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Literature / Reynard the Fox

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Statue of Reynard in Hulst, the Netherlands.

Reynard the Fox is a series of Northern/Western European medieval folklore tales about a Karmic Trickster fox named Reynard/Renart/Reineke/Reintje/Reynaert. In all variations of the story Reynard is depicted as a cunning fox who has engaged in so many criminal deeds that the Royal court of King Nobel the lion wants to bring him to justice. He sends out one animal at the time to arrest Reynard and bring him to court, but all attempts go horribly wrong. Bruun the Bear is tricked by Reynard, who tells him there's honey inside a tree. As Bruun peeps inside he gets stuck. Tybeert the cat is also tricked by sending him to a chicken coop, owned by a local priest. Reynard locks Tybeert inside and the noise alarms the priest, who beats Tybeert out. The cat does get his revenge by biting off one of the priest's testicles.

Eventually Reynard's cousin, Grimbeert, a badger, manages to bring Reynard before King Nobel. There the fox once again fools everybody by claiming that Isegrym the wolf, Bruun, Tybeert, Grimbeert and even Reynard's dad have plotted against the king and kept a treasure hidden from him of whom only Reynard knows the hiding place. When the king frees Reynard he will show where it is hidden. Reynard flees and claims to go on pilgrimage to Rome. Cuwart the hare and Belyn the ram go along to his home. He asks Cuwart to come inside with him while Belyn waits outside. Reynard murders the hare, chops his head off and puts it inside a bag he gives to Belyn with the message to bring it to the king. Belyn does so and is executed. By the time everyone realizes they have been fooled again Reynard has already fled.

The stories are interesting because of their satirical content. The feudal system and the power of the Corrupt Church are lampooned.

There have been several adaptations of the story throughout history. We only list the full story adaptations here, not brief shout-outs, parodies or propaganda works.

  • Nivardus' Ysengrinus (1148-1153): Written by a man from Gent, Flanders (nowadays in Belgium), but in Latin.
  • Pierre de St. Cloud's Le Roman de Renart (1174, sequel in 1179): Written in French.
  • Heinrich der Glïchezäre's Reinhart Fuchs (1180): Written in German. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would later base his poem Reineke Fuchs on this text.
  • Willem die Madoc Maecte's Van den vos Reynaerde (1260): Written in Dutch by a Flemish man from presumably Eastern Flanders (nowadays Belgium)
  • William Caxton's The Historie of Reynart the Foxe (1485): A text in medieval English, translated from the Dutch/Flemish version.
  • Michel Rodange's Rénert the Fox (1872): a Luxembourgeois text, adapted from the Dutch original, which sets the story in Luxembourg. It has gained classic status in the country for using regional and sub-regional dialects to depict the fox and his companions.
  • Ladislas Starevich's Le Roman de Renard (1928): a French black-and-white stop-motion animated film based on the story with design elements based on classic Russian puppetry. Notably, it is one of the earliest known animated films, predating Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
  • Andre Norton's Rogue Reynard (1947): Written in very archaic English. Shows him as a straight-up Villain Protagonist.
  • The 1986 French animated series Moi Renart ("I, Reynard") from France. It has a Setting Update in modern-day Paris (as in, The '80s) and has the cast as fully anthro characters.
  • The 1989 animated film Reynard the Fox (Reineke Fuchs) from Germany.
  • The 2005 animated film Renart the Fox (Le Roman de Renart) from Luxembourg, also known in some markets as Renny the Fox, features the hero as being married with two children, stealing to provide a better life for his family, going on a quest for a treasure, and facing execution when he is framed for killing a henhouse full of chickens.
  • Marc Legendre's Reynaert De Vos (2010): A Belgian comic book adaptation of the work.
  • David R. Witanowski's 2011-2013 The Reynard Cycle, a series of Low Fantasy adaptations featuring human beings rather than animals.

Reynard provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Geoffrey Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" changes Reynard's name to Russell and Pinte's name to Pertelote in his adaptation of Si comme Renart prist Chanticler le Coq.
  • All Women Are Lustful: All female characters in this story are represented as lewd and debauched.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Reynard is accused of having read the credo with Cuward the hare, which apparently had him sit behind the hare while they both held the book together. In medieval images of this scene it's clear that this is an allegory for sodomy. However, he's also married, and has children.
  • Animal Jingoism: Reynard the fox and Ysegrim the wolf are rivals.
  • Animal Motifs: The animals are representative of humans.
  • Animal Stereotypes: A cunning fox, a lion who is king, a posh little dog, a hungry wolf...
  • Anyone Can Die: Quite a few characters get painfully hurt, killed or eaten.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Many animals at the royal court are corrupt buffoons.
  • Artistic License Biology: Reynard respects Grimbeert the badger because he is his cousin (or nephew, depending on the translation). In reality foxes and badgers are not related to each other.
  • Beast Fable: The stories are a mirror of medieval society and depict it in a satirical way.
  • Big Eater: Reynard tricks all animals by promising them food and in their greediness they don't think twice about it.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Reynard has raped Ysegrim's wife, though in the original Dutch/Flemish text the word verhoerd has a double connotation meaning both made into a whore as well as answered my prayers, so it appears that she might even have invited him to do so. Later it is also claimed that Reynard read the Catholic credo with Cuward the hare by sitting behind him and holding the same book, a thinly veiled allusion to sodomy.
  • Buried Treasure: Reynard claims a treasure is buried somewhere and only he knows where!
  • Butt-Monkey: Well... everybody, except for Reynard.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: Several animals get hurt or killed.
  • Civilized Animal: The royal court is comprised of civilized animals.
  • Conspiracy Kitchen Sink and Conspiracy Theorist: The notorious Karmic Trickster Reynard thinks up a conspiracy against the royal court and accuses everybody who tried to arrest him of being accomplices in the crime. Nobody questions his tale that rather conveniently gets rid of everybody who stood in his way.
  • Consummate Liar: Everything Reynard says is a lie.
  • Corrupt Church:
    • In Ysengrimus Ysengrim the wolf is a greedy and easily led astray priest. He tells people: "Commit whatever sins you please: you will be absolved if you can pay." Near the end of the story his skin is stripped off and thrown to a pig.
    • In the Dutch/Flemish version, Van den Vos Reynaerde the local Catholic priest is married. One of his testicles is later bitten off by Tybald the cat. His wife is highly disappointed by this and cries that she will have to miss their sweet game from now on. Reynard just jokes that "the one remaining will be sufficient to keep on doing it."
  • Cultural Translation: The stories were popular enough to be translated into many Western European languages.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Reynard also manages to fool everybody.
  • Cunning Linguist: In one tale, Ysengrim tells Reynard that he's fluent in French, Latin, English, and Dutch.
  • Dogs Are Dumb: Curtise the dog is described as particularly dim-witted and gullible even by the standards of Reynard's foes. For example, he complains that Reynard ate one of his sausages. Later it turns out he actually ate it himself.
  • Downer Ending: The king is humiliated, most of the characters have been murdered, executed or badly bruised and Reynard has escaped.
  • Dub Name Change: Le Roman de Renart in French (the French word Renard eventually meant fox following the popularity of the book), Reineke Fuchs in German, Van De Vos Reynaerde in Dutch. The Kalila and Dimna stories are essentially the Middle Eastern version of Reynard the Fox. They're about two wily jackals who sometimes work as viziers to the king (a lion, of course).
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Grimbeert the badger defends Reynard until the end, but is eventually betrayed by him like all the others.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Reynard seems to genuinely care about his wife and children, though apparently not enough to stay faithful.
  • Eye Scream: Reynard urinated in the eyes of Isegrim's children after ravaging his wife, with his urine scorching their eyes and leaving them permanently blinded.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Reynard and Isengrim. Isengrim is the villain of the story, but Reynard is not any better.
  • Fantastic Foxes: It's amazing what this fox can do without getting caught or punished.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: The animals defend Reynard, only to be fooled and humilated by him.
  • Females Are More Innocent: Subverted. Typical for most medieval tales it's the other way around. All women in this story are lewd or stupid. When King Nobel assumes Reynard is lying to him, it's his own wife who tells him to stop being paranoid and simply trust the fox.
  • Foul Fox: Reynard is a Villain Protagonist whose only real saving grace is that most of his enemies are no better than him.
  • French Jerk: In the Dutch/Flemish version Curtise the posh dog is identified as French, as was common with the noblemen in those days.
  • Groin Attack: Tibeert attacks the priest's crotch and bites off one of his testicles.
  • Home Base: Reynard's home is a castle named Maupertuis (sometimes also Malpertuis) where he has all kinds of secret passageways to trick visitors.
  • Karmic Trickster: Reynard the fox is a notorious liar, thief, traitor, murderer, rapist and adulterous sleazeball who is never punished for his deeds and even manages to escape in the end. Though in the Ur-Example of the story, Ysengrimus Ysengrimus the wolf manages to trick Reynard once at the start of the story.
  • King of Beasts: King Nobel is a lion who rules over the animal kingdom.
  • A Lizard Named "Liz": This became the case for Reynard retroactively in French. Foxes were named goupil at the time, but since foxes were feared, farmers considered it bad luck to name them. Therefore renard was used as a euphemism, and as often happens with taboo words it replaced the old word in modern French. The only way in French to distinguish the character from the species is the fact that the character is written Renart while the species is called renard.
  • Mature Animal Story: The content is definitely not child friendly.
  • Meaningful Name: The priest's wife is named Julocke in the Dutch/Flemish version, which is derived from "Jou lok ik" ("It's you whom I call/seduce").
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Reynard has raped both a woman and a man, but in both cases it's kind of ambiguous, because they apparently enjoyed it.
  • Playing Possum: A frequent technique of Reynard's whenever he wants to get close to someone without arousing suspicion.
  • Reluctant Psycho: At least twice Reynard honestly confesses his crimes to Grimbeert, and the second time mentions that while his conscience always bothered him after committing such cruel acts, he finds that he is unable to stop himself. Of course, this could just be him lying again.
  • Rule of Three: The first two attempts to arrest Reynard fail, the third one succeeds.
  • Sarcastic Confession: When Grimbeert leads Reynard to the royal court the fox pretends he wants to repent and confesses all the things he did Isegrim, though he thoroughly enjoys thinking back at all those horrid deeds.
  • Satire: The Dutch medieval version by Willem die Madocke Maecte was a satire of medieval society.
  • Scars are Forever: The animals who are wounded remain so.
  • Spell My Name with an S: Reynard's name has been spelled differently in many languages, partly because there was no standard spelling in the Middle Ages. This also applies to the rest of the characters' names as well.
  • Stock Animal Diet: The bear is tricked by believing there is honey inside a tree.
  • Stock Animal Name: Reynard and Chanticleer have become the stock name for respectively foxes and roosters. Bruin has become a stock name for bears in Dutch. Less common, but worth mentioning is Tybalt for cats. The English Stock Animal Name Tibbles for cats is derived from Tybalt. Calling a lion Nobel has also become common thanks to these stories. Reynard became such a popular name for foxes after the tales that the modern French word for fox actually is renard. The previous French word "goupil" is now archaic.
  • Talking Animal: All animals talk.
  • Tempting Fate: Despite enough examples to the contrary all animals still believe everything Reynard says to them... with dire consequences.
  • Villain Protagonist: Reynard is the protagonist, but hardly an admirable character.
  • Walking the Earth: Reynard manages to go on a pilgrimage in the wide world.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Reynard has no qualms about pissing Ysegrim's children blind.

Alternative Title(s): Reynard