East Flanders, April 2019. The final afternoon of a long research trip across Belgium and the Netherlands, gathering in a store of vulpine history for my retelling of the beast epic of Reynard the Fox. I am pushing through brambles and broom in a lonely stretch of woodland on the Dutch-Belgium border. There is no one around and the sky is overcast, mottled, like tarnished silver.
In the 13th century Van den vos Reinaerde (Of Reynard the Fox), written by the Ghent cleric Willem van Boudelo, this secretive place is described as ‘one of the wildest regions to be found in any realm’. It was here that Reynard claims to have buried the treasure of Gothic King Emereric, a mythic hoard which forms a pivot-point of the main plot in his tales.
In medieval times, the wood was much larger – a wolf-haunted forest known as Hulsterloe. Today, it surrounds a lake, sullen and green, itself once a meandering creek called Kriekeputte, before dyke breaches swelled it into scattered ponds. It lies in the centre of the Waasland, a marshy domain bordered by the Schelde as it flows to the port of Antwerp. The word waas carries layers of watery, chthonic meaning – mud, mire, sludge – but also a patterning of haze and mizzle. For these are masked lands, obscure lands. The perfect place for a renegade fox to go to ground or bury a substantial trove. As he tricks the avaricious King Noble the Lion, Reynard describes his muddy treasury in detail:
“In the middle of that damp, gloomy wood you will see a grove of delicate young birches, as white as snow and as green as glass. There are two trees in particular: you can’t miss them, their branches touch and part over the water, the treasure is buried under the one on the left, scrape and dig some moss away, then underneath you’ll find towering, glittering, tumbling heaps of gold.”
Reynard is known for his silver-tongued web of lies, but as I circle the lake, suddenly there before me are his birch trees, exactly as he describes them. A tang of foxish magic sharpens the breeze and for a moment, I slip into his storied trap, tempted to start digging in earnest. I don’t, of course. Instead, I make notes of types of plants and birds, of the sour-grape colour of the lake, of the way the heavens clear and huge Atlantic clouds rush in salt-frozen from the estuary in the north.
As evening draws in, I walk up to the border, which marches along a low ridge, information boards conveying its recent history. This is not only a place of ancient hiddenness, but of new ghosts and embattled land. In the First World War, hard by the edge of the wood, was the Dodendraad, the Wire of the Dead, a 2,000-volt electric fence erected by the German military to secure the frontier between the Netherlands and Belgium. Snaking from Knokke on the coast to Aachen, it snared thousands of casualties, many locals simply not realising the dangers of the voltage. That hiss-hum of death in the bright greening land is a constant in Reynard’s Flanders – an animal’s life can be snatched in a moment’s transgression, in an ill-timed wander in the wrong territory, through the wrong stretch of heathland or forest.
As a named character, Reynard is first mentioned in the Ysengrimus (c.1149), a Latin poem about the fox’s sworn enemy, the wolf Isengrim, composed by Nivard, a monk of Sint-Pieters Abbey in Ghent. Wildly popular from the start, the stories blossomed across Europe, becoming so beloved in France, the word for fox shifted from goupil to renard. But it was back in Flanders with Willem’s satirical poem of 1250, that Reynard swaggered into his celebrity as the archetypal subversive trickster, whose traits have barely altered over the centuries – the ancestor of Mr Tod, Fantastic Mr Fox and Disney’s Robin Hood, the drawings for which were recycled from an earlier Reynard animation, scrapped because the fox was deemed too dangerously anarchic to ever dream of passing the Hays Code.
In 1481, William Caxton, England’s first printer, bilingual from years in the Low Countries, translated Willem’s Middle Dutch into exuberant English prose, a telling which begged to enjoyed companionably round the fire on a winter’s night. Caxton’s Reynard was an immediate best-seller; twenty-three editions printed before 1700 alone. Its charismatic anti-hero – outrageously untruthful, murderous and immensely likeable – became as culturally entrenched as Puck or King Arthur. Escaping execution and triumphing over a corrupt court using only his whisker-sharp intellect, Reynard hit a nerve with a population exhausted by civil war and the machinations of kings and kingmakers. Caxton’s text was the perfect conduit for safely laughing at those above, for letting a little societal steam whistle out of the cooking pot.
Over the following centuries, Reynard adapted himself to appeal to each new generation, some periods requiring a little more turn-coating than others. From the 16th century, his blasphemous disguises and amorality even secured him a regular spot on the list of banned books deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.
By the early Victorian period, interest in the increasingly diluted Caxton editions had waned, but following the popularity for all things Germanic, sparked by Prince Albert, Goethe’s version, Reineke Fuchs, written under cannon-fire in the Revolutionary Wars, came thundering into fashion. Whimsical taxidermy displays of characters delighted Queen Victoria and Dickens at the Great Exhibition. But eventually, Reynard went to ground, and, whilst in Belgium his popularity as a standard bearer for Flemish individuality and nationalism held fast, his role as a beloved English trickster diminished, emerging only from time to time in films and picture books and parliamentary debates on fox hunting.
My retelling returns back to that exhilarating rush of monkish storytelling of 13th century Ghent, via the printing presses of 15th century London. Whilst the skeleton is constructed around my translation of Caxton’s Middle English, I fleshed and furred the text, rooting it even more deeply in the landscapes of the tale’s youth – the church towers and glass grey waters of the Waasland, and giving the archetypal cast of characters – Tybert the Cat, Grimbart the Badger, Bruin the Bear – new histories, occupations, preoccupations.
Back in Oxford, I wrote the book in steamy, bustly coffee shops and the depths of the Bodleian Library. The same routine every day. After dropping my son off at school, I began at 8 sharp – double espressos in the only café open, then uninterrupted writing until 4. At lunch, soup, a sandwich and Proust. The vast, unfettered, languid writerly spaces in Remembrance of Things Past offered a sustaining counterpoint to the difficult creative act of revivifying Reynard. Proust gave me permission to take time within that etching process, to let the story breathe.
In those quiet reading rooms, I sat under clear 1940s windows, the sky over the stately limes in Trinity gardens reminding me of Flanders, of the wind in the trees at Kriekeputte, of clouds reflected in the Schelde. My mind casting to and fro over the North Sea, I poured over every Reynardian manuscript and book in the collections. But the copy I settled on as the keystone of my retelling was an evocative 1620 edition once owned by Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, his ghostly initials marking the title page. I made my way through the winding narrative courses of Reynard’s world from the humdrum (sausage theft) to the wondrous (magical flying wooden horses) to the dramatic (fights and blindings and executions). Word by word, I eased the Greatest Fox Trickster who ever flicked a brush into a new century, doing exactly the same as Caxton had done in his little printing house at Westminster all those centuries before.
(c) Anne Louise Avery
Reynard the Fox by Anne Louise Avery, £20, Bodleian Library Publishing
About Reynard the Fox:
Reynard – a subversive, dashing, anarchic, aristocratic, witty fox from the watery lowlands of medieval East Flanders – is in trouble. He has been summoned to the court of King Noble the Lion, charged with all manner of crimes and misdemeanours. How will he pit his wits against his accusers – greedy Bruin the Bear, pretentious Courtoys the Hound or dark and dangerous Isengrim the Wolf – to escape the gallows? Reynard was once the most popular and beloved character in European folklore, as familiar as Robin Hood, King Arthur or Cinderella. His character spoke eloquently for the unvoiced and disenfranchised, but also amused and delighted the elite, capturing hearts and minds across borders and societal classes for centuries.
Based on William Caxton’s bestselling 1481 English translation of the Middle Dutch, but expanded with new interpretations, innovative language and characterisation, this edition is an imaginative retelling of the Reynard story. With its themes of protest, resistance and duplicity fronted by a personable, anti-heroic Fox making his way in a dangerous and cruel world, this gripping tale is as relevant and controversial today as it was in the fifteenth century.
Order your copy online here.