1/30/13: Reynard the Fox

REYNARD THE FOX by Joseph Jacobs: 116/245

TW: gore, animal violence, fantasy violence

So, Reynard the Fox is popular and geographically diverse character through centuries of European folklore. He’s medieval in creation and has been published in many forms and to many purposes in (at the least) Dutch, English, French, and German. His basic lore is a cycle of connected stories. The gist is that Reynard is a ruthless, murderous little fiend, and everyone is calling for his blood to the king. The stories involve various attempts to catch him and bring him to court, his trial and sentencing, and how he foxes his way out of the noose.

The thing about Reynard is that all his tricks are ACTUALLY HORRIBLE. SERIOUSLY IT’S GROSS, HERE IS A PARAGRAPH ABOUT HOW IT’S GROSS. Reynard kills nearly all of Chanticleer’s children and eats them. When Bruin the bear is sent to bring Reynard to court, he ends up beaten and mauled with no skin on his face (and they mention the blood several times!); the cat, sent for the same purpose, is blinded. When he is brought to court, Reynard convinces the king that everything bad he’s done is really a conspiracy of other animals, and that he can get the king an awful lot of money. Wooed, the king pardons him—and then Reynard successfully requests that the wolf’s hind feet be flayed and the hide turned into shoes for his pilgrimage. Not long after the journey begins, he tricks the hare into his house and he and his wife eat him, sending his disembodied head back in a messenger bag with the unwitting sheep.

The nineteenth century had a thing about the past, called MEDIEVALISM, which meant basically a romanticised revival of certain images and ideals from several hundred years past (especially with regards to romantic/poetic imagery, art, masculine chivalry, and maidenhood). This is not exactly that—but like other revivalist published folklore of the 1800s (such as, say, the brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen), Reynard shares an aesthetic with his past medieval lives. Specifically, Reynard casually dispenses the spectacle of brutal violence. And, like a Punch and Judy show, Reynard very comfortably bestows this spectacle on a child audience.

Occasionally as a reviewer I’ve read new children’s and YA books in the last few years that are gruesome without any sense of consequence, the way this is (though not always with quite its childlike disinterest in morality). On the whole, though, this is a striking example of shifting perceptions in what kinds of violence and content are expected in literature for young people. Maybe it’s just its shamelessness that’s shocking. After all, at the end of The Lion King, Scar’s followers turn on him and eat him alive. And we’re all supposed to be pretty comfortable with that.


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