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Reineke Fuchs 

Photo credit: Wikipedia and Google Images (all)

Born as Reinardus in Nivardus of Ghent‘s Ysengrimus, c. 1150, Reynard the Fox, our sometimes adorable but wicked rascal, is a traveller (un itinérant).[1] We have seen him appear in, at least, two medieval (before the 12th century) beast poems: the anonymous  Ecbasis Captivi, a 1229-line poem in hexameters about a calf stolen by a wolf and rescued by other beasts, and Paul the Deacon’s (c. 720-799) Ægrum Fuit Fama (Once upon a time). But the Sick Lion tale reaches its maturity in the above-mentioned Ysengrimus, a 6,574-line elegiac distich Latin poem translated into English by an admirable scholar: Jill Mann (1984-1985).

Le Roman de Renart :  c. 1170 – 1250

Illumination from a manuscript of the Roman de Renart, end of the 13th century

Illumination from a manuscript of the Roman de Renart, end of the 13th century


About twenty years later, Reinardus migrates to France. In c. 1170, Pierre de Saint-Cloud wrote the first “branches” of the Roman de Renart  (yes, with a ‘t’). However, our hero was particularly successful in the Low Countries as Van den Vos Reynaerde, the Reynaert Historie, and other works.

Title credit: About Reynard the Fox. (Nederland Film, 1943)
Courtesy Nederland Filmmuseum (frame enlargement Ole. Schepp).

Reynard in England:  Caxton 1481

In the fifteen century, a version of Le Roman de Renart is translated into English by printer and writer William Caxton (c. 1415-1422 – c. March 1492) who entitles his beast epic the Historie of Reynart the Foxe (1481). In 1884, Ernst Voigt publishes an edited translation, into German, of Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus. Jill Mann writes that

Ernst Voigt, the editor of the only critical edition of the poem, called it ‘comprehensive, systematically planned, wittily and artfully executed work of one of the greatest poets of the middle Ages.’ (Voigt 1884)[2]

Renart in German-language Countries

Our itinerant Renart also travels to German-language countries. Among German language works, he is the protagonist of a Middle High German poem entitled Fuchs Reinhart (c. 1180), a masterpiece of 2,000 lines, written by Heinrich der Glïchezäre. Later, in 1498, a Low German translation of Reynard the Fox, entitled Reynke de Vos, is published. In 1752, J. C. Gottsched publishes his High German prose translation of Reynard the Fox. This is the translation Goethe used to write Reineke Fuchs (1792), in which Reineke has a “treacherous heart.” According to Roger H. Stephenson,

Goethe was also dismayed by the incompetence and fecklessness of the aristocracy at the head of the counter-revolutionary forces.[3]

As Jill Mann states, “[i]t is the comedy of this satiric vision that should be emphasized, since it is this that saves the poem from narrow vindictiveness.” (Mann, in Varty, p. 15.) It would otherwise be somewhat unpalatable. For instance, when the wolf of the Sick Lion tale is divested of his coat, it does not hurt him and he does not die. “The animals talk as if the wolf’s skin was only a garment, easily and painlessly removed.” (Mann, in Varty, p. 10). The comic mode is a self-redeeming discourse. It is an “all’s-well-that-ends-well” narrative.

Reynard in America:  The Tales of Uncle Remus (1880)

In Joel Chandler Harris’ 9 December 1845 – 3 July 1908) Tales of Uncle Remus, Br’er Fox is in Georgia, US. The manner in which the fox as trickster crosses the Atlantic and journeys to Georgia is difficult to determine. However, one can hypothesize that Renart was brought to the Black population of Georgia by deported Acadians (1755). One can also hypothesize that the Acadians’ status as deportees put them on an equal footing with the black population. Moreover, Chandler Harris had married French-Canadian Mary Ester LaRose.

But in the Tales of Uncle Remus, the fox ceases to be a trickster. He is metamorphosed into a rabbit and, later, the trickster figure is the coyote.

Reynard the Fox also goes in and out of beast epics (unitaires) and fables (parcellaires), Jean Batany’s[4] distinction. For example, there are many fables featuring a fox or another animal that has lost his/her tail. The severed tail motif is very popular in beast literature. In the Aarne-Thompson Motif Index, it is AT 2. However, Reynard is not the Æsopic fox who visits the sick lion’s den and walks away when he notices that the footprints are those of animals walking into the den.This fox may not be our Reynard, but he is a cunning fox, which is his literary role.

Fishing with one’s tail through a hole in the ice

But let us tell one of Renart’s nasty deeds. He says to the wolf that he can catch fish, eels in particular, if he puts his tail down a hole though the ice. Ysengrin is very naïve and does as Reynard suggests.The water freezes so the tail is caught in the ice. Ysengrin loses his tail running away from the people.


[1] Kenneth Varty, ed. Introduction, Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York & Oxford: Bergham Books, 2000) p. XIII.

[2] Jill Mann, The Satiric Fiction of the Ysengrimus, in Varty, p. 1.

[3] Roger H. Stephenson, The Political Import of Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs, in Varty, p. 191.  The revolution Goethe bemoaned is the French Revolution (1789 – 1794).

[4] Jean Batany, Scène et Coulisses du « Roman de Renart » (Paris : Sedes, 1989), pp. 48-49.

Reineke Fuchs

Reineke Fuchs

© Micheline Walker
23 October 2011