Themes

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

Reynard the Fox stories are a series of mythic folklore tales from Europe. Reynard the Fox is the protagonist of the stories and often makes his way through the stories by tricks and cunning. Reynard the Fox stories, folklore, and mythology were primarily created in Medieval France and Germany, though...

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Reynard the Fox stories are a series of mythic folklore tales from Europe. Reynard the Fox is the protagonist of the stories and often makes his way through the stories by tricks and cunning. Reynard the Fox stories, folklore, and mythology were primarily created in Medieval France and Germany, though for this analysis I will focus mainly on English translations.

In the original stories about Reynard, he fits into the trickster archetype. As a fox, he is not strong enough to get the better of many of his enemies that are creatures like wolves and lions. Instead, he has to use his wits and cunning to overcome the traps and systems that the other beasts set up to get him. In the trickster archetype mold, Reynard stands in for oppressed groups or people in the folklore. Like a peasant that isn’t able to stand against the might of a lord or priest, Reynard isn’t able to overcome the royal court or church by sheer force. His cunning and tricks are the only way he can survive in the system. Despite Reynard's amoral actions, he is a hero in many of the stories.

There are two main themes that run throughout the stories of Reynard.

The first theme is that the system is corrupt, and only by graft and trickery can the common man get ahead. This theme is woven throughout many of the stories about Reynard. For instance, when Reynard stands trial for attacking and eating the wife of Rook, he is sentenced to death. The trial itself is a farce, and it ridicules the way that the court operates to “uphold” the law. In the scene where Reynard is sentenced it is by a clamor of voices from a mob, not by careful examination of the evidence or witness testimony. Reynard, despite doing evil things, is therefore justified in lying to the court and tricking the king with stories of rich treasure. The corrupt king is overcome with greed and willing to let Reynard go so he can lead him to the treasure.

This story shows how the system was viewed as corrupt. It isn’t Reynard's innocence or even mercy from the king that lets him free, but it is instead what Reynard can offer to the crown that earns his freedom. That type of bribery based system would have been familiar to Medival peasants reading the stories, and Reynard’s overcoming the king and court through tricking them in their greed would have pleased the listener.

The second theme is that titles and social position mean nothing in the face of real life. This theme would have been popular for the listeners in Medieval Europe because many of the lower classes would see the ridicule of the upper classes and learned men as accurate. Isegrim the Wolf demonstrates this theme in the story of the Mare and Colt that Reynard tells Grimbert the Badger. In the story, Isegrim orders Reynard to go and ask the mare in a field if her colt is for sale. When he asks, she says yes, but that the price is on her back hoof. Reynard knows that this is a trick by the horse, so he doesn’t look it up. Instead, he tells Isegrim that she is selling, but he doesn’t know the price. Isegrim tells him that he is hungry and will eat the horse. When Reynard asks if there will be any for him, Isegrim tells him he can have the hide and hair—neither is good to eat, and so Reynard knows that Isegrim is not his friend (just like how the aristocracy is not the friend of the peasant class). Reynard tells Isegrim that he doesn’t know the price, but that it is written on the hoof; however, Reynard tells him that he cannot read. Isegrim brags about his reading ability, calling himself a scholar. He then goes to read the price and is kicked in the face. Reynard ends the story by saying, “And so I told him that learned fools were often the biggest fools of all and came away.” This story shows the way that the peasant class thought that the upper classes lacked practical knowledge—also, the ridiculous nature of their request, to buy a mother’s child from her to eat, shows the disconnect from reality the lower classes saw with the way the aristocracy acted.

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