Retold by Anne Louise Avery.
Reynard the Fox is the master of the grand entrance and he is true to form in this brilliant re-telling of his tale. This traditional story has entertained readers and listeners throughout the centuries in many lands, and now the fox has made a welcome return to our bookshelves, retold by Anne Louise Avery, linguistics scholar and purveyor of cultural wonders.
As readers and followers, we have been expecting something exceptional, and we have been handsomely rewarded. On Twitter, barely a day goes by without some happy recipient of the book telling Anne Louise the fox has arrived in the post. I happily did so myself, before I realised it was even a thing. So, let’s celebrate Reynard, the hero and the villain of this tale. A fellow who is, to borrow a line from Edmund Blackadder, as cunning as the Professor of Cunning at Oxford University. An institution the author knows well.
To commence, this is not a children’s story, though children will love it. This fox is fabulous, not just fantastic. And he will gladden the hearts of all readers and wordsmiths. The author and re-teller has, in her own words,“fleshed out and feathered and furred each section”, adding details about landscapes, characters and much more to the early printed Caxton text.
It rather helps if you enjoy etymology and get a buzz from antiquated words. The author has clearly derived tremendous pleasure in her linguistic challenge. The book comes with a glossary – Lady Hermeline’s glossary – though we are invited to just read and appreciate the words from the sounds and the context. This works for me, though I thank Madame Fox, Reynard’s wife, for her thoughtfulness.
To get the most from this story, you are also going to have to engage with a cast of talking animals, in a quaint, alternate world of magical realism. Anthropomorphism does not come easily to me. I have to admit it took me fifty pages or so to really connect with the animals and to lose my reservations. Thereafter I became completely absorbed in this strange cultural realm.
Reynard is the star, no contest there. But he is supported and challenged by an extensive host of characters. King Noble the lion rules majestically, but he can be a bit hot-headed and is frequently calmed by Queen Gente the lioness. Grimbart the badger is Reynard’s greatest friend, loyal and true. Everyone needs a Grimbart. Bruin the bear and Tybert the cat are fellow courtiers who become hapless victims of their own foolish greed. And then there is Isengrim, the wolf, a lifelong rival who is determined to destroy Reynard.
There is much bloodshed and horror in this story. The brutality beyond the court comes in stark contrast to the eloquence within. Invariably, a burst of violence is followed by a legal reckoning. And whichever side you are on, lies are inevitable. If you want to believe in a flawless hero, Reynard is always going to let you down. As the author reflects, “a fox will always be a fox”. But then, all the animal courtiers have something to answer for. They all kill to survive. Except the herbivores. Reynard is simply the best at it, and at excusing his actions. Adept at half-truths and sleights of hand. Sometimes, he comes up with absolute whoppers. And surprisingly I want to believe them myself, even though I know they surely cannot be true. This fox gets to you!
My one quibble with the story – and by that I do mean the story and not the re-telling, which is entirely magnificent – is that most of the courtiers are murderers. Some are even cannibals. The main charges levelled against Reynard relate to the slaughter of innocent creatures. Ask Chanticleer and Pertelote. But King Noble presides over banquets comprising ham, mutton, poultry and fish. Bruin’s lunchbag is full of veal pie, morsels of roast swan, slugs and worms. So how do we square this with the moral battle that Reynard faces? Why is it a crime when the fox devours a rabbit, sharing it with his starving family, but fair game when the victims are served up in court?
This might only be a problem for realists and pedants. Sadly I am both. In the book launch, the author claimed this behavioural duality shows the hypocrisy of us all. Except for vegans and vegetarians, I presume. I’m not entirely satisfied, but who am I to argue with centuries of storytelling? In the alternate world, a complex zoocracy, the courtiers munch away happily. As human readers, we all have our own values and customs. Our own morality. We have our own favourite dishes too. And I'm not going to let my own double standards get in the way of a rollicking good tale.
Shifting themes, there is more than a hint of romance in the story, mainly in the suggestions of hidden love. Reynard seems to be a bit of of a lady's fox. This becomes troublesome when accusations are made and the fur flies, but in the end, we are given enough clues to imagine that any offence was moral rather than physical, and Reynard somehow always has a happy home to return to.
And then there is religion. Reynard is deeply in trouble with the Catholic church, but he follows the tradition of repenting his many sins as often as he likes. Grimbart takes his confession. Once absolved, Reynard knows he is free to commit his crimes again, ad infinitum. Occasionally, he wants to be spiritual, but inevitably gets dragged down by his beastly nature.
The male characters do not get all the limelight. Lady Erswynde, Insengrim's wife, is silent but magnificent, Queen Gente asserts her equality with the King, though this seems to be aiming quite low. Lady Hermeline has wisdom, goodness and beauty. Most of all, she is an expert in philology. Her husband Reynard may have the gift of the gab, but Hermeline has much greater intellect and deeper appreciation of the meaning of words, of their value too perhaps. She also looks after the home and the cubs. Lady Rukenawe, the ape, is a legal genius.
A silver tongue is essential. But in the end, despite the war of words throughout, rhetoric is not enough. There has to be a terrifying physical battle. The climax is excruciating, especially for male readers. Brute force and underhand tactics are deployed one last time. But I wouldn’t dare tell you how it ends.
And so, in Reynard, we have a fox who comes and goes as it pleases him. A champion who is suave and cunning, daring and desperate at times; at his best regaled in splendour. As for his morality, the author leaves us to decide for ourselves. Or rather not to judge, but simply to enjoy this festival of foxiness.
This wonderful re-telling of the story takes us beyond the wiles and charms of our adventurous hero. This is very much a celebration of language, in all its finery. Full of beautiful descriptions, engaging insight and reflective probing, with endless possibilities and viewpoints. Magical and yet also naturalistic and down-to-earth. A truly remarkable tale.
© Eddie Hewitt 2020
See the Connected Cultures feature: Vulpes Vulpes historicus