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Le Belette entrée dans un grenier

La Belette entrée dans un grenier by Calvet-Rogniat c. 1950 (Photo credit: Wikipedia )



Type & Motif

In 1910, Antti Aarne (1875-1925) published a catalogue of motifs in folktales (fairy tales and related stories, including fables) entitled Verzeichnis der MärchentypenHis catalogue was enlarged by Stith Thompson (1885–1976) in 1928 and again in 1961.  It has since been the Aarne–Thompson tale type index, a multi-volume catalogue.[1]


The manner in which folktales were classified by Aarne-Thompson has been questioned.  In his Morphology of the Folktale, published in Russia in 1928, Bulgaria-born Vladimir Propp classifies stories according to their narrativeNarremes or narratemes are the “simplest irreducible narrative elements” in a tale.  “After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence of 31 functions.”  For instance, the 7th of these 31 functions is: the “Victim deceived.”  Vladimir Propp’s (29 April 1895 – 22 August 1970) catalogue remained a Soviet mystery until it was translated in 1958.  (See Valdimir Propp [31 functions], Wikipedia)


Archetypes are also used to classify folktales and other works of literature.  The pater familias of comedy is an archetype as is the pharmakos, the person who is blamed for opposing the scheduled marriage, whether or not he is innocent or guilty.  He is a scapegoat.  Northrop Frye‘s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) brought archetypes to the foreground.

The stock characters of the commedia dell’arte are archetypes.  Wikipedia has a long list of stock characters.  (See Stock Characters, Wikipedia.)  They include damsels in distress, femmes fatales, nerds, mad scientists, noble savages, professors and possibly the rest of humanity: a cast of thousands.

The above classifications are not mutually exclusive.  However, recurrence is a sine qua non of classification.


The Weasel in the Granary by Percy J. Billinghurst

Today I will write about what I would call a motif.  Getting-stuck-in-a-hole is the motif I have chosen.  Usually, it is found in narratives where a silly but famished animal finds its way to an abundant supply of food, overeats and is therefore too swollen to get out using the opening through which it entered the cache.  In most, but not all cases, this motif could also be called the swollen belly.  If such is the case, the moral of the stories is that one should consider the possible consequences of his or her actions, which is the “Look before you leap” of the Fox and Goat.  However, it is possible to get caught in a hole for reasons other than overeating.

We will therefore look at five stories: two, where a fox (2) gets caught in a hole, one where a weasel (1) is trapped in a granary and one, where the victim is a bear (1), and one where the wolf’s wife (1), Hersent, gets stuck in an opening.  This last story is part of most Reynard the Fox narratives and, particularly in the Roman de Renart‘s.  Renart, the trickster, was born Reinardus in Nivardus of Ghent’s Latin Ysengrimus (1149).  The poem runs to 6,574 lines of elegiac couplets.   It migrated and became, in France, the Roman de Renart (beginning in the end of the 12th century and flourishing in the 13th century (c. 1170 – 1250).  It was written in octosyllabic verse in the vernacular (langue romane), by various authors (Pierre de Saint-Cloud and others).

Getting Stuck in a Hole: Greece

  • Greece: A Fox and a Fox

In a Greek version of the getting stuck in a hole motif, a famished Fox enters a hole in a tree where shepherds have left food and eats so much that he cannot get out.  Another fox comes by and tells the trapped fox that he must return to his former famished self in order to get out.  This version of our motif was not known to other European countries until the revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance.

George Fyler Townsend and the Gutenberg project:  A Fox and Fox

“A very hungry fox, seeing some bread and meat left by shepherds in the hollow of an oak, crept into the hole and made a hearty meal. When he finished, he was so full that he was not able to get out, and began to groan and lament his fate. Another Fox passing by heard his cries, and coming up, inquired the cause of his complaining. On learning what had happened, he said to him, “Ah, you will have to remain there, my friend, until you become such as you were when you crept in, and then you will easily get out.”

Getting stuck in a hole: Rome & Æsop

In one of Horace‘s (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC) poetical epistles to Maecenas (I.7, lines 29-35), Horace features a fox who eats too much as is told by a weasel that he must lose weight to get out of “a narrow chink into a bin a corn:”

“Once it chanced that a pinched little fox had crept through a narrow chink into a bin of corn and, when well fed, was trying with stuffed stomach to get out again, but in vain. To him quoth a weasel hard by: “If you wish to escape from there, you must go back lean through the narrow gap which you entered when lean.”

Getting Stuck in a hole:  La Fontaine

  • In La Fontaine: A Weasel and a Rat

However, although motifs remain the cast can change. By the time La Fontaine wrote his The Weazel in the Granary, the fox had fully matured into his foxy self, which means that he would not get stuck inside a tree, or a bin, or a granary, of all places! Alternately, the fox would get stuck accidentally, not foolishly, and would have fooled someone into freeing him leaving his good Samaritan in the predicament he, the fox, was in. In short, the fox is now a weasel and the animal who tells her (la belette) that “[w]ith an emptier belly; You enter’d lean, and lean must sally” is a rat.

Un Rat, qui la voyait en peine,
Lui dit : “Vous aviez lors la panse (belly) un peu moins pleine (emptier).
Vous êtes maigre (lean) entrée, il faut maigre sortir (sally).”

Click on La Belette entrée dans un grenier  (III.17) (French)
Click on The Weazel in the Granary  (III.17) (English translation) 


Getting stuck in a Hole: Winnie-the-Pooh

In A. A. Milne‘s (18 January 1882 – 31 January 1956) Winnie-the-Pooh, the animal who gets stuck in a hole is Pooh bear himself.  Once again, the motif remains but the cast changes.

Under its entry The Fox and the Weasel, Wikipedia tells us that:

“In England the story was adapted by A. A. Milne as the second chapter in his Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) ‘in which Pooh goes visiting and gets into a tight place’.  In this case, the bear overindulges in honey and condensed milk while visiting Rabbit and becomes stuck when trying to exit the burrow.  It takes a week of starvation before he can be extricated.”

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.

*Illuminated manuscripts (miniscules, probably Gothic?)
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Le Roman de Renart

As for Reynard or let us see, first, how clever he can be.  The following fable is entitled The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox and all Reynard stories are rooted in this one Æsopic fable which is probably rooted in much earlier tales.

In Æsop’s The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox (Perry Index 258?), the Fox overhears the wolf (Isengrim) tell the sick Lion, King Noble, that the Fox has been remiss in not presenting himself at the sick Lion’s bedside.  There are several versions of this story.  In my favourite version, the Fox goes and gets a large supply of shoes, returns to the Lion’s den, shows him all the footwear he has worn out in search of a cure for the Lion’s illness and that he has found one.  The lion must be wrapped in the skin of wolf, the same age as Isengrim.  The Wolf therefore loses his skin, the Fox is avenged, against all expectations the Lion is cured, and we have a new motif: the flayed animal, from the villainous wolf in sheep’s clothing to Donkeyskin, Charles Perrault‘s Peau d’âne (Aarne-Thompson type 510B).

“A LION, growing old, lay sick in his cave.  All the beasts came to visit their king, except the Fox.  The Wolf therefore, thinking that he had a capital opportunity, accused the Fox to the Lion of not paying any respect to him who had the rule over them all and of not coming to visit him.  At that very moment the Fox came in and heard these last words of the Wolf.  The Lion roaring out in a rage against him, the Fox sought an opportunity to defend himself and said, “And who of all those who have come to you have benefited you so much as I, who have traveled from place to place in every direction, and have sought and learnt from the physicians the means of healing you?’  The Lion commanded him immediately to tell him the cure, when he replied, “You must flay a wolf alive and wrap his skin yet warm around you.”  The Wolf was at once taken and flayed; whereon the Fox, turning to him, said with a smile, “You should have moved your master not to ill, but to good, will.”

So let us end this post by telling how the Wolf’s wife, Hersent, gets stuck in a wall of her house and, for the second time, there is a brief romance, Renart takes advantage of her.  Needless to say there are children’s versions of the Roman de Renart, but the Roman de Renart was not written for children and Renart is the archetypal scoundrel-we-like.  I should mention that the Bibliothèque nationale de France has a fine site on Renart (see BnF).  The rape of Hersent takes place in Branch 2 (of 27) of the Roman de Renart.  In modern French, roman means novel, but roman as in the Roman de Renart means “in the vernacular” (en langue romane).  Foxes used to be called goupils, but Renart’s popularity was such that the goupil became a renard (‘d’ in modern French).

Renart will, of course, be brought to justice, but he will make believe he has become a devout animal who wants to go to the Crusades and will be freed.

(Please click on the small images to enlarge them.)


Roman de RenartBnF, Paris; Ms fr.12584, folio 18v-19
Photo credit: BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France, including image at bottom of post)


[1] ATU 49 (Aarne-Thompson-Uther) The Bear and the Honey


This is a 14th-century French virelai written by Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377).

fr_1581_019© Micheline Walker
16 April 2013