate Prince John; dumb Bruin became Robin’s pal Little John; put-upon Isengrim became the corrupt sheriff of Nottingham; whiny Chaunticleer became a strutting, singing, country-troubadour cock-of-the-walk; fast-talking Grimbart became Friar Tuck, the merciful caretaker of the poor. As for the Reynardian Robin Hood, he was more of a lover than a fighter – the wooer of Maid Marian who just happens to be good with a longbow.
As humans and foxes encroach ever more on each other’s territory, many people whose plants are dug up and gardens strewn with rubbish might have some sympathy with the leopard, whose values are more contemporary: ‘Let’s all go and fetch Reynard,’ he says to the king. ‘We’ll arrest him and hang him there and then, without any due process of law.’ Earlier ages admired rhetoric and oratorical language: we prefer a show of force. And urban foxes are an enemy now. In December, in Kent, a fox attacked a sleeping baby while his family was watching television. The baby, the Daily Mail reported, had ‘puncture wounds on his temple and forehead’. Later that week the parents saw what seemed to be the same fox in their garden. ‘I threw things at him and chased him through the neighbours’ gardens,’ Mr Day said. ‘I was seeing red.’ But this renard didn’t need to worry about how to outwit the powers of state: the family was warned they could be prosecuted if they harmed the fox.