03animals

The History of Reynard the Fox (1894):Title Page and Accompanying Illustration

Reynard the Fox has been a popular character in stories since his origin in medieval French fables. A sly trickster, Reynard – which is simply the French word for “fox” – is brought to trial by the other animals of the forest, all of whom come forward with complaints against them. He notoriously gets away with every single one. This edition was translated and amended from a Dutch version of the story by F.S. Ellis; it was published in London by D. Nutt in 1894. Each chapter of the relatively long book tells a different animal’s testimony; complaints against Reynard are various and grave, but he evades blame.

Crane’s illustrations offer insight into the relevancy of the story of Reynard the Fox in England at the fin de siècle. This cover illustration, in particular, is both a composite rendering of the trial of Reynard before the other animals and a compelling political allegory. Though it is unlikely that Crane meant to represent particular political figures, the scene of a tribunal in the forest suggests two possible, conflicting readings. First, because Crane often idealized natural settings and loved to see animals and humans interacting peacefully therein, he might see the court of the King Lion and the trial of Reynard as an opportunity to show a purer, better political system. More likely, though, he means to highlight the weaknesses of such a rigid system at all. Reynard the Fox is a farcical tale, one that through the ages has shown authorities and accusers to be impotent and foolish, and one in which individual ingenuity trumps weak, conformist group-think. The trappings of the Lion’s court here, for example—an elaborate tent and flag, a carpet that covers the simple beauty of the grass—seem silly and out of place:. Even the posture of the Lion is stiff as he strains to hold his ball and scepter with his awkward paws. Reynard, on the other hand, seems frolicsome and capable. Though his position in Crane’s composition is low to the ground and occupies just a corner, in personality and movement he dwarfs the stoic royals, who sit sternly on their throne.

Reynard Text

The title page of the book declares this story to have been passed down from “the days of King Edward the Fourth” but here with some necessary additions of “some particular matters not therein set down but very needful to be known.” That the Ellis/Crane version of Reynard adds to the tradition that it continues is a compelling notion; this is a story that must be told, and must be updated, lest we forget it and continue to take our legal systems and our own competence in administering the law too seriously – and lest we ignore the valuable lessons that a tricky little fox has to teach us.

 

 

 

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