Reynard the Fox

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Reynard the Fox, a fixture of English and Dutch literary traditions, has been recently translated by literary scholar James Simpson (Liverlight, 2015). Before this modern English translation, the tale was known primarily from a thirteenth-century Dutch poem (Van den vos Reynaerde) as well as William Caxton's fifteenth-century English translation of the same (The Historie of Renart the Foxe). It is a time-honored trickster story with serious nihilistic implications.

Simpson's translation has made the story accessible to a modern, English-speaking audience. The book tells of the various exploits of one wiley fox named Reynard. What many have found interesting about Reynard's activity is that he is never entirely held accountable for his actions (despite the efforts of his victims). Reynard is a fox who lives under the domain of one King Noble (a lion, as all animals are anthropomorphized). Several animals in the kingdom appeal to their King for having been wronged by Reynard. These victims include Courtoys the Dog (whose sausage Reynard allegedly ate) and Chaunticleer the Cock (whose chicks Reynard ate). Reynard then proceeds to tell the King that two (especially brawny) enemies, Bruin the Bear and Isengrim the Wolf, were plotting to overthrow him. Reynard deceives the King (by explaining that he has to go to Rome to ask the Pope for a pardon) in order to set in the motion the King's futile search for an alleged treasure. In the meantime, the wolf deceives a rabbit into becoming his dinner and eludes the wolf Isengrim (whose wife Reynard has raped) in hand-to-hand combat. In doing so, Reynard so impresses the King that the King appoints Reynard as a high official.

The moral of the story is that the cunning can outsmart the strong—and that is a fine interpretation. Additionally, the exploits taken together (replete with gory details) suggest a quite cynical and pessimistic worldview wherein there are no "good guys." While to some extent the reader can celebrate the small outsmarting the strong, Reynard is hardly a conventional hero. He revels in lies and deceit, with his only apology that his victims, too, are imperfect.

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