Research Subversive Laughter in Reynard the Fox

Subversive Laughter in Reynard the Fox

by James Simpson

Medieval literature abounds in stories about animals, of which there are two main, easily distinguished, varieties: animal fables and beast epic. Animal fables claim Aesop as their source. They are small narratives in which animals act and speak, with even smaller morals tacked on at the end of the little stories. They involve many animals (e.g. mice, lambs, cocks, foxes, birds, wolves, lions, and frogs). Such stories were used to teach schoolboys both Latin and some common-sense morality into the bargain (e.g. do not over eat; do not overreach; save up for the hard times; justice can be rough and ready, so keep clear of the predators). Beast epic, by contrast, is a group of interconnected narratives, set in the court of the lion; its single (anti-)hero is Reynard the Fox. Beast epic presents narratives of dark but vital humor that repeat the same narrative with many variations: its rhetorically brilliant fox Reynard outwits all comers by manipulating their bottomless greed. No matter how tight the corner into which Reynard has been backed, we know he will escape. He escapes through brilliant narrative control and intimate, intuitive knowledge of his enemies’ weaknesses. He exposes the arrogance of the greedy, but even more damagingly the hypocrisy of the “civilized” order. We learn a fundamental truth from these stories: both animals and humans are predatory and self-interested, and will, if necessary, exercise cunning in order to serve their own ends.

The Reynardian stories derive from the much older Aesopian tradition: one of its central stories, the tale of the sick lion, in which the fox tricks the wolf, appears in Aesop. The continuous narrative characteristic of the Reynard material begins, however, with the The Escape of the Captive (or Ecbasis Captivi, mid-eleventh century) and is greatly developed in the Ysengrimus (1148-49)—an important source for the earliest branches of the French Roman de Renart. The so-called “branches” of the Roman de Renart are short narrative sequences in French, composed probably between the 1170s and the middle of the thirteenth century. These stories ultimately inspired many more adaptions in other Western European languages for the next 250 years and beyond, including William Caxton’s History of Reynard the Fox (1481).

Like earlier medieval animal fables, Reynard contributes to the tradition of narrativized ethics, but in a way that threatens to undo that tradition altogether, by giving a very different meaning to Aristotle’s claim that man is a political animal. Aristotelian ethics requires imaginative recognition of pleasure, pain and desire in the other—a recognition that is itself dependent on identifying one’s own pleasure, pain and desire with the experience of someone else. Reynard, by contrast, challenges the notion that we can ever see beyond our own desire, through a central figure whose all-powerful imagination serves nothing but his own relentless self-interest. In the process, we learn how easily desire can rule the imagination. This is not to say that Reynard is simply amoral, as is his rival Ysengrimus the wolf. He is something more interesting: a character who subverts ethics, for instance by provoking such sentiments as pity, but exploiting them to wholly unethical (pitiless) ends. This may explain why Reynard is so funny; it allows us to laugh at the pretensions of the ethical, by observing the operations of ethical sympathy so closely. We do not laugh at Ysengrim.

The arc of Caxton’s brilliantly coherent narrative is very clear: Reynard starts off as an outlaw to the court and ends up as the king’s most prized counsellor. His enemy, Ysengrimus the wolf, by contrast, starts off as the king’s trusty messenger, and ends up as the humiliated and physically damaged victim in court. Reynard’s progress from outlaw to royal counsellor is by no means smooth. On the contrary, the fascination of watching Reynard at work is to see him move into ever more dangerous situations, and to escape each time. He plays for extremely high stakes, which get higher each time, with more opponents and more evidence clearly stacked up against him. Each time, however, he escapes through the imaginative exercise of rhetorically shaped narrative. From easy victims like the bear, Reynard moves on to slightly more challenging opponents like the cat and then to the assembled court, ruled over by the lion, who, as king, has at his disposal the full violence of the state. But Reynard has something more powerful still: the rhetorical skill that allows him to be the author of his own story.

This is highlighted as soon as Reynard arrives in court, when he announces that no matter how strong the king’s council and his enemies, “As long as I can speak, I’ll come as high in court as they would have me on the gallows. I’ve got so many tricks up my sleeve!” Condemned to death, Reynard begs first to confess his sins before execution. This chance is granted to him out of pity, and once granted, he exploits it to the full, so as not only to exculpate himself, but to go on the offensive by incriminating his rivals as traitors, and by fooling the king with the promise of much (wholly invented) gold and silver. He invents a narrative of treacherous conspiracy involving his own father, Ysengrym and all his other enemies at court, along with one or two friends by way of authenticating the story. Reynard concocts the following tale: Reynard’s father, said to have found an immense store of gold, convenes a conspiracy to assassinate the king. One of the conspirators tells his wife when drunk, and she tells it to Reynard’s wife, who tells it to a shocked Reynard. In fear for the king’s life, Reynard keeps a watch out for his wily father until he finally spies the whereabouts of the hidden gold. Reynard removes it, working night and day to carry it to safety and thereby to protect the lion from treachery–for the 1,200 kin of Ysengrym and his fellows have agreed to rebel, but only on condition that they are paid in advance. Once the funds are found to be missing, the conspiracy fails, and Reynard’s father hangs himself in despair.

The lion swallows the whole cock and bull fiction, and well he might, since Reynard forestalls any rational objection while appealing to his listener’s greed and pity. Ironically, Reynard builds his tale around a wily fox – namely his own father – and surely, he would not make such an accusation unless it were true. Reynard also exploits the audience’s distrust of foxes, displacing that distrust from himself onto his father. He furthermore insists that he is making his final confession: slated for execution in any case, he no longer has any interest in lying. Obviously, his allusion to a store of gold plays on his audience’s greed, but he also provokes pity by presenting himself as an orphaned child, unjustly condemned by the very king whose life he had saved. All this manipulation permits Reynard to get the better of his enemies while mocking the ideology of the court itself, for which he has nothing but contempt.

Violence follows directly on from the pity-inducing, beautifully constructed narrative. The lion asks Reynard to show him the gold, but Reynard says he cannot do so because he must go on pilgrimage to Rome to confess his sins. He requests some shoes and a pouch for the journey, which is given to him by tearing off the footpads of the wolf; the euphemistic metaphor of “shoes” permits the violence of stripping the wolf’s flesh. Reynard also asks for the ram and the hare as companions. Needless to say, he does not in fact go on pilgrimage. Instead, he eats the hare in his own home, and sends the ram back with the pouch made of the wolf’s skin, ordering the ram to say that it contains a “letter” for the king composed by the ram. Of course, the stupid ram obliges—but this “letter” is the head of the hare.

The humor, if we find any, comes from Reynard’s endless resourcefulness under fire, and ability to find a way out of any situation; it also comes from his being always on the offensive, and never giving in to pity. In addition, there is amusement in Reynard’s evident enjoyment in his work—he revels in using his skill, in ways that are often gratuitous. He understands ethical sentiments and rational suspicion so perfectly that he can manipulate both with consummate ease. But is this comedy subversive? If Reynard is a consummate trickster, is he anything more than a trickster? Does his trickery reveal anything about the institutions in which he operates, and the practices he manipulates?

I think the answer to these questions is unquestionably yes. Consider the way that the narrative undermines the political order in this animal “kingdom.” The lion is just as much a gull for Reynard’s flattery, and appeals to greed, as any other animal. By the time Reynard sends the hare’s head as a letter to the king who has forgiven him, the pretentions of the court are exposed as easily vulnerable. Reynard’s wholly invented stories about the treason of his enemies include a little vignette of the alternative political order. The treasonous animals want to displace the lion, but only end up with a tyrant in the lion’s place. Reynard adds a parallel story of frogs who appointed a stork to rule over them, only to discover that the tyrannical stork eats frogs, in bulk. This inset narrative offers a revealing image of the political order as an order of consumption by the powerful. It is posed, of course, as the alternative, undesired order, but in fact exposes the order governed by the lion, the most predatory and hungry animal of all.

What difference does it make that these subversive ideas are put into the mouth of an animal? The Reynard narrative is governed by a tripartite, sequential logic of likeness, difference and likeness again. The reader at first has to concede a likeness: the whole genre depends on the premise that animals are like humans. Faced with the relentless brutality of the animal world, however, the reader is invited to insist on a difference: “they’re animals, after all,” we want to say. The capacity to hold the animal world at bay progressively diminishes, however, as Reynard exploits fundamentally human practices. Finally, the text insists, we are back in the land of likeness—though this time the likeness is the other way around, as humans are revealed to be like animals. This tripartite sequence of responses accounts for both the comedy (animals are like humans) and the shocking violence (humans are like animals) of Reynard narratives. Anthropomorphism is under siege in the narrative; it finally cedes to zoomorphism. Human rulers are like lions, and the political order is fundamentally predatory and self-interested. Along with this comes the correlative exposure of the textual instruments of political culture as empty of ethical content, even as Reynard engages in what appear to be precisely calibrated ethical practices. Reynard is thus a subversion of both the political order and the discourse that underlies that order. The laughter bites very deep, into both politics and ethics.


This essay was originally published in Animals: A History (ed. Peter Adamson and G. Fay Edwards), a volume of the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series (ed. Christia Mercer), and is republished here with permission.

James Simpson is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard University (2004-). He was formerly based at the University of Cambridge, where he was a University Lecturer in English (1989-1999) and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English (1999-2003). He is a Life Fellow of Girton College and an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Image: Illumination from a manuscript of the Roman de Renart, end of the 13th century via Wikipedia.


  1. It’s wonderful that you reprinted James Simpson’s little essay. I used his translation of Caxton’s Reynard last fall in my freshman seminar on “Why Be Moral,” and it was the students’ favorite reading. Reynard is one of the great antiheroes of literature, worth reading in philosophy classes side by side with Thrasymachus.


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