Tricksters, Animals, And Narratives We Are Meant To Learn From

“Reynard” is a defining document of a vast tradition in Western art: the trickster story. CREDIT ART AND PICTURE COLLECTION / THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

“Reynard” is a defining document of a vast tradition in Western art: the trickster story. ART & PICTURE COLLECTION, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Thanks to Joan Acocella for illumination of a narrative form we are quite fond of:

…Animal narratives have allowed writers with lessons on their mind to make art rather than just lessons.

Such tales are no doubt as old as animal paintings on cave walls. The earliest evidence we have of them is the beast fable, a form that is said to have come down to us by way of Aesop, a Greek storyteller who was born a slave in the sixth century B.C. Actually, no solid evidence exists that there ever was an Aesop, any more than there was a Homer. As with the Iliad and the Odyssey, we are talking about manuscripts that date from a period much later than the supposed author’s, and were probably assembled from a number of different fragments. In any case, a beast fable is a very short story (the Penguin Classics edition of Aesop renders “The Tortoise and the Hare,” perhaps the most famous of the fables, in five sentences) in which, typically, a couple of animals with the gift of speech learn a lesson from their dealings with one another. This moral is then stated at the end of the fable, and it is usually of a cautionary variety: don’t eat too much, don’t brag, watch out for this or that. As early as the third century B.C., these stories were being gathered together in various editions, usually for children, to teach them Latin (most were in Latin until the late Middle Ages) and some basic rules about life.

Eventually, in continental Europe, a more complicated kind of animal story, the “beast epic,” grew up alongside the beast fable. Beast epics used some of the Aesopian material, but they were much longer and more novelistic. They dispensed with the great Noah’s ark of generic animals that we see in a collection of beast fables: a duck, a goat, a frog, an ass, etc. Even a good-sized beast epic features no more than perhaps a dozen types of animal, each represented by only one or a few individuals, with names and rudimentary personalities. In the typical epic, the star is a fox—Reynard, Renard, or whatever, depending on the language—with his unwavering wiliness. Dominated by that slippery character, the beast epic no longer makes it altogether clear what lesson we are learning, or whether we should be learning it.

The fox epic was imported into England by William Caxton, the man who set up the first English printing press. In 1481, Caxton brought out “The History of Reynard the Fox,” a translation—by him, into his late Middle English—of what was basically a thirteenth-century Dutch version. By 1700, this had been followed by twenty-two further editions. Given the prevailing literacy rates, such a sales record qualifies the book, in the words of the Harvard medievalist James Simpson, as a “runaway best-seller.” This, Simpson says, is because its cold satire “answered to the intensely competitive, materialist conditions” of the time. Perhaps in the belief that such conditions still hold, Simpson has produced his own translation of Caxton’s “Reynard the Fox,” and Liveright has just published it.

Like most beast epics, the story begins at court, with the animals more or less standing in line to report to their monarch—King Noble, a lion—the crimes of Reynard the Fox. He stole a sausage from me, Courtoys the Dog says. He ate eleven of my chicks, Chaunticleer the Cock says. And so on. The King’s council decides that Reynard must answer these charges, and Bruin the Bear is sent to fetch him. When Bruin arrives at Reynard’s hideout, Reynard says all right, he’ll go, but first, would Bruin like a honeycomb? If he would, he should stick his snout into that cleft log over there. Bruin does so, and the log snaps shut on his head. By the time he extricates himself, the skin on his face has been torn off, together with his ears. Blood is gushing into his eyes. He can barely make his way home. The King, indignant, sends a second emissary, Tybert the Cat. Tybert returns minus one eye. Finally, on the third summons, Reynard decides that it would be wise to present himself to the King.

At court, he is condemned to death. He asks if he may confess his sins, and in the course of his recital he mentions that he has “so much treasure, both silver and gold, that seven carts wouldn’t be able to carry it.” Wait a minute, the King says. What’s this about treasure? Well, Reynard answers, it was part of a scheme that Bruin and Isengrim the Wolf and others were cooking up, to unseat the King. The King has Bruin and Isengrim arrested. Then he orders Reynard to take him to where the treasure is. Reynard says he’s sorry, but he can’t. He did something to annoy the Pope, and he has to go to Rome to secure forgiveness. But you’ll find the treasure easily, he tells the King, and he gives him some completely bewildering directions. (“To the west of Flanders there’s a forest called Hulsterloe, and a lake called Krekenpit nearby. . . . When you come to Krekenpit, you’ll find two birch trees.”) Reynard then leaves, going not to Rome but to his house. He invites Cuwaert the Hare to join him on his travels, adding that, since he is a carnivore and Cuwaert is a herbivore, there will be no competition between them for food. It does not occur to Cuwaert that he might be a carnivore’s food. When they arrive, Reynard sinks his teeth into Cuwaert’s throat. Reynard’s wife rushes up to drink the hare’s blood.

Let this synopsis stand for the rest: Reynard preys on the other animals; the King has him hauled in; Reynard saves himself with an outrageous lie; the King discovers it and hauls him in, again and again…

Read the whole article here.

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