Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is set in Yorkshire during the reign of Richard I. The forests in this part of twelfth century England are occupied by outlaws, and the friction between Norman feudal lords and Saxon franklins is exacerbated by the long absence of the king.
Richard has placed the governance of the country in the hands of his ambitious brother John and gone to fight in the Crusades. Political conspiracies are dividing Normans, while the constitutional rights of Saxons crumble.
Cedric the Saxon is a noble with enough power and wealth to maintain his independence for the time being, and the two thralls who sit in the open forest glade are loyal to him. One in rough clothing is looking after Cedric's swine. The other, fantastically dressed and with bells on his cap, is Cedric's jester. Both wear metal collars around their necks to identify them by name and to show that they are slaves who belong to Cedric.
Wamba the jester teases the Gurth the swineherd as Gurth's dog gathers Cedric's hogs for the long walk home. Fangs the dog has been lamed according to a Norman law forbidding Saxons from owning dogs able to hunt—which also makes it hard for the dogs to herd livestock.
Gurth worries that they will be returning late; there are not only outlaws on the road but also Cedric's Norman neighbors, who steal Saxon animals with impunity. Wamba notes that while pigs live they are Saxons and are called by the Saxon word "swine," but when they come to the dinner table, they become Normans and are called by their French name, "pork." Wamba's satiric wordplay signals his role as the fool who knows more than anyone can guess from his clownishness.
When Gurth complains of the villainy of a local lord, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf (meaning "ox face" or "bull head"), Wamba playfully reminds him that such talk about Front-de-Boeuf or his fellow Norman courtier Philip de Malvoisin (meaning "bad neighbor") is treason. Wamba muses that he must indeed be a fool, for only a wise man would turn Gurth in.
As the herd is finally gathered, Gurth and Wamba hear horses on the road. Wamba is for getting a look at the riders to see who they are, but Gurth wishes to avoid trouble and is anxious to get away. He points out to Wamba that there is a storm coming and that it will likely overtake them before they get home. Wamba concedes and joins Gurth and Fangs as they drive the herd back to Cedric's hall.