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In an earlier post, I mentioned a favourite version of the Sick Lion tale, but I could not find where I had read this version. Destiny was kind. There it was in Jan M. Ziolkowski’s Talking Animals.[1] Professor Ziolkowski teaches at Harvard University and he has been my best guide through a maze of beast stories.  It would appear that the Sick Lion tale may go back to “an ancient Babylonian tale.” (p. 63)

Jan M. Ziolkowski writes that the

 “The Sick Lion” is not content merely to tell a straightforward fable and to tack onto it the usual sort of moral. […] it approaches being a riddle because it rests its claim to value and attention on a hidden meaning.  But a poem that begins with the “Once upon a time” quality of a fairy tale (“Ægrum fama fuit quondam …”) should not be racked to fit a Procrustean bed of historical allegory. (p. 66)

In the meantime, monks are not only transcribing beast poems and beast stories, they are also writing their own. They may have drawn their material from Roman Antiquity, but some were poets in their own right. According to Jean Dufournet, transcribing and writing beast poems and beast stories was entertainment for monks:  “un divertissement [entertainment] de Clercs.”[2]


But let’s go back to our scoundrel. We know he travels to Georgia (US), but, in the
meantime, in Europe, he is branching out in many ways. Machiavelli would like his prince to be like a fox. But from the Roman de Renart also emerges inspiration for two of Molière’s plays:  Dom Juan but, particularly, Tartuffe.  In both cases, false piety is the tool used to deceive those who wish to be deceived. Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1606) is also a Renart.

Bruin the Bear goes to Maupertuis

This is a tool they have inherited from Reynard. Our fellow rapes Hersent, Ysengrin the wolf’s wife, when she gets caught in a hole in one of the walls of her house, hind side exposed. Ysengrin being a connetable or a baron, as is Reynard, at the Lion’s court, he must seek “justice.” The Lion, Noble, first sends Bruin, the bear, to fetch Reynard.  However, Reynard tricks the bear into believing there is honey inside a log. Bruin believes Reynard and nearly loses his muzzle when ‘vilains’ (peasants) had put wedges at both ends of the log, which they remove. Bruin returns to court in a sorry state.

Grimbert the Badger goes to Maupertuis

So the King turns to Grimbert the badger, Reynard’s cousin, and asks him to go to Maupertuis, Reynard’s fortress.  Through entreaties Grimbert is successful in bringing the fox to court, the King’s court and a judicial court. The decision to hang him has already been made, but given Reynard’s rank and his willingness to present himself at court, Grimbert feels he deserves a trial. However, despite his barat (talkativeness), Reynard is condemned to be hanged. All the animals he has tricked into various predicaments are so outraged that Noble, the Lion, decides that Reynard must die.

Reynard talks himself out of the death-penalty

But, as Reynard is about to climb the stairs to the gallows, the clever character starts expressing remorse for the evil tricks he has performed. He claims he wishes to atone for his sins and will leave for the Crusades if he is not executed. Fière, the Lion’s wife, is so touched that having used his barat , Reynard is released and instead of leaving for the Crusades, he returns to Maupertuis.


[1] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals:  Medieval Latin Beast Poetry 750-1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993), pp. 61-66 and Appendix 26, pp. 295-297.

[2] Jean Dufournet and Andrée Mélina, translators and editors, Le Roman de Renart (Paris : Garnier Flammarion, 1985), p. 7.



© Micheline Walker
25 Octobre 2011