Reynard the Fox

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Critical Evaluation

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Reynard the Fox is a beast fable, generally a satirical genre in which human follies are portrayed as belonging to animals. The underlying framework of this popular medieval literary form is a series of stories linked by common characters. In Reynard the Fox, the character of Reynard provides the connective thread. Most versions of Reynard the Fox are long, and the episodes are only vaguely related. In addition, the point of such beast fables is satire of the contemporary social and political scenes. Reynard the Fox satirizes the royal court, the judicial system, and many other aspects of medieval life.

The origins of the beast fable are still subject to scholarly debate. Some scholars maintain that this form derives from the oral folk tradition of storytelling, later formalized in writing by medieval monastic scribes. Others find precedents for the beast fable among the works of classical Latin authors. Both schools of thought have defensible positions, and both take their stands on the same set of facts, as many versions of stories such as those found in Reynard the Fox, one of the most important examples of this genre, are extant.

Some basic information emerges from the dispute. First, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) contains stories similar to those in the Reynard the Fox series. Second, Aesopea (fourth century b.c.e.; Aesop’s Fables, 1484) includes specific episodes that appear in Reynard the Fox. Limited access to such classical precedents in medieval times, however, renders arguments about the influence of these models moot. The earliest manifestations of Reynard the Fox are stories about the animosity between Reynard and his enemy, Isengrim the wolf. These stories may be derived from popular French, English, Dutch, Low German, and Latin folktales. They seem to have been initiated in the Low Countries, northern France, and northeastern Germany, although precedence cannot be definitely assigned. The earliest versions were in verse, although later versions appeared in prose.

A rather short poetic rendering of Reynard the Fox stories was done in medieval Latin by an eighth century cleric, Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon), from Charlemagne’s court. The basic Isengrim story—Ysengrimus—is attributed to Master Nivardus of Ghent, who wrote it in Latin about 1148. The evolution of vernacular versions is still open to question; some scholars claim priority for France, and others insist on Germanic primacy. The issue has not been resolved, but there is no question that twelfth and thirteenth century Flanders, western Germany, and northern France were fertile grounds for this literary form, especially for Reynard stories.

At approximately the same time that Ysengrimus was produced, there appeared in France a compilation called Le Roman de Renart, from the hands of several authors (many, according to medieval custom, anonymous). This vernacular compilation deals mostly but not exclusively with stories of the protagonist Reynard facing his antagonist, Isengrim the wolf. The stories are usually arranged in chronological rather than in topical order; unfortunately, this arrangement tends to undermine the ideological impact of the stories. The didactic element is much stronger in the almost simultaneous (c. 1180) vernacular redaction of Heinrich der Glïchezäre.

Reynard the Fox appeared in Latin, French, German, Flemish, Dutch, and English versions—testimony to its popularity. It is evident, however, that questions about origins and the chronological order of various versions cannot be unequivocally answered with the information at hand. As is the case with much medieval history and literature, final answers must wait upon the discovery of further evidence. In the meantime, it is still possible to evaluate the extant material on its own terms,...

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becauseReynard the Fox evolved as the archetype of the beast fable. The central focus of the series concentrates on a single significant episode—Reynard’s healing of the sick lion, in most versions—and other stories are spin-offs from this episode, all involving moralistic messages. The cast of animals varies from story to story and from version to version: Fox, lion, and wolf are constants; badger, bear, stag, rooster, cat, hare, camel, bear, ant, and others appear occasionally. The didactic factor is another constant, and for the temper of the times, it is a remarkably pragmatic one.

Indeed, the Reynard series is a lesson in ethics and morality. None of the animals is a paragon of virtue. All are vulnerable or corruptible or both; not even King Lion is exempt. They live in a world that recognizes no moral codes and where survival depends on wit and exploitation of others. Isengrim the wolf is doomed because he carries to extremes his penchant for besting everything and everybody. His compulsion is to surpass, and this compulsion blinds him to the necessary cooperation required for survival. By contrast, Reynard is pliable, adaptable, and fundamentally amoral. He survives because he is flexible. In the process, however, he becomes venal, power-hungry, and oblivious to humane values. Significantly, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” (in The Canterbury Tales; 1387-1400) relates a Reynard story—the fox’s attempt and failure to abduct the rooster Chanticleer—to demonstrate the weakness and the power of flattery. Reynard’s tactics thus become an object lesson in compromised integrity.

Reynard is the ultimate opportunist, knowing no scruple. To be sure, Reynard is neither explicitly praised nor explicitly condemned in the context of medieval ethics or morality. Rather, he is held forth as an implicit example of what not to do. In this sense, the best didactic functions of the beast fable are upheld in Reynard the Fox, for it is the didactic element in such works that constitutes their intended benefit. Although scholarly disputes continue about the origins and the development of the beast fable, in the last analysis the more crucial point is the moral import of such stories. In this respect, Reynard the Fox succeeds.