Reynard The Fox, as retold by Anne Louis Avery, and published by the Bodleian Library, is a wonderful trip into the surreal world of the animal kingdom that reigned in what is now Holland and Belgium from the 1100s on. Okay, there wasn’t an animal kingdom really in this or any other region in Europe, but this is where the King Noble the Lion ruled and Reynard was the sly trickster who was the bane of everyone’s existence.
In her introduction to this retelling Avery carefully recounts Reynard’s history. While Aesop’s fox who tricked a sick lion is one of his antecedents, his first appearance in literature was in a latin poem written in 1149. Thirty years later he pops up in a French work and twenty years after that in Germany. However it wasn’t until the 1250 in the Van den vas Reinaerde (Of Reynard the Fox) that the character who has come down to us through the ages was manifested completely.
Like all these types of stories there was an element of contemporary political satire incorporated into the mix. Without a better grounding in medieval history then I currently possess, there’s no way to distinguish any specific individuals targeted by the author’s pen. However, Avery does tell us in her introduction Richard the Lion Heart and a Duke of Bohemia are represented by a leopard and an elephant respectively in one of the earlier tellings of the story.
While we might not be able to recognized specific individuals the story does take great delight in ridiculing types. There’s the blustering bully represented by Baron Isengrim the Wolf, Reynard’s oldest enemy. He is depicted in the most unflattering manner as an abuser of his wife and children and a liar. Only the other animals’ distrust of Reynard allow his accusations of the fox’s bad behaviour to be given any credence at court.
We also meet Baron Bruin the Bear, a large and muscular creature with unfortunately limited brains and a slave to his appetites. When he is sent out to attempt to bring Reynard to court, it is thought his physical prowess would surely be enough to bring the fox to heel, he is not only outwitted, but soundly defeated by his opponent’s machinations.
Then there’s Tybert the Cat. He fancies himself a scholar and an intellectual. When he is sent on the same mission as Bruin, in the hopes his supposed superior intellect will sway the fox into compliance with the King’s summons, he is easily vanquished by Reynard’s wiles and intelligence. Both the pseudo intellectual and the stolid soldier type are not so gently satirized through not only the characters’ descriptions but how Reynard has no difficulty in dealing with either creature.
However, Reynard himself is no paragon of virtues. In some ways he could be said to be the original anti-hero. While he’s the titular character of the story and the adventures, he is also quite cruel. He has no feelings of remorse for any of the tricks he plays on his fellow creatures even when they result in substantial physical harm to his victims.
It’s only when he’s faced with having to deal with the fallout of his actions, and realizes they have placed him and his family’s lives in danger that he has any regret. He’s not exactly repentant, but he needs to figure out a way of saving his own skin.
Avery has done a remarkable job of compiling the wealth of stories featuring the elusive trickster and bringing them to life in this wonderful retelling. Over the years Reynard’s influence has cropped up everywhere from the tales of Robin Hood to Beatrix Potter. However, the original is nothing like these sanitized versions, as he’s far slyer, and somewhat crueler, then any of these more modern representations.
Much like any trickster figure throughout history, from Loki to Coyote and Raven, Reynard is neither good nor evil, he is only propelled by self interest and the joy or tricking and fooling people. In Avery’s hands his reputation lives on and is as captivating and enthralling as any of the other aforementioned mythical beings.
Reynard the Fox as retold by Anne Louise Avery is a delight to read and an example of how our oldest tales are still some of the best ones around.