The trickster figure of the Fox

English: Steinhowel's illustration of the fabl...

English: Steinhowel’s illustration of the fable, “The Fox and the Cat” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we teach our children about our culture(s), we often draw on traditional folkstales. The versions of a folkstale often vary in the same culture: for example, in one version the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood gets killed by a hunter (or lumberjack), in another one he escapes and is never seen again, and then there is the version where Little Red Riding Hood dies at the end.

It gets even more complex if we compare the versions of a tale in more than one culture. They may all refer to the same source but differ in details.

In trickster tales, a “trickster” such “as a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman or anthropomorphic animal plays tricks or disobeys normal rules and conventional behaviour. It is suggested by Hansen (2001) that the term “Trickster” was probably first used in this context by Daniel G. Brinton in 1885.”

In the European traditional folkstales, one of my favourite characters is the Fox. Known as Reynard (from French: Renart; German: Reineke; Dutch: Reynaert) it is the character of a literary cycle of allegorical French, Dutch, English and German fables where he is an anthropomorphic red Fox and trickster figure.

The Fox appears in the Aesop’s fables around 4 BC in  the very famous The Fox and the Grapes. This is the source for many medieval stories like the one of Renart in Le Roman de Renart by Pierre de St Cloud (around 1170), where Renart was summoned to the court of king Noble, or Leo, the Lion, to answer charges brought against him by Isengrim the Wolf.

All the stories with anthropomorphic animals – like Bruin the Bear, Baldwin the Ass or Tibert the Cat who attempt one stratagem or another – involve satire. In Italy, the successful prince in Niccolò Macchiavellis The Prince (1532) has the traits of the lion and the Volpone (1607) from Ben Jonson, is a beast fable about a witty man who tricks potential successors to believe he is dying so that they bring him expensive gifts.

The famous French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) refashioned Aesop’s fables in his Roman de Renart (1668). Some of his poems involve the Fox like Le Corbeau et le Renard (The Fox and the Crow), Le Renard et la Cigogne (The Fox and the Stork), Le Renard et le Bouc (The Fox and the Billy Goat), Le Renart et les Raisins (The Fox and the Grapes).

The Fox and the Cat

The Fox and the Cat is an ancient fable that was already included in collections of Aesop’s fables since the start of printing in Europe (number 605 in the Perry Index).

In this fable, a Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies (Source: Joseph Jacobs, The Fables of Æsop (London and New York: Macmillan and Company, 1894), pp. 91-92.):

“I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”

“I have only one,” said the cat. “But I can generally manage with that.”

Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs.

“This is my plan,” said the cat. “What are you going to do?”

The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating, the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen.

Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said, “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

The version of Jean de La Fontaine (Source: Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), The Fables of La Fontaine, translated mainly by R. Thomson (London: J. C. Nimmo and Bain, 1884), book 9, fable 14, pp. 215-16. Link to the text in the original French: Le Chat et le Renard):

The cat and fox, each like a little saint,
On pious pilgrimage together went;
Two real Tartufes, two Patelins, birds of prey,
Soft-footed rogues, who paid or cleared the way,
Picking the bones of poultry, stealing cheese,
Rivalling each other. They the road to ease,
For it was tedious and long,
Oft shortened by contentions sharp and strong.

Dispute’s a very happy source;
Without it restless souls would sleep of course.

Our pilgrims with it made each other hoarse,
Quarrelled their fill, then dirt on neighbours cast.

Reynard said to the cat at last:
“Pretender, are you better skilled than I,
Who could with tricks a hundred cats supply?”

“No,” said the cat, “I only boast of one,
But that’s worth any thousand known.”

Ready again their quarrel to begin,
With “Yes” and “No,” through thick and thin,
The pack alarmed them, silencing their din.

“Friend,” cried the cat, “now search your cunning brain,
Examine all your tricks, and search again
For some sure plan — mine’s ready, do you see?”
He said, and quick sprang up a lofty tree.

Sly Reynard played a hundred pranks in vain,
Entered a hundred holes — escaped assault,
Put Finder and his brothers in default;
He sought asylum all around,
But he nowhere asylum found.

They watched the burrow where he hid so sly,
And smoked him out — two terriers were nigh,
Who worried him as he went bounding by.

Avoid too many schemes; there ruin lies;
For while we choose, the happy moment flies.

Have but one plan, and let that plan be wise.

And this is a version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Source: “Der Fuchs und die Katze,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), 7th ed., vol. 1 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 75, p. 388. This fable was added to the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen with the second edition (1819)):

It happened that the cat met Mr. Fox in the woods. She thought, “He is intelligent and well experienced, and is highly regarded in the world,” so she spoke to him in a friendly manner, “Good-day, my dear Mr. Fox. How is it going? How are you? How are you getting by in these hard times?”

The fox, filled with arrogance, examined the cat from head to feet, and for a long time did not know whether he should give an answer. At last he said, “Oh, you poor beard-licker, you speckled fool, you hungry mouse hunter, what are you thinking? Have you the nerve to ask how I am doing? What do you know? How many tricks do you understand?”

“I understand only one,” answered the cat, modestly.

“What kind of a trick is it?” asked the fox.

“When the dogs are chasing me, I can jump into a tree and save myself.”

“Is that all?” said the fox. “I am master of a hundred tricks, and in addition to that I have a sackful of cunning. I feel sorry for you. Come with me, and I will teach you how one escapes from the dogs.”

Just then a hunter came by with four dogs. The cat jumped nimbly up a tree, and sat down at its top, where the branches and foliage completely hid her.

“Untie your sack, Mr. Fox, untie your sack,” the cat shouted to him, but the dogs had already seized him, and were holding him fast.

“Oh, Mr. Fox,” shouted the cat. “You and your hundred tricks are left in the lurch. If you had been able to climb like I can, you would not have lost your life.

Similar fables

Many morals have been drawn from this fable and many variants attained world-wide popularity. The contrast of the fate of an animal proud of the many tricks and its juxtapposition with another with just one simple trick who, in the end, wins, proves that in time of danger one trick proves to be more effective than the many options. The danger of being too clever is a topic in many other tales, like the tale about two fish and a frog in the Panchatantra.

In the European fables, the animal with the tricks is usually the fox, whereas the animal with the one trick can be the hedgehog, the crane, the squirrel or the cock or dove. – In western Europe it is usually the cat. The most similar fable to the fox and the cat is the fable of the fox and the squirrel and the one with the fox and the hedgehog. This last one especially thanks to the proverb in a fragment attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.

Also in the Adagia from Erasmus (1500) the expression is recorded as Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum.  – This proverb does probably “imply the existence of an ancient fable involving a hedgehog instead of a cat, as do some folktales from the Balkans”.

In Italian literature, the Fox and the Cat reappear in Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1881-1883), where the fox and the cat (il gatto e la volpe) are a pair of fictional characters who lead Pinocchio astray and unsuccessfully attempt to murder him. The fox pretends to be lame and is very articulate and the cat pretends to be blind and limits itself to repeating the fox’s words.

Italiano: Pinocchio incontra il Gatto e la Vol...

In his famous song, Edoardo Bennato’s uses “il gatto e la volpe” to describe the world of show business, where two talent scouts brownnose a young talent with the attempt to fox him.


(Il Gatto e la Volpe by Edoardo Bennato)

The symbolic meanings associated with the fox thanks to this kind of tales are “physical or mental responsiveness, increased awareness”, “cunning, seeing through deception”, “ability to find your way around, to be swift in tricky situations”.

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5 replies »

  1. Ho sempre amato le storie di Renard fin da prima che sapessi leggerle in francese. Sara’ stato magari stupidino in certe cose ma simpatico! Grazie di questo bel riassunto.
    Amerindians of the Pueblo nations have a trickster named Kokopelli who is a man dancing and playing a primitive flute. An interesting variation on the trickster idea.
    Ho pensato che questo ti possa interessare:

    ‘This study is published in Neurology.

    Provided by University of Edinburgh
    ‘Speaking a second language may delay dementia, study shows.’

    November 6th, 2013.

    Ciao, se voi fate il Thanksgiving ti faccio tanti auguri… Vera

    • Grazie mille, Vera, per gli auguri di Thanksgiving: non lo festeggiamo ufficialmente qui, ma apprezzo il pensiero dietro questo tipo di festività. Tanti auguri anche a te! 😉
      Anche a me piacciono tanto i racconti di Renard. Ci sarebbe molto da dire (c’è anche il bel racconto con il corvo: magari scrivo qualcosina a riguardo più tardi). – I didn’t know about Kokopelli: he reminds me the German Rattenfänger von Hameln, but it’s – as far as I found out – the archetype of the trickster. Very interesting, Vera! Thank you very much!
      About the study in Neurology: thanks for letting me know. I know some studies who point out that bilinguals (and multilinguals) are less probable to get dementia. 😉

      • SÌ sÌ, scrivi del corvo – che per la sua intelligenza (ed il colore nero) ( e Allan Poe) si è guadagnato un brutto nome che non si merita.
        Hai ragione, Kokepelli mi fa ricordare del Pifferaio di Hamelin – solo che quello compare in una singola storia mentre Kokopelli fa parte del panteon del popolo Pueblo (o quale altro gruppo sia …). E come dire trickster in italiano? una specie di Arlecchino… però il trickster può anche fare degli scherzi brutti. Queste figure dei miti e del folklore sono sempre interessanti.
        Una signora Irlandese di un blog mi dice che in Inghilterra hanno una leggenda sul 31 di ottobre ed i pali che sostengono il fil di ferro che divide i campi, ebbene quei pali si mettono a camminare strisciando per i paesi e terrorizzando la gente…. aveva una bella foto di questo grosso pezzo d’albero secco attaccato al fil di ferro spinato – così ci ho scritto sopra un post ! vedi nel mio blog: The Tree.
        Ah, e gli ‘indiani’ di Vancouver hanno proprio il corvo come uccello chiave di buon augurio…
        Adesso ciao, V.

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