Reynard, a dashing fox from East Flanders, was once the most popular and beloved character in European folklore, as familiar as Robin Hood, King Arthur or Cinderella. In the newly published ‘Reynard the Fox’ — based on William Caxton’s bestselling 1481 English translation of the Middle Dutch, but expanded with new interpretations, innovative language and characterisation — Anne Louise Avery imaginatively retells the Reynard story.
Emily Mackay reviews.
Halloween will be scarier than usual this year. Traditionally a time when the borders of our world thin, on 31 October – the final deadline set by the EU for a trade deal – our country’s borders will grow a little thicker. Whatever comes next, you can take comfort in remembering that stories have always had freedom of movement, and lose your worries for a while in a tale whose deep roots span the Channel.
The fox as a shifty trickster is an ancient trope, from Aesop’s fables to the kitsune of Japanese mythology or the firefox of the Lappish skies. The particular russet rogue known as Reynard emerged sometime before the 12th century, in France, Germany and the Low Countries, as the antihero of a cycle of beast fables that flourished, like the red fox itself, across the continent; Reynard is still a synonym for fox today.
This new telling, by Oxford translator and Twitter storyteller Anne Louise Avery, follows Reynard’s fortunes as, accused of robbery and murder in the Ghentish court of King Noble the Lion, he outwits his enemies with rhetoric and wile. Her fox is at once English and European, product of a folkloric and linguistic continuity between nations; her tale based on William Caxton’s 1481 English version, itself a translation from a 13th-century Flemish incarnation. Caxton, who lived in the Low Countries for three decades – he printed the first English book there – took Reynard to Britain along with the printing press.
The landscape of medieval Flanders, in Avery’s hands, feels familiar and nostalgic yet precisely observed: a storm cloud is ‘the sour yellow of a traitor’s gown’; winter brings ‘rime-frost on the willow trees like sugared subtleties’. Such richness is the fruit of hard research: as well as poring over centuries-old Caxton editions in the Bodleian library, Avery travelled through northern Belgium, even tracking down the precise spot where Reynard tells the avaricious Noble he has buried a legendary treasure: ‘a grove of delicate young birches, as white as snow and as green as glass’.
The language too, is cross-border: the bilingual Caxton littered his text with Dutch words, which Avery retains along with some Middle English terms. Dutch is English’s closest cousin, leading to uncanny familiarity; words such as ‘albespynel’, ‘drightfare’ and ‘godfrighty’ dance in and out of understanding, their origin uncertain until you turn to the fascinating glossary. Some words are Avery’s own inventions, for sheer delight in sound and texture.
All this learning must be worn lightly if a fox is to prance light-footed, and everything here is in service of the spry narrative. Avery conjures an authentic-feeling late-medieval world while adding a novelistic depth to the repetitive romance structure; the dialogue is drily witty without being quippy. Berated for his sins by his forbearing old friend Grimbart the Badger, Reynard deflects with phenomenology: ‘We hear many things and we see many things, but what, pray, is the true nature of experience?’ Female characters are given greater inner life: Erswynde, wife of Reynard’s arch-enemy Isengrim, proves herself more than a victim, while his own other half Hermeline, a respected scholar, is a quietly powerful presence. Reynard himself, at the height of his rhetorical rushes, is haunted by flashes of past pain, lending complexity to his character without overwhelming the wickedly cathartic pleasure of his shamelessness.
There’s particular joy, too, in the description of food. The contents of Bruin the Bear’s travelling basket are listed with relish – ‘several pawfuls of sour green gooseberries…one big round cheese like a ball, with a waxy pimpernel-red rind’ – and the kitchens at Reynard’s castle are described with a hearty hunger for detail reminiscent of the larders of CS Lewis’s Mrs Beaver or Kenneth Grahame’s Badger: ‘two pairs of stone-hooded hearths, with huge blackened cauldrons suspended at different heights and well-built bakers’ ovens for the fox’s favourite meat pies and the cubs’ morning brioches and Hermeline’s famous prune cakes’. Clothing, trinkets and treasures are also lovingly depicted. In a wonderful detail that recalls the spider brooch worn by Lady Hale as she delivered her judgment on Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament, Dame Rukenawe, the learned ape lawyer who comes to Reynard’s aid, uses jewellery ‘to convey the subtexts, the faint intimations and the underwords which flowed beneath each of her legal cases’.
This is a book all about the underwords. Reynard’s family motto is ‘Let every fox take care of his own tail’, his core belief that each should mind his own business and not preach to others, but it’s an ideology served with a pinch of wincing salt as he murders, steals and betrays. Unlike Caxton, Avery doesn’t try to pin any moral lesson on the fox’s tale. The only advice that sticks is that given to the reader as Reynard, his neck all but in the noose, begins a magnificently twisty skin-saving monologue: ‘Listen below the words. Listen through them. Listen around them. Listen behind them.’ Reynard the Fox reminds us of the seductive danger of truth-twisters, but also of the enduring, connecting power of language and literature; one that no border or bill can ever restrain.
Reynard the Fox (Bodleian Library, hardback, 464 pages) is out now and available here or from your local independent bookshop, priced £20.
Emily Mackay is a writer and editor based in Southend-on-Sea. You can follow her on Twitter here.