Thursday, December 19, 2013

Caxton's History of Reynard the Fox

In 1481, England's first printer, William Caxton, published a work translated from the Dutch under the title Historie of Reynart the Foxe. It is a book which weaves together several stories of the archetypal trickster of medieval Dutch folklore, Reynard (who is also found throughout the European continent, though nowhere as popularly as in France and the Low Countries), and the other beasts who inhabit his world: Isengrim the wolf, Bruin the bear, Tybert the cat, and others.

("Dasse," it should be noted, is a word Caxton uses repeatedly, despite the fact that it had no currency in the English language even in the late fifteenth century. It's taken from the Dutch, and there are many other words and phrases in Caxton's English publications which reflect an overly hasty and perhaps only mostly complete effort at translation.)

The structure of Caxton's narrative neatly matches that of the prose Reynard published by Gerard Leeu (Gouda, 1479), which was likely the original from which the English text is derived. There are a few crucial differences in the precise contents of the text; scholars disagree about whether these reflect innovations by Caxton, perhaps deriving from his knowledge of earlier Reynard material, or are an indication that Caxton's text is in fact an adaptation of an earlier version which was slightly reworked by Leeu. In either case, both Leeu and Caxton are drawing on an earlier folkloric tradition that was primarily promulgated in poetic format least until ca. 1450; Leeu's edition may be the earliest prose version to appear in writing. Leeu (or his anonymous source) weaves together a number of earlier tales through the device of a trial of Reynard at the court of King Noble the lion, attended by all the animals save Reynard himself. When the King remarks on Reynard's absence from court, certain beasts come forward to present accounts of the harms Reynard has done to them, and the trial begins. Only Reynard's uncle Grymbart, a badger, speaks up in Reynard's defense.

Although today we like to imagine that traditional trickster stories must feature a certain roguish nobility, with the trickster figure bringing the mighty low and defeating the unjust through wit and subtlety, this has never been uniformly the case in folkloric trickster tales. It certainly isn't true of Reynard, whose crimes include raping Isengrim's wife.

After these stories of Reynard's trickery and lawlessness are heard, King Noble commands that the fox be brought before him for judgment. Neither Bruin the bear nor Isengrim the wolf is able to coax him out of his castle for long without Reynard losing his would-be summoner by some clever deception and returning home, but Grymbart is able to bring his nephew to court. There, Reynard is sentenced to death and brought to the gallows, where he makes a confession (providing the writer with an opportunity to tell yet more of the traditional stories). Reynard's confession, however, names Isengrim and Bruin as traitors, and King Noble orders them arrested and Reynard freed. Reynard proceeds to play more tricks on the other beasts, and so more complaints about his fresh crimes are brought before the King. Once more, the King grows angry, and once more he commands that Reynard be brought before him for judgment. Reynard presents his own defense, in which he recounts his version of events and tells a few parables (also traditional beast fables) before submitting at Isengrim's behest to trial by combat. In the ensuing duel between wolf and fox, Reynard is victorious; acquitted, he tells another fable before going home to his castle once more.

Through this frame narrative, Caxton gives us the oldest English versions of many classic stories of Reynard, including all the most widely traveled. We are told the story of how Reynard's feud with Isengrim began with Reynard accidentally running into Isengrim's den and there insulting the wolf's children, how Reynard stole Bruin's honey, and how Reynard taught Isengrim's daughter to fish with her tail (a story which is nowadays more often told about Reynard and Bruin instead), as well as a number of others. Although it is presently well-established that the Dutch and French materials shed more light on the history of the Reynard stories, which almost certainly originated in Belgium and more certainly gained their greatest popularity in that part of the world, Caxton's volume speaks not only the spread of this tradition but to the wealth of tales included within it. (It's also more accessible to most English-speaking readers than Gerard Leeu's Dutch text.)

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