Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reynard the Fox by James Simpson

To this great feast all manner of animals came, for the King had announced it across the entire land.  There was more joy and happiness than was ever seen among the animals.  There were courtly dances, with bagpipes, trumpets, and all kinds of minstrelsy.  The King ordered so much food that everyone was plentifully served.  There was no animal, great or insignificant, who wasn't there, including many birds, and all who desired the King's friendship.

All, that is, except Reynard the Fox, the red, false pilgrim, who lay in wait planning how he could do harm.  He judged that his presence would not be appreciated.

I always thought Reynard the Fox would make a good subject for a novel--kind of like Watership Down, but celebrating malice and cynicism rather than pluckiness and derring-do.  Reynard was a medieval trickster figure in the French fabliau tradition known for terrorizing the court of a fictional animal kingdom.  Reynard's gift is his power of persuasion, and he never tires of using it to trick his peers into humiliation or violence.  Sometimes he tricks smaller animals into giving themselves up to be eaten, sometimes he does it for self-protection, and sometimes merely for fun.  Over the course of this book, Reynard...

  • blinds the children of Isengrim the wolf by peeing in their faces
  • rapes Isengrim's wife
  • eats Chaunticleer the rooster's wife
  • tricks Bruin the bear into getting the skin of his face torn off
  • convinces the Queen to take the skin off of Bruin's paws as well, which he uses for shoes
  • blinds Tybert the cat
  • kills Cuwaert the hare, then has Bellin the ram put to death for the crime cetera, et cetera, and in each case Reynard uses his gift of gab to insinuate himself into the king's favor, rather than serve punishment.  Reynard is part of a long tradition--perhaps more rightly said, a human inclination--of revering cleverness, even in the service of evil, and considering stupidity a deserving offense.  Reynard is cruel and Machiavellian, but the other animals are so dumb, venal, and greedy that we enjoy seeing them tortured.

This new version is James Simpson's translation of William Caxton's Middle English, which itself is a translation of Reynard stories from the Dutch.  Simpson's translation is very colloquial, and meant to reach a broad audience.  It's breezy, and appropriate for the slapstick tone of the source material, but it can be jarring.  At one point, Reynard to Isengrim: "What's up, Mr. Wolf!"  These stories are meant to puncture the pretensions of noblemen, and it doesn't quite work to have them talking like Encino Man outtakes, even though I see what Simpson was going for.

Ultimately, these stories tell an overarching story: Reynard goes from being hunted by the king to one of his closest advisors, all by the skill of deceit.  The message is a cynical one; Reynard is right when he says, "[w]hosoever intends to prosper in the world without composing a beautiful lie, without wrapping it and hiding it so that men take it for truth, won't escape servitude."  Whether or not things are any different today, I leave to your own discretion.

No comments: