Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Reynard the Fox translated by James Simpson

Every culture has trickster tales. And they come back out of the literary closet, every so often, to remind us how similar their joys and outlines are, how similar human beings actually are when you come down to it.

In medieval Europe, the trickster figure was Reynard the Fox, the center of a cluster of beast stories set in a kingdom ruled by a lion, with other animals (wolf, bear, rabbit, badger, etc.) as other major figures. Like all tricksters, he always won, and he won by trickery and fast talking.

The standard version of this material in English comes from William Caxton, who translated and published Reynard the Fox, from the Dutch, in 1481. (I think the text he used was also the most popular/common one on the Continent as well - and these stories were big and central enough that the standard word for "fox" in French changed from goupil to reynard during the two or three centuries before Caxton's book.)

About a decade ago, James Simpson published a new translation of Reynard the Fox - from his notes, I think he worked from Caxton's text to modernize and update it, rather than going back to the medieval Dutch originals - and that's the edition available now.

Simpson's extensive, interesting introduction makes it clear that Reynard is not a hero; he does almost entirely bad things, succeeding by treachery and fast-talking, and the reader is on his side because, presumably, we like seeing the powerful humbled and maybe we think he's not as bad as his main antagonists, Isengrim the Wolf and Bruin the Bear.

But we don't really see Isengrim and Bruin - or King Noble the Lion - do anything bad, though they are blustery and not as smart or clear-thinking as they could be. This Reynard seems to be pretty late in a literary tradition, though; I gather the original audience would be familiar with dozens of earlier stories in which Isengrim and Bruin tried to cheat Reynard, and some of those stories are summarized here. There's also the very common human tropism for valuing smart over strong. Isengrim and Bruin are blunt objects, powerful and demanding and overpowering, while Reynard is a rapier, getting his opponents to do things by convincing them.

So Reynard is fun and enticing, even when he's luring others to their doom. (There are speaking roles for hares and rabbits and the large family of Chaunticleer the Cock, many of whom end up in the bellies of Reynard and his family.)

His stories are somewhat episodic, in a framework of being called to King Noble's court to make amends for his crimes - Reynard slips some invitations through trickery, goes to court and wins there through trickery, and so on. (It's trickery every time; that's the point. That's how Reynard wins.)

I didn't find this actually funny, but it was amusing, in a bloody medieval way. I'm not as convinced about the deeper satirical meanings - that Reynard represents the medieval peasant, and these stories  show that guy winning out over the stronger, more powerful forces in his society - but it's an arguable point.

What is clear is that Reynard's fast-talking is exactly the opposite of what he's actually doing: he lies comprehensively, at great length, and in ways that clearly mimic how the great and good actually talked about Big Things in this era. Reynard claims to be on the side of honesty and fair-dealing, to be ready to set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, how true he's always been, and how everyone else is always wrong him - nearly all of these are bald-faced lies from beginning to end, and they're all completely believed by the rest of the cast at exactly the times when believing those things will cause them trouble.

Reynard, in the end, seems to me to be the epitome of the story of talking one's way out of trouble. Reynard, as a character, is defined by that power: if you let him speak, he will bespell everyone, escape all bonds, eat whoever he wants, get honors and riches, and delight in mischief. As long as the reader thinks of himself as Reynard, and not his victims, that's enticing and thrilling.

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