Reynard the Fox

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

James Simpson's 2015 modern English Translation of Reynard the Fox brings into modern focus the story of a sly and immoral fox. The original cycle of stories are attested in the English, Dutch, French, and Scandinavian literary canons. The stories follow a fox who wrongs several animals in a country under the domain of one King Noble (himself a lion). Reynard commits unsavory acts out of selfishness, greed, lust, and sometimes just plain spite. Some of Reynard's exploits are described below.

When he heard the villagers’ terrific racket, he wrestled and pulled so hard that he extracted his head, but he left behind all the skin from his head and both his ears. No man ever saw a more hideous animal, for blood ran over his eyes. Before he could extract his feet, he had to leave his claws and paw pads behind. The deal turned out badly for Bruin. He thought he’d never escape, now that his feet were so sore, and he couldn’t see a thing because of the blood running down across his eyes.

This quotation is an exemplary example of use how gory these stories are. Preceding this, the bear (who, ironically, was sent by the King to summon Reynard to his court for the sake of justice) was tricked by Reynard into putting his face in a log to extract honeycomb. When the log snaps shut on him, he loses the flesh of his face.

I happened to be walking on the bank, and I could see him on my wife, shoving and sticking as men do when they’re at such work and play. What grief I suffered in my heart! I almost fainted, and cried, insofar as I was able, "Reynard, what are you doing there?" When he spotted me so close, he jumped off and went on his way. I approached my wife in great distress.

This quote, too, demonstrates just how brutal Reynard can be. He rapes the wife of an enemy who herself is rather an unwitting victim. Later, when Reynard takes revenge on the wolf himself, a bawdy scene results.

He forced his free paw between the wolf’s legs and gripped the wolf hard by the balls, before twisting them so violently that the wolf howled and cried out with the intense pain. The fox was then able to withdraw his other paw from the wolf’s mouth. The wolf was in such terrible pain from the tight twist the fox was applying to his balls that he spat blood and shat himself.

The historical moment of the story is very much unique to the Middle Ages, full of superstition. When the King selects Tybert the Cat as the one responsible for bringing Reynard to court to demand justice, Tybert has a sense of foreboding:

The bird flew up to a tree that stood on the cat’s left side. Tybert was uneasy—this was a bad omen, for had the bird flown on his right side, he would’ve been glad. Instead, he was full of foreboding that his journey wouldn’t end well. He nonetheless did as many do, and gave himself better hope than his heart could muster.

The tale ends with Isengrim (whose wife Reynard had raped) challenging him to hand-to-hand combat. As a wolf and a fox might seem to represent a decided victory for the former, the Reynard resolves to shave and oil himself in order the elude the physically superior wolf:

The pain in Isengrim’s balls was worse than the pain in his eyes, which were bleeding freely. He was so overcome that he fainted. For he’d bled so much, and the twisting of his balls made him so faint, that his energy just vanished.

At the end, the king appoints the fox as a member of court. The story has an etiological aspect, too (explaining why there are so many foxes in the world):

The world contains many weeds left by Reynard, which now spring up everywhere, even if they have no red beards. There are more foxes found now than ever existed in the past.

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