Shorn and Slathered

Christine Smallwood

  • Reynard the Fox: A New Translation by James Simpson
    Liveright, 256 pp, £16.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 87140 736 8

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:

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