The Cunning Little Vixen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In the mid-1880’s, a forester named Korinek told stories to the Czech landscapist Stanislaw Lolek. These tales involved a forester, his grandson, their dog, a little vixen, and the local priest and schoolmaster. Amused, Lolek, then an art student, made some two hundred sketches based on these accounts, but he did nothing with them. Decades later, the Lidove Noviny (people’s news), a newspaper in Brno, Moravia, wanted to run a series of illustrated stories and discovered Lolek’s supply of pictures. Rudolf Tesnohlidek, who was writing for the paper, was given the assignment to prepare the accompanying text.

Like Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), another novel that began as journalistic copy to accompany illustrations, Liska Bystrouska (The Cunning Little Vixen) transcended its origins. After running in Lidove Noviny from April 7 through June 23, 1920, it was published in book form, again with Lolek’s illustrations, and has never been out of print since. Leo Janáek began converting it into an opera almost at once; his popular Prihody Lisky Bystrousky (The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears) premiered in 1924.

Such popularity is not surprising, for the work appeals on many levels; indeed, what is surprising is that the novel has never before been translated. On one level, it is an exciting adventure story as Tesnohlidek involves his heroine in numerous scrapes and escapes.

Shortly after her capture by Bartos, the forester, his grandson Pepik provokes Sharp-Ears until she bites him. The vixen realizes that she will be punished for this display of temper and so flees, but she is recaptured, tied to the doghouse, and given dry potatoes to eat.

Even the rooster now exalts over her degradation—but not for long. She lures him to within her grasp and dispatches him. In fact, she dines off so many chickens that Bartos decides to shoot her. Although she knows that she will miss the easy life of captivity, she runs away again.

She is not finished with the forester, though, for she returns to steal his chickens and later his sausages. Her gluttony almost leads to her destruction: On one of her forays, the forester captures her in the pantry, and she has a narrow escape. Nor is the forester finished with her. He continues to set traps, in one of which she loses the tip of her tail.

Other hunters also invade the forest, not all of them human. Golden-Stripe, a sophisticated male fox, finds her, and she falls in love with him. Will he abandon her? What will happen to her after she becomes pregnant? Golden-Stripe marries her and takes her to a safer part of the forest. Yet even here, Tesnohlidek hints, she may become a muff.

Another source of enjoyment is the work’s topsy-turvy world, which one frequently sees through the eyes of animals and insects. A mosquito landing on Bartos’ nose sees it as a mountain “covered everywhere with swamps, spotted with cavities and pools.Wherever the mosquito touched down, tiny puddles formed around his feet, oily as metallic water in a meadow.” Sharp-Ears regards Bartos’ pipe as “a strange proboscis” and is shocked by the ugliness of Pepik, with his lack of fur and claws. She observes that a pig is almost equally furless and concludes that it “must be a friend of the humans, possibly one of their relatives.” Only the dog, Catcher, strikes her as showing some intelligence and...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

The Cunning Little Vixen Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, October 1, 1985, p. 1043.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, November 24, 1985, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, October 18, 1985, p. 48.

Time. CXXVI, December 23, 1985, p. 62.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. December, 1985, p. 19.