Christians leave the Middle East


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Wright-WarTerrorismandtheChristianExodusfromtheMiddleEast-690St. George Church in Tanta, Egypt, after a suicide bombing on April 9th.

War, Terrorism, and the Christian Exodus from the Middle East, The New Yorker
by Robin Wright (15 April 2017)
Please click on the title to read Robin Wright’s article.

Le Roman de Renart is a mock-epic. It is the underside of the chansons de geste and courtly love. This post excludes courtly literature to concentrate on France’s first and most important chanson de geste, the anonymous Chanson de Roland. Roland, King Charlemagne‘s nephew, and his twelve Paladins were defeated at the Battle of Roncevaux (778). Roland died.

It has been said that the Chanson de Roland is now forgotten. The Internet tells another story. It is still the subject matter of masterpieces of European literature. As we saw in my last post, Roland is Ludovico Ariosto‘s masterpiece Orlando Furioso. The Chanson de Roland may at times have been put aside, but Orlando Furioso has endured and inspired several authors down to this very day. Wikipedia’s entry on Orlando Furioso is a who’s who chronicling the arabisation of North Africa and the decline of Eastern Christianity rooted in the Fall of Constantinople to the Seljuq Turks on 29 May 1453.

The Millet protected Christians under Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, called the Conqueror, but Anatolia was not a Muslim country before the fall of Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire was defeated during World War I and dissolved under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres.


Ruggiero rescuing Angelica by Gustave Doré (Wikipedia)


A battle of the Reconquista from the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Wikipedia)

El Cantar de Mio Cid is a celebration of the Reconquista. The Moors were in the Iberian Peninsula from 711 until 1492. In literature, el Cid is also Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (1936). The play was produced shortly after Richelieu founded the Académie-Française. Le Cid, a very successful play, created the first querelle. It violated the rule of the three unities: time (24 hours), action (minimum) and place (single). Rodrigue, Le Cid, succeeds in pushing back thousands of Moors.

The Crusades are the backdrop to Le Roman de Renart. Crusaders aimed to recover the Holy Land from Islamic Rule. (See Crusades, Wikipedia.) Renart talks himself out of a death sentence by claiming he must go to the Near East and expiate before he is put to death.

According to The New Yorker‘s Robin Wright, Christians are leaving the Near East. The Coptic Church was founded in 42 CE (Christian era).

Love to everyone 


A battle of the Second Crusade (illustration of William of Tyre‘s Histoire d’Outremer, 1337 (Wikipedia)

Sources and Resources 

Cantigas de Santa Maria
Cantiga 10 Rosa des Rosas
Performers: Malandança (Unha noite na corte do rei Alfonso X)

© Micheline Walker
24 April 2017

Reynard the Fox: various Facets


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fr_1581_019 (BnF) (the text) FR 

Beast Epics: Antecedents

  • Beast Fables
  • Beast Epics or “mock-epics”

Given their length and a dramatis personæ consisting of animals, the 12th-century Roman de Renart and its immediate predecessor, Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus (1148-1149), bring to mind Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra and its best-known Arabic analog, Ibn al-Muqaffa‘s Kalīlah wa Dimnah, but the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart are mock-epics, which was new. The Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa Dimnah contained fables told by a story-teller, the sage Bidpai (Bidpaï, Pilpay). Their purpose was to prepare the prince for his future role as king. The fables of Bidpai constitute inset tales, Innerfabeln, inserted in a frame story, le récit-cadre or an Ausserfabel. In other words, we have an author and a story-teller.

By the final quarter of the 16th century in England, Bidpai’s fables constituted Thomas North’s Morall Philosophy of Doni (1571).[1] In France, the Panchatantra and the Arabic Kalīlah wa Dimnah, or the Fables of Bidpai, culminated in Orientalist Gilbert Gaulmin‘s translation of the fables of Pilpay, Le Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des rois, les Fables de Pilpay FR, published in 1644. In 1678, the year Jean de La Fontaine published his second collection (recueil) of fables, books VII to XI inclusively, he drew some of his material from Æsop, but his fables were also rooted in Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des rois, les fables de Pilpay. FR

The Middle Ages: the first of two Traditions

  • Marie de France
  • to delight and to instruct
  • Avianus and the Romulus

As of the publication of Paul the Deacon‘s Ægrum fama fuit and that of the reportedly anonymous Ecbasis cuisdam captivi,[2] didactic fables remained. They were written as Roman poet Horace (8 December 65 BCE – 27 November 8 BCE) suggested: to delight and to instruct.

Poetess Marie de France (fl. 1160 to 1215), wrote a sick-lion tale, “The Lion and the Fox.” Four centuries later, Jean de La Fontaine composed a sick-lion tale entitled “The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox” / “Le Lion, le Loup et le Renard(2.VIII.3). These poems contained a lesson. In the Æsopic, “The Lion, the Wolf, and the Fox,” number 258 in the Perry Index, the wolf attempts to defame the fox and pays the cost. He is flayed.

It should also be noted that students in their trivium used fables drawn from the Ysopet-Avionnet, a collection of Æsop’s Fables. In the 4th century, fabulist Avianus compiled a collection of fables that included not only fables set into written form by Roman author Phaedrus, but also fables removed from an oral tradition by Greek fabulist Babrius. Avianus set Babrius’ Greek Æsopic fables into Latin elegiac poems. The Ysopet-Avionnet, Avionnet from Avianus, endured until the first quarter of the 20th century. (See Ysopet, Wikipedia.) The Ysopet-Avionnet is an Internet Archive publication. Another 4th _century prose collection, entitled the Romulus, was also used widely.[3]

To sum up, the Reynard cycle (there are many Reynards), mock-epics featuring animals, did not ever eclipse fables written to instruct and to delight, many of which were short trickster tales belonging to the Æsopic corpus and included in the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart. However, a new tradition emerged.

The Second Tradition

  • trickster tales
  • the grotesque
  • fabliaux

We are now leaving didactic fables. Henceforth, trickster tales will dominate in which beasts will be beasts, including anthropomorphic animals. The Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart are not edifying literature. The Middle Ages favoured the grotesque, from gargoyles (water spouts) to misericords (mercy seats in cathedrals and various monasteries). Moreover, we have entered the world of the fabliau. Fabliaux are mostly obscene and, at times, scatological. Paul the Deacon’s Ægrum Fama Fuit, the sick-lion tale, and the Ecbasis captivi therefore inaugurate the medieval mock-epics tradition, epitomized in the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart, or the Reynard cycle, which includes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

However, our beast epics are characterized by the use of sophisticated versification and by their length. For instance, using sophisticated versification to tell the story of a rather senseless calf who leaves the pack and is captured by a wolf is dissonant and ironic. The longer the beast fable, the greater its dissonance and irony. Paulus Diaconus8th -century  Ægrum Fama Fuit contains 24 Latin distichs, which is relatively short, but the Ecbasis captivi runs 1,230 lines written in hexameters with, frequently, Leonine internal rhyme, Nivard de Gand’s Ysengrimus is a tour de force: 6,574 lines in elegiac couplets. As for the Roman de Renart, it is not entirely versified, but the poem contains 2,410 lines in eight syllables (octosyllabic) verses in rhymed couplets.

Clearly, superior versification and the length of these beast fables do not match the subject matter: the vendetta[4] between Reynard the fox and the wolf Ysengrin, born Reinardus and Ysengrimus in the Latin Ysengrimus. This discrepancy serves to mock chansons de gestechivalry and courtly love. Beast epics are the underside of real epics and the courtly literature. They are parodies.

Epics and Courtly literature mocked

Mock-epics, or beast epics are a mundus inversus. They are the reverse of the chansons de geste (songs of deeds) such as the Carolingian (Charlemagne) Chanson de Roland / Song of Roland. Roland is the valiant knight who defeats the Basques at the Battle of Roncevaux, in 778. Roland is also Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, 1483 and 1495, and Ariosto Ludovico‘s Orlando Furioso (1516). The setting is the invasion of European countries by the Moors, Muslim inhabitants of Northern Africa. But Matteo Maria Boiardo had fought in the Ottoman–Venetian War (1463–1479). On 29 May 1453, the Byzantine Empire (and Anatolia) had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, separating Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, the Near East.

In Medieval Literature, these romances originate in the Carolingian and Arthurian (King Arthur) cycles. Arthurian romances are part of the matter of Britain. Cycles are a group of literary works on the same subject, the Reynard narratives are a cycle, but under its entry on Mock-epic Britannica lists three “cycles:” the “matter of Rome the great,” the “matter of France,” and the “matter of Britain.”

Medieval romance is classified into three major cycles: the “matter of Rome the great,” the “matter of France,” and the “matter of Britain” (“matter” here is a literal translation of the French matière, referring to subject matter, theme, topic, etc.). The matter of Rome, a misnomer, refers to all tales derived from Latin classics. The matter of France includes the stories of Charlemagne and his Twelve Noble Peers [Paladins]. The matter of Britain refers to stories of King Arthur and his knights, the Tristan stories, and independent tales having an English background, such as Guy of Warwick. (Mock-epic.)[5]

I should think that El Cantar de Mio Cid a chanson [cantar] de geste, is also a cycle and the celebration of heroic deeds (gestes). Epics such as the Chanson de Roland, feature noble knights in shining armour who belong to courtly literature. These valiant knights will submit to demeaning tasks to earn the love of an idealized woman, a précieuse avant la lettre. Medieval chansons de geste intersect chivalric and courtly literature, the Roman de la Rose, which constitutes courtly love’s literary pinnacle. The rape of Hersent cannot be associated with courtly love.


Chivalry (BnF)

fr_1630_060v (3)

Ysengrin, Renart & Hersent (BnF) (Chivalry) (Ysengrin, Renart & Hersent)

Anthropomorphism & Speech

In anthropomorphic literature, humanness isn’t so much a question of appearance as it is a matter of speech, or the ability to speak. Nivardus of Ghent named his characters, highlighting their humanness. We are reminded of T. S. Elliott’s (26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965) Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and, in particular, of the Naming of Cats.

Jill Mann, who translated the Ysengrimus into English, compares the flayed wolf who survives the removal of his coat to the cats of cartoons. These cats are flattened by a steam-roller, but fluff up again, as though they were impervious to injury and pain:

The recrudescent power of the wolf’s skin is reminiscent of the world of the cartoon where the cat who is squashed flat by a steam-roller, say, is restored to three dimensions in the next frame. [6]

The cats of cartoons live every one of their nine lives as do the Lion-King’s mutilated barons. Neither the flayed wolf nor Bruin the bear, who “loses the skin off his nose,” seem to have sustained permanent and possibly fatal injuries.

We are in an other world where an animal’s fur seems a mere coat and where animals speak, a faculty perhaps denied humans. Lanfrey (Lanfroi), the forester, does not speak. His arrival forces Bruin to sacrifice his nose so his life is spared.

In Ramsay Wood’s translation and adaptation of Kalila and Dimna (Bidpai’s fables), a shaman tells a worried prince who will not believe his gazelle spoke to him and has fallen ill over this matter, that the gazelle did talk to him:

“[Y]our gazelle spoke to you! Don’t you realize that all animals can speak? But they never do so in the company of pitiful humans!”[7]

Moreover, Wikipedia describes the Ysengrimus as a Latin fabliau. Although Hersent (Hersant FR), Ysengrin’s wife, has made love with Renart consensually (Branche II, c. 1110, p. 265), Renart takes advantage of her when she is caught in a hole, her rear end protruding. Yet, Jean Dufournet writes that the Roman de Renart was a “divertissement de clercs” (clerics)[8] and Thomas Best (p. 34) comments that “Pierre de Saint-Cloud wrote [branches II -Va] for recitation to lay nobility, addressed at the very beginning of his poem as seigneurs [lords].” Renart’s short verses, eight syllables, could be read easily by an audience consisting of the nobility of its times.

Reynard’s Eloquence

In Reynard the Fox, both animalness and humanness can be a thin veneer. In fact, were Reynard flayed, would his eloquence lose any of its verve? Underneath Reynard’s red coat, lives one of literature’s most eloquent characters. Renard’s barat, or deceitful language, convinces Tiécelin the crow to open his mouth and sing, causing Tiécelin to drop his precious cheese. But most importantly, Renart’s eloquence is such that he can talk himself out of death sentence at least twice: at the end of his “jugement” (branche I) and after Maupertuis, his fortress, is besieged.

Jurisprudence: “you shouldn’t take more than you find”

In this regard, let us note that in Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus, as the wolf is about to be flayed by the bear, Reynard “suddenly rushes forward with the plea that he [the bear] should ‘take no more than he finds:’ “I make one small request – let there be room for it – grant it – and I’ll show myself deserving: that you shouldn’t take more than you find! He himself never took more than he found. It’s right to take away what one has, but wrong to take away more than that!’ (III 931-4).” (Mann, p. 10.) I see the scales of Lady Justice.

There is no flaying episode in the Roman de Renart, but as he is about to be hanged, Renart uses his engin, his resourcefulness, and finds a ruse exceptionnelle. It occurs to him to argue that before being hanged, he must go on a pilgrimage and atone not to die a sinner. It is as though eternal damnation was too cruel and unusual a punishment for one who has merely eaten a few animals, tricked the greedy wolf, a Monk, and raped Hersent?[9]

The Pilgrimage

It works. Renart, who arrived tardily at the sick Lion-King’s bedside, because he was on a pilgrimage is sent on a pilgrimage, but Renart being Renart, he doesn’t leave for Syria. He simply returns to his fortress, Maupertuis. Molière’s Dom Juan will be called a “pilgrim.” As for Renart’s topsy-turvy defence, it is consistent with Tartuffe‘s casuistry. Moreover, Tartuffe takes no more than he has been given by Orgon.


A studious fox in a monk’s cowl, in the margins of a Book of Hours, Utrecht, c. 1460 (Photo credit: Reynard, Wikipedia)


Renart does not always win. In the Æsopic “Le Chat et le Renart”/ “The Cat and the Fox”  [IX. 14] the fox cannot climb a tree. That is the cat’s only trick. But he can transform the grapes he craves, but cannot reach, into sour grapes (“Le Renard et les Raisins”/The Fox and the Grapes [lll. 11). That’s engin. There is, however, a gradual transformation of Reynard. In the “vendetta” opposing a greedy wolf and a smart fox, one starts wondering which of the two is the greater scoundrel: Ysengrin or Reynard?

Renart has become evil itself which is how he is depicted in Jacquemart Gielée’s Renart le Nouvel (1289) and the anonymous Renard le Contrefait (1319 – 1322), French avatars. In later iconography, the animals look almost human. The zoomorphic aspect of the beast featured in the image below is disturbing. These figures are neither animals nor human beings.


Anthropomorphism (BnF) (Anthropomorphism)

I will close here having been kept away from my computer by a multitude of events and fatigue. I still have the story to clarify but the Roman de Renart is both parcellaire and unitaire.[10] It is fragmented, piecemeal, yet coherent. The Bibliothèque nationale de France (the BnF) has divided Renart into nine episodes, which is the presentation I have chosen. The BnF uses Jean Dufournet’s authoritative translation (into modern French of the medieval Roman de Renart. (See Dufournet and Méline.)

Love to everyone


Sources and Resources


[1] See Panchatantra, Wikipedia for further details.

[2] In his Introduction to Reynard the Fox, Henry Morley tells that the author of the Ecbasis captivi belonged to the monastery of St. Evre, at Toul. Strict reforms among the brethren, in the year 936, cause his Ecbasis -his going out. He was brought back, and as sign of is regeneration wrote the poem, in which he figured himself “per tropologiam” as a calf, who, having gone out from safety, became captive to the wolf. (Introduction, A History of Reynard the Fox [London: George Routledge and Sons, 1889]), p. 1. The full title of the Ecbasis cuisdam captivi per tropologiam is “The escape of a certain captive, interpreted figuratively.

[3] Harriet Spiegel, translator and editor, Marie de France: Fables (Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 2000 [1987], Introduction.

[4] Thomas W. Best, Reynard the Fox (Boston: J. K. Hall & Company, 1983), p. 34.


[6] Jill Mann, “The Satiric Fiction of the Ysengrimus,” in Kenneth Varty (ed.), Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000), p. 11.

[7] Ramsay Wood (reteller) and Doris Lessing (introduction), Tales of Kalila and Dimna, Classic Fables from India (Rochester Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1980), p. 252.

[8] Jean Dufournet et Andrée Méline, traduction et introduction, Le Roman de Renart (Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1985), p. 7.

[9] Jean Subrenat, “Rape and Adultery: Reflected Facets of Feudal Justice in the Roman de Renart,” in Kenneth Varty, ed. Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000), pp. 17-35.

[10] Jean Batany, Scène et coulisses du «Roman de Renart» (Paris: Sedes, 1989), Chapitre II.

fr_1581_002v (BnF)

Werkraum – Slâfest du, friedel ziere?
Ein Tagelied aus dem 12. Jahrhundert von Dietmar von Aist.


© Micheline Walker
21 April 2017

William Caxton’s Reynard the Fox


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William Caxton’s Reynard the Fox

In 1450, legendary Briton William Caxton (c. 1422 – c. 1491), a merchant, a diplomat, a writer, a translator and Britain’s first printer, moved to Bruges, Belgium. At that time in history, the Franco-Flemish lands were very rich and, as I have stated several times, they were the cultural hub of Europe. As a merchant, Caxton had joined the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London of which he would become the governor. 

Caxton was interested in literature. He learned Flemish and translated the very popular Roman de Renart from the Flemish into English. Caxton had set up a printing press in 1476, at Westminster, England, where, in 1481, he printed his translation of the Roman de Renart, which he entitled The History of Reynard the FoxCaxton also printed Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and he is the translator, in collaboration with Colard Mansion, of Raoul Lefèvre‘s the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, or Recueil des Histoires de Troy, printed in Bruges and the first book to be printed in the English language.

Although Le Roman de Renart is a masterpiece of French literature, it has Flemish, German and other roots. Renart was born as Reinardus in Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus, a Latin fabliau and mock epic, and his adventures were told in several languages. Its earliest “branches” were published in c. 1171.

German Translations of the Roman de Renart

Renart was first translated by Alsatian Heinrich der Glïchezäre as “Reinhart Fuchs ” (1180) almost as soon as its first branches were published in France. Glïchezäre’s Reinhart Fuchs is the first Beast epic in the German language and “branches” of Reynard’s adventures would be retold in the German-speaking lands until Wolfgang von Goethe as Reinecke Fuchs DE during the French Revolution. Goethe’s Reynard is rooted in Johann Christoph Gottsched‘s Reineke der Fuchs

Caxton’s The History of Reynard the Fox (click) is an internet publication. It was digitized by Canadian University of Victoria professor David Badke in 2003. It is a treasure as is professor Badke’s Medieval Bestiary, which includes Reynard. David Badke used an edition published by George Routledge and Sons, in 1889. Henry Morley wrote the introduction to Caxton’s 1889 Reynard the Fox. It is a concise but very informative introduction.

I have already mentioned Joan Acocella‘s “Fox News: What the stories of Reynard tell us about ourselves.” Joan Acocella used Caxton’s translation. Le Roman de Renart is also a Wikisource publication, in French. However, Wikisource used a shorter but superior reworking of Le Roman de Renart. It was rewritten by celebrated medievalist Paulin Paris. (See Paulin Paris, Wikipedia.)

Reynard: an Incunabulum

As for Caxton’s Reynard the Fox, it is an incunable, or a book printed between Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and movable type, in c. 1439, and the year 1501. Incunables have also been called “fifteeners.” From time to time, patrons asked printers to leave blank areas so the book could be somewhat illuminated or rubricated, as shown below:

Page from Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed in red and black by Peter Schöffer (Mainz, 1471). The page exhibits a rubricated initial letter “U” and decorations, marginalia, and ownership stamps of the “Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani” (Hamburg). (Photo and caption credit: Wikipedia)


The above is not the article I wanted to post as Preface to Reynard the Fox: Motifs. That post was too long which required my dividing it into several more or less independent short posts. It may be published in its entirety, but I doubt it. It would be repetitive.


Sources and Resources

Alfred Deller sings Handel


© Micheline Walker
8 April 2017

Reynard the Fox: Motifs


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Reynard” is a defining document of a vast tradition in Western art: the trickster story. Art and Picture Collection / The New York Public Library

You may wish to read Renart’s story in this fine article published by The New Yorker. Spelling Renart with a “d” is perfectly acceptable.


  • Antti Aarne
  • Stith Thompson (AT)
  • Hans-Georg Üther (ATU)

Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne  (5 December 1867 Pori – 2 February 1925 Helsinki)  was the first scholar to classify folktales. In the 19th century, an interest in folklore had developed. The search for folktales was in fact initiated by the Brothers Grimm who travelled throughout German-language states and collected its folklore. Germany had yet to be unified and folktales were seen as an expression of nationality and an element that could lead to nationhood. Nationalism is an ideology that dominated 19th-century Europe and it is associated with the development of folkloristics.

Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck “engineered a series of wars that unified the German states,” but he excluded Austria (see Otto von Bismarck, Wikipedia). In the early years of the 19th century, Madame de Staël had written De l’Allemagne, in which she described the people of German-language states. Germaine de Staël’s effort and enthusiasm were considerable encouragement to the Brothers Grimm.

In short, as nationalism developed, so did an interest in folklore: folktales in particular, which may explain why Antti Aarne’s started to classify folktales. He would be joined by American Stith Thompson (7 March 1885 – 10 January 1976). The Aarne-Thompson catalog was published in 1910 and was named the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature but, as Aarne-Thompson’s classification evolved, indexical units larger than motifs were used. Scholar Hans-Georg Üther refined Aarne-Thompson’s classification which is now entitled the Aarne-Thompson-Üther Classification Systems or Multilingual Folktale Database. However, motifs exist (see Motif [folkloristics]), as do narremes, the smallest meaningful units in a narrative (see Vladimir Propp, Wikipedia).

Three Motifs in Reynard the Fox

If you have read A. A. Milne‘s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)you may remember that the little bear enters a house through an opening, but cannot get out through the same opening because he has eaten too much honey. We are entering the world of motifs. The Perry Index of Æsopic fables lists The Fox and the Weasle (24), La Fontaine’s “La Belette entrée dans un grenier” (The Weasel in a Granary) (III.17). In this fable, the Belette is too fat to leave the granary the way she entered it. As we have seen, Finnish scholar Antti Aarne‘s first classification of folktales was a motif-index.


The tail fisher or severed tail

Le Roman de Renart/Aventure 9 – Wikisource (Fishing for eels through the ice)
Où l’on verra comment Renart conduisit son compère à la pêche aux anguilles.

Persuading Ysengrimus, the wolf, to fish with his tale hanging down a hole in the ice is one of Reinardus’ worse tricks. The ice hardens and Ysengrimus’ tale is caught. He loses it when he must escape the villains and dogs who are approaching. In the Ysengrimus, the wolf fishes with his tail, down a hole in the ice. Eventually, his tail gets caught in the ice and he loses it trying to escape from villains and dogs.

Jean de La Fontaine, also told the sorry fate of a tailless fox in a fable entitled “Le Renart ayant la queue coupée,” The Fox with his Tail cut off (1.V.5). This tailless fox tries to persuade foxes in council to part with their own tail. He is asked to turn around so they can see what to expect. His mutilated body is repulsive, which could explain why foxes still have a tail. (Tailless Fox Tries in Vain to Get Foxes to Cut off Tails, ATU 64.)

We have also read a Cherokee fable entitled “How the Bear Lost its Tail,” a Cherokee Fable (4 August 2015). Recurrence is a precious tool in literary criticism. (How the bear lost his tail, ATU 2.)



When Ysengrin is away being turned into a monk, Renart rapes Hersent, the wolf Isengrin’s wife, when she is caught in a hole or aperture. Noble, the king, sends ambassadors to Maupertuis, Renart’s domain, but the fox plays tricks. For instance, Renart asks Brun / Bruin the bear to put his nose in a slit in a log claiming that Brun will find honey inside. Renart then removes the wedges holding the slit open. Villagers are converging so, in order to escape, Bruin loses the skin off his nose, which he would rather do than lose his life. He returns to court. Wedges can be called coins. When one is stuck, one is coincé. The English idiom “it’s no skin off my nose,” might find its source in this episode.

Le Roman de Renart/Aventure 41 – Wikisource (Bruin’s nose gets wedged in)
De l’arrivée de damp Brun à Maupertuis, et comment il ne trouva pas doux le miel que Renart lui fit goûter.

However, the main narrative is the rape of Hersent, Isengrin’s wife, and the trial that ensues. (Reynard the bear at court, ATU 53)


Reynard’s plea: feigned devotion (the faux dévot)

Le Roman de Renart/Aventure 55 – Wikisource (Renart talks himself out of a death sentence)
Comment Renart fut, par jugement des Pairs, condamné à être pendu. Comment il ne le fut pas, et comment il rentra dans Maupertuis.


Reynard the Fox played a role in the development of European jurisprudence. Reynard the Fox is also associated with Machiavelli‘s Prince. If the end, which may be survival, justifies the means, one lies, rapes and murders. Renart feigns devotion. He is an ancestor to Molière’s Tartuffe, the ultimate casuiste, and has also been identified with Molière’s Dom Juan. The manner in which he talks himself out of a death sentence is pure hypocrisy, but it is also the plea of a brilliant lawyer. Before, he is hanged, the fox must atone. He resembles the fox in the Sick Lion tale who has also been on a pilgrimage, which explains his tardy arrival at the Lion’s court, Noble’s court.


Sources and Resources

This post is the second of two posts on Reynard the Fox. Given its subject matter, motifs, it can be published independently of the first post. Should you need further information, please use Joan Acocella’s article on Reynard the Fox. One cannot do better. The link to her article is immediately above this note.

Love to everyone 

Micheline Walker
2 April 2017


A New Page: Beast Literature



Dear friends,

I wasn’t at my computer this week. However, I have published a page entitled Beast literature. It contains a list of most of the posts I have written on Beast fables, but not the fables themselves. These are listed on a separate page.

Missing is a post about the various naturalists whose descriptions were used to tell about animals. Herodotus was the first to describe animals, but most fabulists and naturalists used a book entitled the Physiologus to obtain the information they required.

I will post this short note and will return to my normal activities as soon as I feel better.

Love to everyone 






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John James Audubon (Photo credit:

I have neglected my blog this week. Illness.

Two days ago, London was attacked. Britain’s Magna Carta and its Parliament are symbols of democracy.

At times, such events can be expected. Why did the attacker convert to Islam? Why did he become radicalized? We will never know, but he may have felt rejected. How else does one feel when US President Donald Trump bans Muslims from entering the United States?  The attacker committed a horrible crime, but why?

Canada’s anti-Islamophobia motion

Yesterday, the Canadian government passed an anti-Islamophobia motion. The vote was not unanimous. The problem may be with the term. But Muslims are being denied access to the United States which may explain the choice of the term Islamophobia. Many Canadians are afraid, but I believe our new Canadians: Muslims, Syrians, Iraqis, Armenians, Afghans, Syriacs and Yazidis, will be fine citizens, which will reassure everyone. A few members of Parliament voted against the motion, but it was passed. Migrants and survivors of a genocide who might perish, such as the Yazidis, should be given a home.

Current Activity

I am creating a page listing my posts on Beast literature. I retrieved most of the posts on this subject. If one has no list, one is lost. New posts will be written, but I would prefer not to be too repetitive.


I would like to express my condolences to the family and friends of the dead and wounded.

Love to everyone

Alfred Deller – Ode for the Birthday of Queen Ann – Handel

John James Audubon (Wikiart)

© Micheline Walker
24 March 2017

The Sick-Lion Tale as Source


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The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox (Site officiel)

Perry Index 258
Aarne-Thompson-Üther type 50 (The Sick Lion)

Let me take you back to the darkest, yet not so dark, early middle ages, or, to be precise, the three or four centuries preceding the first millennium. This period of history is often referred to as the monastic age. Monks copied books by hand in various scriptoria, indentations in the walls of monasteries, or an actual room, a scriptorium, ensuring the survival of the many masterpieces of antiquity and the dissemination of more recent works.

Interestingly, as monks kept alive the literature of antiquity, including Hesiod (8th century BCE) and Horace (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC), beast fables became a source of entertainment for copyists who not only copied these poems and reworked them, but who also created beast fables of their own. Anthropomorphism (talking animals) was an effective way of speaking anonymously, a satirist’s delight. Among beast fables, two tellings of the Sick-Lion tale would lead to Nivardus of Ghent’s 12th-century Ysengrimus and to the Roman de Renart, written in Roman, the vernacular, by Pierre de Saint-Cloud and other authors. 


St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nïmes, France, 1129 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Paul the Deacon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul the Deacon’s Ægrum fama fuit

The Sick-Lion tale would be an inspiration to two authors. The first is Paul the Deacon, or Paulus Diaconus (720s – 13 April 799 CE), a Benedictine monk, a scribe, the renowned historian of the Lombards, and the author of the Ægrum fama fuit, a fable identified by its first words.

Professor Jan M. Ziolkowski translated the first words of Paulus Diaconus’ Ægrum fama fuit as follows:

“Once upon a time there was a report that the lion had lain ill and that he had already reached almost his final days.”[1]

Yet the title of Paul the Deacon’s Ægrum fama fuit is also “Leo æger, vulpis et ursus” (The sick lion, the fox and the bear), which could be the title 1st-century Roman fabulist Phædrus gave his Sick-Lion tale when he translated and put into written form his collection of Æsopic fables. George Fyler Townsend translated his beast fable as “The Lion, the Fox and the Wolf,” which would be consistent with his view that the “Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient.” (Preface [EBook #21]). It was Townsend’s opinion that beasts should be stock characters. George Fyler Townsend’s translation of Æsopic fables is the Gutenberg project publication [EBook #21]. The Sick-Lion tale is fable number 258 in the Perry Index and type 50 in the ATU (Aarne-Thompson-Üther) classification system.


Reynard Art and Picture Collection / The New York Public Library (Photo credit: the New Yorker)

The Ecbasis captivi

Also culminating in the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart is the anonymous 11th-century Ecbasis captivi, a beast tale containing an inner tale. The outer fable is about the escape of a certain captive, a calf, and the inner fable is the Sick-Lion tale. The two narratives are linked because the calf escapes when the flayed wolf / bear shows himself, catching everyone’s attention. So, how did the Wolf / Bear lose his coat?

The Sick Lion tale

Here is our tale. A sick lion, believing that one could cure old age, called various doctors asking for a remedy. The Lion and the Wolf arrived promptly, but the Fox, suspecting that the Wolf / Bear was doing him in (lui faisait son affaire), went to Court concealed and quiet, “clos et cloi.” He heard the Wolf / Bear planning his demise. The Wolf / Bear told the Lion that the Fox wasn’t at Court: treason! At the Lion’s bedtime, the king demanded that the Fox / Bear be smoked out of his home (sa demeure) and brought to court.

When the Fox arrived at Court, he told the king that he feared someone was lying about him and scorning him. He explained that he had been on a pilgrimage: “mais j’étais en pèlerinage[,]” (but I was on a pilgrimage), and claimed he was dutifully praying for the Lion, as he had vowed. He also said that he had sought experts and told them to what extent the ailing Lion was suffering. The Lion lacked warmth, said the experts. That was the Lion’s problem! In order to cure the lion, one had to wrap him up into the skin of a Wolf/ Bear whose description fit the Wolf Ysengrin / Isengrin. Given the lion’s age, wrapping him up did help him.The Lion recovered and “courtiers sing songs comparing the Lion’s suffering to the passion of Jesus Christ, and the fox supplants the wolf as regent.” (See Ecbasis captivi, Wikipedia.) The flayed Wolf’s coat, or the Bear’s coat, would be the Lion’s dressing gown (sa robe de chambre).

My favourite version of the Sick-Lion tale is Paul the Deacon’s. The Fox arrives at the Lion’s Court carrying a bag filled with the many shoes he has worn out searching for a cure.[2]

In La Fontaine’s “Le Lion, le Loup et le Renard” FR  (The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox EN), the moral is that courtiers are forever harming one another when they should “think of giving.”

“Beware you courtiers, lest you gain,
By slander’s arts, less power than pain;
For in the world where we are living,
A pardon no one thinks of giving.”


Reynard’s Triumph. Scene from the famous medieval fable “Reynard the Fox” (10th canto). Hand-colored steel engraving after a drawing by Heinrich Leutemann (German painter, 1824 – 1905) from the book “Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox)” by Julius Eduard Hartmann (after the medieval poem). Published by Albert Henry Payne, Leipzig and Dresden, 1st edition, c. 1855


The Ægrum fama fuit and the Ecbasis captivi are forerunners of Nivardus’ Ysengrimus and the more popular Roman de Renart, written in the vernacular, or Roman. The importance of the Sick-Lion tale stems, to a large extent, from the literary fortune of the Roman de Renart. The medieval bestiary differs from the Roman de Renart. It is allegorical. Fables, however, were used in schools, and the main collection was the Ysopet-AvionnetMarie de France wrote mostly Æsopic fables. So did Gualterus Anglicus (Walter of England, Gautier d’Angleterre).

In Beast fables, irony is our primary figure of speech. Talking animals do not talk despite their eloquence. Their inability to talk, except “en son langage” (La Fontaine), allows them to say what they haven’t said. In fact, the anthropomorphic Ecbasis captivi  is all the more eloquent since the Beast poem is also a fable within a fable, as are Vishnu Sharma’s Sanskrit Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa Dimnah, its Arabic reworking by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa.

In short, these Beast fables are all the more ironic because the animal world is a world- upside-down. For instance, the animals live at court. The Fox is a regent the Wolf / Bear wants to vilify. La Fontaine’s epimythium refers to courtiers. These are courtiers who should inhabit the basse cour, the barnyard where farmers keep hens and chickens. Anthropomorphism has clever twists.

Another reversal is the farcical “trompeur trompé,” the deceiver deceived. The Wolf attempts to elevate himself to the fox’ rank, that of regent, but circumstances, the Fox, damn him,  Let us note, moreover, that the Ecbasis captivi is written in hexameters with Leonine internal rhyme. (See Ecbasis captivi, Wikipedia.) The author of the Ecbasis  writes well, but the tale is about animals. That discrepancy is another source of irony, comic irony.

Therefore, although the Sick-Lion tale prefigures the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart, the weight of tradition is such that the medieval bestiary does not deprive the Lion, the Wolf and the Fox of their function, at least not altogether. The Lion is king and the Fox, wily, but they no longer talk and are allegorical. Yet, the Roman the Renart, a masterpiece of medieval literature, has been described as a fabliau, which is, to a large extent, grotesque literature. Fabliaux are not literature for children and most misericords are repulsive. The progeny of the Sick-Lion tale, the Roman de Renart in particular, could be seen as the underside of the Roman de la Rose, “courtly” literature.

There is more to discuss, such as fox doctors and the Christian spirit of the Ecbasis captivi, but I will comment no further.

I apologize for the delay.

Love to everyone 


Sources and Resources

[1] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750- 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 295.

[2] Op. cit. pp. 295-297.

Reineke Fuchs pictures by Wilhelm von Kaulbach


© Micheline Walker
19 March 2017

Fables: varia


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The Treasures of the Orient

  • The Panchatantra
  • Kalīlah wa Dimnah

Beast fables have been told or written since the dawn of times and in various societies. The same is true of beast epics, that may be called Beast fables. Ironically, colonialism, one of the darker moments  in the history of mankind, led to the discovery of some of the world’s most fundamental texts. Many of these were discovered during the British Raj and many were beast fables, such as the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha. Scholars learned Sanskrit and translated the masterpieces of India. The Bahgavad Gita, which is not a beast fable, was translated into English by Sir Charles Wilkins. It was Mahatma Ghandi‘s “spiritual dictionary.” (See Bahgavad Gita, Wikipedia.)

However, beast literature begins with Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra. Recent scholarship has situated the creation of the Panchatantra between 1,200 BCE and the 3rd century BCE. Given that the Panchatantra is probably rooted in an extremely old oral tradition, I doubt that it was much or most written before the 3rd century BCE. The Panchatantra‘s sage is Bidpai or Pilpay and, to a large extent, the purpose of the Panchatantra is the education of the prince, or worldly wisdom. These books are referred to as mirrors for princes. Eleven Panchatantra tales were used by 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine.

The best-known Arabic analog of the Panchatantra is the work of Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa’. His translation and adaptation of the Panchatantra (meaning: five books) is entitled Kalīlah wa Dimnah, dated 750 CE. Other earlier translations or analogs were published, one of which is Borzūya‘s Middle Persian (PahlaviKalīlah wa Dimnah, dated 570 CE. That translation is lost. Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra also inspired the Hitopadesha, a text where beasts and animals interact. It was translated into English by Charles Wilkins. The sage in the Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa Dimnah is Bidpai, or Pilpay. French Orientalist G. Gaulmin‘s Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys was published in 1644, several years after The Morall Philosophie of Doni (English, 1570). Both books were the Fables of Pidpai. (See Panchatantra and Anton Francesco Doni, Wikipedia.)[1]

La Fontaine’s source, however, was 17th-century French Orientalist Gilbert Gaulmin, the author of the Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys (The Book of Lights or the Conduct of Kings). (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia.) La Fontaine’s first collection of fables reflects Æsop. But his second collection (books 7 to 11), published in 1778, was influenced by Orientalist Gilbert Gaulmin’s 1644 Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys. La Fontaine acknowledges indebtness to Pilpay:  “Seulement, je dirai par reconnaissance que j’en dois la plus grande partie à Pilpay, sage Indien” (Only, out to gratitude, I will say that I owe most of my fables to Pilpay, an Indian sage” (Avertissement . II.7).

The Oral and the Learned Tradition

  • Phaedrus
  • Babrius

I wrote about the “oral tradition” elsewhere and mentioned it above. Æsop’s fables were transmitted orally from generation to generation, as would be the case with the Sanskrit Panchatantra. Æsop’s fables did not enter literature until Latin author Phaedrus, who lived in the 1st century CE, published a written collection of Æsop’s fables, as did the Greek-speaking author Babrius (2nd century CE). Once Æsop’s fables were in written form, they had entered a “learned” tradition, but could nevertheless be retold, just as fairy tales could be retold.

La Fontaine’s sources

Several collections of Æsop’s Fables were based on either Phaedrus or Babrius or both. Jean de La Fontaine used a 1610 Latin collection of Æsop‘s Fables, entitled Mythologia Æsopica, put together by Isaac Nicolas Nevelet. However, before publishing his second collection of fables, in 1678, which contains L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins (The Bear and the Gardener), La Fontaine had become familiar with Gilbert Gaulmin 1644 Le Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys, a collection of Bidpai’s fables (Pilpay) can be read it is entirety by clicking on the link (Gallica BnF). Bidpai is a sage whose fables were learned by future kings. He is the sage in the Sanskrit Panchatantra and Persian (Arabic) Kalīlah wa Dimna. His wisdom is worldly wisdom, as noted above.


The Panchatantra. An illustration from a Syrian edition dated 1354. The rabbit fools the elephant king by showing him the reflection of the moon (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)


  • Æsop, Æsopic & Æsopian
  • Æsopic, Lybistic & Sybaritic

In recent years, much has been written about fables and beast epics. As a result, scholars now point to differences between Æsop’s fables. The term Æsopian refers to an oblique language. It was first used by Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (27 January  1826 – 10 May 1889). As for Æsopic, it may refer to Æsop’s fables. One can speak of Æsopic fables.

Æsopic however has another meaning. It refers to fables that feature animals only. Fables that mix animals and human beings, such as La Fontaine’s L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins, and Æsop’s “The Bald Man and the Fly,” are called Libystic. In ancient Greece, if a fable’s dramatis personae were humans only, the fable was called Sybaritic.[2]

Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 4 April 636), an eminent  Father of the Church and the author of Etymologiae (origins), divided fables into Æsopic (animals) and Libystic (beasts and human beings). Isidore’s Etymologiae could be considered an aetiological text consistent with the teachings of the Church.

Fables are either Æsopic or Libystic. Æsopic fables are those in which dumb animals are imagined to have spoken with each other, or in which the speakers are things which have no soul, as cities, trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. In contrast, Libystic fables are those in which there is verbal interchange of men with animals with men.
(Etymologiae 1.40.2) [3]

The consensus, however, is that fables are inhabited mainly by talking animals whose words may be dismissed, but have nevertheless been heard. The Church took an interest in the origins of animals. There had to be a Christian account of the creation of animals, so members of the clergy were at times naturalists. All animals had been put aboard Noah’s Ark but, in children’s literature, the Hebrew/Christian Unicorn missed the boat.

Animals belonging to the Medieval Bestiary are allegorical. They are not talking animals, except  “en son langage.”  They are allegorical rather than anthropomorphic animals.


Physiologus, Adam nomme les animaux (Adam names the animals)
Cambrai, vers 1270-1275
Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 711, fol. 17 (Photo credit: BnF) (click)

The Components of a Fable

The fable is a story, an exemplum, and the moral is the distinguishing element of fables. The moral may be an epimythium and follow the example, or story. It may also precede the story, in which case it is called the promythium. However, some fables do not have a moral, except the fable itself. Finally, one can give a fable a moral other than the moral ascribed by the fabulist.

Love to everyone

[1]  See a review of Sir Charles North‘s The Morall Philosophy of Doni (Project Muse, University of Toronto.) 

[2] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 18-19.

[3] Loc. cit.


Isidore of Seville (Pinterest)

© Micheline Walker
10 March 2017

Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism


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knossos_fresco_in_throne_palace1Griffin fresco in the “Throne Room,” Palace of Knossos, Crete, Bronze Age. (Photo credit:  Wikipedia)
The Griffin  
The red Griffin “rampant” was the coat of arms of the dukes of Pomerania and survives today as the armorial of West Pomeranian Voivodeship (historically, Farther Pomerania) in Poland.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When the griffin or other mythical/mythological animal is featured on a crest in a climbing position, he is called “rampant” (ramping, crawling). 


  • fables
  • beast epics
  • speaking animals

Animals in literature are, for the most part, humans in disguise, or anthropomorphic. As Jan M. Ziolkowski writes, “beasts override genre.”[1] Fables and fairy tales are genres, but beast literature is not.

Fables and Beast Epics

However, although beasts override genre, speaking animals are associated first with fables, such as Æsop’s Fables and Jean de La Fontaine’s, and, second, with beast epics, such as Reynard the Fox, or Le Roman de Renart, which narrows a much broader area of knowledge. Anthropomorphic animals are humans in disguise. In the Roman de Renart, all animals have a name. In fact, Renart was so popular that foxes ceased to be called goupils in French. They became renards. Reynard the Fox is entitled Le Roman de Renart, where renard is spelled with a “t.” Renart is a trickster whose nemesis is the wolf named Ysengrin.

Le Roman de Renart, a French beast epic, is rooted in the Ysengrimus, a lengthy––6,574 lines of  elegiac couplets––Latin mock epic written in 1148-1149 and attributed to Nivardus of Ghent. In the Isengrimus, Renart is Reinardus and will become the most famous and beloved animal in European beast literature. Renard is the fox of the “Fox and Crow” and other “fox” fables. In fact, the Roman de Renart, the first “branches” of which were written in the late twelfth century by Pierre de Saint-Cloud, is an outer fable containing inner fables (Ausserfabel and Innerfabeln), including Æsopic fables.[2] Æsopic fables preceded the Roman de Renart by a more than a thousand years.


  • “dire sans dire”
  • Aesopian
  • George Orwell

The main characteristic of anthropomorphic animals is their ability to speak a human language. Animals are very useful to writers because, when all said and done, animals have not said a thing. Jean de La Fontaine’s (1621-1695) fables have been described as a “dire-sans-dire” (to say without saying). They are “enveloped” tales, writes German scholar Jürgen Grimm. Therefore, anthropomorphism is an oblique literary discourse, a fiction within a fiction.

Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (27 January  1826 – 10 May 1889) first used the word aesopian to describe a language unclear to outsiders, thereby allowing authors to say what they please with relative impunity. In 1945, George Orwell wrote an allegorical novella entitled Animal Farm. His animals are humans in disguise, hence their saying what they will not have said. Their own tongue is a language, but it is not a human language. Babe, the protagonist, a piglet, of a 1995 Australian film directed by Chris Noonan and produced by George Miller, is an anthropomorphic animal. The film is an adaptation of Dick King-Smith‘s 1983 novel: The Sheep-Pig.

The Story

La Fontaine did make each of his animals speak, but he also emphasized the power of fiction, in which he may have further distanced his speaking animals. In the Preface to his first collection of fables, books one to six, La Fontaine notes that Jesus of Nazareth spoke in parables. Parables are stories and, as such, they empower speech. To illustrate the power of stories, La Fontaine’s wrote a fable entitled Le Pouvoir des fables (2.VIII.4). It contains an inner fable about a speaker the people of Athens would not listen to until he turned to fiction, a story about Cerēs, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The moral of the “Power of Fables” is that we are all Athenians. La Fontaine writes that if Donkeyskin, a fairy tale, were told to him, it would give him enormous pleasure. The world is old, writes the fabulist, yet it is like a child we must amuse.

Moreover, a story is pleasurable and is not easily forgotten.

Nous sommes tous d’Athène en ce point, et moi-même,
Au moment où je fais cette moralité,
Si Peau d’âne m’était conté,
J’y prendrais un plaisir extrême.
Le monde est vieux, dit-on, je le crois; cependant
Il faut l’amuser encor comme un enfant.

Le Pouvoir des fables ” (2.VIII.4)
The Power of Fables (2.VIII.4)

It should be noted, however, that La Fontaine believed in a “boundless universe,” where tout parle, everything speaks, which is anthropomorphism.

Car tout parle dans l’Univers;
Il n’est rien qui n’ait son langage.

For in this boundless universe
Ther’s none that talketh, simpleton or sage
More eloquent at home than in my verse.

Everything does speaks. For instance, Milo Winter‘s illustrations for “The North Wind [Boreas] and the Sun” (“Phoebus and Boreas”) constitutes an example of elements, the wind and the sun, who speak as though they were humans. In short, anthropomorphism resembles a form of personification, which it is in Phoebus and Boreas .”


The North Wind and the Sun by Milo Winter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Phébus et Borée, Site Officiel

Zoomorphism: les Hybrides

  • composite animals or hybrid creatures
  • mythological and mythical animals
  • aetiological texts
  • symbolism
  • giving animal features to anything (e. g. furniture)

Zoomorphism is a more complex concept than anthropomorphism and may be the reverse of anthropomorphism. Mythologies and myths are home to zoomorphic animals that combine the features of a human and an animal or the features of many animals. The centaur of Greek mythology is part human and part beast. Centaurs have the lower body of a horse, but the upper body of a human.

The Minotaur is the offspring of Pasiphaë, the wife of Cretan king Minos and the Cretan bull. He is part human and part bull and so evil a creature that he is kept in a labyrinth built by Daedalus. He is slain by Theseus who finds his way through the labyrinth using Ariadne‘s thread. These two hybrid creatures, the centaur and the Minotaur, may hold a mirror to mankind’s duality. Humans possess a mortal body and an immortal soul.

However, mythology also features composite animals. Cerberus, the vigilant dog guarding the gates to the Underworld is a three-headed dog. J. K. Rowling used Cerberus in her Harry Potter series. Her fifth book in the Harry Potter series is entitled Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Mythological animals have long inhabited the human psyche and are therefore somewhat familiar to readers. To my knowledge, no one escapes Cerberus’ attention, except Psyche. (See Cupid and Psyche, Wikipedia.) Pegasus, the winged horse, is also a well-known mythological being.

Mythologies are origin myths or aetiological. The Bible itself, the Scriptures or “the Word,” could be described as an aetiological text. It features fanciful angels who are human-like but have wings. In Greek mythology, for instance, animals have a lineage or a pedigree, as is the case with the above-mentioned Minotaur. In the growingly popular area of children’s literature, aetiological tales are called “pourquoi” tales. The most famous example of a “pourquoi” tale is Rudyard Kipling‘s (30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) Just so stories.

Zoomorphic beasts may also be symbols. As mentioned above, those who mix the features of a human being may reflect the fall of mankind. Besides, an anthropomorphic serpent talked to Eve.

Mythologies and Myths

J. K. Rowling used not only Cerberus, but the Phoenix, a symbol of rebirth.  Symbolic beasts are mostly mythical rather than mythological, but readers and scholars tend to blur that line. The distinguishing criterion would be lineage. By and large, mythological beasts, such as the above-mentioned Minotaur and centaurs have a pedigree.

Mostly mythical animals are the phoenix, the unicorn, the dragon, the griffin and the irresistible Sirens, mermaids mostly. Mermaids have the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish. These legendary beings may make an appearance in mythologies, but they are somewhat ubiquitous and often transcultural. The phoenix has often been described as a mythological animal and he has a story as does the Unicorn, but he does not possess the Minotaur’s lineage.

The dragon is our most ubiquitous imaginary animal and may be good or bad depending on his environment. In the West he is bad, but not so in the East. Unicorns and Sirens are also transcultural. These mythical animals are zoomorphic, but, in Medieval Bestiary, they are symbols.

  • The dragon‘s characteristics change from culture to culture. He is feared in the West, but not in China.
  • The griffin, shown at the top of this post, a lion mostly, with the head of an eagle, is a guardian. In antiquity, he was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.
  • The unicorn has one horn and plays various roles from culture to culture. In Western culture, he is emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage.
  • Given that he rises from his own ashes, the phoenix is a symbol of rebirth and very popular.

The word zoomorphic is also used to describe pieces of furniture and architectural elements. For instance, the legs of wing chairs often imitate the feet of an animal. Besides wing chairs have wings. Among architectural element, the animal-like Gargoyle is a favourite. He is a waterspout with an open mouth. Bas-reliefs (shallow carvings on a flat surface, such as a wall) may also contain animal-like architectural elements. They embellish buildings. All animal-like creatures inhabiting the medieval bestiary are allegorical or symbolic.


Diophos Painterwhite-ground  lekythos (500 BCE) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Order of the Dragon was created to defend Europe against the invading Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other Beasts

  • metamorphosis
  • theriantropic beasts
  • lycanthropy

Both the terms anthropomorphism and zoomorphism include morphism. Morphism suggests a metamorphosis, or a transformation in a being’s appearance, which may be a wish human beings share, just as they share the wish to fly. Roman writer Ovid (20 March 43 BCE – CE 17/18) is the author of the extremely influential Metamorphoses and Berber  Latin writer Apuleius (c. 124 – c. 170 CE) wrote The Golden Ass, which contains the lovely tale of Cupid and Psyche. Lucius, the protagonist of The Golden Ass, is mistakenly transformed into an ass when attempting to be transformed into a bird. 

Beast literature features therianthropic animals, who are the victims of a curse. Beast in Beauty and the Beast is a therianthropic being. Enchantment is central to fairy tales. But shapeshifting animals bring to mind the werewolf (le loup-garou), a lycanthrope, rather than fairy tales.

Animals as Types

In the Preface to his translation of Æsop’s Fables, John Fyler Townsend writes that animals are types, much like the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte.

The introduction of the animals or fictitious characters should be marked with an care and attention to their natural attributes, and to the qualities attributed to them by universal popular consent. The Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient. [EBook #21]

Zoomorphic animals are not types. However, there is commonality between animals and humans,  Darwinism is a subject we will not discuss. Mythical and mythological animals may be up to no good, but they are not mutating. Moreover, I consider totemism, animal ancestry, the preserve of anthropologists.


Beast literature is a huge topic. We cannot escape any of the categories mentioned in this post. Yet, anthropomorphism is its chief characteristics because of the prominence of fables and the Roman de Renart, Reynard the Fox. One could define the usefulness of anthropomorphic animals by using Gertrude Stein‘s a rose is a rose is a rose.

Well, at the end of the day, a fox is a fox is a fox, therein the wizardry of a large part of beast literature. However, we remember the story. Dear La Fontaine.



[I] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 1.
[II] Jean Batany, Scène et coulisses du « Roman de Renart » (Paris: Cedes, 1989), p. 57.

The Unicorn
Photo credit: Wikipedia 
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel

© Micheline Walker
6 March 2017


Beast Literature


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Beauty dines with the Beast in an illustration by Anne Anderson (Photo credit: Wikipedia

My last two posts were an analysis of a fable by Jean de La Fontaine, “L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins,” “The Bear and the Gardener.” The corresponding fable by Æsop is entitled “The Bald Man and the Fly,”  but the fable reflects Le Livre des lumières ou La Conduite des roys, fables by Bidpai.

You may remember that I could not find the fable’s Perry Index number. I simply forgot that Aesop’s corresponding fable was entitled “The Bald Man and the Fly.”  Its number in the Perry Index is 525. For such information, Laura Gibbs’ Bestiaria Latina is the site to visit. Æsop and his numerous followers are Laura’s area of specialization.

Animals in Literature: a Project

This post is a progress report. Several years ago, I had to prepare a course on animals in literature during a sabbatical leave I was devoting to my book on Molière. It was too great an effort, so the course ended my career as a university teacher. I fell ill. However, I did prepare and teach the course assigned to me and continued researching the subject.

Yesterday, I realized I had written so many posts on Animals in Literature that they should be collated. I need a table of contents. Moreover, there are gaps to fill. As for the texts, many are on the internet, such as the collections of fables I listed on 2 March 2017. Would that there had been an entry on Beast Literature or Animals in Literature, when I prepared my course.

Pages on Fables and Fairy Tales

I will not remove my pages on various fables and fairy-tales. They will simply be updated each time I write a post on a fable, or myth, or fairy-tale. They are my reading material. The Gutenberg Project, Internet Archives, Wikipedia and various generous organizations have provided the curious with several complete eTexts.

Our starting-point will be a clarification of the concept of anthropomorphism. Animals in literature are human beings in disguise. I have already written a post on this subject, but it has been refurbished.

This post published itself before it was finished. I apologize.

Love to everyone



Cinderella by Anne Anderson



The Miller’s Daughter by Anne Anderson

© Micheline Walker
3 March 2017